The Need for Venture Science
The Need for Venture Science
By Charles Eisenstein /
Sep 30, 2015

I just spent several hours down a rabbit hole. The topic was the "electric universe," an unconventional cosmological theory that emphasizes electromagnetism rather than gravity as the primary structuring force of the universe. It offers alternative explanations of redshift, cosmic background radiation, cosmogenesis, star formation, galaxy formation, solar physics, and more.

After re-familiarizing myself with the theory (it has been ten years since I first explored it) I proceeded to read a number of its critics (most of whom used the term "debunking"). What a fool I'd been for giving such a theory, "popular on the Internet," any credence! The critics pointed out elementary errors that proponents of the Electric Universe (EU) commit, revealing them as little more than cranks and crackpots. Case settled, right?

Not quite. Next, I read some responses to the debunkers, which refuted the criticisms point by point in considerable depth. Whom am I to believe? I don't have a Ph.D. in physics, and even if I did it apparently would be of little use, since many of these experts who so violently disagree with each other have Ph.D.'s themselves.

Although I, as a layperson, have difficulty evaluating the claims and counterclaims on their own merits, I did notice a disturbing asymmetry in the debate that has ramifications far beyond cosmology. The situation I describe below has parallels across science, medicine, education, economics, and really any of our institutions that produce and legitimize knowledge.

One aspect to this asymmetry is that one of the two sides can invoke the authority of the scientific establishment, while the other consists largely of marginalized heretics. These dissidents complain about the difficulty they have obtaining research funding, getting published in journals, and getting their arguments taken seriously. Meanwhile, the defenders of orthodoxy cite the self-same lack of peer-reviewed journal publication as reason not to take EU theories seriously. Their logic is basically: "These theories are not accepted; therefore they are not acceptable."

How to view this? If you have faith in the soundness of our scientific institutions, you will assume that the dissidents are marginalized for very good reason: their work is substandard. If you believe that the peer review process is fair and open, then the dearth of peer-reviewed citations for EU research is a damning indictment of the theory. And if you believe that the corpus of mainstream physics is fundamentally correct, and that science is progressing closer and closer to truth, you will be highly skeptical of any major departure from standard theories.

A second, related aspect of the asymmetry is the cursory treatment of the dissenting views. The debunkers only go one level deep - they critique the dissenting claims but do not address the responses to their critiques. Why not? If you believe, again, in the institutional soundness of science, it must be because such a conversation is a waste of time for the serious physicist, who would have no time for teaching or research if he or she bothered to rebut every half-baked alternative theory invented by people imagining themselves to be the next Einstein. The risk, though, is that legitimate unorthodox theories are tarred with the same wide brush. Theories always seem absurd if they draw from premises held to be unassailable.

Another disturbing aspect of the debate that has resonance with other issues that pit a powerful orthodoxy against a marginalized heterodoxy is the liberal use of scare quotes and derisive epithets like "pseudo-science" to exercise psychological pressure on the reader, who does not want to be thought a dupe or a fool. These tactics invoke in-group/out-group social dynamics, leading one to suspect that the same dynamics might prevail within the scientific establishment to enforce groupthink and discourage dissent. But again, perhaps the unorthodox theories really are bunkum and deserve the derision directed at them. We the laypeople cannot know. It comes down again to our trust in authority.

Cosmology is relatively inconsequential to human wellbeing (or maybe not, but let's leave that aside), but the same dynamics apply to matters of life and death for people and the biosphere, especially in the areas of medicine and agronomy (e.g. the GMO debate). Can we trust scientific consensus? Can we trust the integrity of our scientific institutions?

Perhaps not. Over the last few years, a growing chorus of insider critics have been exposing serious flaws in the ways that scientific research is funded and published, leading some to go so far as to say,"Science is broken."

The dysfunctions they describe include:
Deliberate, unconscious, and systemic fraud
Irreproducibility of results and lack of incentive to attempt replication
Misuse of statistics, such as "P-hacking" - the mining of research data to extract a post-hoc "hypothesis" for publication
- Severe flaws in the system of peer review (see here and here), for example, its propensity to enforce existing paradigms, to be hostile to anything that challenges the views of the reviewers whose careers are invested in those views.
- Difficulty in obtaining funding for creative and unorthodox research hypotheses
Publication bias that also favors positive results over negative results, and suppresses research that won't benefit a researcher's career

The system encourages the endless elaboration of existing theories about which there is consensus, but if one of these is wrong, there are nearly insuperable barriers to it ever being overturned. It exemplifies the classic Kuhnsian resistance to paradigm shift. Former NIH Director and Nobel laureate Harold Varmus describes it this way:

The system now favors those who can guarantee results rather than those with potentially path-breaking ideas that, by definition, cannot promise success. Young investigators are discouraged from departing too far from their postdoctoral work, when they should instead be posing new questions and inventing new approaches. Seasoned investigators are inclined to stick to their tried-and-true formulas for success rather than explore new fields.

Another Nobel Laureate, Sydney Brenner, addresses the same problem:

The [financial] supporters now, the bureaucrats of science, do not wish to take any risks. So in order to get it supported, they want to know from the start that it will work. This means you have to have preliminary information, which means that you are bound to follow the straight and narrow. There's no exploration any more except in a very few places.

And regarding the much-vaunted system of peer review, which is supposed to maintain high standards of research, he comments:

I think peer review is hindering science. In fact, I think it has become a completely corrupt system. It's corrupt in many ways, in that scientists and academics have handed over to the editors of these journals the ability to make judgment on science and scientists. There are universities in America, and I've heard from many committees, that we won't consider people's publications in low impact factor journals.... it puts the judgment in the hands of people who really have no reason to exercise judgment at all. And that's all been done in the aid of commerce, because they are now giant organizations making money out of it.

Therefore, he says, echoing a growing sentiment, people like Peter Higgs, Fred Sanger, and Francis Crick "wouldn't have survived" in today's academic climate. The canonical paradigms of science have enjoyed a long tenure. Is that due to their correctness - or is it due to the exclusion of the innovators, the risk-takers, and the mavericks who don't receive the support that scientists of an earlier generation received?

If the growing legion of critics is right, if science is increasingly dominated by bureaucratic inertia, financial interests, and ideological resistance to new thinking, what can we do about it? Two issues need to be addressed: publication, and funding. Neither is sufficient without the other. Today there is a robust movement toward online publishing and crowd-sourced peer review that is freeing research from the stranglehold of the established top journals. These journals still have tremendous power - university hiring, promotions, and funding give them extraordinary weight - but at least alternative avenues for the propagation of knowledge are available. These could form the infrastructure of a new culture of science that, like many other systems, departs from the old centralized, hierarchical model.

As for funding, a new initiative is underway to channel support to researchers who are tackling unfashionable questions, pursuing unorthodox hypotheses, and developing theories and technologies that conflict with established financial and ideological interests. It is called the Institute for Venture Science. It is not a fringe operation. Two Nobel laureates, the director of the National Science Board, and several university rectors and presidents serve on its advisory board. The initiative is spearheaded by Gerald Pollack (whose book on water I reviewed here), a professor of bioengineering at the University of Washington, and endorsed by over seventy professors, deans, and other establishment figures. A launch symposium for potential funders will be held in Seattle on September 25th (contact here).

Of course, the defenders of orthodoxy can assert that these illustrious Nobel laureates and professors (many of them retired) have gone batty in their old age. But regardless of the success of this Institute, the mere fact of its endorsement by so many in the scientific establishment bespeaks a gathering sea-change in science, a shift of gravity away from old centralized institutions that is part of a parallel shift far beyond science. As in politics, the economy, and the ecosystem, what once seemed incontestably true is coming under question. And the questioning is now infiltrating the mainstream.

0.0 ·
Trending Today
What Happens When You Rebel Against the Herd
Sofo Archon · 19,439 views today · Are You Truly Living Your Life? You live, but are you living the way you want to live, or the way others want you to live? You choose, but are your choices based on...
10 Words Every Girl Should Learn
Soraya Chemaly · 7,939 views today · "Stop interrupting me."  "I just said that." "No explanation needed." In fifth grade, I won the school courtesy prize. In other words, I won an award for being polite. My...
How Norway Avoided Becoming a Fascist State
George Lakey · 4,391 views today · Instead of falling to the Nazi party, Norway broke through to a social democracy. Their history shows us polarization is nothing to despair over.
How a Lack of Touch Is Destroying Men
Mark Green · 4,073 views today · Why Men Need More Platonic Touch in their Lives
Murdoch and Trump, Sitting at the Tee, S-C-H-E-M-I-N-G
Frankie Boyle · 3,919 views today · Say what you like about Donald Trump but he's already done things people said were impossible, like made Twitter worse. Looking back, the Harambe situation is the closest...
The Coming War on China
John Pilger · 3,906 views today · A major US military build-up – including nuclear weapons – is under way in Asia and the Pacific with the purpose of confronting China. John Pilger raises the alarm on an...
Artificial Ethics and the Search for Intelligence
5 min · 2,151 views today · How to stop a robot turning evil.  It's 2027 and Mental Endeavours Ltd has a problem with their flagship robot Günther. How do you program an intelligent machine not to...
Everything We Think We Know About Addiction Is Wrong
6 min · 2,131 views today · What causes addiction? Easy, right? Drugs cause addiction. But maybe it is not that simple. This video is adapted from Johann Hari's New York Times best-selling book 'Chasing...
Real Underground Kingdom That Has Existed for Millions of Years Went Unnoticed, Until Recently...
Kid Krunk · 1,906 views today · 28 Stunning Photos Of The World’s Largest Cave
What Would It Take to Stop the Raids?
CrimethInc. Ex-Workers Collective · 1,741 views today · Responding Effectively to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Attacks
Thich Nhat Hanh: How We Can Learn to Love Our Enemies
5 min · 1,203 views today · This is a short excerpt from Peacemaking. I often think about this story when I think about the kind of activism I would like to bring into this world. I want to help build a...
Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed (The Real Reason For The Forty-Hour Workweek)
David Cain · 1,196 views today · Well I’m in the working world again. I’ve found myself a well-paying gig in the engineering industry, and life finally feels like it’s returning to normal after my nine months...
Simple Social Experiment Shows We Are More Than The Boxes People Put Us In
3 min · 1,154 views today · We live in a time where we are quick to put people in boxes. Maybe we have more in common than what we think?
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 1,066 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
I Am Not Your Negro (2017)
3 min · 1,041 views today · In his new film, director Raoul Peck envisions the book James Baldwin never finished - a radical narration about race in America, using the writer's original words. He draws...
A Hauntingly Beautiful Short Film About Life and Death
5 min · 785 views today · The Life of Death is a touching handdrawn animation about the day Death fell in love with Life.
How Wolves Change Rivers
4 min · 757 views today · When wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in the United States after being absent nearly 70 years, the most remarkable "trophic cascade" occurred. What is a...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 714 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic
Asam Ahmad · 688 views today · Call-out culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and...
Surviving Capitalist Depression
Michael Emero · 539 views today · We live in a toxic society filled with toxic people. Even the ones with the best hearts- including ourselves- have been raised in ignorance, with disinformation. Our examples...
Load More
What's Next
Like us on Facebook?
The Need for Venture Science