The Power of Authority and the Folly of Hubris in Science

A shorter blog from me this week, as I am busy going through the last stages of formatting my forthcoming science book (more details coming soon). Apologies, if it is a tad incoherent as it was blasted off in a bit of a rush. Actually, it was an issue with my book that triggered off my thoughts on this subject; that and the case of Reinhart Rogoff, the PhD student who pointed out some key flaws in the work supporting an established economic theory.

I couple of months back I had asked a distinguished and pretty famous professor (who shall remain nameless) to write a foreword for my forthcoming book. They had generously agreed, and so I thought I was onto a good thing. Nothing like having the name of the science glitterati attached to my venerable tome to give it some academic heft; or so I thought! However, when the foreword appeared I found it quite unusable; a) it patronized nurses quite badly in the first few paragraphs, b) generally equated social scientists with village idiots, and “real” (read physics/chemistry/biology etc.) scientists as academic gods,  and c) suggested all would be well in nursing if we adopted RCTs for everything. I did send back some suggested changes, which seemed to invoke incandescent rage on the behalf of its author; particularly that I should challenge the sage wisdom presented. After a lengthy round of e-mail exchanges we parted on good terms, but agreed to differ, as my suggested edits were not acceptable to him. I do feel rather bad about the whole affair (as it was me who asked, and the prof was doing this in goodwill for free). But, the idea was to try and have a few positive and pithy paragraphs expounding on the wonders of science and its contributions to society and healthcare, thereby engaging readers; not a section encourage them to hurl the book into the nearest trash can. The changes I requested were not actually that huge, but I got the distinct sense that academic pride had more to do with this than differences over substance.

Anyhow, last week I also read about  PhD student Reinhart Rogoff, who identified that a famous academic paper cited to make the case for austerity cuts contained major errors. The main surprise was that the mistakes (made by two eminent Harvard professors) were spotted by a student doing his own research.

Both of these events seem to speak to the dangers of hubris in science. One of the things I love about science is that there are no “experts” and anyone can challenge established wisdom when they find it wanting. However, more recently I worry that the scientific establishment seems to forget this.

Let us take the example of helicobacter Pylori and gastric ulceration. When the Australian scientists J. Robin Warren and Barry Marshall identified the new bacteria Helicobacter pylori in 1982 as a cause of peptic ulcers disease, it completely transformed our understanding of the microbiology and pathology of the human stomach. Before then the accepted medical wisdom was that stomach ulcers occurred as excess acid damaged the gastric mucosa, and treatment should be aimed at reducing or neutralizing that acid, with surgical techniques being most effective (Lynch, 2005). Initially their new ideas were not widely accepted, and criticized. I can recall as a student nurse asking the clinical expert teacher on a surgical unit about the relevance of this new bacteria which I had just read about. I was swiftly reprimanded for heeding such nonsense (“when the cuckoos come home to roost…” was the phase used I recall)! However, as further research evidence arose from a range of repeat studies, results confirmed a link; the role of H. pylori in peptic ulcer disease was firmly established it revolutionized the treatment of this condition. This is a good example of a “revolutionary” paradigm shift in medicine, and illustrates the issues with becoming so attached to one idea that you fail to adequately consider others.

Also, I find the tendency towards creating “idols” out of scientists somewhat problematic. It seems a trend more prevalent this side of the Atlantic, where I find students and faculty more interested in “who” said what, rather than “what” they said. This strikes me as rather a short-tem view, and although I agree it’s important to give credit where its due, and cite appropriately, in the long-term it is the ideas that are important not the people who came up with them. This seems to me a bit like, focusing on Hitler’s fashion sense and personality rather than analysing his ideas, actions and policies.

In a recent round of government grant applications here, I noticed that who made up the research team was weighted quite heavily in the assessment criteria. Now, ostensibly this is to ensure the team is adequately qualified to carry out the research, but my experience it has become a bit of a “beauty contest.” I suspect that if the primary researcher is seen as a “great guy” in the field then the application is looked at far more favourably than a more original idea by a less well-known scientist.

I have come across this tendency towards personality cults and nepotism in the Uk too. When I was employed at a certain university in middle England, I was sent on a staff selection and interviewing course. In one session we were told “Make sure you ask what personal contacts the candidate can bring into the university; we need to get more people with good and famous connections.” When I said I thought this might not be the most ethical approach to recruitment, and that offering a job to someone because they (for example) knew members of the royal family, might be slightly inequitable, it was dismissed with “No, that is nothing to worry about and perfectly normal practice here!”

All in all I think we can learn a good lesson from Reinhart Rogoff, and for me, one of the best thing about science is that (in spirit at least) it is about the best argument for an explanation, rather than who is making the argument. But then maybe that is just because I am not famous, don’t have a cult following, know Mick Jagger, or come to that any other celebrities. As for my book foreword? I decided I wanted something that would strike a more positive tone, rather than a famous person to say it, so have given the job to Rog!

Cheers

Bernie

Reference

Lynch, N.A. (2005). Helicobacter pylori and ulcers: A paradigm revised. FASEB. Retrieved, 2011, from http://www.faseb.org/Portals/0/PDFs/opa/pylori.pdf

 

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