When is Research Inaccurate?

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Jun 13, 2012    •    790 Views

Frequently, it is tough to challenge respected researchers.

Our story starts with a June 28, 2010 econlife post:

In 1910, as a 22 year old Russian immigrant, Dr. Selman A. Waksman arrived in Philadelphia. Through the education he accessed, the mentors who supported him, and the businesses and federal government who gave him research money, 30 years later he received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and Medicine for developing Streptomycin.

BUT…It did not really happen exactly that way.

Actually, the Waksman route to discovery took a detour through his graduate assistant, Albert Schatz. Recently found lab notebooks document the role played by Schatz during the 1940s at Rutgers. Using pots of soil and a chicken with a TB type of infection, in a basement near Dr. Waksman’s lab, Dr. Schatz isolated and named Streptomycin. Unmentioned by Waksman, even when accepting the Nobel Prize for the accomplishment, Schatz formally sued for recognition. The academic community shunned him for challenging the work of an esteemed scientist.

And that takes us to a great Econtalk discussion about the resistance to new ideas when an esteemed scholar has established the opposite. Whether looking at the discovery of Streptomycin, a challenge to a revered psychology experiment about people walking slowly, or the conclusions of economists Saez and Piketty about income stagnation, it is tough to challenge the status quo.

And yet, good policy decisions, even when they lead to creative destruction, require accurate facts.

I especially recommend this Econtalk discussion of scientific resistance to revision and here and here are the Guardian and the NY Times articles that tell more of the Schatz story. Finally, my original econlife post on Dr. Waksman and the one on the people who challenged Saez and Piketty.

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