Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

The tribe of scientists

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Though I am a staunch defender of science and of scientific method, even I recognize the tribal nature scientists sometimes reveal: banding together to condemn and ostracize the innovative thinker, despite their protestations of “deciding on the basis of evidence.” Decisions are often made by peer judgment, even though some peers are judging from positions threatened by the new ideas. Alfred Wegener, who proposed the theory of continental drift (plate tectonics, as it’s know today) in 1915, was subject to great hositility and did not live to see his theory accepted as a scientific fact.

The one American edition [of his book], published in 1924, provoked such hostility that it was not revised. Many geologists focused on a lack of a demonstrable mechanism and rejected and ridiculed Wegener for his ideas, noting that he could not explain how continents were able to move.

It’s well known that each innovation in medicine was not widely adopted until the then-current generation of physicians died off, leaving the new generation free to adopt the idea (then no longer new). It may be objected that physicians are not scientists, a position given credence by the novelty of the idea of “evidence-based medicine”. (Googling the term will bring up many references to this revolutionary concept.)

At any rate, I was moved to reflect on this during the enjoyment of the various scents of The Daily Adventure: the Baxter’s Lime Vitamin E-D-A cleansing bar from QED, the Prorase pre-shave cream, the QED Pachouli-Tea Tree-Peppermint shaving soap, and the Musgo Real Classic aftershave.

How does the sense of smell work? Luca Turin, the subject of Chandler Burr’s wonderful book The Emperor of Scent, had a very clever idea that he was able to support with good evidence. The current theory, that the sense of smell distinguished odors based on the shape of the molecules, had some serious problems, which Turin was able to pinpoint: he found two molecules with different shapes that had the same smell. Interesting, but not relevant. Then he found two molecules with the identical shape, but totally different smells.

This would seem to be a mortal wound to the molecule-shape theory, but those who believe that fail to recognize the tribal nature of the scientific community. Turin’s theory was ignored, and Turin himself treated with great hostility and disdain—by scientists who did not even deign to read his paper.

The entire story is fascinating, and the book is thoroughly enjoyable.

Written by Leisureguy

21 July 2006 at 7:56 am

Posted in Books, Science

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