The Sciences

Is Physics Among the Dysfunctional Sciences?

Cosmic VarianceBy Sean CarrollApr 16, 2012 11:38 PM


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Sorry for a post title that will attract the crazies. Carl Zimmer has a story in the New York Times that discusses a growing unease with the practice of science among scientists themselves.

In tomorrow’s New York Times, I’ve got a long story about a growing sense among scientists that science itself is getting dysfunctional. For them, the clearest sign of this dysfunction is the growing rate of retractions of scientific papers, either due to errors or due to misconduct. But retractions represent just the most obvious symptom of deep institutional problems with how science is done these days–how projects get funded, how scientists find jobs, and how they keep labs up and running.

However... essentially all the examples are from biologically-oriented fields. I'll confess that Carl asked me if there is a similar feeling among physicists, and after some thought I decide that there really isn't. There are certainly fumbles (faster-than-light neutrinos, anyone?) and scandals (Jan Hendrik Schön being the most obvious), but I don't have any feeling that the problem is growing in a noticeable way. Biology and physics are fundamentally different, especially because of the tremendous pressure within medical sciences when it comes to any results that might turn out to be medically useful. Cosmologists certainly don't have to worry about that. But maybe this is a distorted view from within my personal bubble? Happy to hear informed opinion to the contrary. The relevant kind of informed opinion would actually involve a comparison of the situation today with the situation at some previous time, not just a litany of things you think are dysfunctional about the present day.

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