Friday, August 10, 2012

Only Young Scientists Overthrow Old Concepts?

Max Planck once said ...
A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.
This does not conform to my experience in the biological sciences.

I think that what usually what happens is that a new way of thinking is promoted by well-established investigators. Gradually other scientists are convinced by the evidence to change their minds and the new scientific truth spreads within the community.

When a substantial number of scientists are converted, they start teaching the new concept in graduate and undergraduate courses. This produces a young generation who never heard of the old "truth."

If I'm correct then a new generation of scientists grows up familiar with the new scientific truth but only because the established scientists converted and started training the next generation properly.

When it comes to challenging old established concepts in a discipline I find that initially the younger scientists are often quite conservative unless they just happen to be working on that problem. This shouldn't be a surprise since our young investigators have their hands full just establishing themselves in their field. They don't have time to think about what's going on in the rest of the discipline. In fact, it might be detrimental to their careers to challenge most established concepts.

As I'm writing this I'm having trouble coming up with examples in biology. Most of the conceptual shifts that come to mind are ongoing controversies where it still isn't clear that the new scientific truth will replace the old one. I'm thinking of evo-devo, challenges to evolutionary theory, junk DNA, chemiosmotic theory, metabolism & thermodynamics, the tree of life, photosynthesis, and even new ways of teaching.

Can anyone think of examples were the shift has been completed so we can test the Max Planck hypothesis?

How about the shift from thinking that genes were proteins to genes are DNA?


37 comments:

  1. How about the discovery of an entire new domain of life? or that stomach ulcers are caused by a bacterium? or the discovery of horizontal gene transfer.

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    1. The fact that stomach ulcers are caused by bacteria is not an example of a new concept. It's a factoid.

      The discovery of horizontal gene transfer dates back to the 1960s and it didn't conflict with any old concepts. That fact was quickly incorporated into the textbooks.

      The discovery of a new domain of life fits the criteria. During the 1980s most biologists easily, and often eagerly, incorporated that fact into their worldview even though it was at odds with the old view of only two "domains" of life.

      However, after 1990 things got a bit messy. Today, it's not clear that the Three Domain Hypothesis is correct but it's being taught as though it were in most introductory courses and presented as a fact in most textbooks (but not mine).

      Now we have the strange situation where young faculty members are convinced that the new view of life is correct while some of the older faculty members have been there, done that, and moved on. They are trying to correct their junior colleagues! [The Three Domain Hypothesis]

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  2. In a field like theoretical physics or mathematics, or even economics (which has a big under-40 prize), young investigators can push radical new ideas because they don't need to fund labs. Thus, scientists in these fields can establish themselves by striking out in completely new directions.

    The funding process is inherently conservative. So, as you say, in biology the young scientists have to be conservative in order to preserve their careers, and the established scientists are the ones who have room to take risks.

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    1. Can you give us some examples in theoretical physics and mathematics? I know it's commonly believed that you are over the hill and deserve to be put out to pasture once you reach the age of 40 but it this true, or is it a myth?

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    2. Here is a data point: One of the most amazing achievements in recent mathematics was the proof of Fermat's Last Theorem, a simple-sounding theorem whose proof eluded the world's best mathematicians for over 350 years. It was finally proven by Andrew Wiles in 1995 at age 42.

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    3. I don't get it. What was the new scientific truth (concept) that Andrew Wiles discovered? Did most mathematicians think that Fermat's Last Theorem was wrong?

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    4. Larry, nearly everyone thought Fermat's theorem was true. I was only answering this question of yours about physicists and mathematicians: "I know it's commonly believed that you are over the hill and deserve to be put out to pasture once you reach the age of 40 but it this true, or is it a myth?" Wiles cracked this great unsolved puzzled of mathematics at age 42. This is a data point to show that groundbreaking creativity is not the exclusive domain of young thinkers. Nothing more.

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  3. Well, 8 years after Avery's pubication, Hershey himself (with his blender) was not 100% convinced that genes are DNA. And it took almost a decade after Crick-Watson model for everyone to become convinced...

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    1. The Avery, MacLeod, McCarty experiment was published in 1944. It didn't change the minds of most scientists and that's perfectly normal. You don't switch concepts (paradigms?) on the basis of a single experiment. If we did that we'd be spinning around like tops.

      Most scientists didn't start believing that genes were made of DNA until after Watson & Crick in 1953 but then the switch was very rapid. By 1960 the new concept was in all the textbooks.

      This is not an example of the kind of change that Max Planck is referring to. It's the exact opposite. The switch occurred in far less than a generation.

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    2. Actually, 20 years *is* a generation. I don't believe that "by 1960 the new concept was in all the textbooks" is true. Besides Avery et al. and Hershey&Chase, there was TONS of circumstantial evidence - it's just that it was roundly disregarded. Pretty much according to what Kuhn/Plank described.

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  4. You are surely speaking euphemistically when you speak of 'testing' Planck's 'hypothesis'.

    So to be more precise, you are enquiring after evidence, for and against, a thesis about history (of science), and not a scientific hypothesis to live or die accordingly in the experimental world.

    Of course, to establish or refute such a thesis, a (history of science) monograph's worth of evidence is surely required (not to suggest that you are obliged to gather it here).

    Just a little nitpicking to get to the point that your query virtually demands pivoting off of (something like) Kuhn's project (not that I endorse that thoroughly beat up classic).

    All's to say, I'm NOT nitpicking on the whole, but you pose a gianormous question deserving of much larger formal research.

    Any history or philosophy or general science grads reading this who'd like to set their sharp teeth into Planck, and Kuhn et al.?

    PS - LAM, first time commenter, long time reader, enjoy the blog a lot among the others I get from Planet Atheism.

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    1. I think that the essence of Kuhn's explanation is mostly correct. Scientists hold on to an old idea for a long time then, when the evidence accumulates, they switch quite rapidly to the new concept. They will ignore "falsifications" and contrary evidence for a long time before switching.

      That's pretty much how it should be because a lot of what's published is wrong. It needs to stand the test of time.

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  5. Actual plate tectonics (not the older model of Wegenerian continental drift) was first proposed in the mid 1960s, and by a decade later almost no serious scientist rejected it.

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    1. Other then George Gaylord Simpson.

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  6. At what age are you no longer young, Professor Moran?

    Max Planck was in his 40s when he discovered his famous formula, published in 1900 and 1901. He was already a tenured full professor at Germany's most distinguished university.

    Does that count as an old guy making a paradigm-overturning discovery?

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  7. How about the chemiosmotic hypothesis. I remember when I was an undergraduate student in the mid 70's it was still considered a controversial position. Within a few short years it had become the established orthodoxy and Nobel prizes had been handed out.

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    1. Chemiosmotic Theory is a tough one. Peter Mitchell got the Nobel Prize in 1978 but his idea is still a long way from "orthodoxy." Most of my colleagues still don't understand chemiosmotic theory. Here's a brief introduction: Chemiosmosis; Ode to Peter Mitchell; Ubiquinone and the Proton Pump.

      The concept is absolutely fundamental to understanding how cells generate chemical energy but it's not taught very well, if at all, in most introductory biochemistry courses. This includes the courses taught in my own department, much to my embarrassment.

      The correct explanation of the concept didn't make it into the major textbooks until about five years ago (we got it right in 1992). This is an example of extreme resistance to change because the new, correct, concept is difficult to understand. It requires a complete rethinking or the way one understands chemical reactions. Most of my colleagues—who don't work on metabolism—can't make that shift.

      It's true that the younger generation has at least heard of chemiosmotic theory because it is mentioned in biochemistry courses. I suppose that's progress of a sort.

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    2. The first of those three links, the Chemiosmosis one, appears to be broken. I want it! Thank you for providing the other two!

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    3. Am I right suspecting that first link (Chemiosmosis) should lead to Wikipedia?

      I tried to search for 'Chemiosmosis' article on Sandwalk, but could find it.

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    4. The concept [of chemiosmosis] is absolutely fundamental to understanding how cells generate chemical energy but it's not taught very well, if at all, in most introductory biochemistry courses.

      I'm amazed. In 1977, at a not-particularly-cutting-edge provincial university, we were given a fair grounding in the main contenders, Britton Chance's chemical intermediate and Mitchell's chemiosmotic hypothesis. It made a good story, two men of independent means battling it out - and IIRC the evidence was presented as very much on Mitchell's side. A good 'pop-sci' coverage is provided in Nick Lane's Power, Sex, Suicide.

      It is one of my favourite 'bits' of biochemistry.

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  8. In human population genetics, my sense is that the "young guard" is having more impact on changing the consensus viewpoint than the"old guard" is. In part this is because the cost of data and processing technology has come down to the point where a hyper-focused independent researcher can investigate problems sufficiently.

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    1. Are you listening, Joe Felsenstein? Are you listening, Michael Lynch?

      Vincent, can you give me an example? What major new concept in population genetics has been recently discovered by someone under 40 years old?

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  9. The endosymbiotic origins of mitochondria and chloroplasts, perhaps? I know there were still a small number of hold-outs against this as late as the early 1990s, but I don't know if they're still around. Mind you, any paradigm, no matter how firmly established, will always have its contrarians.

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    1. That's a good example. It moved quickly from the initial suggestions in the late 1960's to being in all the textbooks by 1980.

      It doesn't conform to what Max Planck says.

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  10. The comment by Planck is one of those little bits of wisdom that seem very insightful until you think about it for a while and realize there are far more counter-examples than supporting examples.
    The first I heard of it was from Philip Johnson in one of his earlier works. Johnson of course thinks this is how evolution with eventually be overthrown. The overwheling evidence for evolution is, to him just a dogmatic assertion from the old guard scientists

    RodW

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    1. Maybe Planck was thinking about old times, when there wasn't much grant money for science and people who got tenures lived on their stipends and not much else? I don't know for real whether it was ever like that.

      But if it was, old established experts could afford to keep their same ideas until they died. They had tenure, and they weren't going to get much else. They were set. And they were the experts.

      But now you need to sound up-to-date to get grant money, and you sure don't fund research out of your salary. Somebody who has tenure and doesn't keep up isn't considered an expert any more.

      So if you're going to play the game, for each controversy you can choose whichever side looks like it's the best fit for you. If a concept is in play you don't get much by just opposing it on reflex without thinking.

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  11. David Hull's Science As a Process discussed this at some length (p. 379-382) in connection with the Origin and found it wasn't true as to the conversion of the scientific community to evolution. Specifically, he showed that, contrary to Planck, there was no correlation between the age of scientists and the alacrity with which they accepted common descent.

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  12. An example supporting Planck's observation is sympatric speciation and Ernst Mayr. Mayr fought and ridiculed the idea for years before finally admitting it had been shown in a small number of cases, but downplaying its potential frequency as an evolutionary phenomenon. The jury is still out on its relative importance, of course.

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    1. I don't know how this one will play out since it's an ongoing scientific controversy. I suspect that sympatric speciation will be accepted as a legitimate phenomenon, but not common.

      That's probably what's going to happen with group selection as well although the orthodox evolutionary biologists are fighting it almost a hard as they fought macromutations (hopeful monsters) back in the 1940s. Their sacred cow (kin selection) has been challenged and that's heresy.

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  13. So what do they call this wave of young avant-garde scientists - The New Curmudgeons?

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  14. This sounds like something that you should get Arlin to elaborate on. He has made several comments here on Sandwalk about the difficulty he has had in communicating his research on constructive neutral evolution and the bias in the introduction of variation.

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  15. Max Planck was a physicist. Physics is a great example of the inability to adapt to paradigm shifts and new ideas. Ernst Mach (Mach force) held back the corpuscular nature of matter; Von Neumann (father of the modern computer) made an error that convinced people quantum mechanics is a complete theory (took 40 years to disprove). Then, in the '60's John Bell's work has convinced people that non-locality is an actual phenomenon, yet no-one understands it (they call it quantum weirdness in scientific publications, even Nature). Try to publish a paper against non-locality and it is rejected without external review, or called nonsense.

    I like David Wick's comment in his book, Infamous Boundary that says something like: If you ask a question about established ideas that the big shots cannot answer, they look at you in a funny way and make a mental note not to talk to you anymore.

    I also like the tongue in cheek stages of trying to get new ideas published:

    1. you are wrong, reject.
    2. you are not wrong but it is not important, reject.
    3. you are not wrong, it is important, but we knew that all along, reject.

    The current state of the foundations of quantum mechanics is unsatisfactory, but if you come up with any ideas to resolve it, you get pilloried. To get a great idea of this, see the web-site by a bunch of contemptuous physicists (mostly post-docs)who have attached physicist with different ideas Joy Christian:

    http://www.science20.com/alpha_meme/quantum_crackpot_randi_challenge_help_perimeter_physicist_joy_christian_collect_nobel_prize-79614

    These are youngish scientists and they are holding up the advancement of science by intimidation, character attacks and attempts to destroy reputations and careers.

    We should encourage new ideas and free exchange. The vast majority of physicists are open minded and free thinkers except when it comes to understanding the basis upon which pretty much all their work rests.

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  16. Cladistics gave quite a different point of view from Linnean systematics. Cladistics was very controversial around 1980, but now everybody seems to be a cladist of some sort. The shift to cladistic thinking was fairly fast, once Hennig's book had been translated.

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  17. Can anyone think of examples were the shift has been completed so we can test the Max Planck hypothesis?

    Einstein was 26 years old when he published his papers on special relativity and the photoelectric effect, both of which resulted in paradigm shifts in the understanding of how the universe operates.

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  18. Isaac Newton, the most important scientist who ever lived according to Neil Tyson, published his first work on calculus when he was 24. That was a paradigm shift in how one looks at infinitesimals and was critically important in his later work on gravitation and the orbits of the planets.

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  19. 2012: Restructure Science Plans, Policies, Budgets

    A. Higgs Particle YOK

    Eppur Si Muove, Higgs Particle YOK
    Regardless Of Whatever Whoever

    Regardless Of Whatever Is Said By Whoever Says It -
    Higgs Particle YOK.

    S Hawking is simply wrong in accepting it. Obviously wrong.
    Everyone who accepts the story of the Higgs particle is simply wrong.
    Plain commonsense.
    Singularity and the Big Bang MUST have happened with the smallest base universe particles, the gravitons, that MUST be both energy and mass, even if they are inert mass just one smallest fraction of a second at singularity. All mass formats evolve from gravitons that convert into energy i.e. extricate from their gravitons clusters into mass formats in motion, energy. And they all end up again as mass in a repeat singularity.
    Universe expansion and re-contraction proceed simultaneously..

    Dov Henis (comments from 22nd century)
    http://universe-life.com/
    http://universe-life.com/2012/02/03/universe-energy-mass-life-compilation/


    B. Refresh Present SCIENCE Comprehensions And Restructure Science Plans, Policies And Budgets

    Who Suppresses Science Creativity? Does Academia Suppress Creativity?

    Again and again, ad absurdum:
    Since the 1920s SCIENCE is suppressed by a Technology Culture, tightly supervised by a religious old style trade union , the AAAS…

    Liberate Your Mind From Concepts Dictated By The Religious Trade-Union AAAS:

    USA Science? Re-Comprehend Origins And Essence

    * Higgs Particle? Dark Energy/Matter? Epigenetics? All YOK!

    * Earth-life is just another, self-replicating, mass format.

    * All mass formats evolve from gravitons, the primal universe mass-energy particles.

    * Since singularity gravitons are extricated from their big-bang clusters , i.e. become mobile, energy, at a constant rate.

    * All mass formats follow natural selection, i.e. intake of energy or their energy taken in by other mass formats.

    * Evolution Is The Quantum Mechanics Of Natural Selection.

    * Quantum mechanics are mechanisms, possible or probable or actual mechanisms of natural selection.

    * Life’s Evolution is the quantum mechanics of biology.

    * Every evolution, of all disciplines, is the quantum mechanics of the discipline’s natural selection.

    See:
    Update Concepts-Comprehension…
    http://universe-life.com/2011/12/13/21st-century-science-whence-and-whither/
    Earth life genesis from aromaticity-H bonding
    http://universe-life.com/2011/09/30/earthlife-genesis-from-aromaticityh-bonding/
    Universe-Energy-Mass-Life Compilation
    http://universe-life.com/2012/02/03/universe-energy-mass-life-compilation/
    Seed of human-chimp genome diversity
    http://universe-life.com/2011/07/10/seed-of-human-chimp-genomes-diversity/
    New Era For Science Including Genomics
    http://universe-life.com/2012/04/14/new-era-for-science-including-genomics/

    Dov Henis (comments from 22nd century)


    C. Universe Inflation And Expansion

    Inflation on Trial
    Astrophysicists interrogate one of their most successful theories
    http://www.sciencenews.org/view/feature/id/342219/title/Inflation_on_Trial

    Commonsense:

    Inflation and expansion are per Newton.

    Since the Big Bang galactic clusters loose mass at constant rate. Mass, gravitons, continue escaping at constant rate from their Big Bang fragments-clusters thus becoming energy, mass in motion, thus thrusting the clusters. Constant thrust and decreasing galactic clusters weight accelerate the separation of clusters from each other.

    Common sense.

    Dov Henis (comments from 22nd century)
    http://universe-life.com/

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  20. Natural Selection Is Built-In Hypocrisy In US Science Structure
    In addition to the omnipotency of the AAAS trade-union-church with its science testament and gospels...:


    A.
    http://www.nas.edu/
    Where the Nation Turns for Independent, Expert Advice
    THE NATIONAL ACADEMIES
    Advisers to the Nation on Science, Engineering, and Medicine

    B.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science_policy_of_the_United_States
    In the Executive Office of the President, the main body advising the president on science policy is the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Other advisory bodies exist within the Executive Office of the President, including the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and the National Science and Technology Council.

    Further advice (on legislating science policy) is provided by extra-governmental organizations such as The National Academies, which was created and mostly funded by the federal government,[2] and the RAND Corporation, as well as other non-profit organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Chemical Society among others.

    C.
    Conflict of interest arises whenever the personal or professional interests of a board or committee member or of an expert adviser are potentially at odds with the best interests of the nonprofit…by the people for the people…

    D.
    I rest the people’s case…

    Dov Henis
    (comments from 22nd century)
    http://universe-life.com/

    ReplyDelete