Science and failures of authority

One of the key milestones in the emergence of the scientific method was placing empirical evidence above authority. This shift is beautifully articulated by both William Harvey and Nicolaus Copernicus. Both of them tactfully and forcefully defended their choice to side with the empirical results even when they contradicted the most venerable authorities in their respective fields. These early examples and many later ones, however, do not indicate that empirical evidence always trumps authority, at least not on the scales of years and decades. Even contemporary science provides compelling examples of highly accomplished scientists, i.e., venerable authorities, trumping empirical evidence, and thus halting progress for years. A few prominent examples are listed below. Suggestions for other examples are most welcomed!

1) Linus Pauling ridiculed the existence of quasicrystals (demonstrated by neutron scattering data) by saying: “There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists.” This scepticism held back the acceptance of quasicrystals.

2) William Shockley opposed continuing research on silicon-based semiconductors, the strategy that enabled the rise of the semiconductor industry, microprocessors and modern electronics.

3) Wilhelm Ostwald strongly opposed the atomic theory of matter, delaying its acceptance until the experiments of Jean Perrin and Ernest Rutherford.

4) Charles Hapgood rejected the continental drift theory in influential book The Earth’s Shifting Crust featuring a foreword by Albert Einstein. This rejection, alongside other authoritative rejections unsubstantiated by data, delayed the acceptance of the continental drift theory by decades.

5) Many senior scientists opposed the existence of prions and delayed scientific progress in the field for many years. This vehement opposition is described in Madness and Memory: The Discovery of Prions—A New Biological Principle of Disease, by Stanley Prusiner.

Linus Pauling, William Shockley, and Wilhelm Ostwald have made some of the most important contributions to modern science and these contributions have been deservingly recognized as such. Their demonstrated abilities and authority should bring attention to their arguments and opinions; however, their abilities and authority should not change the standards of evidence appraisal. That is, the opinions and arguments of accomplished scientists may deserve more attention but not authority-based acceptance; the evidence should be evaluated based on objective standards of appraisal.

This larger point about the relationship between evidence appraisal, bias and authority relates to recent debates on whether the authors of a research article should be revealed to its peer-reviewers. My opinion is that the identity of the authors should have very little, if any, influence on the peer-reviewers. I understand that some labs are known for having expertise in certain fields or for being very careful and this prior information may be relevant. However, even data from such labs should stand on their own, not be contingent on prior reputations. More importantly, the data from labs without long track-record should be taken seriously and evaluated with reasonable and objective standards. Thus, I think that the identity of the authors should not be an influential factor in evaluating their research results. However, anonymizing the authors is not practical, especially since it is incompatible with the publication of preprints. The benefits of preprints (in my opinion) vastly outweigh the benefits of hiding author identities.

One thought on “Science and failures of authority

  1. Authority in computer science has obstructed progress in developing language for expressing software and other technical knowledge simply for 40 years causing many kinds of disaster. See “Inexcusable Complexity fro 40 years” at .

    Liked by 1 person

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