Monday, March 05, 2007

Scientists accustomed to publicly humiliating one another?

On the theme of secrecy of REJECTED grant proposals at CIRM, californiastemcellreport reposted something from wired blog about scientists being used to humiliating one another. I submitted a comment:

Of --I thought scientists were accustomed to publicly humiliating each other--, most scientists avoid controversy like the plague. In a world where a competitor is apt to be the next reviewer of your grant proposal or referee of your paper, you can't go around humiliating those in your field. Further, look at the practice of scientific journals. If public criticism were some kind of norm, journals would allow third party commentary on work published in journals. One of the most cited journals in the world, the Journal of the American Chemical Society, does not allow third party comments to be published.

Take a look at the Schon fraud: in the presence of known failure to duplicate his work, only a few tried to speak up, and they were ignored. For example, Solomon tried to submit a criticism to the journal Nature, but Nature refused to print it. With the fraud of Hwang Woo Suk in the area of embryonic stem cells, no one in the U.S. commented on the questionable work because, among other things, many were trying to collaborate with Hwang. [See also 88 JPTOS 239 (March 2006)]

As a separate matter, I was in attendance at a certain medical conference wherein one speaker criticized the work of another (earlier) speaker, and called for a symposium to resolve their differences. The criticizing speaker was told by the conference organizers he would not be invited back.


A strenuous debate in chemistry was that between Winstein and Brown. George Olah (Nobel laureate) wrote in his Priestley address:

The much-publicized, so-called nonclassical ion controversy centered mainly on the case of the norbornyl cation. The 1962 Brookhaven Mechanism Conference, where I first reported on our work on long-lived carbocations in public, is still clear in my mind. The scheduled "main event" of the meeting was the continuing debate between Saul Winstein and Herbert Brown on the classical or nonclassical nature of the norbornyl cation. It must have come as a surprise to them and to the audience that a young chemist from an industrial laboratory had been invited to lecture on having obtained and studied stable, long-lived carbonium ions (as they were still called at the time) by the new method of using highly acidic (superacidic) systems.

Elsewhere: Using these methods Olah was able to show that the 2-norbornyl cation has the non-classical structure originally postulated by Winstein, thus resolving a long-standing debate in physical organic chemistry.

For an allusion to a different controversy, see US 5985232, including

"The Interrelationship of C60, Soot and Combustion," Lawrence B. Ebert, Carbon, 31, 999-1001 (May 25, 1993).


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