The Need For Permanence

Permanence in publication, that is.  What is meant by this? It means that we need the results of scientific work, once published, to stay as they were published (with the exceptions for fraud or grievous error). Now at present, arguably, too many papers with fraud or grievous errors stay in the literature, but there are some papers showing up in Retraction Watch, for instance, where the withdrawal of the paper seems to be something other than core issues with the integrity of the science.  This suggests that down the road, we might see papers withdrawn when the authors have changed their minds. GG argues this is a bad thing. Why? Consider a few cases where scientists changed their minds, but not in a helpful way.

Consider Einstein’s inclusion of the cosmological constant in general relativity. Some years later, Einstein pronounced this is greatest error–it was a fudge factor he included to make the universe stable.  And yet, many years later, it has proven to be a helpful term for trying to understand the evolution of the universe.  Had Einstein been able to retract it by pulling back the 1917 paper and replacing it with one lacking that term, how would that have affected the continued development of cosmology?

Or, more in the earth sciences, consider the debate over the origin of Yosemite Valley in the 19th century.  Josiah Whitney, the State Geologist, pronounced the origin of the valley as a large fault-bounded, down-dropped block.  John Muir said it was entirely the product of glaciation. Joseph LeConte visited Yosemite before Muir had published any of his thoughts and mostly agreed with Muir, though LeConte felt that there had been considerable stream erosion prior to glaciation.  LeConte published his support for the fluvial+glacial theory in 1873, shortly after Muir’s work appeared (“On some of the ancient glaciers of the Sierras.” American Journal of Science (Third Series), V(29), 325–342.).  Yet many years later, LeConte retracted his support for the erosional hypothesis, writing in 1898 “I now believe that Yosemite and like valleys were formed by a double fissure and a dropped wedge between.” (“The Origin of Transverse Mountain-Valleys and Some Glacial Phenomena in those of the Sierra Nevada.” University of California Chronicle, 1(6), 479–497.). LeConte had been swayed by realizing that the morphology of the Sierra was relatively young and so not old enough, in his mind, for glacial erosion to have removed so much material. He was wrong.

Just for good measure, consider Andrew Lawson, the man who identified the San Andreas Fault, named the Franciscan Formation (now Franciscan Complex) and had the subduction zone mineral Lawsonite named for him.  He was interested in the Sierra Nevada, having examined the eastern normal faults near Genoa, Nevada (published in 1912) and having written several papers on the overall structure of the range as a large normal fault block, in essence the largest of the Basin and Range’s ranges. Yet in 1936 he essentially recanted all this business about normal faults, instead arguing that the Sierran front on its eastern side was a large thrust front.  This was not done because of any new observations, but it was because he had allowed his logic to carry him too far: in applying isostasy to the evolution of landforms in the Sierra, he had inferred (incorrectly, as it would turn out) that the range’s crust must have been thickened to a great degree, and the only means he had available for the timeframe desired was thrust faulting.

So this is in many ways another example of the geoscientist’s blind spot we discussed the other day. In the earth science cases, some new appreciation of theory led a scientist to abandon his earlier interpretations, in each of these cases in error and in each case by overvaluing a theory over his own observations.

We often condemn those scientists who will not change their mind in the face of strong or even overwhelming evidence. For instance, Sir Harold Jeffries’s immense contributions to seismology often play second fiddle to his lifelong rejection of plate tectonics. And yet a too-pliable mind can also be a scientific liability.  Being able to change your mind is a valuable skill for a scientist, but it must be practiced with care.  And even if you change your mind, that old stuff where you mistakenly misinterpreted things? — that stuff needs to stay in the literature. Sometimes your mistakes come the second time you consider a problem…

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