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Year : 2000  |  Volume : 48  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 81-2

On the ways we do science.

Correspondence Address:
D Balasubramanian

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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

PMID: 11116519

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Keywords: Authorship, Ethics, Medical, Humans, Ophthalmology, standards, Publishing, standards, Science, standards,

How to cite this article:
Balasubramanian D. On the ways we do science. Indian J Ophthalmol 2000;48:81

How to cite this URL:
Balasubramanian D. On the ways we do science. Indian J Ophthalmol [serial online] 2000 [cited 2023 Sep 23];48:81. Available from: https://journals.lww.com/ijo/pages/default.aspx/text.asp?2000/48/2/81/14880

We have an insightful article in this issue entitled "Scientific Literature and Gospel Truth", by the distinguished ophthalmologist- researcher Dr. Sohan Singh Hayreh. Delivered in Hyderabad as the annual Syamala Bhaskaran Oration a few months ago, the lecture is at once a personal memoir and a commentary on the remarkable conservatism and establishmentarianism of organized science.

The title sets you thinking as it puts scientific knowledge and gospel truth on the two sides of a balance. One of the firm, things that we learn in science is that scientific laws are arrived at by consensus, temporal but universal. This is what sets the paradigm that provides for our understanding. As we gather more knowledge, and codify and unify it under one umbrella (to the extent we can), the paradigm expands. When we studied and analyzed macroscopic phenomena, we could arrive at a widely accepted view of the world based on Newton's propositions and "laws of nature". As we gained knowledge about the atom and its constituents, we found Newtonian mechanics inadequate to explain their properties. The new science of quantum mechanics helped us in doing so. But the point to note is that Newton's theory was not thrown out of the window; it still reigns supreme in the macroscopic world. The new physics absorbed and subsumed the old physics - it did not replace it. The paradigm expanded. Much effort in the 1930s was to smoothen out the transition from the macroscopic to the subatomic, based on what was called the correspondence principle. Biology too became part of the paradigm, once we understood the behaviour of atoms and molecules, and realized that all energy transactions within the cell, tissue, organ, body and even populations can be made sense of using the principles of chemistry and physics.

The fight among scientists is then largely a matter of models. Often, a scientist has a pet model which, he thinks, fits the data best, while another scientist has a competing model that he thinks is better. Furs fly in scientific conferences and unseemly controversies erupt, largely because of this attitude of "my model explains all, do not confuse me with further facts". The "razor" of the Bishop of Occam, namely try and explain as much with as few assumptions as you can, is given the go by. Hayreh discusses how Jules Francois and his group were not ready to give up their pet idea of the central artery of the optic nerve, no matter how much Hayreh barraged the literature with data. Interestingly enough, the controversy came to a happy ending with Francois accepting at a later point in time that his idea had to be given up. It is here that we see the strength, as it were, of science: namely, that it is a self-correcting system. Ideas that need to be given up in the face of evidence are, and science advances. Young David has the last word over Goliath, even if it takes time. (Hayreh, alas, had to suffer while the correction process was on).

Also to be noted is one refreshing aspect of the community of scientists; Francois bore Hayreh no ill will. Imagine what two politicians or even lawyers would have done under similar circumstances. It is in situations like this that the practice of science embodies and inculcates values and ethics of interpersonal interactions. It is in the same spirit that the system of anonymous (or even named) referees operates. There was a time when even the writing of a scientific report had to be done in the passive voice: "It was found" rather than "we have found", so as to remove the person from the act, and emphasize the fact that anyone can reproduce the results, using the procedures listed in the paper and that there is nothing special about the author. We no longer feel the necessity of this Victorian aloofness in paper-writing, but the idea behind it still holds. Many journals now regularly issue ethical guidelines about the role and responsibilities of authors, criteria for authorship and co-authorship, protocol for the use of animals, human tissues and human volunteers, role of referees, and role of journal editors and so on. Special attention is paid to the issue of intellectual property, and conflict of interests in the conduct and release of results of sponsored projects

Hayreh talks about wrong treatments and phony practices. We are only too aware of it, not only with quack practitioners but also quack scientists. Ramar Pillai of the "herbal petrol" notoriety still rankles uncomfortably in our memory Benveniste of Paris, France raised a storm in medical sciences when he published a paper in Nature several years ago that the basis of homeopathic cure lay in the imprinting of the molecular message of the drug in the solvent water! Coming from a famous laboratory and published in one of the highly respected journals of science, the paper created quit a stir. Only when it was proved later on that the data could not be reproduced by others, and that the original experiments were actually a sleight of hand, could the Benveniste idea be buried. On the other side is the validation of traditional Chinese practice of acupuncture. Dismissed for quite some time as mumbo-jumbo, it could gain acceptance only when it was shown that inserting needles at specific points in the body elicited the release of endorphins and opioid-type peptides that modulated CNS activity. The paradigm expanded to include this ancient practice into the fold of molecular and cellular medicine.

The practice of science is no longer the province of the gentleman of leisure who was intrigued by why the sky is blue, or whether pigs have wings. Its applications in health care, industry and wealth generation are enormous. New rules of the game have been laid. Yet, the basic character has not changed. In its essence, it is a quest for what lies underneath, what the truth is. Ultimately, what it imparts in its practitioner is humility and wonderment. Unlike gospel, science allows questions and seeks ever improved answers. In this ever changing, yet constant feature of science lies its strength.


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