Skepticism about science and medicine

In search of disinterested science

Posts Tagged ‘Constance Whyte’

From uncritical about science to skeptical about science: 2

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2021/01/02

How nice it is when Science is well funded

I was fortunate enough to experience two years (1956-58) of postdoctoral research in the United States, at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), with a wonderful mentor in Philip J. Elving.

At once I was impressed with the clear benefits to science from being amply funded. In Australia, research was done with what might be called a frugal adequacy of resources, whereas by the 1950s in the United States there was an intoxicating sense of affluence in the scientific research community: The National Science Foundation had been established in 1950, and the budget of the National Institutes of Health was increasing dramatically, following recommendations in Vannevar Bush’s Report to the President.

The differences at that time between the Australian environment and the American one gave me a glimpse of how the circumstances of science changed following World War II. After some wonderfully heady years of research support just waiting to be asked for, coming to everyone who asked, demand soon grew faster than supply, bringing eventually the present-day hot-house, cutthroat environment of incessant unbridled competition.

In Ann Arbor I appreciated also the change from a geographical backwater, as Australia then was. Supplies and equipment and library resources were all available without stint in Ann Arbor, or would arrive in short order if not already at hand. By contrast, in those years, journals and equipment reached Australia only by ship, in journeys taking a matter of months.

A few things however, pointed to some dark lining on the silver clouds of money, though their significance becomes obvious only in retrospect. They stuck in my memory because strange enough, different from my previous experience and expectations; but they were irrelevant at that time to my own doings and ambitions.

One strange thing concerned careers in research. I was taken aback when a doctoral student told me, in around 1957, that he intended to seek a job in industry in order to avoid the rat-race of academe. This was the very opposite of the view in my cohort of Australian students: for us, industry was the rat-race, whereas scientific research in academe seemed like an unhurried way to earn a living while doing something interesting and useful.

A second thing new to me occurred in a meeting of a research group that I was able to participate in. The discussion was about drafting a request for renewal of a research grant, and I was surprised when the group’s leader emphasized, more than once, that everything should be kept completely confidential so that rival competing research groups could not hear of it.

Only in recalling those times now do I recognize another indication of the way in which the force-feeding of scientific research had begun to alter judgments of value. The prestige of faculty members in Ann Arbor was closely tied to their productivity in research. Those who were not active in gathering grant funds were tolerated rather than appreciated, and they had few if any graduate students to mentor. A department chairman at the time, who had little if any research in his own background, was tolerated perhaps a bit more gratefully for doing the unpleasant administrative work that allowed others time for research.

Again it is only in retrospect that I can appreciate the significance of Department Chair by contrast to Department Head. It was then still the traditional practice in Australia for every academic Department to be governed autocratically by the only faculty member with the title of (Full) Professor. Consequences flowed from the fact that these appointments remained effective until retirement; there was no formal mechanism for replacing an unsatisfactory Department Head.

That there came universally, at least in the English-speaking world, a change from permanent Department Heads to Chairmanships with limited terms may be related to much wider changes, outside as well as inside academe. There has been a progressive disinclination to rely on individuals to make judgments and exert authority. Instead, there are supposedly objective protocols for decision-making, or at least “democratic” and thereby supposedly “fairer” ones. So in academe, initially in the sciences but by now everywhere, judgments are based on numbers rather than on qualitative assessments made by informed individuals. As to research, numbers of publications, of citations, of amounts of research funds awarded; as to teaching, numbers averaged from anonymous student responses.

After my postdoctoral stint, not much happened to change my views about science for half-a-dozen years or so, as I enjoyed the seeming fulfillment of my ambition. I returned to Australia in 1958 as a lecturer (= assistant professor, but already with tenure) in the Department headed by my PhD mentor, Bruno Breyer [1]. He had invented a novel technique in analytical chemistry [2], and there were unlimited numbers of things to try. Together with a few graduate students we were exploring the frontiers of science (or at least of aspects of electrochemistry), publishing quite prolifically, and I was teaching chemistry — giving a few lectures a week as well as supervising laboratory sessions.

It was my recreational reading that planted seeds of doubt, at the time unrecognized, about science as the ultimate resource for knowledge about the world.

I was a voracious reader, and had picked up at the library quite by chance a book titled Loch Ness Monster [3]. Of course I knew, as everyone did, that this was a hoax or a tourist trap; but riffling through the pages I saw photographs claimed to be from a 16 mm film taken by the book’s author. So I read the book and was intrigued by the possibility that what was universally dismissed as mistaken or fakery might in fact be a real animal as yet identified. Trying to learn more, I could find very little: mere paragraphs in encyclopedias, absolutely nothing in the scientific literature, just two books for a general audience. Why, I wondered, had science not investigated something of such wide public interest, even as a book [4] had been written by Rupert Gould, a respected commentator on the BBC and author of the recognized authoritative work on the marine chronometer [5], and a more recent book [6] had been published by a doctor living near Loch Ness.

So I experienced surprise and dissatisfaction over a surprising gap in scientific knowledge; but trust in what science does know remained intact.

About how drastically science was changing, in post-World-War-II growth and affluence, I began to learn only after moving from Australia to the USA. Breyer had retired, his replacement was intolerable, and I could find no suitable job in Australia. With tangible support from Elving in Ann Arbor, I was able to continue my career in chemistry at the University of Kentucky, beginning in 1966.

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[1] “Bruno Breyer 1900-1967”, Journal of Electroanalytical Chemistry, 21 (1969) 1-3
[2] B. Breyer & H. H. Bauer, Alternating Current Polarography and Tensammetry, vol. 13
of Chemical Analysis, ed. P. J. Elving & I. M. Kolthoff, Interscience, 1963
[3] Tim Dinsdale, Loch Ness Monster, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961
(many later editions, 4th in 1982)
[4] Rupert T. Gould, The Loch Ness Monster and Others, Geoffrey Bles, 1934;
University Books, 1969
[5] Rupert T. Gould, The Marine Chronometer: Its History and Development,
J. D. Potter, 1923
[6] Constance Whyte, More Than a Legend, Hamish Hamilton, 1957; rev. ed. 1961

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