Nobel Prizes Illustrate How Research is Done and Evaluated
Posted by Henry Bauer on 2008/10/21
In the previous post [“Nobel Prizes Illustrate that Doctors are Not Scientists”, 19 October 2008], I emphasized contrasts between the Nobel Prize in Medicine and those in Chemistry or Physics. But the Prizes in Medicine and those in Chemistry and Physics also have much in common:
— Laureates almost never receive a second such award.
— Some of the awards came only after the lauded breakthrough had been desperately resisted or ignored by the mainstream.
— Some proportion of honored recipients of the Prize were later disparaged for some of their other ideas.
Those empirical facts illustrate important but little understood facets of scientific activity.
That Nobel laureates typically don’t later do further Nobel-worthy work demonstrates the importance of serendipity in scientific discovery. If there existed a “scientific method”, then those who had best mastered the method would always do the best work and would be awarded a succession of prizes; but there is no such method — or at least science is almost never done that way (see Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method). Science is a communal activity. One of its greatest strengths is the communal activity of peer review — and when peer review fails (typically as a result of bias or incompetence), science becomes unreliable. Furthermore, the Zeitgeist — the contemporary communal context of knowledge and ideas — that any given generation of scientists experiences is an important determinant of when a particular advance will be made; hence the many instances of “simultaneous independent discovery” that can produce controversies about priority, about “Who did it first?”. That’s why awards singling out individuals make for a distorted view of science and of the characteristics of the individuals who are midwives to the great discoveries.
One of the least widely appreciated facts about science is that counter-mainstream evidence or theories are almost always fiercely resisted, even when those claims later become not only accepted but so highly valued as to bring Nobel awards (see Bernard Barber, “Resistance by scientists to scientific discovery”, Science, 134  596-602). There’s no difference in that respect between fields. A few examples in Physiology and Medicine include:
— Marshall and Warren (2005, bacteria as causes of ulcers).
— Paul Lauterbur (2003, magnetic resonance imaging) had his first paper about that rejected by Nature. He later remarked that “You could write the entire history of science in the last 50 years in terms of papers rejected by Science or Nature” (cited at p. 161 in The Origin, Persistence and Failings of HIV/AIDS Theory).
— Stanley Prusiner (1997, prions as infectious agents); for many years he was sneered at for believing that proteins could behave like that.
— Barbara McClintock (1983, “jumping genes”).
— Peter Mitchell (1978); the prize was awarded in Chemistry, but really for physiological work, “for his contribution to the understanding of biological energy transfer through the formulation of the chemi-osmotic theory”, a view that had been pooh-poohed for years before he was vindicated.
— Einstein’s Prize Citation (1921) http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/1921/press.html emphasized his work on the photoelectric effect and Brownian motion with only a very cautious mention of relativity as being controversial — still, a considerable advance over the earlier widespread and intense opposition to relativity theory.
— Planck’s quantum theory (1918 Prize) had been so thoroughly ignored or disbelieved for so long that Planck later enunciated what has become known within Science Studies as “Planck’s Principle”: new ideas don’t win by convincing the opposition, they win only as the opponents die off.
In Chemistry and Physics, the resistance to challenges to mainstream views has sometimes taken the form of asserting that something is totally impossible, so that very few people even try it, for example, superconductivity not only at temperatures appreciably higher than “absolute zero” but in ceramic materials rather than metallic substances (Physics Prize, 1987, Georg Bednorz and Alexander Müller); or the maser and laser (Physics Prize, 1964, Charles Townes) — in his autobiography, Townes relates how eminent elder statesmen in physics urged him to drop work along these lines because such devices were impossible and his efforts would bring the Department into ill repute.
Perhaps equally little known is the fact that Nobel laureates not infrequently are or later become proponents of claims that the mainstream promptly dismisses — sometimes justifiably, sometimes not (see especially Chapter 9 in Fatal Attractions: The Troubles with Science). Frequently these offbeat claims are in quite other fields than the Laureate’s award:
— C. G. Barkla, Prize in 1917 for work on X-rays, later “discovered” the non-existent “J-phenomenon” concerning X-rays.
— William Shockley, Physics Prize 1956 for work on transistors, became infamous for his notions about race, genetics, and eugenics, a throwback to
— Philipp Lenard , Physics Prize 1905, who enthusiastically supported Nazism by publishing Deutsche Physik, a textbook of revisionist physics that excluded all work by Jewish scientists (including Einstein).
— Luis Alvarez (Physics, 1968) became an intemperate proponent of the asteroid-impact theory of dinosaur extinction, which most evolutionary biologists find overly simplistic or even quite wrong.
— Hannes Alfvén received a Physics Prize in 1970 “for fundamental work and discoveries in magnetohydrodynamics with fruitful applications in different parts of plasma physics”, yet his application of those very ideas to cosmology has remained ignored, effectively dismissed by the mainstream.
— Brian Josephson, Physics 1973, believes that psychic phenomena are worthy of study, something dismissed out-of-hand as rank pseudo-science by science groupies.
— Kary Mullis (Chemistry 1993) is widely disparaged because he recognizes that the Emperor of HIV/AIDS theory has no clothes.
— Linus Pauling (Chemistry 1954) was derided for his insistence on the benefits of “orthomolecular” medicine, in particular the desirability of vitamin supplements (especially vitamin C) considerably higher than the official “recommended daily amounts”; he has not even yet been properly credited for stimulating the general understanding of the benefits of anti-oxidants, of which vitamin C is one.
That Nobel laureates rarely win a second such award, and that on all sorts of topics they may harbor opinions that most people find obnoxious or silly, underscores the role of serendipity in scientific discovery. It’s a matter of being in the right place at the right time with the right preparation (Paula E. Stephan & Sharon G. Levin, Striking the Mother Lode in Science: the importance of age, place, and time, Oxford University Press, 1992); “with very few exceptions, it is not the men that make science; it is science that makes the men” (Erwin Chargaff, “A quick climb up Mount Olympus”, Science 159 [29 March 1968] 1448-9). As the saying goes, Nobel laureates are often people who have learned more and more about less and less, at times rivaling idiots savant in their extraordinary abilities narrowly restricted to one subject. (Some laureates, of course, are sensible even outside their specialty, and some remain apparently unspoiled by their celebrity status.)
Less obvious aspects of Nobel awards lend insight into differences among the sciences, for example, some of the differing mindsets of chemists and physicists is illuminated by the fact that “Nobel Prizes in physics have been awarded about twice as often for experimental novelties as for theoretical ones, but in chemistry, experimentalists have been so honored five or six times as often as have theorists” (Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method p. 26).
It has highly unfortunate consequences that the public image of science is so largely colored by misguided beliefs about a “scientific method” that supposedly delivers reliable results no matter who the researchers happen to be, and the related belief that a few people so master “the method” as to be all-purpose wise men, and the implicit view that researchers are less subject to human fallibilities and failings than are businessmen and politicians. The most remarkable thing about science is that it has managed so often to become reliable despite being carried on by fallible individuals; for an analogy with the military, see pp. 303-6 in my book, Beyond Velikovsky.