Explorers & Crusaders

i-5baaf5b1e3036715c956659dca6e66e0-shield.jpgYou can clearly divide scientists into two categories, those who build new models and those who prove old models. The explorers and the crusaders. Usually the former are seeking the truth, or something close to it, while the latter are trying to confirm their own theories as if the idea was more important than reality.

As you can guess, I do not have a high regard for the latter group. Unfortunately there are a lot of crusaders around. In some way we all are part of this second group to some extent, but inevitably it's always the first group, the explorers, who win in the end.

The problem is everyone denies being a crusader. So how to tell ...
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a) Explorers are usually playing Russian roulette with their models. If the idea survives the toughest test, then it lives until the next day. If the idea dies, it dies. And then hopefully another superior model is born so that the explorers can torture it.

b) Explorers tends to be younger and less invested in the current dogmas. However, this is not always the case. Sometimes it's the "impressionable youths" that are indoctrinated while those with some experience understand the problems with existing dogma. It must be noted that crusaders do not always defend the majority view (see below).

c) Explorers are willing to perform "crazy" experiments and frame the problem in novel ways.

d) Crusaders are known as the exponent of an idea. If you call yourself the flat-earth society, and everyone calls you the flat-earth society, you're an crusader (albeit defending a minority stand point). Many enforcers are actually in the minority ... in fact in most cases. As a result crusaders sometimes suffer from inferiority complex and must get their point across at all costs.

f) If after reading this post you are insulted and feel attacked, then you are a crusader. Why? Crusaders defend their models as if a whole conspiracy of enemies is out to get them. Any whiff of the enemy and they morph into a werewolf.

Now even if you weren't insulted by my post and think that I was writing about the ID movement, I wasn't (although it certainly applies). This pathology is everywhere, and unfortunately it's spreading - into public debate on various issues, into our politics. It's always existed in science (if you're a scientist, I'm sure you know what I'm saying). Fortunately science rewards advances, and advances are always generated by explorers. So if you're still in doubt as to where you stand ask yourself, are you ready to kill your favorite idea in order to gain insight? Or are you obsessed with your enemies ideas (or think that your "enemies" are obsessed with your ideas)?

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How about iconoclasts and anti-crusaders? Those whose hobby is destroying entrenched models and theories, yet without a deep commitment to any particular replacement theory, sensing that the old way of thinking is wrong and doing research to figure out how and why, and to find out what the replacement theory is whichever way it goes. And will be perfectly happy if their own data show that the entrenched theory was, indeed, correct all along (i.e., his/her research just figured out the sources of discrepancies found in older research).

That's in integral part of how science progresses. Ultimately, consensus from a plethora of models and data prevails. Then you move on to the next topic. Many of us are somewhere in between.

By TrekJunkie (not verified) on 08 Mar 2006 #permalink

You had me going until you mentioned ID!

Your post is clearly NOT about ID, because in your first sentace you indicated that this is about "scientists". Since ID proponents are NOT scientists, they should not feel slighted in any way, since you are certainly NOT directing your post at them or about them. Any IDists should just go read their bibles until you DO direct a post to them or about them.

And then there are those who think that only they are the true explorers and everyone else has to be a bigoted, old-fashined crusader whose work is useless.

Unfortunately, it's not true. It has been demonstrated time and time again that you need both "normal science" and paradigm shifters, to re-employ Kuhn's terminology. In other words, having nothing but explorers would be like an entire army composed of scouts. it doesn't leave much for offense, defense, or territory control.

Crusaders, as you call them, make up the majority of scientists because their work is useful, and because not everything has to be constantly criticised. Evolution ebing a case in point.

By Gael Lancelot (not verified) on 08 Mar 2006 #permalink

Your post is clearly NOT about ID, because in your first sentace you indicated that this is about "scientists".

Yes indeed, it's not about ID! But I think that this terminology can apply as well to non scientists (ID, pundits, and "intellectuals" of all stripes). However science has a mechanism to weed them out ... Although according to some, such as Kuhn (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/thomas-kuhn/) the scientific establishment is rather slow at discarding the paradigm - stances I do not fully endorse, (but I think that in this idea there is a kernel of truth).

I strongly disagree with the substance and tone of this post. A model in science which has not been rigorously proved is worth nothing. Calling people who take trouble to prove what they propose is simply stupid. Mathematics, for example, is practiced by crusaders only.

We may look at the problem from the other side, and criticize those who only care about doing "new stuff", neglecting such old-fashioned things like accuracy, or even just being right. "No matter if your paper is right or wrong, what matters is being the first to publish on this". Is that the rule scientists should follow?

By Roman Werpachowski (not verified) on 08 Mar 2006 #permalink

To be harsh - I think this is a fairly useless distinction and I'll argue for the "crusaders" being the actual people who make science important as human endeaver - one that finds its way to powerful truths about the world. I'll add just three letters to the last phrase of your first sentence - Crusaders are those who DISprove old models. The fact is that anybody can come up with new models, and wacky ones, its happens all the time. It the pruning - the flames from people going at it and hacking against the proposed models that give science its power. In fact I would say its generally the "explorers" who have stuck by the theory they came up with right or wrong. Sometimes they are right, but many times they are not and are the last to move on, if they ever do. I think that most people are actually a combination of these facets.

I suspect it's more of a continuum effect: most scientists are 'explorers' in some aspects of their field and 'crusaders' in other bits (particularly anything they've published on...). A balance is good - a scientist who chucks out a model at the first sign of a problem is just as bad as one who will defend their One True Model to their last dying breath.

Of course, since we all love an argument we might just pick whichever persona is going to upset the other guy the most!

Great post.

"most scientists are 'explorers' in some aspects of their field and 'crusaders' in other bits (particularly anything they've published on...)"

I second that statement! In particular, those that scan the references for their own citations.

By Acme Scientist (not verified) on 08 Mar 2006 #permalink

I strongly disagree with the substance and tone of this post. A model in science which has not been rigorously proved is worth nothing. Calling people who take trouble to prove what they propose is simply stupid.

Hmm. Let me be clear ... you can never fully prove any hypothesis. A good scientist will take his or her favorite model and treat it as harshly as possible. If the model can survive toughest tests then it's a good model. This is what I meant by: Explorers are usually playing Russian roulette with their models. If the idea survives the toughest test, then it lives until the next day. If the idea dies, it dies.

Having said that, I agree totally with Gengar:

A balance is good - a scientist who chucks out a model at the first sign of a problem is just as bad as one who will defend their One True Model to their last dying breath.

Yes indeed, you don't want to go and cause upheavals all over, all the time. A good scientist is reasonable.

I think that my main point is that explorers are concerned about whether their models fit reality, while crusaders want reality to fit their models.

Having said that, Markk I totally agree with your statement:

It the pruning - the flames from people going at it and hacking against the proposed models that give science its power.

But I think that our terms are swaped - my explorers are what you call crusaders (and viceversa). Explorers are hackers, but they must also hack their own models too. The main idea is that crusaders never hack their own models.

As for coturnix's comment about

Those whose hobby is destroying entrenched models and theories, yet without a deep commitment to any particular replacement theory, sensing that the old way of thinking is wrong and doing research to figure out how and why, and to find out what the replacement theory is whichever way it goes.

Yeah, I hate those guys. Their main motive (I guess) is to piss on everyone else's parade.

I fully agree with your post, with goes right to the point; I think that people criticizing it here have moved to the Kuhnian normal science/paradigm breaker dichotomy, which was not the point.

I've suffered because of this. I have spent the last couple of years being a postdoc working for a crusader. When I arrived I thought he was an explorer (the fact that his theory was a minority view misled me). Yet I soon realized that he only wants to find arguments favoring his theory, and ignores anything that goes against it. Since he is my boss, and a nice person, and he loves his theory, I have spent a lot of time adding support to it, despite the fact that I don't think it is correct. Of course, I also point out to him some contradictions and weaknesses, and he values my role as a devil's advocate, but he refuses to consider alternatives. Meanwhile, I've started using an incresing part of my time to work on unrelated subjects.

It may sound like a bad time, but it has been a good lesson. The sooner you learn about the ills of wishful thinking, confirmation bias, and so on, the better. And probably it was good to learn it first-hand. However, for those who prefer to avoid loosing time learning it by personal experience, the advice is: don't fall in love with your ideas. Be brave to defend them from unfair attack, but be ready to kill them if needed. Furthermore, I recommend you try to work on questions: focus on questions, and try to answer them. That's a good way to avoid the crusading disease, and it also gives you goals and milestones to see if you're moving forward.

By Andr� (not verified) on 09 Mar 2006 #permalink