The Ortega hypothesis in Goodstein’s “On Fact and Fraud”

“Science is a true meritocracy, however, it is important to be in the right place at the right time.”

The Ortega hypothesis: “Financial support for doing science and access to scientific facilities should be shared democratically, not concentrated in the hands of a favored few.” Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset wrote in his 1930 classic “The Revolt of the Masses” that “experimental science has progressed thanks in great part to the work of men astoundingly mediocre, and even less than mediocre. That is to say, modern science, the root and symbol of our actual civilization, finds a place for the intellectually commonplace man and allows him to work therein with success.”[…] The Ortega hypothesis was named by two sociologists, Jonathan R. Cole of Columbia University and Stephen Cole of SUNY–Stony Brook, when they set out to demolish it in a 1972 article in Science. They wrote: It seems, rather, that a relatively small number of physicists produce work that becomes the basis for future discoveries in physics. We have found that even papers of relatively minor significance have used to a disproportionate degree the work of the eminent scientists. In other words, according to the authors, a small number of elite scientists are responsible for the vast majority of scientific progress.” David Goodstein, “On Fact and Fraud. Cautionary Tales from the Front Lines of Science,” Princeton University Press, 2010.

“If the Ortega hypothesis is correct, science is best served by producing as many scientists as possible, even if they are not of the highest quality. However, if the elitist view is right, it is best to restrict production to fewer and better scientists. Scientific papers often misrepresent what actually happened in the course of the investigation they describe. Misunderstandings, blind alleys, and mistakes of various sorts will fail to appear in the final written account.”

“Peer review has an almost mystical significance in the community of scientists. Published results are considered dependable because they’ve been peer reviewed, and unpublished data are not dependable because they have not been. The growing number of papers “published” in pre-press on the Web, without the advantage of peer review, are naturally regarded as less reliable by most scientists. The peer-review process is very good at separating real science from nonsense. Referees know the current thinking in a field and are aware of its rules and conventions. But it is not at all good at detecting fraud, as the cases of compromised papers that have successfully passed through peer review amply demonstrate.”

“The Reward System of science [refers to] the various means by which scientists express their admiration and esteem for their colleagues are so subtle and complex that they beggar the etiquette of a medieval royal court. Closely linked to the Reward System is a second organization that we may call the Authority Structure, which guides and controls the Reward System. The pinnacle of the Reward System is scientific glory, fame, and immortality. The goal of those in the Authority Structure is power and influence. Scientists distinguish sharply between the two.”

“The Matthew effect in science is the observation that credit tends to go to those who are already famous, at the expense of those who are not. Named by the late sociologist Robert K. Merton following this passage in the Gospel according to Matthew: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” For example, if a paper is written by a team of researchers, only one of whom is well known in the field, readers will tend to refer to the article by the alpha scientist’s name even if it is far back in the authorial pack. The roots of this scientific Reward System and the Authority Structure date back to the seventeenth century, almost to the birth of modern science itself. […] It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that science cannot exist—and certainly cannot flourish—without the Reward System and the Authority Structure.”

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