Observer Forum

Letter to the Editor

A New Bristle in The Toothbrush Problem

I greatly appreciated APS President Walter Mischel’s Column “The Toothbrush Problem” (Observer, Vol. 21, No. 11) describing the tendency of science professors, especially those not yet tenured, to produce needless new models and explanations for data, rather than integrating knowledge into existing conceptual frameworks. The ironic result is a lack of “cumulation”; that is, a lack of real progress in our understanding of the universe. Instead, as he notes, we end up with “parallel play or repackaging [of] ideas and findings already available.”

In one bizarre example of this relentless pursuit of novelty for its own sake, particular animal species are now being subjected to experiments that they had not been subjected to in the past, but which had been done thoroughly on other species. I know one investigator who gained tenure and many publications by simply taking a set of well-established electrophysiological tests that had been done over several decades on three furred mammalian species (without finding any gross differences between them) and repeating those procedures for another furred mammal species that had not yet been tested. Period. The behavior and anatomy of the latter gave no reason to believe that the experiments would produce radical new findings, and they didn’t. But that researcher continues to enjoy grant support, resulting in a needless output of “novel” data and the needless sacrifice of numerous animals. We need more than mere curiosity as a reason for using existing tests to study a previously untested species.

Observer Vol.22, No.2 February, 2009

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