Humans
6:51 am
Sun March 16, 2014

Not-So-Objective Scientists Cling To Accepted Wisdom

Originally published on Mon April 28, 2014 9:42 am

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Scientists are usually portrayed as highly rational seekers of the truth - and they are that. But they also have qualities that make them more similar to you and me than you might think. NPR's Joe Palca has a story that reveals that quite dramatically. Joe's been immersed in an NPR series called Joe's Big Idea, where he explores the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. And from time to time, he drops by to share some of the interesting things he's learned. Hi, Joe.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: So, what's the story?

PALCA: Well, this is a story that an astrophysicist named Don Winget told me when I interviewed him in his office at the University of Texas at Austin. And the story takes place in the 1980s and it involves Winget and another astrophysicist named Icko Iben. Now, at the time, Iben was, you know, a senior person in the field and Don was the young upstart just getting started. But Winget came up with this really interesting way of measuring the age of the universe using something called white dwarf stars. And he got some really startling results. The universe was much younger than people though. So, he wrote up a paper about his work and submitted it to a science journal, but then he doesn't hear anything for a while.

MARTIN: OK.

PALCA: And then one day...

DON WINGET: My phone rings. I recognize the voice. It's Icko on the other end. Don? Yeah, hi, Icko. Come to my office. OK.

MARTIN: OK. Sounds daunting.

PALCA: Yeah, I love that. OK. Anyway, so, he says come to my office. But the thing is Don's in Austin, Texas and Icko's at the University of Illinois in Champaign. So, he jumps on a plane and flies to Illinois and goes to Icko's office...

WINGET: Knock on the door and he says come in, Don. Holy crap. Scared me, you know. And so I go in, and he says, shut the door. And I shut the door. And he starts yelling at me and yelling at me, and this yelling goes on for honest and true probably almost 30 minutes. He's yelling at me. I mean, realistically probably 10, but you know.

MARTIN: Yelling? Did he have any idea why this is happening?

PALCA: Well, yeah. And so you'll hear the answer. But you have to understand that Don and Icko are friends and so he's a little taken aback by this. But Don told me why Icko was yelling at him.

WINGET: He said you understand, Don, that I'm refereeing your paper.

MARTIN: Refereeing - wait. I don't understand what that means.

PALCA: OK. So, when a scientist sends a paper into a scientific journal, they ask people to be peer reviewers or referees and the referees decide whether they science was done properly. And then if it was, then the paper gets published.

MARTIN: So, this is his friend and he's serving as the referee.

PALCA: Exactly.

WINGET: He said you understand, Don, that I'm refereeing your paper on the age of the white dwarfs and the age of the universe. And he said and I'm really mad because it's right.

PALCA: It's right. Yeah. So, what does that mean? Why would he be mad if the data is right? Well, here is how Don characterized what Icko had to say.

WINGET: Well, I reproduced your calculations and I completely agree - they're right. And so I'm going to recommend that you publish this. But I want you to realize that everybody that's worked in this field are going to hate your guts because you've just turned over their entire life's work.

MARTIN: Wow.

PALCA: So, what Icko's doing is he's preparing Don for what's about to happen. Because Don has come out with this paper that says the universe is about 10 or 11 billion years old, and everybody else in the field at the time is saying the universe is saying 20 or 30 billion years old. And now these people, the ones who were saying it was much older, have to go back to the drawing board and everything they've done has to be rethought.

MARTIN: But isn't that how science works, Joe?

PALCA: Well, yeah, it is. But that doesn't mean that scientists won't start kicking and screaming about this. And that's what Don was pointing out to me.

WINGET: I didn't think that would happen. I thought, well, scientists, we're all objective, but we're not. We're people. In the end we're objective but it doesn't mean we don't scream and yell. And we have enormous biases in everything we do. And we try to overcome those. But a lot of times it takes time and perseverance and the collective efforts of the community.

PALCA: Now, it did come out he was right and the field changed. Although he wasn't exactly right.

MARTIN: But it's also a little bit scary as the layperson listening to this because you'd like to think that scientists are those rational beings who are not stuck in the muck of emotion like the rest of us. Because they are the ones who are supposed to be disseminating things that are black and white, right and wrong.

PALCA: Well, not black and white. But they are usually able to move the ball forward with some new findings. But if that new information is skewering somebody else's old information, it can lead to some really passionate moments.

MARTIN: They are just as emotional as the rest of us.

PALCA: Basically, yes.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: NPR's science correspondent Joe Palca. Thanks so much, Joe.

PALCA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.