Knowledge never progresses unencumbered by ordinary human politics. Clubbiness, careerism, prejudice, personality clashes, bigotry, corruption, charm, and other human factors affect the advancement and dissemination of all knowledge, even in the hallowed academies of the West. While the scientific disciplines may have the best inbuilt methodologies for self-correction, still their practice isn’t immune to these impairments of judgment and objectivity.
In his recent Guardian article, The Sugar Conspiracy, Ian Leslie reminds us of how important individual personalities or even the fashionability of ideas can dominate, pervert, or slow the progress of entire fields of science. He writes,
In a 2015 paper titled Does Science Advance One Funeral at a Time?, a team of scholars at the National Bureau of Economic Research sought an empirical basis for a remark made by the physicist Max Planck: “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.”
The researchers identified more than 12,000 “elite” scientists from different fields. The criteria for elite status included funding, number of publications, and whether they were members of the National Academies of Science or the Institute of Medicine. Searching obituaries, the team found 452 who had died before retirement. They then looked to see what happened to the fields from which these celebrated scientists had unexpectedly departed, by analysing publishing patterns.
What they found confirmed the truth of Planck’s maxim. Junior researchers who had worked closely with the elite scientists, authoring papers with them, published less. At the same time, there was a marked increase in papers by newcomers to the field, who were less likely to cite the work of the deceased eminence. The articles by these newcomers were substantive and influential, attracting a high number of citations. They moved the whole field along.
In this context, Leslie goes on to narrate the story of how, for decades, American nutritional science chased doggedly down a rabbit hole of false conclusions about the probable causes of heart disease, under the influence of decidedly non-scientific factors. A prevailing theory became fashionable, and contradictory data was shouted down; those presenting it were professionally attacked. The shaming and silencing alternative lines of questioning surely contributed to the ongoing public health crisis we now face, in which at least two generations of people are suffering epidemic frequencies of obesity and diabetes. Leslie lays it out,