Mast Kalandar

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Fri, 06 Dec 2002

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Secretive research


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In an article in Physics Today December 2002 Laughlin says:

But so long as the details are made public and dutifully subjected to the harsh light of scientific scrutiny, those deceptions will be hunted down and destroyed, just as they have always been. Only in the shadows of proprietary knowledge can they survive to work their mischief.

In my (not so) humble opinion, it is worth our while to introspect on the extent to which we actually follow this scientific tradition.

While mostly agreeing with the author, I must say I feel more pessimistic than him on this point. Knowledge is kept secret for three purported reasons---each of which is equally harmful.

The economic reason he already mentions. Then there are those who claim that they cannot release details since it is a "military secret" (we happen to know some!). Finally, there is that large body of science which is not held up to public scrutiny since it is "understood only by specialists". Many scientists of the day fall into the latter category and it is this that creates the permissive culture that allows the first two to flourish.

Much of science today is not conducted under the harsh light of scientific scrutiny but only the gentler light of peer scrutiny.

One of the oft-quoted strengths of "free software" is

Given enough eyeballs all bugs are shallow

Clearly we need to get more eyeballs to look at the work we do.

One of the reasons scientific thought has not been able to defeat obscurantist traditions (in religion for example) is that in the view of many in the public we are just another priesthood with its own sects and subsects.

How many of us are even willing to be reviewed by other scientists who are not experts in our specialisation.


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