Thursday, July 10, 2008

Interesting papers from the Editor in Chief of Medical Hypothesis

I enjoyed very much the following two papers by Bruce G. Charlton, Editor in Chief of Medical Hypothesis.

False, trivial, obvious: Why new and revolutionary theories are typically disrespected

Bruce G. Charlton,

Medical Hypotheses 2008; 71: 1-3

An old joke about the response to revolutionary new scientific theories states that there are three phases on the road to acceptance: 1. The theory is not true; 2. The theory is true, but it is unimportant; 3. The theory is true, and it is important – but we knew it all along. The point of this joke is that (according to scientific theorists) new theories are never properly appreciated. The ‘false’ phase happens because a defining feature of a revolutionary theory is that it contradicts the assumptions of already-existing mainstream theory. The second ‘trivial’ phase follows from a preliminary analysis which suggests that the new idea is not in fact contradicted by the major existing evidence, but the new theory seems unimportant because its implications do not seem to lead anywhere interesting when explored in the light of current theory. A stronger version of this second phase happens when the implications of a theory are regarded as not merely unimportant but actually dangerous, because a scientific revolution is certainly destructive (especially of established reputations) yet its potential benefits are conjectural. However, once a new and revolutionary theory is in place, its importance is ‘obvious’ such that it becomes hard to imagine how anybody could ever have believed anything else. Theory for scientists is like water for fish: the invisible medium in which they swim. Observations and experiments, on the other hand, are like toys in the fish tank. New toys are attention-grabbing; but when the tank gets cloudy, its water needs changing.

full text here

Mavericks versus team players: The trade-off between shared glory and making a personal contribution
Bruce G. Charlton
Medical Hypotheses 2008; 71: 165-167


The modern world is characterized by progressive specialization of function and ever-larger-scale coordination of these ever-more-specialized functions. More and more of science is done by increasing-sized teams of specialists, and the ability to engage in ‘teamwork’ is regarded as an almost essential attribute for most scientists. But teamwork does not suit all personality types. Some ‘maverick’ individuals would rather have personal credit for a relatively modest scientific contribution which they achieved (mostly) by themselves, than a share of credit in a much larger scientific contribution generated by a large team. The present system of medical science is organized to discourage mavericks and, on the whole, this is probably justifiable on the basis that scientists are not natural team players. Extra inducements are necessary to get people to adopt the relatively self-effacing behaviours necessary for building the large organizations of complementary specialists that are necessary for tackling many of the most intractable modern scientific problems. However, an ethos of teamwork does carry substantial disadvantages. Although most scientists are dispensable, and do not make a significant personal contribution, the very best scientists do make a difference to the rate of progress of science. And top notch scientists are wasted as team players. The very best scientists can function only as mavericks because they are doing science for vocational reasons. The highest intensity of personal commitment requires individual rewards from distinctive contributions. In conclusion, the current incentive system that encourages teamwork involves a trade-off. The majority of modestly talented scientists can probably achieve more when working as members of a team. But the very best scientists probably need to work as mavericks.

full text here