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Rational Scientists?

Scientists like to say that they are willing to change their views and opinions whenever new information comes in that conflicts with those views or the norm or standard practice. They like to say things like that because hypotheses, theories, and even paradigms must are supposed to develop from facts, data, and measurable events. When the facts change, scientists are willing to do the rational thing and change their views accordingly, even if they are heavily invested in the matter, right?

NPR's Joe Palca says scientists can be just as irrational as everyone else, and illustrates the point with an anecdote. On NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday, astrophysicist Don Winget regales Palca with the story of the first response to his research, which showed that the universe was actually far younger than everyone thought at the time.

Winget writes up his idea, which proposed a method for using white dwarf stars to measure the age of the universe, in a paper and submits it to a scientific journal. Then he waits.

After a while, Winget, working at the University of Texas at Austin, gets a call from a senior colleague named Icko Iben at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, telling him to come to his office.

Winget gets on a plane and races up to Iben's office. Upon his arrival, Iben reminds Winget that he is refereeing his white dwarf paper, and says he is "really mad because it's right," Winget says. Then, Iben starts ripping into him and continues to yell for 10 minutes or so, though it felt like 30 minutes, as Winget recalls.

"Why would he be mad if the data is right," Palca asks?

Winget remembers how Iben then explained his harangue.

"Well, I reproduced your calculations and I completely agree — they're right. And so I'm going to recommend that you publish this," he recalls Iben saying. "But I want you to realize that everybody that's worked in this field is going to hate your guts because you've just turned over their entire life's work."

Scientists are people, too, Winget says, with "enormous biases in everything we do."