The Role of Clear Thinking
All through the quotations that have been used in the preceding pages to illustrate the present attitude of the scientific profession toward the subjects under discussion, the incomprehensibility of modern physical science is a constantly recurring theme. Dingle says that the word “unintelligibility” is an apt description of current science in its totality; Lanczos tells us that the only aspect of the Bohr theory of the atom that has remained unchanged through all of the revisions and modifications is its incomprehensibility; the world as a whole is not intrinsically understandable, on the basis of present-day concepts, says Bridgman; Heisenberg makes it plain that an understanding “of the first order” is impossible if the theory which he champions is correct; and so on. Lande reflects a very general impression when he says, “Quantum mechanics has the reputation of being incomprehensible to all but a select group of theoretical physicists… .”74
This widespread acknowledgement of the incomprehensible character of much of the currently accepted theory, not only by the opponents of the official doctrines, but by some of the originators and principal defenders of the theory as well, should have raised some very serious questions long ago. If our search along these lines for an explanation of the physical world must terminate in an answer that we cannot understand, is there any adequate justification for spending time and effort in the search? Since this answer that we obtain gets us nowhere even if it is correct, would we not be far better off if we directed our efforts toward exploring the possibility that this answer is not correct, and that an understandable answer does exist? As matters now stand, it is evident that, had this latter question been asked, experience would have answered it in the affirmative.
For the benefit of those who may be inclined to point out that some worth-while results have been accomplished in connection with the development of these incomprehensible ideas, it should be emphasized that, as brought out in detail in previous chapters, these tangible results have been accomplished independently of, and to a large extent in spite of, the theoretical explanations which have been attached to them. For instance, the entire structure of spectroscopic theory, which is one of the major accomplishments of this kind, the first one that is usually mentioned, is based on the concept of energy level, and it is entirely independent of the current theories which are intended to explain the existence of these energy levels. In fact, the spectroscopist has long since ceased to follow the theorists on the strange path along which they are guiding atomic theory. As Candler puts it in his text on “Atomic Spectra,” written at the time when the development of the “modern” theories was in full swing, the new atomic models will not replace the older ones, so far as spectroscopy is concerned, because the physicist working in this field asks “…as he often says, for something he can understand,”108 and of atomic theory he puts himself into a position where “…should by setting up his system on a basis independent of the wild gyrations the present theory ever be displaced by a better, the experimental facts would still be intelligible.”109
Another claim that is often made is that ideas which are difficult for the present generation to understand will be readily intelligible to a newer generation who have always been accustomed to thinking in these terms. Freeman J. Dyson predicts, “Eventually… quantum mechanics will be accepted by students from the beginning as a simple and natural way of thinking, just because we shall all have grown used to it.”110 After the disclosures of the earlier chapters, a consideration of this issue is purely academic so far as the quantum theory itself is concerned, but as a general proposition it may be pointed out that the accuracy of such predictions is decidedly questionable. They are largely predicated on the fact that many other ideas which were difficult to understand and accept when they were originally proposed are now familiar and commonplace habits of thought, but the instances of this kind that are usually cited are primarily cases where the original difficulties were due to unfamiliarity rather than to any inherent qualities of the ideas themselves. Atomicity, for example, has always encountered trouble of this kind, initially, ’in any field in which it has been introduced—in matter, in electricity, in radiant energy, and so on—but there is nothing of an incomprehensible nature in the concept of discrete units per se, and in this case a general understanding is simply a matter of time. Much of present-day physical theory, on the other hand, is inherently difficult to understand, a point which Dyson tacitly admits in the same article, when he says, “There is hope that quantum mechanics will gradually lose its baffling quality.” Unfamiliarity is a characteristic that ultimately disappears, but “baffling qualities” are likely to be permanent.
Actually it is somewhat doubtful whether those who do claim to have a full understanding of the latest quantum theories are being entirely candid. Worst of the explanations which they give us are far from being models of lucidity, particularly where they approach such questions as complementarity or the relation of the observer to the physical event. Heisenberg’s explanation, “…the different pictures are contradictory and therefore we call them mutually complementary,”111 is rather revealing with respect to the use that is being made of the term “complementary,” but it can hardly be described as a contribution toward understanding. Furthermore, we not only find the members of the “select group” of theorists differing among themselves as to the meaning of those concepts which they are all supposed to understand—“even the founders of quantum theory are not in harmony in their various expositions of the bases of that theory”112 says Margenau—but we also find numerous inconsistencies in separate statements by the same quantum authority. There is ample room for suspicion that the alleged understanding may have some similarity to the ability to see “The Emperor’s New Clothes” in Hans Christian Andersen’s story.
It is really quite amusing to observe the predicament in which an author finds himself if he tries to explain some of the present-day theories related to atomic structure under circumstances where he is precluded from taking advantage of the protective screen of excess verbiage that is normally employed to conceal the flimsy foundations on which these theories rest. David Dietz, for example, devotes three pages of his book “The Story of Science”113 to an explanation of inter-atomic forces as they are visualized by the electrical theory. In this limited space he cannot beat around the bush; he must make his statements definite and succinct. But as matters now stand in the realm of atomic theory, a definite statement cannot be a positive statement, if the author knows his subject and has any regard for accuracy. He cannot say that an atom with only one electron in its outer shell loses it easily, since this statement is full of unconfirmed assumptions; he finds himself forced to say that such an atom seems to have this behavior. Similarly, he cannot tell us explicitly how two neutral atoms create the electrical forces that are supposed to cause them to combine, as current theory has no explanation for this phenomenon. Hence Dietz is here forced to use another evasive expression and tell us that in some way a rearrangement takes place and attractive forces come into play.
In the three short pages in which he describes the electrical theory of atomic cohesion it is necessary eight times to tell us that something seems to be true; the expression in some way is used twice, such words as perhaps, probably, and apparently, are used four times, and twice Dietz admits that some phase of the currently accepted theoretical structure is difficult to understand. Here is a very eloquent commentary on the state of the theory.
This theory of the forces between the atoms, with which Dietz has such a struggle in three pages, acquires no greater content of truth when it is expanded to forty or fifty pages in the usual textbook presentation, and is dressed up with all of the vague and “baffing” concepts of the quantum theory. These embellishments merely serve the purpose of obscuring the true situation, and it is quite apparent that this retreat into obscurantism is another measure of the type discussed in Chapter 1, another expedient that can be, and is, employed to avoid the necessity of discarding a basic concept or theory which has come into conflict with the established facts. It is freely admitted that the unintelligibility is deliberate. “The present-day atomic model,” according to Holton and Roller, “quite intentionally no longer presents any simple picture to guide our imagination.”114 Like the devices discussed in the introductory chapter—the ad hoc assumption, the repudiation of established physical principles, and the principle of impotence—this device is inherently of such a nature that it lends itself readily to illegitimate purposes, such as the perpetuation of false theories, and it should always be looked upon with suspicion. Whenever we are told that an understanding of some aspect of the physical universe is “for ever beyond our reach,”115 as Jeans characterized the atomic situation, there is a very strong possibility that the unintelligibility is merely the result of unwillingness on the part of the theorist to abandon some favorite concept that should be on its way to the ashcan.
This does not imply that all valid new ideas must necessarily be fully understandable at first sight; on the contrary, it is inevitable that new theories which replace old familiar ideas will involve some major conceptual difficulties on initial consideration. But as long as the proponents of a new theory contend that a clear understanding is possible, the validity of the theory can be tested. If such an understanding eventually turns out to be unattainable, this is, in itself, a test, since it disproves the contentions of the advocates of the theory. On the other hand, a theory which claims to be correct, but inherently incapable of a complete understanding, cannot be tested, and acceptance of such theories carries with it a considerable risk of perpetuating basic errors.
Closely connected with the use of obscure and incomprehensible concepts is the utilization of unusual and complicated methods of mathematical treatment. This device itself is perfectly legitimate. There are a multitude of applications in science and technology where the use of complex mathematics is essential to solution of the existing problems. But this is another tool which lends itself very readily to misuse, and there is a definite tendency in present-day practice to call upon complicated mathematical procedures as a means of forcing the observed facts into conformity with preconceived basic concepts, rather than adopting the logical but distasteful alternative of giving up these basic ideas that are erroneous or inadequate.
The great versatility of this mathematical tool is the feature that makes it dangerous. If the first application of complex mathematics is fruitless, the present-day theorist is not in the least dismayed. He merely introduces still further complexity, secure in the knowledge that if tangible results continue to elude him, the complexity will ultimately exceed the capabilities of the available mathematical methods, at which point he can claim that the problem has been solved “in principle” and that it is only the limitations of existing mathematical methods which stand in the way of accomplishing any actual results. The availability of the modern high speed computers will extend the practical application of complex mathematical processes to a considerable extent, but the opportunities for added complexity are unlimited, and the theorists can easily keep ahead of the computers. Anyone who thinks that this picture is overdrawn should take another look at the statement quoted in Chapter 7, which contends that quantum mechanics gives the solution, in principle, to almost every chemical problem, and at the same time admits that in actual practice it cannot solve any specific problem, or at Stater’s comment regarding Heisenberg’s theory of ferromagnetism, in which he says that there is a “universal conviction that Heisenberg’s fundamental idea was correct,” and then goes on to say, “Here, unfortunately, as in the molecular problem, it is extremely difficult to get quantitative results out of the theory, on account of its great mathematical complication,”116 or at any number of equally revealing statements which can be found throughout scientific literature.
The misuse of mathematics has not gone unrecognized. Lande tells us, for example, “The mathematical sign language with its complex symbols and non-commutative matrix algebra has become a veil shielding the simple meaning of the quantum laws from the scrutiny of common sense,”117 and Bridgman calls our attention to the fact that the statistical methods may be used to “conceal a vast amount of actual ignorance.”118 But the general tendency has been to glorify the complex and the abstruse. A liberal use of non-commutative mathematics, non-Euclidean geometry, and complicated statistical procedures has come to be regarded as the hallmark of erudition, and any publication, in the field of physics at least, which does not bristle with integral signs and complex equations is looked upon as lamentably deficient in scholarly quality, irrespective of the actual need for anything more than simple arithmetic.
The astounding lengths to which the physicists have been able to carry the nuclear theory of the atom, in spite of its complete lack of factual foundation and the contradictions and inconsistencies which it has encountered at every turn, cannot be attributed exclusively to any one cause. This extraordinary performance is the result of innate reluctance to abandon ideas of long standing, plus the confusion of fact and fancy, plus the use of obscurity as an evasive tactic, plus the utilization of abstruse mathematics, plus the repudiation of established principles of science, plus the lavish use of ad hoc assumptions, plus the free employment of principles of impotence: all of the great arsenal of evasive devices which the ingenuity of the modern scientist has created to aid him in his attempt to force nature into the patterns which he has chosen for it.
But it is painfully apparent by this time that nature will not be coerced, and that in order to find the correct answers, the theorist must resign himself to the humble role of seeker after the truth, rather than the role of lawmaker, which he has been aspiring to fill. It is no doubt a highly satisfactory state of affairs to be permitted to take command of a sector of the universe, to populate it with “creatures of the imagination… formed into the image of our fancies and restricted by whatever laws we cared to prescribe,” and to receive the acclaim of the scientific world for the construction of this ingenious theoretical structure. But all this contributes nothing toward the increase of knowledge. It is not science; it is merely a sophisticated kind of science fiction, and in the long run it can only end in the same kind of a debacle that now faces the nuclear theory. True forward progress requires some clear thinking to separate fact from fancy and to recognize the path which these facts delineate, and then a conscientious and determined effort to follow that path wherever it leads, irrespective of personal prejudices or preferences.
The need for clear and unprejudiced thinking is by no means confined to those who are engaged in the construction of the new theoretical structure. All those who undertake to appraise or evaluate new ideas in the scientific field, or who pass a negative judgment by refusing to consider them at all, share in this responsibility.
If it were possible to eliminate the existing tendency to treat extrapolations, currently popular hypotheses, and other non-factual items on the same basis as positively established facts, and to sweep away the veil of obscure language and abstruse mathematics that conceals the weaknesses of existing theory, most of the tangible obstacles that now stand in the way of developing a satisfactory replacement for the nuclear atom theory would be removed. Even then, however, the road would still be blocked by an intangible, but extremely formidable, obstacle in the strong pressure for conformity to accepted lines of thought which exists throughout the scientific world. It is rather ironic that it should be necessary to make a statement of this kind, since the university professors, among whom are numbered most of the leading theorists in the field of physical science, are the most vociferous objectors to any pressure for conformity in other fields, particularly conformity to the prevailing political and economic viewpoints of the general public. The same individual who stoutly defends his “academic freedom” and defiantly asserts his right to hold—and even to teach—political doctrines that are anathema to the great majority of the individuals who pay his salary, is the first to condemn any deviation from the dogma of his own specialized field.
It is true that this situation is not quite as pronounced in Europe as in the United States. This is a highly conformist nation, so much so that “some critics would have us believe,” an investigator tells us in a recent report, “that social conformity is exclusively a U.S. phenomenon.”119 But science cuts across national boundaries, and the pressure for scientific conformity is world-wide. Even Einstein found himself relegated to the sidelines when he persisted in opposing the currently popular doctrines. In the words of Lanczos, “The same Einstein who, a few years earlier, was hailed as the greatest scientific genius of all times, now had difficulties in even publishing his results. Soon he faded out altogether from the scientific arena of his time.”19
There are, of course, many scientific questions which are wide open for debate: questions on which no “official” viewpoint has yet been formulated. In the field of cosmology, for example, one has a free choice from among several competing theories of a general nature, and practically unlimited latitude for introducing any variations which he might happen to favor. But once the “party line” has been established, dissent is, in effect, prohibited. Some of the more daring thinkers may raise questions of detail; that is, men like Bohm or Lande take issue with the Copenhagen interpretation quantum theory, but the basic theory must not be touched, and these dissenters evidently feel that it is imperative to make it very clear that they have no such intention. Any member of a university physics department who today repudiated the quantum theory in its entirety would find himself in much the same position as an atheist in the priesthood.
So far as atomic theory is concerned, the disastrous results of this fantastic overstressing of the significance of winning the current popularity poll have been brought out in detail in the previous chapters. It is simply appalling to think of all of the time and effort that have been wasted in trying to find answers to meaningless questions, merely because the erroneous basic concepts of this theory have been elevated to a status which makes them exempt from critical examination. The effect of ignoring this privileged status in this present work and subjecting currently accepted theory to a critical analysis has been to show that it is nothing but a hollow shell. There is hardly enough of the atomic theory itself left intact after this disclosure to constitute any serious obstacle to the formulation of a new theory, but it should be recognized that, in all probability, conflicts with other accepted theories will develop during the process of construction of an alternate theory, and unless some relaxation of the prevailing ban on challenging these theories can be effected, the independent thinking necessary for the success of this undertaking will be curtailed to a serious, perhaps fatal, degree.
Just how to go about accomplishing such a relaxation of the strict taboos that now surround the basic doctrines of science is a difficult question to answer. One of the major elements in the situation is the fact that, as science is now set up, evaluation of new ideas is left almost entirely to the individual scientists. In view of the high degree of specialization now existing, this means that the evaluation is carried out by the specialists in the area affected, more particularly, by the recognized authorities in that specialized field. In the final analysis, therefore, the verdict on a new idea is pronounced by the very individuals who are the least likely to give it the unbiased consideration that is necessary in order to arrive at an accurate evaluation: individuals who are busy with their own affairs and not inclined to be bothered with trying to understand new points of view, who are fully immersed in the details of their own specialties and thoroughly indoctrinated with the currently accepted theories, and who have a definite vested interest in the maintenance of the status quo in the theory of their subjects. If the new proposal is a minor addition to or revision of existing knowledge, of such a nature that it can be evaluated quickly and easily, appraisal by these specialists serves the purpose quite adequately, but the more a new line of thought diverges from currently accepted concepts (and consequently, the more important the new idea is, if it is valid) the less likely it is to get any hearing at all, much less the kind of a careful and unbiased evaluation that is needed. When we recognize the way in which existing thought is thus insulated against attack, the failure to apply any kind of critical scrutiny to the foundations of the atomic theory during the past half century, which seems so completely inexplicable on first consideration, becomes quite understandable.
One of the possible expedients that naturally suggests itself as a corrective measure is to set up some kind of an agency, under scientific society, university, or government auspices, which would undertake the task of giving a preliminary hearing to new scientific proposals, not as a matter of coming to a decision as to their merits, but merely to determine whether or not they appear to be worth more extended consideration by the scientific community. Similar measures have been utilized very successfully under wartime conditions to cope with the large number of unconventional proposals that come up in connection with the military effort, most of which are worthless, but which cannot be summarily rejected because among the worthless stones there are a few uncut diamonds of great potential value. Whether or not such a system would operate effectively without the stimulus of a national emergency is problematical; there is a general tendency for such agencies to settle down into a comfortable routine and to become strongholds of the established order, rather than instruments of progress. It is well understood that the publication committees of the various journals and societies are ultraconservative, and even though an agency is originally set up for the express purpose of smoothing the path for new ideas of merit, it is quite possible that this agency might develop a similar aversion to anything that could turn out to be controversial. But since there are a few valuable diamonds among the worthless stones of the scientific field too, some experimentation with measures of this kind would seem to be justified.
If nothing else, an agency of this kind could provide a remedy for one of the most serious weaknesses of the present system, which stems from the fact that the originator of a new idea normally has no opportunity to present a rebuttal to any adverse opinion that is reached, unless he already has an established standing which enables him to secure publication irrespective of adverse opinions. For the ordinary investigator, the decision of the “authority” in the particular field, or of the publication committee or the book publisher’s advisor, is essentially final. In view of the apparently inescapable prejudice against new ideas, particularly against those which represent the greatest departure from existing thought, it is inevitable that the arguments in favor of the new theories will be judged more harshly than the arguments against them. In particular, it is likely that the familiar arguments of long standing which are advanced in support of current theory will be accepted at face value in most cases even though, as has been brought out in the previous discussion, many of them are completely lacking in merit. Furthermore, there is a strong tendency to judge new ideas within the frame of reference provided by the existing theoretical structure, which imposes an almost insurmountable handicap on theories that involve any major divergence from established lines of thought. This situation could easily be corrected if an agency of the type suggested herein is created, as the procedures of this agency could be set up in such a way as to provide an opportunity for the rebuttal that is now lacking; perhaps even an oral argument in cases where this seems to be justified.
A favorable decision by such an agency would not be in any sense an endorsement of the idea; it would simply state that, in the opinion of the agency staff, the new idea has enough merit of one kind or another to justify further and more detailed examination by the scientific profession at large. This would automatically have the effect of making discussion or advocacy of the idea scientifically respectable, and would remove the barriers which now inhibit the rank-and-file scientist from any open display of interest in unconventional ideas: barriers created by such things as reluctance to participate in any challenge of recognized authority, unwillingness to appear out of step with colleagues, fear of ridicule for espousing “crackpot” ideas, etc. In effect, such a program would use the weight of authority, represented by the official pronouncement of the agency, to restore the freedom of discussion and exchange of opinion which is essential for maximum scientific progress, but is now blocked by the pressure for conformity to currently accepted thought.
Another expedient which might have considerable merit is the establishment of a new profession, that of scientific critic, analogous to music or literary critics: individuals who are not performers themselves, but who make a business of passing judgment on the performances of others. It will no doubt be argued that we already have an ample, perhaps excessive, amount of scientific criticism, since all scientists are to some extent critics. But the scientists who criticize scientific theories and interpretations are not acting as critics in the same manner that a music critic acts; rather they are acting as partisans, whose primary interest is not impartial criticism, but the promotion or defense of their own viewpoints. Such criticism not only fails to give new ideas the unbiased consideration to which they are entitled, but is also seriously deficient in that it does not come into play at all unless some such new idea actually appears to challenge the accepted doctrine. The type of fully effective criticism that is needed, in order to make the maximum contribution to scientific progress, is criticism which keeps the entire fabric of existing theory under close and continuous scrutiny. Every significant new experimental discovery should initiate a full-scale review of all portions of existing theory that are in any way affected, on the order of the examination of the nuclear atom theory carried out in this volume, so that errors such as those made in the interpretation of radioactivity and Rutherford’s scattering experiments will be detected before so many years of effort have been wasted in following false trails.
The need for more adequate consideration of the effect of new discoveries on currently accepted concepts has been pointed out by Bridgman, who notes that under existing conditions if an appraisal of this kind is made at all, it is likely to be a mere formality. “Such an examination,” he says, “because it is nobody’s business, and because the fundamental concepts have already been accepted, is in danger of being made superficially, without the care that would have been given it if the effect had been known at the time the concept was formulated.”120 If we had professional scientific critics, this kind of work would no longer be “nobody’s business.”
In this connection it should be mentioned that a large part of Bridgman’s time during his later years was devoted to scientific criticism somewhat along the lines suggested herein, and such works as “The Nature of Physical Theory” and “The Logic of Modern Physics” illustrate the type of critical analysis that is greatly needed. Even though he did not dig deep enough to uncover the weaknesses in the foundations of current atomic theory that are the theme of this volume, many of his comments come remarkably close to the conclusions reached in this present work. Speaking of wave mechanics, for example, he asks this question (which applies with equal force to the more sophisticated successors of that theory), “Is this honestly… a very impressive performance? Is it not exactly the sort of compromise that we would have predicted in advance would be the only possible one if it should prove that we were incapable of inventing any vitally new way of thinking about small scale things? ”121 Here we have a recognition of one of the major points developed in this work: the fact that the present standard practice in physical science is to use “compromises” and ingenious constructions of all kinds to avoid the necessity of breaking out of the comfortable groove of familiar thought and inventing the “vitally new way of thinking” that is the first requisite for progress.
These books of Bridgman’s also demonstrate why the profession of scientific critic must be independent in order to be fully effective. Much of the force of his criticism is lost because of his personal commitments to certain specific viewpoints, such as “operationalism,” of which he was commonly regarded as the foremost advocate. These commitments not only color the critical arguments to a noticeable degree, and thus weaken them considerably, but also give them a controversial flavor which has robbed them of much of the influence which they might otherwise have had. Bridgman recognized this situation, and admitted that his work as a critic was merely auxiliary to his work as a theorist. “But for me as a physicist,” he says, “criticism is an enterprise entered into solely for practical reasons,”122 and he tacitly concedes that the nature of his primary objective has had an effect on his conclusions, when he brings out the same point that has been emphasized in the present discussion: the fact that “…there is a fundamental difference in kind between his (the physicist’s) critical and theoretical activities.”123
Another useful function that a professional scientific critic could perform is that of preparing special textbooks for research workers. As matters now stand, the individual entering upon a career of research gets his basic information about his own and collateral fields primarily from works that were prepared for general instructional purposes. Such texts must necessarily take a somewhat positive attitude toward their subject matter, and even if the authors recognize the contradictions and weaknesses of existing theories, which is not always the case, they are attempting to present a clear picture to the student and a frank admission of the doubts and uncertainties that actually cloud this picture is incompatible with their principal objective. Advanced texts are no better in this respect; they are even more misleading as they assume the validity of the doubtful and uncertain basic concepts and devote their pages to developing these concepts in greater detail. What the research worker needs is not this clear picture of today’s best guess that he gets from the ordinary textbook, but a frank and honest presentation of the basic elements of the theoretical structure, so that he can know which of these elements he must necessarily accept and which are open to possible modification if his findings seem to require some change.
This kind of a presentation would be particularly helpful to those who have to utilize material from some source outside of their own field of specialization. Under existing conditions, such theories and concepts from other fields have to be taken largely on trust, and as the present situation in astronomy clearly demonstrates, this trust is not always justified. Unfortunately, the conclusions that have the widest areas of application, and are therefore the most commonly borrowed, are the very ones that are most likely to be erroneous, or at least incomplete. This necessarily follows from the fact that conclusions of this kind are normally reached on the basis of the information available within one specialized field. If the subject matter is such that no other field is affected, the prevailing policy gives us conclusions based on 100 percent of the available evidence, but if the subject matter also applies to other fields, the information on which the conclusions are based (that is, the information within the particular specialized field) may be only a small fraction of the total information bearing on the subject. Obviously the smaller the proportion of the pertinent facts taken into consideration, the greater the possibility of error. It is quite unlikely, for instance, that the present-day concept of the nature of the stellar energy generation process would have achieved any widespread acceptance if the available astronomical evidence had been considered by the atomic physicists along with the data from their own field. And even if this theory did win favor among the physicists in spite of the contradictory evidence from astronomical observations, candid textbooks for research workers, along the lines that have been suggested, probably would have alerted the astronomers to the true nature of the physicists’ assumptions, and would have avoided the present chaotic situation in the theory of stellar evolution.
Of course, the reviewing of scientific books and articles also falls within the province of the scientific critic; indeed it is the principal means by which his functions would normally be performed, just as the review is the principal product of the literary or dramatic critic. Under present conditions it would probably not be possible for a scientific critic to devote his entire time to this occupation and use it as a means of livelihood, since the commercial standing of scientific criticism is currently (although not necessarily permanently) quite different from that of such activities as dramatic criticism. It should not be difficult, however, to set up some satisfactory arrangements along the lines that most basic research work is now carried on; that is, as a part-time activity of college and university faculty members.
In addition to accomplishing the primary objective, this measure might well have a very beneficial effect in providing the university staff with an acceptable alternative to research as a “prestige” activity. It is generally recognized that the present strong emphasis on research is creating an awkward situation in the universities, because research has become the key to academic standing, even though it cannot be denied that the primary function of the university is instruction. “The trend, in the major universities of this country,” reports F. Reif, is “to minimize the importance attached to the teaching functions of the faculty…. Teaching undergraduates is a local activity which may be appreciated by the students but does not serve to enhance the scientist’s international prestige, on the basis of which the university will decide whether he is worthy of promotion.”124 But teaching and research are totally different kinds of activity and call for quite different talents. The existing system is therefore faulty in that it requires many individuals either to embark upon research projects for which they have neither the inclination nor the aptitude, or else to forfeit the advancement to which they should be entitled on the basis of their performance in their primary task. Recognition of the need for and the importance of capable and qualified professional scientific critics will not solve this problem in its entirety, but it will at least provide an alternative for those who are not attracted by research. At the moment, science is more in need of effective criticism, which will point the way toward an understanding of the facts that we already have at our command, than it is of more research that will simply add to the huge store of undigested facts now available. The opportunities for publication and “prestige building” therefore are, or could be, just as good for the capable critic as for the research worker.
All in all, it would appear that professional scientific critics would serve some very worthwhile purposes. This suggestion will no doubt arouse strong opposition among the “authorities” in the various scientific fields who now have everything their own way, but there is no good reason why their personal preferences should be given any more weight than we now give to the personal feelings of the musician or the actor, who dislike professional criticism just as much as the scientist does, but who have to accept it just the same. The arguments in favor of the critic are the same in both cases. A good professional dramatic critic is a better judge of a theatrical performance than a good actor, and a good professional scientific critic would be a better judge of a scientific theory than a good theorist, for exactly the same reasons. The existence of some type of independent professional criticism in the scientific field would go a long way toward minimizing the undesirable and detrimental practices discussed in Chapter 10, and would greatly facilitate such projects as the development of a new and better atomic theory. Certainly it would be extremely helpful to the innovator to have his new and unconventional ideas appraised by someone who welcomes the opportunity of making such an appraisal and who has no personal axe to grind, rather than, as at present, being completely at the mercy of individuals who prefer not to be bothered with making the appraisal at all, and whose personal interests are strongly identified with maintaining the existing structure of scientific thought intact.
In view of the extent to which the current thinking of the scientific profession is tied in to the nuclear atom theory, either in the actual substance of current thought or in the language in which current thought is expressed, it is quite apparent that some major conceptual innovations will be required in order to lay the foundations for a new and better atomic theory. The suggestions that have been made thus far in this chapter are directed toward minimizing the obstacles that now stand in the way of consideration and acceptance of new ideas, and thus preparing the way for those innovations that must be forthcoming before an adequate new theory can be constructed.
It might naturally be assumed that all scientists would agree, in principle, as to the desirability of measures of this kind-improvements in scientific practice which will make recognition of meritorious new ideas more prompt and certain-but oddly enough, this is not true. There is a very prevalent laissez faire attitude in the scientific community, which disapproves of and belittles any attempt to modify traditional methods and practices, an attitude that probably originates in a subconscious desire to protect the familiar currently accepted ideas from the challenges offered by strange and disquieting new thoughts. Some tell us that such efforts to improve the situation are unnecessary, inasmuch as scientific research has always encountered obstacles, but nevertheless moves steadily forward from one achievement to another. Other apologists for the existing order claim that scientific discovery is inevitable, irrespective of the ability of the investigators or the efficiency of their procedures. According to R. Taton, “…most discoveries were made at a time when they had become practically inevitable and, even if the scientists to whom they are attributed had never lived, they would not have been long delayed.”125 There are even those who go so far as to claim that it is beneficial to make things difficult for new ideas. “The fitness of truths is most advantageously shaped and most convincingly demonstrated in vigorous contest,”126 contends Holton.
There is some small element of truth in all of these assertions, of course, but any contention that these elements of truth furnish support for or justification of the “stormy and hostile reception” accorded to new ideas (Holton126), or the “hard battles they have to wage to gain acceptance” (Taton125), or the “indifference or suspicion” they normally encounter (Raman35), is preposterous. New ideas should certainly be given careful and critical examination, and they should not be accepted until after they have been thoroughly checked and tested, but this does not justify hostile, or even indifferent, reception. These new ideas are the most important raw material of scientific progress, and the procedures of science should be so set up that development of such ideas is not opposed or passively accepted, but actively and positively encouraged.
Whether or not Taton is correct in his statement that most discoveries are made when the time is ripe, irrespective of the actual individuals involved, scientific history certainly shows that many discoveries, including some of the most important, do not fall in this category. The record shows that where major changes in thinking are involved, some one individual usually grasps the situation far in advance of anyone else, and if the work of this original discoverer is not understood or appreciated, a great many years normally elapse before some other investigator succeeds in picking up the threads.
The case of Gregor Mendel is a classic example. The discoveries that established the basic principles of heredity were published by Mendel in 1866, but not until his results were rediscovered in 1900 was any attention given to his work. In the meantime this important branch of science simply stood still for thirty-four years. Many and varied explanations are advanced for this astounding neglect of a major scientific discovery, but they all boil down to the one salient fact that the scientific community did not then—and does not now—have any specific mechanism whereby new ideas of this kind are assured of getting adequate consideration. As has been brought out in detail in the preceding pages, conceptual innovations face a great many obstacles because of the firmly entrenched positions of the ideas which they seek to supplant, but the most serious of all these obstacles is the difficulty of getting any attention in the first place. Under the haphazard system that now prevails, any one of a large number of factors may block the new thought out of the scientific field completely. Mendel’s work simply met an impassible barrier of indifference and disinterest.
An equally striking demonstration of the shortcomings of the existing system is provided by the reception accorded to the work of J. J. Waterston, whose paper containing the first essentially complete development of the kinetic theory was rejected by the Royal Society in 1845, with the opinion that “the paper is nonsense, unfit even for reading before the society.” J. S. Haldane comments on the case as follows:
It is probable that, in the long and honourable history of the Royal Society no mistake more disastrous in its actual consequences for the progress of science and the reputation of British science than the rejection of Waterston’s papers was ever made… . There is every reason for believing that, had the papers been published, physical chemistry and thermodynamics would have developed mainly in this country and along much simpler, more correct and more intelligible lines than those of their actual development.127
The many instances of this kind in the pages of scientific history take on a still greater significance when we reflect upon what course scientific knowledge might have taken if the same treatment had been accorded to the work of Newton, or Maxwell, or Planck. And then let us go a step farther and ask how many Mendels or Waterstons, or perhaps even Newtons, may have come and gone unrecognized? Some “mute, inglorious” Maxwell may rest in Thomas Gray’s country churchyard. And how many decades—or perhaps centuries—will have to pass before someone else repeats the discoveries of these unrecognized pioneers, and gives the world the benefit of these findings which could be at our service now if our procedures for dealing with new ideas had been more efficient?
Returning to the particular subject under discussion in this volume, let us further consider what the result will be if the scientific world now closes its eyes to the completely erroneous nature of the nuclear theory. How much longer will we go on spending millions of man-hours seeking answers to meaningless questions and vainly striving to establish the properties of non-existent particles? Another half century, perhaps?
In his discussion of the Waterston case, Haldane suggests that it is unfortunate that Waterston did not have a “less retiring and more combative disposition.” But can we afford to be content with a scientific organization which recognizes important new developments only if they happen to be the work of a “combative” individual? Such developments are rare at best, and in view of their tremendous value to science and to the community at large, it is almost criminal negligence to let them go to waste because of a loose and haphazard way of handling the evaluation of new ideas. The present practice, in effect, treats the acceptance of new ideas and concepts as if it is simply a concession to the originator: a reward that we give him if he is able to present an airtight case and promotes his point of view aggressively over an extended period of time. Actually society as a whole is the principal beneficiary of these new ideas, not the originator, and the scientific profession is derelict in carrying out its responsibilities to the community at large when it thus sits back complacently and throws the entire burden of establishing the merits of new ideas on the originators. The inevitable results of this policy are to discourage the Mendels and the Waterstons and to lose the benefit of their discoveries.
Science is not properly organized unless and until it sets up procedures which insure prompt recognition of meritorious new ideas even if they are poorly expressed, timidly presented, and without adequate factual support at the time they first appear. It is the scientific community, acting through whatever agencies are required, that should display the aggressiveness—actively seeking out and encouraging new developments rather than accepting only those that force their way in—and it is the scientific community that should be quick to perceive the value of any new thought that is advanced, regardless of whether or not it happens to be presented on a silver platter. These points are practically self-evident if any attempt is made to face the issue squarely. Even some of those who argue in defense of current practices turn around and concede the desirability of a more effective organization. Taton, for example, who talks bravely about scientific discoveries being “inevitable,” actually recognizes that the inevitability requires some encouragement and organized prodding, and he gives us this advice: “Very careful consideration should therefore be given to the best ways of organizing creative scientific and technological work so as to provide the most effective stimulus for the harmonious and fruitful development of science.”125