The outsider scientist

A longtime Hassle mainstay muses on science and conservatism


Illo by the man himself

At a prestigious Institute for Biology I heard a presentation which could as easily have been titled “We Just Cured Cancer”. Afterwards, all the attendees were abuzz over the revolutionary discoveries reported. Maybe a day later, I happened to line up at a urinal next to that Institute’s Director and, gushing, spoke about how great that talk had been. He calmly listed for me all the reasons why, what we had all witnessed at that talk, was probably not the great revolutionary truth it had been made out to appear. Indeed, here we are many years later, cancer still not cured.

The Director and an audience full of talent and genius, in the Q&A afterglow of that talk, had seemed just as taken in as my fellow students, and myself, up until my bathroom encounter with the Director. It’s easy to be fooled by good storytelling and the trappings of success. Rigor and skepticism, both enshrined within the philosophy of science, are challenging. Scientists are just people, and people are keen to believe things in common. It’s a herd thing, crowdthinking, and it keeps outlandish ideas from disrupting popular belief. Real change in a field happens only if someone disproves some foundation of (or, even better, introduces a new concept that upgrades the sensibility of) the common knowledge. Most of the time, we celebrate them. The scientific community is aware that knowledge needs review and correction to progress. This was how the audience was feeling about that cancer therapy presentation. We thought we were witnessing a paradigm shift moment…but we weren’t…in that case.

Celebrated/reviled evolutionary theorist Dr. Prof. Lynn Margulis (1938-2011) on the other hand, is a great example of a successful outsider scientist. Lynn upended the male-dominated field of Evolution Theory with her outlandish idea that early-earth bacteria, by eating other bacteria, essentially found a way to make friends with their food in a process called symbiosis –  lasting relationship which founded the key organelles within all plant, animal, and fungal cells. “Poppycock” (and worse) they said, but decades later they had to concede she was right. Not only was her proposal borne out by DNA evidence, but can fairly be pointed to as one of the most important advances life has stumbled upon along evolution’s long march.

Awesome right? However, having slowly overcome the dogmatic resistance of her colleagues, Lynn went on to support other, similarly left-field theories, some ingloriously. Her story is fascinating on many levels, contributing to evolution theory, feminism, and environmental issues in ways that are still hotly debated today. By challenging the paradigm in her field Lynn established herself as a respected outside-the-box thinker and stayed true to that role throughout her scientific career. In the world of scientific research, it’s a sort of an ecology. With fame on the line, and all the benefits that come from being a successful disrupter, many will try. That’s why there’s a recognized need for healthy skepticism in science, in the practice of research of course, but also among peers within a field when defending the current state of knowledge from spurious usurpers. Liberals vs. conservatives? In a way, yes, but the ecology of back and forth mostly serves the greater goal of seeking truth. Would be nice, wouldn’t it, if that were the case generally?

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