Italy, a new Renaissance, and the need for slower science
Posted by Henry Bauer on 2011/07/12
In “Medical students in Italy need not fear ‘HIV’ when dissecting cadavers” I had occasion to write,
“Many centuries ago, the European Renaissance was born in Florence, Italy. The modern renaissance of evidence-based, non-dogmatic medical science may now be incubating there as well, with deconstruction of the misleading HIV/AIDS hypothesis which represents a true danger to global public health.”
Just now I received the latest newsletter of the group, New Concepts in Global Tectonics, and saw that Rethinking of plate-tectonics theory is also being given a hearing at a conference in Italy. Note that the organizers have invited representatives of the mainstream to engage those who are seeking to revive the concept of an expanding Earth as an alternative to movement of tectonic plates (only approximating to movement of continents). Expanding-Earth theory was quite mainstream half-a-century or so ago before being eclipsed by plate tectonics, which seemed to be supported by the discovery of mid-ocean ridges that push apart the sea floor on both sides of the ridges. But, of course, that would also happen if the Earth were expanding and opening cracks in the sea floor. Both theories rely for mechanism on the accepted fact that heat is being generated inside the Earth, partly or wholly because of the decay of radioactive substances. Most substances expand when they are heated. . . .
While I’m singing the praises of contemporary Italy’s open-minded evidence-based approach to science, I might mention too the decade-old Democracy and Science conferences, publications, and website .
Italy has also hosted several meetings on “cold fusion”, now increasingly being called LENR (low-energy nuclear reactions) or CMNS (condensed-matter nuclear science). Italian scientists are among those who have been actively studying this enigmatic phenomena and periodically appearing to have some worthwhile successes, e.g. “Italian cold fusion saga continues with new papers released”. It is not widely realized how strong is the evidence that LENR is real, albeit not yet defined or fully reproducible. A couple of years ago, the investigative TV program “60 Minutes” featured an independent measurement expert, formerly skeptical about the phenomenon, who judged it to be real after reviewing experiments done in Israel. I’ve been particularly interested in these claims since I was an electrochemist in my former career and had spent a sabbatical year at the University of Southampton, which had one of the leading electrochemistry labs in the world where one of the professors was Martin Fleischmann who had been the first, in 1989, to announce the discovery of “cold fusion”.
The New Concepts in Global Tectonics group is based in Australia. Perhaps serious evidence-based non-dogmatic science will find footholds primarily outside the high-stakes circumstances of the United States. The intense pressure to get research funding, to commercialize, to attain visibility, to do things fast has brought conflicts of interest and dysfunction to the extent that contemporary science has become a matter of dogma and research cartels. Just a few days ago there were exchanges on the Internet about the need to slow things down, to give science time to attain reliability instead of rushing headlong in thoughtless pursuit of every new fad. Several years ago the Robert Bosch Foundation issued a manifesto to that effect; here is an English translation of that manifesto.
An encouraging aspect of the Bosch Foundation paper is that its signatories cover such a range of intellectual spheres. Within the small academic sect of science studies, these matters have of course been noted for many years. An early essay was by the founder of citation analysis, Eugene Garfield: “Fast science vs. slow science, or slow and steady wins the race”, The Scientist, 17 September 1990, p. 14 (reprinted in Essays of an Information Scientist: Science Reviews, Journalism Inventiveness and Other Essays, 14  380.
John Ziman had pointed out long ago that any research organization requires ‘‘generous measures’’ of
► room for personal initiative and creativity;
► time for ideas to grow to maturity;
► openness to debate and criticism;
► hospitality toward novelty;
► respect for specialized expertise (Prometheus Bound, 1994, p. 276).
The problems stemming from commercialization and other pressures were discussed in my essay “Science in the 21st Century: Knowledge Monopolies and Research Cartels” (Journal of Scientific Exploration 18 (#4, 2004) 643-60) which also includes my formulation of the progress of science as a knowledge filter that requires time to winnow reliable stuff from the unreliable (see Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method, 1992/1994)
A book-length discussion of all this is in process of publication as Dogmatism in Science and Medicine.