The Struggles in Science

Plaguing God Complexes

Science in general has a fairly large ego that I’ve never been able to understand. That’s not meant to denounce the things that science does for our daily lives; I just don’t follow why God complexes are rampant across the scientific communities. It’s truly an issue that creates a lot of dogma within the community and renders anybody that isn’t knowledgeable in the sciences incapacitated. I’ve seen scientists scoff at new ideas and shifts in paradigms that eventually found their way into the scientific mainstream and became very significant discoveries. One famous case of this includes Nobel Prize winners Barry Marshall and Robin Warren who showed that bacteria was a contributor to stomach ulcers. Marshall and Warren challenged scientific dogma at the time of publishing and got severely ridiculed for their observations. To prove their point, Marshall eventually infected himself with the bacteria and cured his ulcers with antibiotics.

Yes, Marshall and Warren eventually found their way into the history books when they won a Nobel Prize for their contributions to medicine, however the scientific communities are still extremely hostile to challenges to existing paradigms and dogmatic practices. New ideas are often met with high levels of scrutiny; even when the existing paradigm is based on bad science. Take for example Keys’ Seven Countries Study and the subsequent reactions that came out of the findings. The study was the main basis for nutritional recommendations for decades following the release of the study, even though the study was purely observational (along with other issues with the article that I won’t dive into, but can be read about here and here). Eventually, this study was turned into dogma and is now being challenged — nearly 50 years after publication. Even the current challengers to this paradigm are met with lots of resistance, even though there is quite a bit of clear evidence to support the idea that low-carb diets may not be as bad as they seem. In essence, scientists are just as feeble as the rest of us.

Inaccessibility to Research

Possibly in relation to the God Complexes is the archaic practice of closed-access publishing (usually called Traditional Publishing as compared to Open-Access Publishing). Publishers of scientific journals are huge beneficiaries of copyright laws, and IMO are akin to patent sharks. Publishing companies are known for charging astronomical amounts of money in order to access papers — with some journal articles costing $30 or more. Keep in mind this is for regular scientific papers (often in electronic format) that many times don’t span 10 pages worth of useful information. I don’t know many people who would be very willing to put forth even $5 for a paper that would take 10 minutes to read. Then consider how many papers that exist on a specific topic and the amount of money it costs to become fluent in that body of research grows exponentially.

I think the effects of these policies are quite clear: they render anybody who does not have access to institutional archives and databases (such as the ones at university libraries) unable to read these articles and increase their knowledge on a topic. This barrier is antithetical to the purpose of science, which is to expand the body of human knowledge for the benefit of humanity. When this knowledge is confined to only those who can afford to pay for the subscription, how can the vast majority of humanity ever benefit?

Difficulty of Contributing to the Body of Literature

The last thing I’m going to mention are publishing barriers. Publishing companies basically have two ways of generating revenue — charging the readers (as mentioned above) or charging the writers. The cost of publishing one paper varies from company to company based on impact factor and a few other measures, but can cost thousands of dollars. Elsevier, a very well renounced publisher, can charge anywhere from $500 to $5,000 for one article. This is especially egregious when one considers that the vast majority of articles are probably accessed electronically as compared to printing actual physical copies and distributing them to subscribers. The effect of these prices on writers is undeniably a barrier to publishing data.

There’s the argument that these prices prevent the publication of bad research through peer-review and other processes. I as these people: how? Firstly, peer-review isn’t perfect by any means, as reviewers often have their own biases toward new ideas that may be right (see the first section above). Second, reviewers are often unpaid anyway. If a writer isn’t paying to have their article reviewed or mass printed, what exactly are they paying for? The consequences of requiring writers to pay such high prices to publish makes contributing anything impossible, especially for those potential researchers who come from smaller institutions that don’t receive large funds from grants.

The lasting thought I have after all of this: What could science become if it weren’t for these problems?

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Stephen Decker

Stephen Decker

Ph.D. student at UMass Amherst. A lifelong student in health, fitness, philosophy, and all things under the sun. Love ideas, but love sharing ideas more.