[Help] [Aide] [Up]

Science Tribune - Article - April 1998


Science against science

Marian Apostol

Department of Theoretical Physics, Institute of Atomic Physics, Magurele-Bucharest MG-6, PO box MG-35, Romania
Internet home page : http://theor1.ifa.ro/~apoma
E-mail : apoma@theor1.ifa.ro

Scientists working under cover

Today the funding of scientific research is declining everywhere and people no longer buy science as they used to. In the past, scientific researchers went under the disguise of priests, philosophers, astrologers, alchemists, engineers, professors - all occupations for which they were paid. The most fortunate among them were probably the monks who lived at the expense of princes or of the community. Technically speaking, all were illegal researchers working under cover.

The trusted scientist

With the advent of the science factories, i.e. institutes of scientific research, the cover of these scientific researchers was withdrawn and they had to declare their legitimate identity. The question thus arose : what are they good for, what should they do for a living. The reply was that they would further the advancement of science and that their scientific know-how and products would benefit the community at large. Scientists were therefore trusted and financed, and lived up to expectations by producing the steam and combustion engines, steel, plastics and other materials, pharmaceuticals, electric and nuclear power, telecommunications, air and space flight, the movie industry, silicon and microelectronics (including sound and image devices), elegant wrist watches, computers and virtual reality, to name but a few ! To the scientist, all these commodities are the by-products of science but the layman perceives them as scientific and technical products. Somewhere along the line, the point that the product of science might be knowledge tends to escape the awareness of the layman.

The accountable scientist

Today, the usefulness of science and of scientists is challenged yet again. Governments want them to be accountable and pass laws on the "performance and results" of scientific research. Scientists are required to devise "strategies and plans of research", to propose "research projects, programs and themes" for "evaluation" by "panels of experts", to submit their publications to "peer review", to "fight" a new war, to play the new game of accounting for the "value" of their research. But for what purpose? Just to make a modest living out of a potentially highly productive activity? But does anyone ever turn the problem around and consider the accountability of governments towards science and scientists? For instance, how about taxing the above by-products (e.g. CDs and videotapes) and services (e.g. transportation, telecommunications, energy) in order to provide direct support for scientific research?

The vaudeville scientist

Scientists are not stupid, just too busy and imaginative. So, instead of challenging the accountants on their own accountability, they try and cope with these demands by focussing on the gift-wrapping and boosting the "sellable overheads". For instance, when submitting a research proposal, always go for colour, provide a handful of computations, cite everyone with any influence, throw in a little Einstein or at least a pinch of Feynman's, add graphics, images, motion, and music. Play the drum loudly, and dance on the stage. If you do it artistically enough, you may win acceptance for your research concoction. When it is time to produce a report on the results, use the same recipe again and go in for another round of cooking and baking. There is a risk, however, that all your time, effort, and money will be exhausted in proposing and reporting on research projects that never get accomplished.

Whatever the outcome of the project, personalized computer programs will write the manuscript for you. Just choose the elements from the lists of options for the subject matter, methods, citations, collaborators' names ... Even the title can be generated by computer ! The net result, of course, will be an endless series of stale papers (especially if the research program involves the creation and/or use of data banks) which, alas, can attain high scores on review because they conform.

In this system, the chances are that a valuable non-conforming proposal will be rejected, and that the badly digested ideas will be spued out later in some distorted form by those who have rejected it. Do free electronic archives, where naive researchers publish their ideas and results, not foster this breed of scientists without scruples ?

The "science of science" scientist

Policing the world of science is a waste of time and effort that would be better spent on effective scientific research but, most regretably, the past couple of decades has seen a surge in the numbers of experts evaluating research output, of scientific researchers doing research on scientific research. There are now experts on experts (i.e. meta-experts), a science of the 'science of science' (meta-science), and meta-methods of meta-evaluation of the meta-output of this meta-science. All this forms a monstrous and grotesque world of virtual objects in erratic motion that feeds on itself and is devoid of meaning. It is the self-cancellation of scientific research.

A new breed of peers

This nonsensical, money-oriented neurasthenic science has engendered a new breed of people who live among and on scientists, who deal with science-related matters but who lie outside the bounds of real science. The secret ambition of this gregarious and noisy bunch of beotians, of science activists, - whether they call themselves professors, project managers, coordinators, moderators, chairpersons, supervisors, editors, reviewers - is to be the "peers" (persons of equal standing) of scientists. Of course, they are not their peers precisely because, in the role they attribute themselves, they call themselves peers and not scientists (a) and also because there can be no equality among scientists as individuals. Does one think in terms of Bohr being equal to Einstein ?

Progress in science occurs when less experienced scientists interact with more experienced scientists. For change and flux, there must be inequality. The less experienced learn - and gain self-assurance - from their superiors, while the more experienced become slightly baffled and lose some confidence in contact with their inferiors. Heisenberg took his paper to Born, he did not seek out "peers". No scientific discovery has ever been made by a team of "equal" scientists. They did not discover new elementary particles; these were detected by teams of mechanical, electrical, and computing engineers. The Los Alamos project did not discover the atom bomb, it built it - there is a big difference. Although mega-research projects might conceal a few scientists, they usually take a back seat because science must look democratic, not aristocratic.

The contributions of modern peers

We owe two main contributions, peer review and bibliometrics (or scientometrics), to these modern peers. Bibliometrics is a numerics of papers, citations, and other items which are sometimes related, but accidentally, to the substance of scientific research. Bibliometricians count all day long : they count how many papers an author has published, in how many journals, in how many ways; they count affiliations, acknowledgments, references; they count figures, tables, equations, words, key-words, paragraphs, etc.., etc... After counting, they compute, add, subtract, divide, multiply, exponentiate, take logarithms and, even sometimes, do more sophisticated analyses. Thereafter, they draw conclusions that can be caricatured as follows : if a paper is long, then it is a compilation; if it is short, then it is a letter and therefore insubstantial; if it has several authors, then divide by the number of co-authors to obtain each co-author's contribution; if it is experimental, it is not theoretical; if it is theoretical ,it is not mathematical; if it is mathematical, it is not experimental. The more enthusiastic bibliometricians and their fellow scientometricians, like economists, describe, draw trends, and even predict. The most ambitious among them wish to provide advice and help make science policy. But do they know anything about science?

Bibliometricians are not interested in what is written in a paper because they have no means of counting the worth of an article and playing safe with numbers. They do count authors' citations - how many, where, when, by whom - and devise impact factors to gauge "research performance", but this is no measure of knowledge nor an understanding of what is knowledge. They cannot spot the quiet self-effacing scientific author who, now and again, has something worthwhile to say unless he or she is profusely cited. For them, the scientific author has to make an impact; he has entered a sports competition where everyone is ranked and under surveillance as if, at any minute, he might slip and fall.

Let me tell you a short anecdote. The crew of a ship stranded on an island in the Pacific managed to do the necessary repairs but, on sailing away, forgot a violin on the rocks. This strange object intrigued the locals. What could it be for ? After some time, the chief's son came up with an answer. "It is a musical instrument," he said. "How so," he was asked. "Look, you beat the drum on the backside." The scientometricians beat the drum on the backside of science!

The New Look science

What vision of the scientific world can the younger generation have under these circumstances ? All the founding fathers are dead and it seems that no-one of their stature is around anymore. The world is populated by their poor, pitiable, "equal" children, full of emptiness and consumed by greed, who are totally unprepared for the power, glory and honours (professorships, chairs, Nobel prizes...) lying in wait. How can they value this New Look Science made up exclusively of a gaggle of peers ? What do they see ?

Each peer, taken individually, is at a loss. With no-one with whom to be equal , he turns deaf, dumb, and blind. Taken together, however, peers can claim to be disinterested, humble, skeptical seekers of a truth, that probably does not exist. To the "peerage", science becomes a matter of subjective "consensus", scientific knowledge is continuously "negotiated", facts are "constructed" collectively, vagaries become natural laws, scientific papers - mere fictions and active misrepresentations - belong to the realm of Machiavellian and Byzantine politics. And why read papers anyway when they are there to advise us !

In this context, the young are told that there is a big shortage of money for scientific research, that there are too many scientists, that they are too useless to be financed as before. The financing bodies require guarantees that the pittance they offer - "their" money - is spent efficiently and correctly. A scientist's credibility is no longer enough to ensure support because good care has been taken to discredit everyone and ensure that no credible scientists are left. The peers' modus operandi is simple. "Give us the money you allocate to science," they tell the financing bodies, "and we shall show you in return that you have made the right decision and that your money has been well spent." How ? Through peer review, and bibliometrics, of course ! By accepting only trivial papers for publication, rejecting those that are not "representative' or do not illustrate the prevailing paradigm, by producing weighty scientometric reports. "You see," they explain, "the results of scientific research are virtual objects. You look at them but do not see them, not because they don't exist but because they are spiritual matters. To see them you must look at them through our eyes" (whilst we look at them through our pockets, they could add!). "We have the only proof of their existence. As regards science funding, we are the only truth, nothing but the truth, the ultimate truth, the final solution." Alas, indeed, they are the final solution to scientific research. Are not famous theorists of physics vigorously claiming today that we shall soon be in possession of The Final Theory, The Ultimate Theory, The Total Theory of Everything that Exists, ever Existed and will Exist ? Does this not sound like The End ? Aren't we ourselves irresponsably professing that we are finished ?

The "true" scientist

Let's face it. We do not have a science of how to do science. If we did, we would teach it and everybody would be a scientist. Would that not be the end? We only know that, while many of us work hard and honestly, only a few of us succeed in having scientific visions that work. Perhaps, science is of a divine inspirational nature and, as such, not quite accessible to all of us.

Scientific research can be defined as that which is intended to produce what is new and correct within the framework of a historically engendered body of knowledge that is accepted as a science. The crucial point is that "true" scientists know what they are talking about when they speak about science. Science has its own questions, problems, and, more importantly, its own scientific spirit moulded by history. It is essential to grasp this background before starting to write, publish or evaluate scientific papers. The vast majority of "science peers" are ignorant of science and, worse still, like all ignorants, cannot imagine that there couldbe anything to science besides their own fantasies.

We should not, however, despair since even now there are scientists who can be fully trusted and beautiful scientific papers to be read, there is properly conducted scientific research within a wonderful world of scientific inquiry and truth. Where ? Within our own small, quiet, humble scientific fraternities. How can we have faith in them and in their truths ? Through seeing and learning, then knowing. The principle of truth is the truth itself. Only he who knows, knows that he knows; he who does not know, does not know that he doesn't. Scientific method is a matter of belief.

And, in practical terms, let us account for the money, count the scientists, account for our needs and ideals, and count the products of science so that their utilization can be taxed to fund scientific research. Let us speak up and silence the peers outside, and also within us ! (b)


(a) To clarify this point, let me tell you a Romanian joke. During an official trip to Israel, the Romanian ex-leader Ceausescu was taken on a visit to the Monument of the Unknown Hero where he was confronted with a beautiful plate inscribed Isaac Schlomo, born in Bacau (a town in Romania), taylor by profession. "Well", said Ceausescu to his hosts, "you tell me this is the Unknown Hero but you seem to know everything about the guy, his name, birthplace, even profession ! How's that ?" "That's precisely the point," was the answer. "Everyone thought that Schlomo was a taylor from Bacau, no-one knew he was a hero ! That's why he's an unknown hero." Is there not an analogy with peers? They call themselves peers or scientists depending upon circumstance. A true scientist and peer cannot review a scientific paper without redoing the science.

(b) This is an abridged and edited version of a paper that can be loaded freely from http://theor1.ifa.ro/~apoma/antyphysical review/apr 9.