Alexander Berezin berezin at MCMAIL.CIS.MCMASTER.CA
Sat Apr 27 12:13:08 EST 1996

On 27 Apr 1996, Patrick wrote:

> Some ideas are goofier than others.  

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) this
is almost exclusively in the eyes of a beholder.

As a practical criterium (and hidtorically) it
almost never worked. I can go at length to 
many examples but omit them now to be brief.

I admit to not being well informed 
> in this area right now because I am in the depths of prelims and simply 
> trying to get past the second year of graduate work... however, I cringe 
> at the thought that by changing the peer review process, we might then 
> end up providing (wasting) money to pseudoscientists and other hacks.  

Again, WHO is to define who are 'pseudoscientists' and hacks ?
Even mainstram scientists admit that a lot (perhaps, most)
of the published/peer reviewed stuff is of little importance.
Science is a wasteful process as it is exploration of
the unkown by definition. That's why we have to develop much
more equitable funding schemes and DOWPLAY (though not 
totally eliminate) peer review and selectivity.

Of course, there are extreme cases when no clear 
professional standards are present, but often
what is initially labled as a pseudoscience brings
later good fruits. Again, I can provide many examples.

Sliding funding scale (give SOME funds to fringe
ideas) is a good working compromise in this respect.  

> Thus far, in my limited experience, those I have come across who were 
> disatified with the process were those who didn't get funding.  

Yes, of course. Those who are well funded are not
complaining. How else you want it to be ?

> In the lab I am a part of, our PI has been involved in reviewing numerous 
> proposals.  My experience in seeing this has been positive thus far.  The 
> PI gets the proposal and provides it to the other grad students in the 
> lab and any postdocs attached to us.  They all review it and critique 
> it.  What I have seen has always been sincere and helpful criticism.  
> They do not care from whom the proposal comes from. 
> They DO care that the case being made is backed up with some solid 
> supporting evidence and 
> that the experiments match the hypothesis, and that the experiments are 
> logical and likely to get where the researcher wants to go.  Most of the 
> negative criticisms I have heard are concerned with failing to support 
> the proposal with the proper evidence so as to make the hypothesis 
> consistent and reasonable.

I don't question the fairness and integrity of your PI.
However the essence of the process has (unfortunately)
relatively little to do with personal aspects.

Please read Horrobin and Osmond to appreciate why the
above strategy despite that it APPEARS sound and logical 
is prone with fundamental fallacy in a long run. The
probelem is that science almost never developes by the
nice, clear, logically justified steps. In reality it
is a chaotic, unperdicatble and often quite IL-logical 
process when people arrive at destinations far away
from where they originally planned to land.
That's why it is imperative that ANY peer review 
assessment if bracketed (hedged against) to reflect 
this fundamental uncertainty. (and we again back to
a sliding scale scheme: fund researchers, not proposals). 

< snip >
> I am not necessarily opposed to reformation.  I am, however, concerned 
> that what comes out might not be the most scientifically productive 
> alternative.  

The word to be alerted about in the above is 'productive'.
Again, this is a highly dubious and difficult-to-define
term. Recent "IG-Nobel Prize Laureate" in Literature is
a chemist who published (co-authored) 980 papers
in 5 years (new paper every other day). 
Good production indeed - especially for the paper
recycling industry.

> For research that seems to be "really out there" I could 
> support minimal funding for pilot studies to obtain data for 
> determination if the goofy idea has any merit at all, but certainly not 
> full, equal funding to other research that has sound foundation to start 
> with. 

The above is the idea of a sliding funding scale (Donald 
By all the reasons I have discussed earlier this idea
is fiercely opposed by the funding establishement.

> Here at the University of Utah, we have the Pons and Fleischman 
> cold fusion episode (yes, we were the home of those clowns) to provide us 
> with a sense of caution.

I am sorry that you call them clowns. Yes, it was a 
very controversial episode in the history of science
when many things went wrong, including the behaviour
of some key characters. But the story is not at all
over, at least in a broader context. What these
people tried to say (unfortunately, SO FAR unsuccessfully)
is that there could exist nuclear reactions initiated at
low (chemical) energies, not just at megavolt temperatures.
This idea remains scientifically valid and need to 
be explored further. I would continue funding them,
but of course, at a relatively modest level. 

< rest is removed: we actually have not much 
disagreement there >

Alex Berezin

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