Is science sometimes in danger of getting tunnel vision? Recently published ebook author, Ian Miller, looks at other possible theories arising from data that we think we understand. Can looking problems in a different light give scientists a different perspective?

Quality Of Theory

In a previous post, I argued that the issue of whether cyclopropane ring electrons are delocalizable was not exactly handled well. By itself, that may seem to be merely an irritant, but the question now is, how widespread is such an issue?
In a recent edition of Nature there was an article by Robert Antonucci, (Nature 495: 165 - 167) who argued that the scientific community was failing when trying to explain quasars. A quote: "In my opinion, the greatest limiting factor in understanding quasars is not a lack of intelligence, effort or creativity, nor is it a dearth of fantastic new facilities. It is a widespread lack of critical thought among many researchers. Theories are being published that have already been ruled out by observations. Observers cling to falsified theories when interpreting their data. Most of the AGN community is mesmerized by unphysical models that have no predictive power."
This is fairly stern stuff! It got worse. He accused scientists of continuing to use and refine overly simple versions of models that include disproved assumptions and which do not match observations without lots of special pleading.  Observers were not left out: “Some astronomers like to see what they believe." Even worse was to come. In 1984 a temperature was measured and found to be in accord with the disk accretion model. Later, an amateur found the calculation involved a factor of ten missing in Newton's gravitational constant! The correction, and the fact that the method now fails to account for observation, is hardly cited, while the original paper has 100 citations. He complained that this scientific community was producing fewer and fewer theoretical papers, but there is a burgeoning effort to find more examples, leading to statistical analyses leading to further problems, such as claiming causal links in plots of dependent variables. 
The question now is, is Chemistry in a better condition? I do not think so. How much original theory, as opposed to opaque computations, have you seen lately? My guess is, not many. How many of you think there is no further theory to find? I think the problem lies in reductionism. Everyone seems to believe that all chemistry is a consequence of the Schrodinger equation, but that cannot be solved. Therefore there is no point looking further. That, in my opinion, is simply false. I am not doubting that the Schrodinger equation is generally correct, but that does not mean that the only way to produce theoretical work is to solve it.
Final advice from Antonucci: "I urge my junior colleagues to spend 15 minutes every day thinking, palms down, eyes on the ceiling." Follow a Californian bumper sticker: "Don't just do something, sit there".
Posted by Ian Miller on Mar 24, 2013 10:45 PM Europe/London

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