What Wisdom Silence?

I wrote a year ago: 

It is surely a bad sign about a claim that official institutions don’t consider it worth responding to. … On the other hand, officials do sometimes give detailed responses to popular "nonsense" … And if officials did not have strong critical arguments, they would surely be less likely to break their silence to criticize outsiders.  So in this sense the absence of criticism is favorable evidence.

The waters are further muddied by examples in Robert Shapiro’s Edge answer

New scientific ideas can be smothered with silence.  I was aware earlier of the case of Gregor Mendel.  His fundamental genetic experiments with peas were ignored for a third of a century. But he had published them in an obscure journal, in an age when meetings and libraries were fewer, and journals were circulated by land mail. When his ideas were rediscovered at the start of the twentieth century, Thomas Hunt Morgan set out to disprove them, and ended up performing experiments that greatly strengthened their case. A Nobel Prize was his reward. … Morgan’s attitude still has a place in science but I no longer believe that it is standard practice. Another strategy has emerged by which some scientists deal with ideas that they dislike. They act as if the discussion or data had never been published, and proceed about their business without mentioning it.

One example involves the use of a technique called "prebiotic synthesis" to support the most prevalent idea about the origin of life.  This theory proposes that life began on this planet with the accidental formation of an elaborate self-copying molecule, RNA or a close relative.  The chemist Graham Cairns-Smith argued in a 1982 book that the technique was flawed and that life’s origin by such an event was extremely improbable. He proposed an imaginative alternative. His alternative was debated, but the practice of prebiotic synthesis was continued without discussion.

As I felt that his case was sound, I took up this cause and extended the arguments against prebiotic synthesis. I published a book, and a series of papers in refereed journals, including one devoted entirely to the origin of life. I expected rebuttals, and hoped that new control experiments would be run that would resolve the issue. The rebuttals did not appear, and citations of my work in the field were sparse. When citations were made, they were usually accompanied by a comment that the RNA-first theory had some problems that were not yet resolved. The resolution would take place by further applications of prebiotic synthesis. A blanket of silence has remained in place in the scientific literature concerning the validity of this technique. …

Professor Kendric Smith of Stanford University has noted a similar pattern in the field of DNA repair, where the contribution of recombination to the repair of damage by ultraviolet radiation has been ignored in key papers.

I suspect Robert has an overly idealized view of the past – new ideas have always risked suffering in silence.  But of course just because they laughed at Galileo too doesn’t make your ignored idea as good as Galileo’s.

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  • tcpkac

    ‘Outlandish’ is a nice word : it conveys the idea of something that’s really off the edge of the map. Some ideas are ‘outlandish’ because they’re just too far out of any mapped territory : they get ignored simply because no-one knows what to do with them, not because of any sinister bureaucratic conspiracy.
    It’s much easier to get the acclaim and the Nobel if your Great Idea concerns a big hole in the mapped territory which everyone knows needs filling, and also if there are no new and sexy competing ideas that need testing out first (pre-biotic synthesis in this case).
    Cairns-Smith’s proposal apparently concerned certain types of clay as the original replicating entity. Replicating mud pies, now that’s outlandish. Bob Newhart would love it.

  • http://apperceptual.wordpress.com/ Peter Turney

    I’ve known about Cairns-Smith’s ideas for at least 20 years, and I’m a computer scientist, not a biologist. A search for “AG Cairns-Smith” on Google Scholar shows a reasonable number of citations. It sounds like Robert Shapiro’s work is derivative of Cairns-Smith’s work, so it is not surprising that scientists would cite the original work by Cairns-Smith, instead of citing derivative work by Shapiro.

    In my own field, I have found that one of the major factors in determining how often a paper is cited is how easy it is for other scientists to build on the ideas in the paper. In computer science, a simple algorithm that is easy to replicate and useful as a subroutine will be more cited than a complex algorithm that cannot easily be embedded in another system, even if the complex algorithm is shown to work better. I suspect that Cairns-Smith’s work is much more difficult to build on than the Miller-Urey experiment. It is not obvious how you would get clay to behave in a laboratory in the way Cairns-Smith describes, but the Miller-Urey experiment is easy to replicate.


    It also sounds like Shapiro’s argument is mainly a negative critique of “prebiotic synthesis” rather than a positive contribution of an alternative approach. For these three reasons (lack of originality, difficulty of building on, negativity), it is not surprising that Shapiro’s work is not widely cited. There is no need to look for a conspiracy of silence here.

  • bingo

    Yet another response to new or different or competing schools of thought is to mount ad hominem attacks on the researchers themselves for having the gaul to question the prevailing orthodoxy or “consensus”. The best example at present is global climate change, of course, but Galileo will certainly suffice as a historical example.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/halfinney/ Hal Finney

    You might want to include a link to your earlier essay on the topic, which is here:


    I wonder whether science is too open or too closed to new ideas. Should researchers devote more effort to investigating and refuting ideas that depart from the mainstream? Would that speed up or slow down scientific progress?

    It seems that there should be something of a Darwinian process going on, with workers competing to make progress. Some will be more open to new ideas and take the time to look at them, while others will stick closer to the conventional wisdom. Whichever strategy works best will gain an advantage, workers will copy others who succeed, and so errors in this balance should be generally self-correcting.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Hal, I added the link.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/halfinney/ Hal Finney

    Here’s a good set of links to articles criticizing science for close-mindedness, by self-described “crackpot” Bill Beatty:


    I can’t help feeling though, as I scan down his list, that the sheer number and variety of issues for which supporters complain about being ignored by mainstream science somewhat undercuts the position. Even if you are sympathetic to some of these unorthodox views, you are probably going to be skeptical about others. By combining them in one list it tars the more credible ones with the bad reputation of the others.

    BTW with regard to Cairns-Smith, I sometimes wonder if the non-mainstream study of nanobacteria (sometimes spelled nannobacteria) might be related. These are spherical particles found in a variety of organic and inorganic environments that show signs of being able to reproduce, but are far too small to contain the cellular machinery necessary for biological reproduction as we know it. Skeptics charge that nanobacteria are merely inorganic crystals that “reproduce” via ordinary crystal growth processes. Cairns-Smith’s idea was that even this kind of inorganic reproduction could be subject to natural selection and evolution, leading to inorganic life.

  • http://brian-jaress.livejournal.com/ Brian Jaress

    “As I felt that his case was sound, I took up this cause and extended the arguments against prebiotic synthesis.”

    It sounds like maybe Shapiro himself had more to say about prebiotic synthesis than about Cairns-Smith’s idea.