(This letter was sent to the Premier of Western Australia, Alan Carpenter, in 2006 as a proposal to advance society by encouraging critical evaluation of unorthodox or iconoclastic scientific ideas and proposals.)
The Perth Science Court Proposal
Dear Mr Carpenter
Perth Science Court Project
I wonder whether I can interest you in a project which should greatly raise the States science profile at a relatively small cost?
It is a common complaint of scientists who put forward ideas that challenge the status quo, that they cannot get these accepted or even considered, however great the weight of evidence supporting the ideas.
This happens because those who have reached the top in a scientific field feel themselves challenged personally by new concepts which could reduce their status of authority. Consciously or subconsciously, this leads to barriers to acceptance of new ideas, often maintained until these scientists have left the field or died.
Hence the wry quotation: Science advances funeral by funeral.
This (sociological) problem has dismayed scientists certainly as far back as Galileo, persecuted by the Church for suggesting that the Earth travels around the Sun, and not vice versa.
In more recent times (1989), the problem of professional acceptance of new ideas has been looked at by Thomas Gold, one of the Terrible Trio of cosmological physicists (along with Fred Hoyle and Hermann Bondi). His article can be found on the Internet at:
Here is a quote from Gold:
"Is there another way of doing it? I suppose that the best that I can think of is roughly on the lines of what my friend, Arthur Katrowitz proposed at least for major decisions: The "science court" idea is the best one. Where a lot is at stake, where a subject has been driven into an alley, one must set up a science court where the different viewpoints would be heard, would be argued by the protagonists of each one, with carefully prepared work. The different viewpoints could be judged, not by others working in that same field, which would merely take you back to the herd, but would be judged by a group of very knowledgeable and very competent scientists distributed over other fields, but with enough general competence to be able to listen and understand the detailed arguments of the field in question. I would be much happier to have subjects surveyed every now and again by a jury of that kind. It has to be a scientific jury because it would have to understand detailed scientific arguments, but they do not have to be -- and should not be -- from the field in which the decision is to be made."
In setting up a 'Perth Science Court', modern communications allow it to be largely a 'virtual' court, with all cases, proponents, defenders, jurors, and the like working via the Internet. I believe that scientists, particularly retired scientists, would vie with each other to be appointed as Science Court Jurors.
Proponents, the equivalent of Plaintiffs in a real court, will be very anxious to get their Causes (the assertions to be voted on by the Jurors) considered in the public light, while Defenders (those defending the status quo) will be anxious to defend their positions. All these people, who might be anywhere in the world, will participate without cost to the Court.
Expense for the WA Government would be limited to maintaining a Registrar to accept and list Causes put forward for consideration, and organise Jury Lists from those volunteering to act on a jury. Even this post of Registrar might be done voluntarily, but if the expected flow-on of prestige as a science centre is to be achieved, it would probably be best to employ a competent, committed and paid person here.
The other essential role would be an internet-skilled publicity and public relations person, to establish Western Australia as a forward-looking, innovative scientific centre, willing to expose ideas to scrutiny by the scientific public.
I commend this project to you as a low-cost method of greatly raising the status of WA in the scientific world. And it should be quite fun - everybody loves a heated argument and the exposure of prejudices!
If the project attracts you, I would be glad to work with a government representative on its implementation, including suggesting some hot Causes crying out for consideration. Thirty years ago the idea that stomach ulcers could be caused by bacteria, not stress and acid foods, would be derided, but since then it has brought WA two Nobel Prizes.
2006 May 25
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Last update 2006 Jun 21