Science in the face of uncertainty

In 2018, scientists from IISc announced they’d found a room-temperature superconductor, an exotic material that has zero resistance to electric current in ambient conditions – considered the holy grail of materials science. But in the little data the authors were willing to share with the world, something seemed off.

Within a few days, other scientists in India and around the world began to spot anomalous data points in the preprint paper. If the paper wasn’t already vague, it was now also very suspicious. And it was still hard to tell what was going on: the scientists weren’t speaking to the press, IISc kept mum and the narrative was starting to turn smelly.

The duo clearly had to walk a fine line if they wanted their claim, and themselves, to retain legitimacy. They were refusing to talk to the press until their paper had been peer-reviewed, they said. However, others said this was a weak excuse and it was easy to see why: the best way to clear up confusion is to open up, not clam up. But they refused to, as much as they refused to provide any more information about their experiment or to allow academics around India to join in. And the narrative itself had by then become noticeably befouled by suspicion that there was foul play 😱.

In a new effort to beat these dark clouds back, the duo updated their preprint paper on May 22 with a lot more data, apart from tacking on eight more collaborators to their team. (One of them was Arindam Ghosh, a particularly accomplished physicist at IISc.) This was heartening to find out, esp. that they’re receptive to feedback. In fact, they’d also made note of that anomalous data pattern (although they still aren’t able to explain how it got there).

Making the GIANT ASSUMPTION that their claim is eventually confirmed and we have a room-temperature superconductor in our midst, a lot of things about many technologies will change drastically. Theorists will also have a new line of enquiry – though some already do – to find out which materials can be superconductors under what conditions. If we figure this question out, discovering new superconducting materials will become that much easier.

IFF the claim ends up being confirmed, many people will also likely have many different takeaways from what will become encoded as an extended historical moment, the prelude to a major discovery (or invention?). At that time, I think it will be interesting to look back and consider how different scientists respond to something very new in their midst.

To adopt Thomas Kuhn’s philosophy of scientific progress, it will be interesting to examine individual attitudes to paradigm-shifts, and the different  extents to which skepticism and cynicism dominate the story when the doctrine of incommensurability is in play. After all, a scientific result that has researchers scrambling for an explanation can evoke two kinds of responses, excitement or distrust, and it would be useful to find out if they’re context-specific in a contemporary, Indian setting.

In fact, the addition of Arindam Ghosh to the IISc research team reminds me of a specific incident from the not-so-distant past (and I do NOT suggest Ghosh was included only for scholastic heft). In 1982, Dan Shechtman discovered quasicrystals, whose internal crystal arrangement defied the prevailing wisdom of the time. So Shechtman was ridiculed as a “quasi-scientist” by a person no less in stature than Linus Carl Pauling, the father of molecular biology.

But Shechtman was sure of what he had seen under the microscope, so he attempted a third time to have his claim published by a journal. This time, he improved the manuscript’s presentation, and invited Ilan Blech, John Cahn and Denis Gratias to join his team. The last two lent much weight to an application that the casual historian of science frequently considers to be an objective and emotionless enterprise! Their paper was finally accepted by Physical Review Letters in November 1984.

Also in the early 1980s, Dov Levine in the US had discovered quasicrystals but without knowing that Shechtman had done the same thing, and Levine was eager to publish his paper. But Paul Steinhardt, his PhD advisor, advised caution because he didn’t want Levine to be proven wrong and his career damaged for it. Wise words – but also interesting words that show science is nothing without the people that practice it, that there’s a lot to it beyond the stony face of immutable facts, etc.

This is something many people tend to forget in favour of uttering pithy statements like “science is objective”, “science is self-correcting”, etc. Scientism frequently goes overboard in a bad way, and the arc of scientific justice doesn’t bend naturally towards truths. It has to be pulled down by the people who practice it. Science is MESSY – like pretty much everything else.

The same applies in the IISc superconductivity claim case as well. Nobody can respond perfectly in the face of great uncertainty; we can all just hope to do our best. Some ways for non-experts to navigate this would be to a) talk to scientists; I know some who’d surprise you with their willingness to sit down and explain; b) pick out publications you trust and read them (that’s The Wire Science 😄 and The Hindu Science in this specific case) as well as try to discover others; and c) be nice and don’t jump to conclusions, esp. within a wider social frame in which self-victimisation and entitlement has often come too easily.

Also, three cheers for preprints!

I turned this post into a Twitter thread on May 26, 2019.

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