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Mimetic Behavior in the Scientific Community

Photo credit: U.S. Secretary of Defense, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

Yesterday I wrote about French philosopher René Girard’s idea of mimesis, and I alluded to having seen such behavior in the scientific community (here). I have been a research scientist for almost thirty years. I personally have seen persecution of scientists who support intelligent design. Some have been tossed out or denied degrees. Others see the threat, so they hide their beliefs. I have seen papers turned down because the reviewer was powerful in his or her field and often suppressed other people’s work. I have seen grants and papers turned down because the individuals writing the paper held certain scientific positions. I have repeatedly seen people lose their jobs because they hold an unpopular view. I have seen misinformation and mockery used against people with unpopular ideas. And I have seen professors pressure graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to be selective in the data they use. All these things are forbidden officially but still happen. The question is, how much do they distort scientific progress?

Just in the last month I saw a report of bad science by a scientist. He was a graduate student who tried to replicate the work of a well-known group. He could not. After careful work, he determined it was because inappropriate controls were used. Because many others were using the same assay and were publishing based on the faulty design, he wrote to the original lab to tell them, and was ignored. He then wrote up his findings and tried to publish them. He was turned down by the journals he submitted to, and rather than submit to a journal that would be ignored, he ended up publishing in a non-reviewed online site called arXiv that is seen by many. He did this just so people might not have the same difficulty he had — it had wasted months of his fellowship and prevented him from performing the work he came to do. 

It is very hard to publish negative results, even if they are important. A student was about to lose his degree because he could not change an enzyme’s activity by repeated mutation. Scientists often believe that enzymes can be modified easily. This is because the failures don’t get published. A friend who was on the student’s committee, and very knowledgeable about enzyme modification, reported that he had to demonstrate to the student’s committee that the thing the student had been assigned to do could not be done. This is another way that scientific resources of time and money are wasted.

Held Hostage Because of Propaganda

Sometimes an entire discipline can be held hostage because of propaganda. A well-known case is that of continental drift. Alfred Wegener first published his hypothesis in the early 1900s that the continents moved over geologic time. He accumulated a great deal of evidence from biology, geology, and fossils showing where the continents were originally linked. He called that super-continent Pangaea. Geologists ignored his hypothesis, despite strong evidence supporting it. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the idea was accepted, based on evidence of the movement of the northern magnetic pole.

Doctors and pharmaceutical companies are another whole category of the role of mimesis and propaganda, and I don’t have space to treat those things fairly. However, I will give one infamous example of doctors behaving badly because of resistance to change. Ignaz Semmelweis was a young doctor who was eagerly following the work of Louis Pasteur. He was aware of Pasteur’s work on the role of microbes in disease. The hospital in Vienna where he worked had a mortality rate in obstetrics of 25-30 percent, which is horrifying. He thought that maybe the childbed fever that was killing women was due to infection carried by the medical students from their dissections to the women in labor. He demanded that all the students wash their hands in a strong antiseptic before seeing women patients. The childbed fever cases dropped dramatically as a result. Some doctors took up his method, but others did not. He had seminars and consultations canceled. He had to leave Vienna and find work elsewhere after his involvement in politics turned everyone in Vienna against him. 

He found work in his native Budapest and published his research. He wrote to doctors all over Europe and beyond, but he was ignored. Women continued to die of childbed fever. Semmelweis’s mental health deteriorated, and he became angry and bitter at the medical profession’s refusal to change. He died in an insane asylum, where his colleagues had taken him two weeks before, from an infected wound inflicted by the guards (who had beaten him), probably from the same bacterium as caused childbed fever. 

Suppression by the State

Sometimes the suppression comes from the government. The restriction on doctors’ freedom to use promising treatments during the recent pandemic was unprecedented. Promising lines of research were shut down. The government of many states issued a mandate: police, firefighters, nurses, transit workers, and many others lost their jobs because for moral reasons they refused to comply with the mandate. Many had to move to other less punitive states. All these things were done to impose the agendas of Anthony Fauci’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and of the CDC, on vaccine implementation. Whatever your views on the virus or the vaccines, such coercion and suppression is wrong. Uniformity of opinion cannot be imposed. As a result, we have had a significant polarization of society.

Tomorrow I will narrow my focus and discuss the treatment, in this regard, of intelligent design scientists.