The Challenges of Doing Revolutionary Science (Part 2)

The Challenges of Doing Revolutionary Science (Part 2)

October 9, 2020

Originally published on Economics from the Top Down

Blair Fix

In this two-part post, I’ve been reflecting on the challenges of doing revolutionary science. (See Part 1 here.) I’ve argued that revolutionary science — the practice of questioning the core principles of an accepted theory — is difficult for a simple reason. To do it, you must fight the instinct to conform.

Conformity is the glue that holds human groups together. It’s what underpins the rule of law and the norms of trade. Even more fundamentally, conformity is what underpins our ability to communicate. To speak to one another, we must conform to common rules of vocabulary and syntax. It’s called speaking the same language.

While conformity has many benefits, it can sometimes be a problem — especially when doing science. Conformity is driven by cultural evolution, which cares only for what wins (where ‘winning’ means one culture beating another). Science, on the other hand, is concerned with the truth. So we have a disconnect. Successful forms of conformity can be based on ideas that are false.

How do we uproot false ideas? That’s where the revolutionary scientist comes in. The revolutionary scientist challenges entrenched conformity, often at a steep personal cost.

In this post, I recount the difficult lives of a few revolutionary scientists. And I discuss some career tips for doing revolutionary science in a hostile world. But first, I’ll explore a metaphor for what it means to do science.

Science and culture

If you’re like me, you tend to think of science and culture as separate beasts. ‘Science’ is the dispassionate search for facts. ‘Culture’ is the passionate transmission of rituals and traditions. The two don’t really mix.

As a scientist, I find this dichotomy appealing. It means that I can separate my scientific research from the messy world of ‘culture’. And artists, no doubt, take similar comfort. This dichotomy means they can separate their cultural work from the rigid world of ‘science’.

While the dichotomy between science and culture is comforting (at least to me), I’ve convinced myself that it’s untenable. I blame evolutionary theory for this change of heart. The problem is that in evolutionary terms, ‘culture’ isn’t some subset of practices that are ritualistic and traditional. Instead, culture is every idea and learned practice that is transmitted across generations. So evolutionary theory tells us that science is … part of culture.

This merger of science and culture may seem, at first glance, like a victory for post modernists. Science, they’ve long said, is just one type of culture. And, they continue, all cultural “ways of knowing” are equally valid. So science has no privileged access to the truth.

Just thinking about this post-modernist mantra makes my skin crawl. Fortunately it’s still bullshit. Yes, science is part of culture. But it’s the only part of culture that gives access to the truth. If you want to know how the world works, you must test your ideas against evidence. That’s the cultural ideal of science, and it’s the only way to discover the truth.

So on the one hand, placing science within culture changes little about how we think of science. It’s the search for truth. But on the other hand, insisting that science is part of culture changes how we view scientists themselves. Scientists aren’t dispassionate outsiders. Instead, scientists are actually shaping culture.

Think of scientists as arborists.

Our would-be scientist is perched at the top of a tree, pruning shears in hand. The tree is human culture — past, present and future. The trunk of the tree is humanity’s deep cultural inheritance — the practices like language that are shared by all humans. The smaller branches are more recent cultural inventions — things like agriculture and urban life. At the top of the tree are the buds — the ideas and practices that, if left to grow, will form the branches of future culture.

The scientist’s job is to prune cultural buds. As each bud begins to grow, the scientist looks at it with scrutiny. “Is this idea or practice consistent with evidence?” the scientist asks. If it’s not, the scientist nips the bud before it grows. By doing so, the scientist ensures that the tree of culture grows in a way that respects the truth.

That’s the hope, anyway. The reality is that science doesn’t always work. Sometimes the arborists nip the wrong bud. When they do, a branch of culture starts to grow that’s based on ideas that are false. As the branch thickens, we run into a problem. Most scientists continue their job of pruning new ideas. They sit on the false branch of culture, nipping new buds. What these bud nippers don’t do is look at the branch on which they sit. They’re blissfully unaware that the branch is rotten.

To fix this problem, we need a different kind of scientist. We don’t need cultural bud nippers. We need a cultural lumberjack. The lumberjack doesn’t care about new buds. Instead, they care about the rotten branch on which they sit. To remove the rot, the lumberjack grabs a chainsaw. With one fell swoop, they lop off the branch of culture.

In this metaphor, our bud nippers are ‘normal’ scientists. They take accepted theories and refine them. Our lumberjacks are ‘revolutionary’ scientists. They take accepted theories and throw them in the dustbin of history.

Taking the metaphor further, we can see why doing revolutionary science is difficult. Cultural lumberjacks chop down cherished ideas. They chop down other people’s life work. They chop down a whole branch of culture. Unsurprisingly, others react with vitriol. To be a revolutionary scientist — a cultural lumberjack — is to pit yourself against a whole society. And the odds are you will be punished accordingly.

Punishing revolutionary scientists

With our lumberjack metaphor in mind, let’s look at some sordid history. Let’s look at the punishment doled out to revolutionary scientists of the past.

Galileo Galilei

When it comes to the persecution of revolutionary scientists, Galileo Galilei springs to mind. Today we celebrate Galileo as a father of modern astronomy. But during his lifetime, things were rather different. Galileo was a vocal critic of the (false) geocentric model of the solar system, and a supporter of the (correct) heliocentric model. Although the evidence was on his side, Galileo’s views conflicted with church dogma. As a reward for his revolutionary science, Galileo was convicted of heresy and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

Ignaz Semmelweis

More tragic (but less well known) is the story of Ignaz Semmelweis, a father of modern infectious disease theory. Working in Vienna’s general hospital in the 1840s, Semmelweis discovered something startling. When doctors delivered babies, the death rate was 3 times higher than when midwives did the same job. After scrupulously looking at all the possible causes, Semmelweis found the culprit: dead people. As well as delivering babies, the doctors also did autopsies. The midwives did not.

Semmelweis correctly concluded that there was something on the cadavers that transmitted infection. Unfortunately, this discovery wasn’t heralded as a revolution in science. Instead, it was ridiculed. Why? Because it conflicted with medical orthodoxy. At the time, most doctors believed that illness was caused by an imbalance in the ‘four humours’. And so their response was to balk at Semmelweis’s ideas. Faced with steady ridicule, Semmelweis suffered a mental breakdown and was treacherously committed to an insane asylum. There he was beaten, and (ironically) died of septic shock.

John Yudkin

You’ve probably never heard of John Yudkin, but future students of nutrition will likely learn his name. He was one of the first researchers to identify the dangers of eating sugar.

If you’re over 40, you probably remember the low fat craze of the 1980s. It was based on the work of Ancel Keys, who claimed that saturated fat led to heart disease. The problem was that there was never much evidence to support this claim. Indeed, decades of low fat dieting haven’t put a dent in heart disease.

Enter John Yudkin. In 1972, Yudkin published a book called Pure, White and Deadly in which he argued against demonizing saturated fat. The dietary bad guy, Yudkin claimed, was sugar.

To support his claim, Yudkin martialed many lines of evidence. Heart-attack victims, for instance, tended to consume more sugar than the general public. And people with tooth decay are also more likely to develop heart disease.

While this evidence is important, Yudkin’s most compelling argument against sugar wasn’t epidemiological. It was evolutionary. Organisms, Yudkin observed, are adapted to eat the foods in their diet. But (and this is key) adaptation takes time — evolutionary time. So when an organism first discovers a new food, it may well be harmful. But given enough time, adaptation will render the food nutritious.

After being stated, this idea is so simple that it appears obvious. And yet it profoundly changes how we think about food. It means that the nutritional status of a food has nothing to do with the food itself. Instead, it has only to do with the time the food has been in our diet. The longer we’ve been eating something, the more likely it is to be nutritious. Conversely, the newer a food is to our diet, the more likely it is to be harmful.

This evolutionary argument exposes a flaw in the saturated-fat-is-bad hypothesis. Saturated fat is found mostly in meat. The problem is that hominids (human ancestors) have been eating meat for literally millions of years. That’s plenty of time for adaptation. So while eating meat may have caused health problems for our ancient ancestors, it’s unlikely to do so for us. We’re adapted to eat it.

But if meat isn’t bad, then what is? To see, Yudkin looked at our dietary clock. Meat, he observed, has been in the diet for millions of years. Starch-rich carbohydrates have been in our diet for about 10,000 years. And refined sugar? It’s been in our diet for 200 years. That’s an evolutionary blink — no time at all for adaptation.

Based on this reasoning, Yudkin argued that sugar is a dietary bad. (Today his case continues to grow.) But despite his impeccable reasoning, Yudkin was almost completely ignored by the nutritional community. By the time Yudkin published his book, saturated fat had been enshrined as the dietary bad. And so Yudkin was labeled a ‘crank’ and ignored.

Thorstein Veblen

To conclude our foray into the sordid history of revolutionary science, we’ll look at the life of the political economist Thorstein Veblen. For my money, Veblen was the most important American social scientist of the 20th century. He founded the institutional school of economics, which focused (as the name suggests) on institutions rather than individuals. Veblen also made seminal contributions to how we understand corporate capitalism.

True, Veblen’s theories aren’t definitively correct — nothing in the social sciences is. Still, Veblen stands out as a revolutionary thinker — someone who was willing to sacrifice his career in search of the truth. And he paid dearly for it.

After getting his degree, it took Veblen 7 years to find a university position. And once he found a position, he soon made enemies. (His habit of sleeping with colleague’s wives didn’t help.) Summarizing Veblen’s life, Martha Banta wrote that it was a “compelling narrative of how not to succeed in the conventional ways of the world”. As a fitting end, Veblen died as an outcast in a California shack.

Doing revolutionary science in a hostile world

As these sordid histories show, doing revolutionary science often means enduring great punishment. Still, some people are stubborn enough to do this job. If you’re one of these people, here are some strategies for doing revolutionary science in a hostile world.

Strategy 1: Find a safe space

To the outside observer, revolutionary scientists may appear to be lone wolves working in total isolation. But this is rarely true. Usually, revolutionary scientists are part of a small community of like-minded rebels. This community is a safe space for doing revolutionary science — a place to share ideas and get constructive criticism.

As an example of this type of safe space, I’ll use my own training as an economist. As a committed critic of neoclassical theory, I would have found it crushing to study in an economics department. Fortunately, I studied in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University. There I found a safe space to pursue my own ideas, no matter how crazy they were. The thesis that I ended up writing was about as far from economic orthodoxy as you can get. I couldn’t imagine trying to write it in an economics department.

So if you’re a budding revolutionary scientist, I recommend searching for a safe space to do your work. It will benefit your research. And more importantly, it will keep you sane.

Strategy 2: Be a Trojan horse

If you can’t find a safe space, here’s another way to do revolutionary science: lie like your pants are on fire. This is the Trojan horse maneuver. It works as follows.

Although you’re a revolutionary scientist at heart, you pretend to be a member of the rank and file. You slavishly profess the accepted theory of your field. Your goal is to convince the academic orthodoxy that you are one of them. If you’re successful, you’ll get a university position and eventually get tenure.

Then you reveal the ruse. With tenure in hand, you suddenly profess revolutionary ideas. Your colleagues are horrified. But there’s nothing they can do. You’re a Trojan horse that’s already inside the city gates.

This Trojan-horse ploy makes a great story. But it’s a rare person who has the guile to pull if off. I know of only one economist who’s managed the feat — Stephen Marglin. He earned tenure at Harvard by promulgating neoclassical bullshit. But once tenured, Marglin dropped a bomb. He publishing an essay called “What Do Bosses Do?”, which argued that hierarchy is unnecessary for production. Instead, the purpose of hierarchy is to give capitalists control over workers.

Marglin’s colleagues at Harvard were, of course, horrified by his change of course. But there was nothing they could do. As a Trojan horse, Marglin was already inside the Harvard gates.

So if you’re a revolutionary scientist who is willing to engage in Machiavellian deception, take heed of Marglin. He showed that it’s possible to do revolutionary science by running a long con.

Strategy 3: Work outside academia

If you can’t find a safe space and you don’t want to be a Trojan horse, another option for doing revolutionary science is to work outside academia. You get a day job and do revolutionary science on the side.

A quick look at history shows that this route is quite common. Einstein developed special relativity while working as a Swiss patent clerk. Karl Marx published Capital while working as a journalist. Baruch Spinoza published his philosophy while working as a lens grinder. And David Hume worked as a tutor and librarian. Many revolutionary scientists, it seems, have had non-academic day jobs.

While we often romanticize these stories of geniuses in the rough, the truth is that this double life can be grueling. Einstein, for instance, worked at the patent office 6 days a week, 8 hours a day. That left little time to do physics. And as a struggling journalist, Marx lived a life of poverty. To make ends meet, he repeatedly had to pawn his overcoat. The problem was that this overcoat was his ticket to get into the Reading Room of the British Museum. So to do his research, Marx had to buy the overcoat back. (I thank my friend James McMahon for telling me about this story.)

So yes, it’s possible to do revolutionary science from outside academia. But it’s unglamorous work.

Strategy 4: Crowdfund your research

A final option for doing revolutionary science — one that has become available only recently — is to crowdfund your research. Rather than appeal to universities to fund your work, you appeal to the general public.

The caveat here is that the general public must be interested in your work. For many revolutionary scientists, this won’t be the case. I doubt, for instance, that crowdfunding would have helped Einstein create General Relativity. Few people knew that Newton’s theory of gravity was inadequate. And even fewer people would have been interested in Einstein’s approach. So if you’re working in an obscure branch of knowledge, crowdfunding your research probably won’t work.

Things are different in the social sciences, especially economics. Many people understand that mainstream economics is bullshit. (Public trust in economists is abysmal.) So if you want to do revolutionary economics, it seems that the general public is on your side.

If you’re interested in this approach, look to Steve Keen as an example. He’s the first economist (to my knowledge) to successfully crowdfund his work. Keen’s success is one of the main reasons I’ve started to crowdfund my own research. Time will tell how successful I am.

As with any approach to doing revolutionary science, crowdfunding has its pitfalls. It means you have to devote a significant amount of time promoting your research. And you need to communicate your findings to a general audience. Lastly, the crowdfunding universe is incredibly unequal. Almost all the money goes to the top 1% of creators. So don’t expect to automatically earn a handsome sum through crowdfunding. A few lucky folks do. Most people don’t.

Why do revolutionary scientists exist?

I’ve focused here on the challenges of doing revolutionary science. To do it, you must fight the human instinct to conform. Given this instinct, it’s surprising that we have revolutionary scientists at all. If there’s little social payoff for non-conformity, why would you ever do it?

Obviously human nature has many dimensions, and conformity is just one of them. People also have a burning desire to understand cause and effect. Why else would we tell elaborate stories about the weather, the seasons, and the cosmos. We want to know what causes these things.

Which instinct wins out? I’d say that in most people, conformity wins out most of the time. That’s why ‘alternative facts’ are so easily spread. But in a small number of people, the desire to understand cause and effect trumps conformism. These are the revolutionary scientists. Who knows why they exist. But we should be thankful that they do.

[Cover image source: Luis Quintero]