Max Planck won a Nobel prize for his revolutionary work in quantum mechanics, but it was his interest in the philosophy of science that led to what is now called “Planck’s Principle.”
His insight poses a jarring question: Is our understanding of the world based in pure objective reason, or are the theories that underpin it shaped by generational biases? Do our most famous thinkers actually block new ideas from gaining ground?
A new paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that fame does play a significant role in deciding when and whether new scientific ideas can gain traction. When a prominent scientist dies, the paper’s authors found, the number of articles published by his or her collaborators tends to fall “precipitously” in the years following the death — those supporters tend not to continue advocating for a once-famous scientist’s ideas once the scientist is gone.
At the same time, the number of research articles written by other scientists — including those with opposing ideas — increases by 8 percent on average, implying that the work of these scientists had been stifled before, but that after the death of a ubiquitous figure, the field becomes more open to new ideas. The study also found that these new articles are less likely to cite previous research and are more likely to be cited by others in the field. Death signifies a changing of the guard — the study illustrates the scramble to fill an intellectual void with new ideas and scientific inquiry.
Our instinct is often to view science as a concrete tower, growing ever upward and built upon the immovable foundations of earlier pioneers. Sir Isaac Newton famously characterized this as “standing on the shoulders of giants.” The reality, however, seems to suggest that scientific thought is less stable than we think.
Mid-20th century philosopher Thomas Kuhn was among the first to come to this conclusion, in his 1962 book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” He argued that scientific theories appeared in punctuated “paradigm shifts,” in which the underlying assumptions of a field are questioned and eventually overthrown. The famous historical example is astronomy: Our understanding of the universe shifted from Ptolemy, who believed that Earth was the center of the universe, to Copernicus, who argued that it was the sun. Later, the Copernican reign was overthrown by Brahe, and again by Kepler, Galileo, Newton and so on.
Kuhn’s book was, to some extent, a paradigm shift in its own right. According to his logic, commonly held notions in science were bound to change and become outdated. What we believe today will tomorrow be revised, rewritten — and in the most extreme cases ridiculed.
Future paradigm shifts may result from correcting simple research errors. One study published in the journal Nature earlier this year said scientific data is prone to bias because researchers design experiments and make observations in ways that support hypotheses. Another article from Science found that most of the scientific studies published in top academic journals could not be replicated.
But equally as important are simple shifts in perspective. It only takes one researcher seeing an accepted scientific model in a new light for a solidified paradigm to enter what Kuhn called a “crisis phase” and beg for alternative explanations. History is full of accidental “Eureka” moments — from Alexander Fleming’s moldy dishes to August Kekule’s dream of a snake eating itself — that have unexpectedly pushed scientific knowledge in new directions. But other theories, such as the model of the atom, have evolved only after several successive generations of scientists challenged the norm.
Today, a large number of scientific puzzles are up for debate. How did the dinosaurs die? Do large galaxy clusters contradict the rules we’ve set for the universe? Which theory will ultimately win in the battle between quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity? And, of course, why do our knuckles crack?
Behind all of these questions are bedrock theories that may be challenged in the years to come. The NBER study shows that those who questioned consensus ought to be given the opportunity to make their case, not ignored, silenced or pushed to the back of the line.
We’re likely to see these “paradigm shifts” happen at a much faster rate as data and research become easier to share worldwide. For some, this reality might seem chaotic; for the truly curious, it is exhilarating. The result may be a more democratic version of science — one in which the progress of ideas doesn’t have to wait until the funeral of a great mind.