21 May 2009

What is a scientific success?

Reading this review about a book on Stephen Jay Gould got me thinking. The review made what was, to me, a startling claim.

Punctuated equilibrium never caught on as a new theory of evolutionary change among most scientists.

Putting aside whether it was supposed to be “a new theory of evolutionary change” (arguably not new, but a refinement), and who “most scientists” are...

“Never caught on”?

I’m not sure what that means. Maybe it’s is a little like saying Einstein’s theories of relativity “never caught on.” After all, we still use Newtonian mechanics for most of our routine science and engineering. We don’t really worry about time dilation and relativistic speeds driving down the highway and that you’re very slightly younger than if you’d stayed at home.

But that an idea doesn’t explain every case doesn’t mean it “never caught on.”

The original paper by Stephen Gould and Niles Eldrege proposing punctuated equilibrium has, according to Google Scholar, been cited over 1,700 times. Punctuated equilibrium generated many fruitful predictions. Many, many research projects were done to test the hypothesis.

For comparison, the most any of my papers has been cited is... well, let's say less than 17. Now, admittedly, the punctuated equilibrium paper has had an extra 20 years or so on to gain those citations, so it’s not an entirely fair comparison. Even given that, that paper has been cited more than one hundred times more often than my best effort.

This article implies punctuated equilibrium is ultimately a failure. So where is the bar for success?

Me? I would love to have a failure like punctuated equilibrium.

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