sábado, 14 de julho de 2012

Science and Society and Self-Organization of Astrophysical Community

Dear John (Peacock), science today is affected by "sociological" and "economical" conditions that seem to have a relevant influence on its progress. What kind of possible solutions may be adopted to guarantee scientific freedom and the development of ideas and investigation methods alternative or complementary to most accepted ones?


I am more aware of financial constraints in science than sociological ones. I know that some people complain of a herd instinct in cosmology, and that standard thought can be blinkered, but I think this is in large part misguided. Many cosmologists that I know are iconoclasts by nature, and would like nothing better than to disprove the standard model. Indeed, I know for a fact that this was a strong motivation for many of the leading CMB experimentalists, who were horrified that their measurements turned out to agree exactly with ACDM orthodoxy, rather than opening the door to new and unfamiliar territory.
I am reminded of something I think Steven Weinberg said: that the problem with cosmologists is not that they are forever having wild ideas, but that they often do not take the simplest predictions of their theories seriously enough. This is not to justify a complacent certainty that the standard model must be right: but critics should accept that it has had many successes, so any critique must grow out of a deep familiarity with these successes.


The financial limits are also sociological in a way, however, since society has to decide the level at which it wants to support fundamental science. There is no easy answer to this, and it has changed with time. If we are honest, astronomers and other physicists should acknowledge that we are still living off the fat of the glory days of the Second World War, when governments realized that physicists were useful for the Defence of the Realm. I think this connection with the military machine is something that most of us would prefer to forget, but it is difficult to deny. Gradually, this dependence of the state on physicists has declined, and the question is how much further it has to fall.


Thank you John. The possibilities of a forth coming revolution in physics are certainly attractive, but how close is this possibility and how much is this linked to the current sociological conditions? Let us listen the opinion of Paola Marziani.

Dear Paola (Marziani), do you think that a scientific revolution is possible in the current sociological condition? What kind of astrophysical observations could trigger it?



I wish to point out two aspects that may sound pretty obvious since they come from a laywoman astronomer and not from a social scientist. First, a scientific revolution needs people who are so outstanding (in the literal meaning of the word) to be able to carry out new observations of revolutionary impact and interpret them. A social mechanism must allow those outstanding people to become scientifically productive. And it may be a blessing that neither the involved researchers nor others fully realize the importance of their discoveries. I am saying this because I cannot take out of my mind the biography of some of the most prominent scientists and thinkers of the twentieth century:
Einstein, Freud, Turing. All of them faced threats that jeopardized their success in science. The power of deterrence works well for positive achievements: intimidate one Galileo and you may have an intellectual desert for a long, long time. A generation of German and Italian physicists and astronomers was disbanded by dictatorship and war. Are we sure that our present-day society is so free, and free of discrimination and conditioning, to allow outstanding individuals to become outstanding scientists with the knowledge, the will and the courage to go outside mainstream science?


A community of scientists must then be receptive of the new discoveries that may be scoffed at in one place but appreciated in another. There must be an "else where" where a paradigm shift can propagate. Equalization of science policies, work habits, and polarization of astronomy toward big science carried with a limited number of extra-powerful instruments may be deleterious to the development and affirmation of alternative theory [230]. After all, almost everyone with a past in mainstream science is posed to lose from revolutionary discoveries.


If one restricts your question to Cosmology, there is one discovery that will really revolutionize the field: non-cosmological redshifts that is, redshifts not due to the large scale expansion of the Universe. Non-cosmological redshifts would invalidate the use of redshift as a distance indicator, and undermine the foundation of much of the present astrophysical work way beyond cosmological issues proper: supermassive BHs in distant quasars, most of quasar physics, galactic evolution, the CMB, and many more technical issues would lose their meaning. It would be a truly Copernican revolution: the impact would be immensely larger than if, for example, only the CMB were found to be of noncosmological origin, as discussed by Dr. Robitaille in this book.

However, the probability of such changes actually occurring seems small at present. Champions of the idea of non-cosmological redshifts (present since quasars were discovered) were eventually ostracized seemingly on non-scientific ground. In recent years, there has been a revival of papers pointing out oddities and inconsistencies of the cosmological interpretation of redshift [3,15,16,194, just to cite a few references].
There has even been a manifesto invoking attention and funding for alternative cosmologies (which I signed since it did not imply that standard big-bang cosmology is necessarily wrong). The issue is still somewhat open (especially for redshifts larger than 1), even if (I repeat here my opinion) there is no strong evidence foreshadowing a major revolution.


Perhaps another possibility is the contact with alien intelligent beings who may force humankind to rethink much of their physical understanding of the Universe, and even to confront with their past (and present) of genocide and wars.

Thank you very much Paola. Along the same vein, we can suspect that the scientific work of young scientists is strongly influenced by the environment in which they live. Cesare Chiosi has sent us his opinion on this point.

Dear Cesare (Chiosi), what do you think about the present way of doing astrophysical research? Do you believe that for a young astronomer is it possible today to pursue his research interests in an environment free from constraints limiting his scientific creativity? To what extent boundary conditions influence creativity in science?


What to say without disappointing anybody? Often, I think that Globalization has infected Science. I may be wrong, but it seems that pressure of success, affirmation, long lists of published papers, leadership in specific areas have pushed away the simple pleasure of curiosity, the investment of time and efforts just to widen the horizon of personal knowledge. This tendency begins very soon in a young researcher's carrier. He/her is in fact expected to publish paper after paper, possibly in journals of high impact factor to increase his/her chances of a job (if any, at least in my own country!). Monochromatism of expertise is the obvious result of it. In addition to this, is the growing need of large teams to realize big, very expensive instrumentations,
in which young fellows are likely lost in the crowd. No time to do anything else but the specific task assigned to him/her, with a great damage of personal scientific growing and initiative. Nothing against big instrumental projects, undoubtedly necessary to deepen our experimental information, but this is the price to pay. Same considerations would apply to large groups intending to attack specific problems from all view angles (from observations to interpretation). There are several subtle poisons in the air: monopolization of information and ideas, self-referencing, and over-production of papers. New information is often out of reach for long time.


Self-referencing, an obvious consequence of this sort of monopolization, makes the rest. To express opinions out of the main stream may be hard if not impossible. In this context, most of papers either confirm, sustain, share, agree with someone else results. Only a minority dare to say "things may be different". Other opinions are simply ignored. Over-production of papers is good to justify the economical cost and to rise more funds. However, the reverse side of the coin is that often single researchers are formally authors (in collaboration with many others) of an incredibly large number of refereed papers per year. Now, a year is made of 52 weeks, 7 days each, 24 h per day ... the rest to your imagination. It is like an assembly chain! Often, very expensive instrumentations, large legacies on single projects impose to rediscover what in reality was already long known, with much less detail of course but the leading ideas already in place. This implies a short decaying time scale of any result and progress. All this can be easily understood as due first to marketing laws, second to the simple lack of time and information. Too a pessimistic view? How to cure it? Sorry, I do not know!

Thanks a lot Cesare for having remarked the relevance of this problem and the difficulty to solve it. These observations raise the question of whether even in the scientific ambient new forms of ostracisms towards heretic views may still appear, producing a new "Galileo case". Let us continue in this discussion with the following interview.


Dear Thanu (Padmanabhan), remembering the Galileo experience, do exist to¬day the political and sociological conditions for a scientific revolution?


Science is practiced by scientists who are human and hence one cannot expect a perfect, objective, progress. The currently established scientific norms (peer reviewed publications, wide access to and dissemination of information, peer reviewed funding procedures ...) are probably the best we can hope for. Within this context, one often notices that a generation of reputed scientists devote their time, effort and energy in an initially promising direction of research (say, e.g., in a particular approach to quantum gravity) only to slowly realize that they were wrong all along. But it is unrealistic to hope that they will admit this debacle and move over to another paradigm. The emotional involvement (not to mention the need to sustain positions, groups etc.) will make these scientists as closed group to keep nearly dead ideas on life-supporting machines for a long time! This is inevitable and we need to accept it as a fact of life.


But the younger generation will be able to see through this and can easily adapt to newer paradigms, rejecting the once popular ideas which have outlived their utility. The older generation, in spite of their important early contributions and intellectual prowess, will eventually be sidelined unless they abandon the ideas which were initially attractive but have lead nowhere over a period of time. I am positive that this will happen in the case of the present day views regarding gravity as well but one cannot predict the timescale over which it will take place. Given the current practices followed in science, it will happen at a significantly shorter timescale compared to in the days of Galileo - but one cannot ignore the fact that sociological effects have a strong bearing on the progress of science even today.


Thank you very much Thanu. We will now enter more specifically on the questions that are more closely linked to the way in which the astrophysical community is organized today. Jack Sulentic was very kind to address some tricky questions concerning the way in which researchers may work today. He expressed also his opinion about the behavior of scientists themselves at the beginning of the propagation of a new paradigm Self-Organization


Dear Jack (Sulentic), science is made by men and women. It is therefore possible that their characters and beliefs influence their approach to science. This occurred at the Galileo's epoch as well as it does today. Do you believe that this could partially contribute to the success of the standard cosmological vision? What is your personal experience and opinion about this?

That brings us to the sociology of science. Long experience in an esoteric field like astronomy, and especially cosmology, provides insights into the sociology that underlies human involvement in these activities. Ones initial naivete about how science is conducted and how ideas are exchanged can be quickly lost. It seemed to me -as a grad student - that investigating controversial areas would be an exciting thing to do. So why then the hostility and suspicion, if those are the correct words, that one actually experiences after working on a controversial problem? Chip Arp actually warned me about these reactions - he said people might be "put off" by an association with him - when he invited me to Pasadena to work with him in the area of non-Doppler redshifts and alternatives to the Big Bang paradigm. Another manifestation of this loss of naivete involves surprise at the lack of true intellectual discourse in the field. Maybe it has always been that way and I had some idealistic vision of how science was conducted.

After some time in the field, I began to realize that there were different kinds of people doing science and these people had quite different motivations and goals. Everything became clearer to me when I came across a beautiful tribute to Max Planck written by Albert Einstein (see e.g., Ferris [82]). It turns out that Einstein already realized there were different kinds of people in physics (he called it the temple of science). At the risk of oversimplification he was saying and we can say that there are careerists and truth seekers doing science. Careerists are motivated by the desire to advance their careers and truth seekers by more complex and unrealistic goals (e.g., "the love of science"). The latter tend to have their feet planted less firmly on the ground. In order to remove any good vs. evil connotations (so prevalent in puritan societies) let us henceforth refer to them as Baconian(s) (after Sir Francis Bacon often referred to as a father of the scientific method or as the ultimate empiricist). Of course Bacon was a contemporary of Galileo (e.g., [20]) whose anniversary we commemorate! In Pasadena I was lectured more than once that one could no longer be a Baconian in (1970s) astrophysical science - I remember my incredulity upon receiving this lecture from a senior person.


Einstein obviously belonged to the latter class and the point of his comments was that Max Planck was also a Baconian. Certainly not all Baconians were/are as clever as Einstein or Planck but they do share similar motivations. This is not to suggest that careerists cannot be able scientists. In fact they often show higher technical adeptness than many truth seekers. A major departure occurs because careerists build their career on their technical adeptness within the existing paradigm. Threats to the paradigm are often perceived as threats to their continued rise in the field - money, awards, memberships and access to large telescopes.
While oversimplified the realization of the existence of such different kinds of scientists removed the scales from my eyes and from that point onward I could understand why people behaved the way that they did. I never felt to be advocating any particular replacement for the standard paradigm. Advocacy is not part of the game and nor is caring which answer is the correct one. I simply believed that testing and questioning all aspects of the paradigm was a fundamental part of being a scientist. I learned that this philosophy was not shared by careerists.


Thus the careerist response to most of the controversial questions in cosmology will be along the lines of "this is nonsense ... there is nothing to discuss ... it has all been discredited". In fact it is now well understood that, far from advocacy, even investigation of such areas is deemed inappropriate. It all becomes understandable. While we may be building ever larger and grander instruments, they are not intended as vehicles for testing the standard model - they are symbols of power and glory. They will be tied up in endless surveys lest access falls into the hand of "unreliable" investigators. Endless surveys where curiously nothing new is ever found. Well even if something slightly new is discovered, the last line of the abstract reporting it will always read "supports the standard picture". A jaundiced view for sure - but sadly for the scientific enterprise too often true. It is easy to get time on a big telescope to obtain low S/N observations of high redshift sources (the higher the better) but very difficult to get high S/N observations of a low redshift source. The former results are uncertain and therefore unlikely to be constraining (i.e., scientifically falsifiable) while the latter can be a threat. And applying for telescope time to test unpopular ideas is virtually impossible. Students know this but are, in any case, trained to believe rather than question the standard paradigm.


One can easily find case studies that illustrate the strength of careerist devotion to the standard model. The uncritical acceptance of any new evidence that supports it and rejection of evidence that does not. It is easy too see if you keep yourself out of social circles created by the careerists (its called "networking" in the business world) and almost impossible to see if you are inside. Careerists can be credited for "socializing" astronomy - Baconians are often loners. As an example of evidence embraced uncritically we might consider the "Baldwin effect" (discussed by Paola Marziani in Chap. 2) involving an apparent anti-correlation between a line strength measure (equivalent width of broad CIV1549) and source luminosity for quasars. The discovery paper [7] involved a very modest sample of quasars and a surprisingly strong correlation. The author expressed an appropriate skepticism about its reality. In subsequent years the Baldwin effect was lionized even as the strength of the correlation decreased with every subsequent quasar sample used to test it.


Questionable data manipulation was sometimes used to confirm it and soon it was being "found" everywhere. I would say that the Baldwin effect fervor became so strong that few insiders would have had the courage to question it - they would have found their popularity in sudden decline. We now know a little more about quasars (spectroscopically) and we know that they are not all the same although that impression persists. It now looks like the Baldwin effect is an intrinsic effect and that the extreme values observed in the correlation represent quasars at different evolutionary stages. It is not a tool that could enable us to use quasars as standard candles. Or to put it more simply - we find a Baldwin effect in a sample of quasars with a small spread of redshift and/or luminosity - implying that it is intrinsic and has nothing to do with cosmology [6, 10]. Richard Feynman said that "science is a culture of doubt". A little more doubt was needed over more than 20 years after that the Baldwin effect was enshrined to the point of inspiring a meeting titled "Quasars as Standard Candles" [81].


Thanks Jack.We are not sure at all that the distinction between careerists and Baconians is so sharp as it appears from your discussion. Indeed, careerists could have a Baconian part too, and vice versa. Often, the balancing between these two attitudes depends on many circumstances and opportunities and, as you may recognize, the most important thing is the quality of the contributions of scientists, that can eventually derive from both of them.

To your opinion, is there still space for a thoroughly unbiased, empirical study in astrophysics? Or, are some theoretical and effective, yet still basically unproven paradigms so deeply entrenched in our scientific discourse, that we are forced into biased analysis?


I remember the first time - while observing at Palomar as a postdoc - that I was instructed on this subject. As mentioned earlier, I was instructed why the answer to the question is "no". It certainly surprised me then but it does not anymore. Almost all careerists would say "no" and that there is no need for such studies anymore. I think the answer is "yes" and will always be "yes". I reject the notions: (1) that we live in a special time and (2) that we know all or most of the laws of nature. A "no" answer would support both of these notions. I suppose the "no" response would be delivered most emphatically in the US. When the answer to this question becomes "yes" then science will again triumph over ideology. My response is necessarily philosophical and I am not holding my breath.


It seems that we are indeed forced into biased analyzes. One sees it all the time. It would be very difficult for someone entrenched in the paradigm to see them. One must understand that. A biased analysis would be called a correct analysis by many careerists. Not all but many. The earlier story about the Baldwin effects provides a case study in what can happen. How could anyone believe that a very small sample of sources might be representative of the quasar phenomenon? It would be close to miraculous for that to happen. But it still goes on today. Why did no one say "look - we examined this effect with a larger sample and the correlation gets weaker"? How could workers selectively omit sources from their sample - which did not show the effect - in order to get the effect. One must blame some of this lack of skepticism, and eagerness to embrace paradigms, on poor graduate school training. Grad training in astronomy is not supposed to be like seminary training - it should be the opposite.


Can, in your opinion, a scientific revolution of the weightiness of the Copernican revolution take place today? In the terminology coined by Kuhn, can a paradigm shift propagate in scientific sub-communities and spread to the scientific community at large? 

The answer is "of course yes". But it will not be easy because the way science is conducted in the modern world has changed so much. The time of Copernicus and Galileo saw a small number of truth seekers making observations and trying to explain them. It also saw the emergence of the Copernican paradigm that has been amply verified. That was largely empiricism until Newton came into the world, at the death of Galileo, to develop the physical laws and mathematical tools needed to explain Copernican/Galilean empiricism.

One can argue that trends that shape future astronomical research along the lines followed in high energy physics are motivated by a wish to forestall future revolutions. If true it is likely a subconscious process. A recent polemic against the high energy approach in astronomical research [230] struck a deep chord with me. The high energy approach is something that only a careerist could love. I have seen many clever young people leave astronomical research in the past 30 years. The above polemic argues - I think correctly - that the growth/dominance of large team research - drives creative individuals away from science. This trend will grow with the advent of the giant telescopes. A single 100 m telescope is in no way better than ten or twenty 4-6 m telescopes. The latter would maximize use of brain power by allowing many individuals and groups to conduct experiments. How to decide who merits access to a 100 m telescope? Only a large team and only for confirmation of the standard model. I think other creative individuals have left the file (or entered astronomical bureaucracy) because frankly boring.


Modern science was strongly shaped in the US which dominated the twentieth century. This is a culture where (exceptionalism) fosters career and especially acquisition of money. It is also hyper-competitive. Money equals power and acquisition of more money is facilitated by power. Things were basically OK before second world war when science was largely done in a small number of elite schools. But Sputnik changed everything and thousands of people entered the field. More careerists than Baconians. They have created a large and powerful scientific edifice. Little room for free thinkers who are easily pushed aside. They cannot easily survive in this new environment. Some adapt and do good work in a trendy area that they adopt in order to survive. But free inquiry suffers and is now almost dead. If a new revolution comes it will likely arise in Europe (if they resist the impulse to mimic the US in areas other than pure excellence) or the rest of the world (India/ China? Latin America?).


Four hundred years after Galileo first used a telescope to observe the heaven we see large, giant and monster telescopes coming on-line or in the development stages. If the current state persists none of them will be used (wasted?) for exploratory research. They will be dedicated to supporting the paradigm which for many is now a religion. It is difficult to imagine any observation that could kill the Big Bang paradigm now. It is seductive - even I am drawn to it against my instincts! It is a complex edifice - a citadel of complexity - one must accept it or dig very deep to have any hope of understanding it well enough to challenge it.
I know from experience that, if you try to dig into any one brick of the edifice you will begin to encounter problems and inconsistencies. But it is a thankless enterprize - only a Baconian would be crazy enough to try. If the situation improves we can look forward to seeing many new and fundamental discoveries in the next 100 years. The before mentioned surveys that will continue to monopolize big telescopes on Earth and in space do have a bright side. They data is being archived, made public and linked through a "virtual observatory". It is already possible for people to enter this archive and (carefully) use this data. There are no doubt many nuggets of gold that have been overlooked by the careerists!


In the present term I think the most disappointing trends involve: (1) the one-sidedness of so many published papers and (2) declining seminar attendance worldwide. Careers are not advanced by admitting, much less discussing, evidence against ones thesis. This goes far beyond the lack of dialog over controversial issues raised above. Similarly ones career is only fostered by attending seminars very closely re¬lated to ones work. All of this suppresses creative dissent and makes a scientific revolution, large or small, very unlikely.


Thanks a lot Jack. In: Questions of Modern Cosmology: Galileo's Legacy Edited by Mauro D`Onofrio and Carlo Burigana. Berlin, Springer, 2008, pp. 401-409.

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