2008 : WHAT HAVE YOU CHANGED YOUR MIND ABOUT? WHY?

[ print ]

Professor Emeritus of Chemistry and Senior Research Scientist, New York University; Author, Planetary Dreams
Smothering Science with Silence

I used to view the scientific literature as a collective human effort  to build an enduring and expanding structure of knowledge. Each new publication in a respected, refereed journal would be digested and debated with the thoroughness that religious groups devote to the Talmud, Bible or Koran. In science, of  course, new papers can challenge widely held beliefs, so publication does not mean acceptance. The alternative is criticism, which usually provokes a new round of experiments. As a result, the new idea might end up on the scrap heap, perhaps becoming a historical curiosity. Cold fusion seems to have followed this path, and in my own field, the suggestion that the two chains of DNA lay side-by-side, instead of being intertwined in a double helix.

But once it has passed scrutiny, a new contribution would be absorbed into the edifice of science, expanding and enhancing it, while providing a fragment of immortality to the authors.

My perception was wrong. 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. He wrote in a textbook: "The investigator must… cultivate also a skeptical state of mind toward all hypotheses — especially his own — and be ready to abandon them the moment the evidence pointed the other way."

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. Ironically, my ideas have been welcomed by creationists, who advocate a supernatural solution to the origin-of-life problem.

The smother-by-silence practice may be fairly common in science.  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. For a moral judgment on this practice, I cannot improve upon Smith's closing quote in his letter to ASBMB Today:

"In religion one can often be forgiven for one's sins but no one should be forgiven for sins against science."