Monday, June 25, 2012

I am (a) Liberal (mostly) - Henry Dodds, BSc Pure & Applied Physics

Science needs both more liberalisation, and protection from liberal interpretation.

Scientists live in a world of truths backed by data, carefully scrutinised by a knowledgeable peer group through the pages of scientific journals. Yet it is the process of peer review that is the source of concern. 

Firstly, the cost of simply subscribing to scientific journals, controlled by a publishing industry desperate to hang on to revenues, means that it's expensive for scientists to get exposed to the full flow of scientific thought in their chosen domain. In April 2012 Harvard University in the US encouraged its faculty members to submit papers to open-access journals; unsurprising when you learn that the university's subscription costs were running at $3.5m a year.

Secondly, and more worryingly, is the danger of groupthink, where the peer group ridicules any idea offered that deviates too far from the mean. The chances of anything too radical seeing the light of day is slim, not least because referees are likely to withhold support for anything seen as too outrageous. But how can science make great strides when shackled like this?

A wider problem facing science is an excess of liberalism by the media and pressure groups in misinterpreting scientific data, or skewing it to support a particular agenda. The tragedy of the debate about climate change is that the public understanding of this vital issue has been muddied and confused by sloppy and biased reporting that would never be tolerated on a non-scientific subject. 

Science is too important to be left to the scientists, yet too precious to be left in the hands of non-scientists. Work that one out, liberals!

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