Reality Trip

Science progress hampered by conformity

by Win Wenger, Ph.D.
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In nearly every age known to history, there has been some organized body of largely systematized knowledge, accompanied by a professional discipline of inquiry and evaluation. People of the time would often call that “science.”

This systematized knowledge and methodology would arrive at a structured set of apparent understandings about the nature of things, and its adherents would celebrate how much better and truer their understandings were compared to that of others, just as we today celebrate — to cite the late Carl Sagan in Cosmos — how fortunate we are finally to live in an age where science has been finding the real answers!

One high point in all of this was attained by the physicists of the 1890s, standing at the epitome of science, who declared that most of the real answers were by now (the 1890s) discovered and all that remained was merely the refinement of another decimal point or so! (Wow — that was some decimal point!)

Friend, what makes you think we today are somehow immune to this error, somehow different in this from every other age before us?

In fact, the safest prediction to make is that what’s coming, what’s about to be discovered about the nature of our world and of ourselves, will be at least as surprising to us as would be the understandings of our present science to someone from medieval times!

Moiré pattern created by Jacob Yerex
“Ascent” — Moiré pattern by Jacob Yerex

That’s not to say that today’s understandings aren’t a lot truer, a lot better tested, than their predecessors’. But we’ve a long way to go. It’s a big universe. We’ve barely begun to scratch the surface in understanding it. Over a journey of many miles, we are but maybe two steps away from when we were exchanging mythic tales around primordial campfires and confident with the answers we were receiving there about the nature of things.

“Scientific Method”

About the method of inquiry we’re just as complacent and dogmatic. Nothing is worth considering that hasn’t come to us through exhaustive Scientific Method — which in itself wouldn’t be so bad because nearly everything can in fact be usefully put to scientific test if we use a little ingenuity. But this is cut way short by one of the oldest of all fallacies in our reasoning and logic: ad hominem.

In both science and academic scholarship, evidence counts only a little. Mattering much more — and governing the inquiry from its very onset — is not the merit of any given hypothesis but who ventured it. If the hypothesis or notion does not come from someone who has already met with scientific professional approval and standing, the idea cannot possibly have any merit. The notion is so patently absurd, no good scientist (or scholar) can touch it without being forever contaminated, thereafter forever unable to contribute — on anything else! His heresy has become a disease, and anyone who listens to anything — anyone who listens to anything he might say, from that point on — automatically becomes a Typhoid Mary.

Before I go further, let me hasten to note that, for all its flaws, science and scientific inquiry are one of the very best tools we have on this planet. The (partially) self-correcting loop, which is intrinsic to systematic scientific method at its best, is a huge step forward over previous practices.

For all that, though, any given science today is, first and foremost, a social, group-behavioral phenomenon with in-group/out-group characteristics and all the other non-rational features so beloved by ethnologists and ethologists. And only in a very distant second place is it the science it is supposed to be.

I venture these observations and criticisms not because “science” is so wrong but because it is otherwise so right. Even a little improvement in science becomes a great improvement in the lives of us all, sooner or later. And there is dismayingly considerable room for improvement in our science.

With regard to “scientific method,” let me make one quick observation which should be immediately self-evident, but which apparently has not been…..

If you have a good method for solving problems, one of the best problems to work it on is:  the problem of how to create better methods of solving problems.

And one of the best problems to work those better methods on is on the problem of how to create even better such methods!

“Scientific Method” is one of several available tools for useful systematic investigation. I merely propose: use scientific method, bring the full guns of scientific method to bear on the problem of how to create further and better such investigative methods and combinations of methods!

All the above, however, pales by comparison with one utterly devastating issue.


We’ve become totally susceptible to this devastating issue because, ever since World War II, we’ve so heavily capitalized science. We can no longer even think about doing a piece of science without extremely expensive equipment. To do any science at all requires a reliable and extensive flow of capital. Without funding, you cannot function as a scientist.

And the issue that this vulnerability has set us up for? With that vulnerability, the single greatest factor corrupting science is this one:

You dare not come up with research results very different from those which your funding sources expect! That is, if you hope ever to get any more funding!

This is a matter way beyond the problem of “departmental politics,” way beyond fear of “golden fleece awards.” It is so pervasive in every field of science that virtually no one has bothered to notice or remark it, and few are even conscious of it until it is pointed out.

This incredibly corrupting factor also interacts with the other shortcomings of present-day science — especially the many regards wherein the ad hominem fallacy is engendered — to make things even worse.

I cite this conforming impulse, the most corrupting factor hampering effective science today at both conscious and unconscious levels, as “a problem,” one to be solved. It would be hugely liberating and beneficial to solve this problem. Hence:

Both inside and beyond “science” and “scientific method,” I invite address of this problem. I invite, from you, solutions to this problem. I invite your insights and inputs and suggestions. Thank you.

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