Sunday, September 28, 2008

Scientists’ Wars

They planned to publish a set of invited papers in the journal Cognitive Studies at the Japanese Cognitive Society [1]. The theme of the plan was the mirror puzzle, “Why left and right are reversed in a mirror?” Three authors including me were invited to debate. We wrote papers for three stages: (1) one’s own solution to the puzzle, (2) critiques of the other authors’ solutions, and (3) replies to the other authors’ qritiques.

Soon after the publication of our papers, I received an e-mail message to thank my cooperation from one of the authors who had been among the planners of the debates. I sent him a reply including the following passage: “I believe that scientists are not enemies against each other, but friends to cooperate to search for truth and to get as much intellectual property common to mankind as possible. So I wrote my papers of the second stage with this belief. However, it was deplorable that the other authors’ critiques were only too aggressive.”

The latest issue of Scientific American carries an excerpt [2] from Leonard Susskind’s book [3], where I found the following passage: “[The Black Hole War] was not a war between angry enemies; indeed the main participants are all friends. But it was a fierce intellectual struggle of ideas between people who deeply respected each other but also profoundly disagreed.”

Our situation was similar to the Black Hole War. In our debates, however, I did not find any tone of respect and friendliness in the other authors’ critiques. I say this because they criticized my solution on the basis of complete misunderstanding [4]. Misunderstanding should only come from careless reading of a paper, which in turn happens when one does not pay respect to the paper. You should respect your opponent’s opinion until it is defeated, because the opinion which will lose might be your own. If you kick a strong pole, the thing that is damaged is your foot.

A critique in scientists’ war can be scientific and meaningful only when it is based on an accurate understanding of the target of the criticism. Thus my opponents’ critiques were not scientific at all, and I do not think that our debates were fruitful.

  1. Highlights: Debates on Mirror Reversal: Why Left and Right are Reversed in a Mirror?, Cognitive Studies, Vol. 15, pp. 496−558 (2008) (in Japanese).
  2. Scientific American, Vol. 299, No. 4, p. 82 (2008).
  3. L. Susskind, The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics (Little, Brown, 2008).
  4. My solution was already published in two parts in refereed journals, so that it does not have any point difficult to understand. Namely, before publication my coauthors and I discussed on some points with referees and editors of the journals, and finally we made them understand our arguments thoroughly to accept our manuscripts. Our publications appeared in: T. Tabata and S. Okuda, Psychonomic Bulletin & Review Vol. 7, pp. 170−173 (2000); H. Yoshimura and T. Tabata, Perception Vol. 36, pp. 1049−1056 (2007).

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