Monday, July 24, 2017

published science vs POPULAR published science

I firmly believe that even in the 20th century, a halfway competent scientific theory
- no matter how controversial - could be 'published' in the special scientific sense of that word - if the author (s) were but persistent long enough.

Published, perhaps in some long established but strictly local scientific society's proceedings or in a very new, very small journal from some new small university, covering some very new field.

Despite having been thus fully 'scientifically published', it would probably go on to be ignored (not cited when it should have been) by scientists who disagree with its conclusions - even when the published article has actually come to their attention.

Getting away with ignoring priority - in the years before Google

If brought up on this, scientists in the past got away with it by simply saying the theory was in some 'obscure journal' and they couldn't be faulted for not having seen it.

This was true, in the formal sense : even the collection of research libraries in the world's biggest research cities like London or New York didn't contain all the world's scientific journals, so even a thorough "literature search" could fail to bring up the article.

(I can personally attest that this situation has greatly changed because ordinary search engines like Google routinely pull up research papers, with the use of the right specific key words, that even the best internet scientific databases fail to do.)

Personal Scientific Publishing

In practise, many new scientific theories have always been publicized instead by being published in the libel law sense of that word :  by being conveyed at a one to one personal level.

The number of prominent scientists actively involved in research and theorizing in the specific area covered by any one article, even today, usually numbers in only the high dozens.

Paying a scientific journals to print an extra fifty to one hundred of your article during the printing of the entire journal was a routine practise until recently : the famous "offprint".

The scientist-author then mailed the article, perhaps along with a personal letter, to all these key scientists or perhaps to an associate of them that the author somehow somewhere had once met (usually in those all-important corridors around a conference hall !)

So no scientific theory need ever to remain 'unknown' ---- but being ignored was far easier.

Popularizing new scientific theories far harder than new data

Scientific research in the area of high theory was and remains so alpha male that it makes Wall Street seem tame.

In practise, even an obscure scientific article can be taken up by the powerful if it delivers new data and doesn't deliver a new theory that threatens their own.

So for a very famous example, In 1948 an obscure doctor on the impoverished obscure island of Sardinia discovered a powerful new type of antibiotic floating among the human poop of an open sewer.

Trust me, you or someone you love is only alive today because of this very broad class of beta lactams : the cephalosporins - now made in thousands of different variants.

Dr Brotzu couldn't get anyone in Italy to take his discovery seriously and seemingly war impoverished Sardinia was about as far off the beaten scientific track as possible in 1948.

But not so.

Our determined doctor created his OWN scientific journal, one issue only and only a few copies -- and that made it a legitimate scientific publication, if you didn't look under the gravel too hard, as they say here in Nova scotia.

Dr Brotzu then printed up a few offprints of his key article and sent them off to anyone he felt might put a flea in the ear of the scientifically powerful.

Eventually, and luckily for us and Oxford University, that in fact happened.

Oxford scientists worked hard to find the obscure part of the initial discovery with the real killer power and patented the results --- the resulting monies basically created the Thames Valley biotechnology powerhouse that exists today.

But - again I must emphasize - Brotzu was not goring anyone's scared theoretical cow.

Why Einstein met little initial resistance

There was surprisingly little resistance to the relatively obscure Einstein's famous 1905 series of articles, published in one of the world's leading physics journals, despite they eventually upsetting our entire scientific world view.

For Einstein had summed up, albeit only inside his own head, all the recent experimental and theoretical work of prominent physicists all over the world and then then brilliantly connected most of the dots.

It was 'in the air' as he freely admitted at the time -- only a matter of time before Einstein or someone else would sum it all up.

The fact that most  prominent physicists opposed the wider ramifications of Einstein's work, as he also did, while admitting the immediate experimental validity of his work, certainly helped to ease his work into being "popular" published science. 

But quantum physics and relativity was and remains seemingly remote from most people's eyes.

new theories in Life & Social Sciences hit social status and pocketbook

Revolutionary theories in the earth & life sciences as well as in the social sciences usually hit too close to home - in prominent people's mental comfort zones, affecting their pocketbooks and social status.

Published scientific theories become popular published scientific theories ( ie popular within the greater scientific community as well as in the rest of the world) only through the efforts of  prominents  (gatekeepers) making it so.


Only they can see that your brilliant PhD research isn't omitted or altered before acceptance and publication - despite its theoretical implications. 

That you quickly get tenure, and at a big research university, despite your theory.

That you get big grants, election to big society boards, placement on granting institution decision making bodies, a prominent spot at a big scientific conference, a quick placement in the biggest science journals for your new articles.

Only these gatekeepers can find the funds and venues that make a society and journal formed around your new theory a success.

Only they can approve new courses and ultimately new university departments formed around your theory.

Only they can publish popular science books that make favourable notice of your ideas and see that they in turn get discussed in powerful popular media like the New York Times, The Atlantic and the Economist.

The world changes and only then science accepts revolutionary ideas

If your theory emerges at the height of a general world view that strongly fears your new ideas, it is going to be statistically hard to find enough prominents who half-agree with you already and are thus inspired to champion your radical new views.

I suspect that never can truly new ideas 'change the world' --- the world has to intellectually change FIRST, and only then can a theory that merely if brilliantly connects all the dots find 'popular' scientific acceptance - not just a journal willing to nominally 'publish' it..

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