08 March 2011

A story worthy of network analysis

There appears to be a scientific controversy brewing in Denmark. It always astounds me that when events like this occur in science and medicine that no one pauses to consider the context or whether we ought to being doing things better in academic research. Instead gossip, anger, and suspicion falls on individuals. No one, of course, believes that the institutions and organizations involved are perfectly functioning entities. But no one publicly calls their functioning into question either.

Most historians dislike "Whig" history, or the tendency to consider past scientific theories in light of current knowledge. We also find the idea that great men or women make history naive. An equally bad corollary, of course, is that great villains can make history too.

Both bad habits tend to cloud sound judgement in cases of scientific controversy. Typically people ill-equipped to judge circumstances unintentionally act in ways that cover-up the existence of bad policy, poor regulation, widespread corruption, or perverse incentives. They do so by focusing on the poor choices – sometimes atrocious behavior – of individuals.

Don’t misunderstand me. Dishonest people deserve consequences for their dishonesty. I am merely pointing out that individuals - both good and bad - often have more limited agency than people care to admit in the heat of the moment. I cite my case study of Kathleen Chevassut as an illustration of these claims.

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