Thursday, April 30, 2009

Mavrick scientists: the good, the bad, and the ugly

It has been an interesting few months for rogue geoscientists. The maverick scientist is an icon of popular culture, despite being almost as mythical as a genteel cowboy, or a complete stratigraphic section. Additionally, the number of wannabe lone geniuses, whether delusional crackpots or slickly packaged corporate mouthpieces, far exceeds the supply of genuine articles. Never-the-less, the real deals have been having a good autumn (or spring, since the ones in the news are American).

To clarify, a maverick (or rogue) scientist is a person who advocates a scientific position that is contrary to mainstream though on that issue. For example, I had a grad school professor who didn’t believe in hot spots- he was of the opinion that the potential temperature of MORB was systematically undercalulated, and that a correct value put OIB and MORB within a few tens of degrees. Needless to say, this didn’t go down well in the geophysics side of the building.

As scientific knowledge advances, competing theories will gain supporting or contradictory evidence. This, in turn, will change the number of people who accept one hypothesis or the other. If a particular hypothesis end up being defended by very few stubborn individuals against an overwhelming horde of scientists and data, that’s when those few can be considered to be mavericks.

The first maverick geoscientist of recent note is Hiroshi Ohmoto, of Penn State University. Professor Ohmoto is a long and tireless advocate for oxygen in the Archean atmosphere and hydrosphere, despite the mainstream opinion that surficial conditions were generally reducing during that time. The recent Nature Geoscience paper (for which he is last, but corresponding, author) is just one in a long line of papers which present evidence for sulphur and Iron in high oxidation states in early sediments.

While the surficial conditions of the early Earth are very important for mineral exploration in Archean terranes and the early evolution of life, the Archean isn’t something that many people get emotionally attached to. For that you need volcanoes, dinosaurs, and massive cometary impacts. And that brings us to our second maverick:

Gerta Keller’s group at Princeton has an about-to-be published paper suggesting that the terminal cretaceous extinction event was caused by volcanoes, not the Chicxulub impact. This has caused an interesting ruffle in the blogosphere.

At their best, Mavericks force mainstream scientists to reassess their assumptions and double check their observations. This is a good thing, and excellent examples of scientific discussion of this type can be found at Kim or Survat’s blogs. The worst behavior of scientists behaving badly is also brought out, as is seen in the ad hominem attack of ‘Avondale’ in the comments of the Universe Today article.

So how do you tell the difference between a maverick and a crackpot? For me, the difference is in the data. If the investigation undertaken produces a dataset that is complete enough and good enough for use by researched pursuing investigations unrelated to the maverick’s pet theory, then they are still doing good science. If, however, their work is useless except in the specific context of the point they are trying to make, then to me that’s where you gotta start wondering.


BrianR said...

I think your last paragraph is key. Crackpots aren't even in the same category as maverick scientists because they simply aren't scientists. They might want to use the 'maverick' adjective but it can't go with 'scientist'.

C W Magee said...

What pisses me off about slag-offs like the one I linked is that it doesn't even attempt to address the science- it is all hearsay, bully-pulpiting, and insinuation.

I wonder if they would have been as contemptuous if Keller was a man.

Suvrat Kher said...

I wonder if they would have been as contemptuous if Keller was a man.

She has been referred to as "that bloody woman" at least according to this report. . This was according to the report by another woman scientist! The men have been more polite but equally dismissive.

But you are correct in saying that she is the right kind of maverick, the kind that science must have to stop consensus turning into intellectual inertia.

Successful Researcher said...

Hey, I always thought that maverick scientists are just those going up the career ladder much faster than average... Is this usage of the word "maverick" restricted to the American English, outdated or what?

Anonymous said...

One way to spot the difference between a maverick and a crackpot is that the latter often resort to the 'Galileo Deduction Defence':

* Galileo was persecuted for his work.
* Galileo was proven to be correct.
* I am being persecuted for my work, therefore I must be correct.

I've seen this defence used by some nutbars in the plate tectonics and climate change (or lack thereof) debates.

True mavericks tend to be strong adherents to logic, reasoning and the scientific method. Which is where they often conflict with the mainstream because they have the temerity to point out the weak fundamental assumptions and analytical shortcuts of others...

Mike said...

A maverick is a crackpot who was not widely accepted during his lifetime. Charles Darwin was a crackpot who was not widely accepted until after death.
I refrain from using the word proven, because to say proven would imply we accept the work as the absolute truth. And if we accepted any work as absolute truth, then we would not be scientists, we would be priests.

Torbjörn Larsson said...

"A maverick is a crackpot who was not widely accepted during his lifetime. Charles Darwin was a crackpot who was not widely accepted until after death."

Perhaps you are trying to redefine the usual meaning of "crackpot", as used in the post or defined by, say, Baez Crackpot Index.

However Darwin would not fit either of those definitions.

Darwin was a meticulous and productive scientist that corresponded with many prominent scientists during the development of his theory. He was in fact encouraged by them to rush the publication of his facts and theories (in concert with Wallace's findings and theories). So he wouldn't fit the usual definition of crackpot in any sense.

Moreover his facts and theories made the scientific community and most of the general public accept the fact of evolution during his lifetime. [Wikipedia.] Historian John von Wyhe @ Darwin Online:

"Indeed recent research suggests that the reaction to Darwin's Origin was less of a furore than once believed. (Fleming & Goodall 2002) Nevertheless to the end of his life Darwin was regarded as a great scientific revolutionary who had overturned the ideas of his generation.

[...] In the two decades after the publication of Origin the great majority of the scientific community came to accept that Darwin was right about the evolution of life."

His theory of natural selection in particular OTOH remained debated and wasn't generally accepted until later. Wyhe:

"But natural selection was often not accepted. In fact, a generation of biologists regarded Darwin as correct in uncovering the evolution of life but mistaken in stressing natural selection. Natural selection's canonisation had to wait until the modern synthesis of Darwinism with Mendelian genetics in the 1930s."

The later I believe is when they combined to form the population genetics and its quantitative and illustrative laws of evolution.

C W Magee said...

Maverick scientists don't spell check their titles.