Thinking different is not always easy

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 October, 2011, 12:00am

Much was made about how the winner of this year's Nobel Prize for chemistry, Dan Shechtman, suffered years of professional ostracism for claiming to have discovered an entirely new class of solid material. That is hardly surprising.

Scepticism about and rejection of people who work against conventional wisdom exist in every professional field. But to be fair, the scientific community is one that almost always does the right thing - giving credit where it is due - eventually. And so, three decades after Shechtman's great discovery, he won a Nobel.

There is no shortage of excessive hubris among great scientists who rejected new theories. Two-time Nobel laureate Linus Pauling, who campaigned against the young Shechtman, is an outstanding example. Perhaps his larger-than-life confidence is the reason he also dismissed two upstarts, Francis Crick and James Watson, who were locked in a race with him to decode DNA.

A young physicist working under Robert Oppenheimer, Yang Chen-Ning - now an adviser for the Shaw Prize - gave a seminar on his new theory of local gauge invariance in front of the great Wolfgang Pauli, who proceeded to intimidate him. Yang backed off that day. But the Yang-Mills gauge later became the foundation of particle physics, and he won a Nobel.

People may like stories about the scientific establishment coming down hard on the little guy. But even work by established Nobel-calibre scientists is often rejected or subjected to referees' requests for revision.

In the end, hypothesis-testing through empirical evidence tends to show who's right. There is no known better way to conduct rational policy and decision-making other than the scientific method itself.


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