I spent a lot of my final years in academia being really angry about how ridiculously uncritical many of my fellow scientists are, and how little they actually care about the truth. Here is why:
The goal of my subfield is to understand and describe in detail how a number of phenomena work.
These phenomena have zero actual relevance to people outside of my subfield — it is extremely likely that no human will ever be affected by them directly.
We study these phenomena because we find them fascinating and beautiful and important in a big-picture “where does everything come from”-sense.
But we all know that the models and explanations we fabricate in our subfield will probably never have to stand the test of people outside our own field actually trying out if it works, which would of course be different if we studied semi-conductors.
So what that means is that we make the models and explanations in our subfield, and we test and assess them ourselves. From time to time something that happens in our subfield goes to the media, normally totally distorted and wrong, but in this way the wider population of people on the planet notices that we exist and also remember that the phenomena we study exist, which is nice, because the phenomena are indeed beautiful.
Now I think that there is a huge problem in my field that models and theories become canonized too quickly.
The transition from “We have no clue how phenomenon X can be explained, maybe it has to do with Y” to “It is generally accepted that Y causes X” happens at an astonishing speed.
The reasons that this happens are among others:
- People, even scientist, don’t like uncertainty.
- Funding agencies like it even less, unless one can argue a breakthrough is imminent (which is usually a lie)
- As the phenomena we study have zero real life applicability, it does not actually matter to anyone outside of our subfield if we have found the final explanation for a phenomenon, or if we have fooled ourselves. Humanity may perish with the experts in my subfield wrongly believing in our explanation, and no harm will have been done. People are aware of this and so they do not feel too bad about suppressing their doubts about a certain explanation.
- Once a certain explanation becomes fashionable among influential people, everybody works hard to find even more evidence it is correct, instead of evidence that it might be wrong.
I personally love mysteries and open questions, and the search for truth, even if it has zero real life applicability. This is why I went into research. So I was annoyed to find that people were claiming things in my field were more or less figured out. Consequently, and for purely selfish reasons, all I did in the last years was trying to poke holes in the existing explanations. Also, I am naturally critical of authority and I was not as ambitious about my career as others. So it was more a matter of my character than of a conscious decision that I started to question previous work.
To my surprise, this was ridiculously easy. Wherevere I looked, I found problems and inconsistencies in the existing explanations and most of my papers are about them. They are cited well, I have had an easy time to find good postdoctoral positions and I have received plenty of praise for them.
However, from the start, I have also upset people and several senior people have critiziced me for being destructive instead of creative, and warned me that I was making enemies in the field by pointing out mistakes in other people’s work.
And by now I do think that my way of doing things ended my career.
Once I applied for more advanced positions, I tried to convince outside experts that
1. My subfield is interesting
2. There are problems in the widely used theory in my subfield
3. I want to explore those problems in more detail
This did not go down well.
Talking about problems in a field is not what funding agencies want to hear, especially if they do not know much about the field in the first place. They want a different story: They want to hear that the field is in a super-great state and the next big insight is just around the corner. Critical people will not get funded.
Unfortunately, by now I have become so annoyed by the naive way in which many people in my field believe everything that a famous person says that I am really unable to give a talk claiming that the field is extremely dynamic and close to a major breakthrough.
It isn’t, because there is a huge overhead of too easy, too early explanations, which we first have to destroy to create progress. It isn’t, because many people in my field are totally uncritical.
What worries me sometimes is that similar things are obviously going on in fields that have actual relevance for humanity, like medicine and economics.
My dream job would be checking up on important papers in various fields, and finding problems with them. I think this would be super-easy, at least if I was allowed to spend a few weeks per paper. If you don’t believe me, see this example in economics or this example in positive psychology.
Who wants to fund me?