Saturday, August 27, 2005

Crackpottery, etiquette, and ethical duties.

There's scientific knowledge. There are the dedicated scientists who make it, whether slaving in laboratories or in the fields, fretting over data analysis, refereeing each other's manuscripts or second guessing themselves.

And, well, there are some crackpots.

I'm not talking dancing-on-the-edge-of-the-paradigm folks, nor cheaters. I mean the guy who has the crazy idea for revolutionizing field X that actually is crazy.

Generally, you don't find too much crackpottery in the scientific literature, at least not when peer review is working as it's meant to. The referees tend to weed it out. Perhaps, as has been suggested, referees also weed out cutting edge stuff because it's just so new and hard to fit into one's stodgy old referee's picture of what's field. That may just be the price of doing business. One hopes that, eventually, the truth will out.

But where you do see a higher proportion of crackpottery, aside from certain preprint repositories, is at meetings. And there, face to face with the crackpot, the gate-keepers may behave quite differently than they would in an anonymous referee's report.

Doctor Crackpot gives a talk intended to show his brilliant new solution to a nagging problem with an otherwise pretty well established theoretical approach. Jaws drop as the presentation proceeds. Then, finally, as Doctor Crackpot is aglow with the excitement of having broken the wonderful news to his people, he entertains questions.

Crickets chirp.

Doctor Hardass, who has been asking tough questions of presenters all day, tentatively asks a question about the mathematics of this crackpot "solution". The other scholars in attendance inwardly cheer, thinking, "In about 10 seconds Doctor Hardass will have demonstrated to Doctor Crackpot that this could never work!"

Ten minutes later, Doctor Crackpot is still writing equations on the board, and Doctor Hardass has been reduced to saying, "Uh huh …" Scholars start sneaking out as the chirping of the crickets competes with the squeaking of the chalk.

Granted, no one wants to hurt Doctor Crackpot's feelings. If it's a small enough meeting, you all probably had lunch with him, maybe even drinks the night before. He seems like a nice guy. He doesn't seem dangerous-crazy, just scientifically crazy. And, as he's been toiling in obscurity at a little backwater institution, he's obviously lonely for scientific company and conversation. So, calling him out as a crackpot seems kind of mean.

But ... it's also a little mean not to call him out. You're letting him wander through the scientific community with spinach in his teeth while trailing toilet paper from his shoe if you leave him with the impression that his revolutionary idea has any merit. Someone has to set this guy straight ... right? If you don't, won't he keep trying to sell this crackpot idea at future meetings?

So, in the continuum of "scientific knowledge", on whose behalf scientists are sworn to uphold standards and keep out the riff-raff, where do meetings fall? Do the scientists in attendance have any ethical duty to give their candid assessments of crackpottery to the crackpots? Or is it OK to just snicker about it at the bar? If there's no obligation to call the crackpot out, does that undermine the value of meetings as sources of scientific knowledge, or of the scientific communications needed to build scientific knowledge?

Who'd have thought problems might arise from scientists being too nice?


At 6:40 AM, Blogger Anna said...

To be a scientist a person must have vocation to it. Clenbuterol


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