«JOURNAL OF SCIENTIFIC EXPLORATION A Publication of the Society for Scienti¢c Exploration Volume 22, Number 1 2008 Page Editorial 1 Editorial Peter ...»
As science has progressed, more and more facts have become established with reasonable certainty—with enough certainty unfortunately to stimulate the illusion that science is chiefly a body of knowledge. The current body of scientific knowledge differs markedly from that of the seventeenth century, and the comparison shows the transience of our concepts. Yet we frequently overlook this and identify science with current knowledge. Those who forget that science is fundamentally a method and not a collection of facts will righteously challenge new concepts which seem to question old facts.
Organized scientific activity as we know it goes back less than five hundred years. And during this time it has occupied the interest and attention of only a few people. I am not referring to the millions it has affected, but to the few thinkers who have affected the millions. These people had first to struggle with themselves to believe that things could be other than they appeared to be. When someone asked Einstein how he came to discover relativity, he replied: ‘‘By challenging an axiom.’’ To accomplish anything worthwhile in science (and in nearly everything else), one has first to persuade oneself that things may be different from what they seem. This is the most difficult step to take and we should not be surprised if those who have walked furthest have frequently slipped. A scientist is—perhaps Scientists with Half-closed Minds 135 fortunately—only capable of scientific thought for a small portion of his time. At other times he usually allows his wishes, fears, and habits to shape his convictions. The wish not to believe can influence as strongly as the wish to
believe. Most of us most of the time practice Paley’s recipe for obstruction:
‘‘There is a principle, proof against all argument, a bar against all progress...
which if persisted in cannot but keep the mind in everlasting ignorance—and that is, contempt prior to examination.’’ Scientists may also become seduced by their own attainments and acquire the conviction that success in one matter makes them authorities in all. James Clerk Maxwell’s genius achieved an advance in the theory of electromagnetism from which came radio, television, and radar. His imagination shattered previously impenetrable theoretical barriers. Yet today he would surely blush crimson to read what he said to the British Association in 1879: ‘‘Atoms are the foundation stones of the material universe, unbroken and unworn. They continue to this day as they were created, perfect in number and measure and weight.’’ Pasteur struggled as much as any important scientist against the uninformed opposition of orthodoxy. After he attained recognition and at the height of his fame, he addressed a distinguished group of scientists and gratuitously included in his speech an announcement that scientific methods would never be used successfully in the study of the emotions. Yet already living at the time of his speech were the two persons who later established the scientific study of the emotions—Ivan Pavlov and Walter B. Cannon.
Like lesser human beings, scientists have a proprietary affection for their own contributions. Having given the best of their lives, as many have, to new observations and concepts, they may defend these as devotedly as those who give their lives to material possessions. And this kind of psychological investment can carry the investor into the most ridiculous positions. About fifty years ago, for instance, a curious exchange took place between the great anthropologist Malinowski and Dr. Ernest Jones, one of Freud’s most devout followers and his biographer.
Jones subscribed wholeheartedly to Freud’s statement about the universality of little boys’ attachment to their mothers, which he called the Oedipus complex.
This occurred often enough in nineteenth-century Vienna, and Freud declared it an invariable feature of human development When Malinowski studied the Trobriand Islanders in the South Pacific he found that their children were reared by their mothers and uncles and had little or no contact with their biological fathers. The domestic relations and psychological development of the Trobrianders differed considerably from those reported by Freud for Viennese families.
Malinowski published his observations, but they did not convince Jones. From his office in London he insisted that Freud was right and urbanely reprimanded Malinowski for faulty observations. To this Malinowski patiently replied that he was compelled to accept the evidence of his own senses rather than statements made by those who had never visited the Trobriand Islands.
The tendency to erect ‘‘systems’’—which are then marketed as a whole— affects particularly the less mature sciences of medicine and psychology.
136 Ian Stevenson In these subjects we have had a succession of intellectual edifices originally made available only in their entirety. It is as if one cannot rent a room or even a suite in a new building, but must lease the whole or not enter. Starting with a substantial contribution to medicine the authors of such systems expand their theories to include ambitious explanations of matters far beyond the original validated observations. And after the first pioneer, later and usually lesser contributors to the system add further accretions of mingled fact and theory. Consequently systems of this kind—like homeopathy, phrenology, psychoanalysis, and conditioned reflexology (the last dominant for years in Russia)—eventually contain almost inextricable mixtures of sense and nonsense. They capture fervid adherents, and it may take a generation or several for those who preserve some objectivity to succeed in salvaging the best in them while discarding the dross.
Many such systems repeat the same story almost tediously. A few brilliant observations encounter fierce opposition from entrenched authorities. Despite this the new ideas slowly acquire adherents. Gradually opposition to much of the original propositions crumbles. But in the meantime the avant-garde of the enlightened have stiffened their doctrines into a sectarian orthodoxy. Instead of befriending further advances, they frequently attack and deride them. Certainly not all early adherents to a new discovery do this, but those who do not often find that loyalty to a group requires loyalty to a set of ideas which conflicts with dispassionate examination of later ideas and observations.
Harmful Incredulity Rigid systems and their fanatical devotees have driven many scientists into the camp of the too incredulous. The querulous ‘‘schools’’ of psychiatry have by their own extravagance delayed the acceptance of the best in psychiatry by other physicians and laymen. However, physicians of all kinds are particularly guilty of failing to keep up with advances in their own specialty. This comes about because medicine is, to be frank, a trade as well as a science. Most medical students go into the practice of medicine, not research, and we all know worthy physicians who devotedly practice the medicine taught them twenty-five years ago, apparently uninfluenced by the events of intervening years. Yet these same men conscientiously trade in their old automobiles for new ones every two or three years.
Theoretically, physicians should have no more difficulty than, say, chemists or physicists in changing their habits to accommodate new advances. But to accomplish this, medical schools must change their principles in selecting students and try, first, to attract flexible minds into medicine, and, second, to avoid doing anything that will harden these minds against new ideas. Happily, medical educators have already recognized the need for this. When medical science moved slowly a man could write the same prescriptions for thirty or more years and still not fall far behind the times. The increasing pace of medical discovery has made such physicians not only foolish, but positively harmful.
Scientists with Half-closed Minds 137 Whitehead’s comment that ‘‘knowledge keeps like fish’’ applies to medicine as much as any subject.
However, research scientists, too, are bound by harmful incredulity, although it is harder to determine to exactly what extent. In some ways scientists today have more protection against uninformed authoritarian opposition than their predecessors. For one thing there are more scientists and they are constantly testing each other’s work so that confirmation, revision, or rejection of new observations and concepts can come rather rapidly. Communications between scientists have improved, and many journals now spread new data and new theories quickly across the world. Thus many scientists and not merely a handful judge the work of a fellow scientist.
On the other hand, the vastness of our scientific activity tells us nothing about the number of genuinely open minds occupied with it. A few years ago, Dr.
Lucien Warner surveyed a number of psychologists on extrasensory perception.
He asked what they thought about the existence of extrasensory perception and how they had reached their conclusions. All who replied had convictions, but less than 20 per cent said they had studied the original reports of the work on this subject. Seventeen per cent had reached their opinions on the basis of hearsay.
Twenty per cent had made up their minds entirely on a priori grounds.
One can only respect the candor of persons who have registered themselves as scientists and yet make public declaration of the fact that they can decide on a matter of extraordinary importance without examining the relevant published work. Perhaps parapsychology provides a special case and scientists do not feel so free to make up their minds on other matters. Certainly the implacable opposition parapsychology encounters among some scientists illustrates again the relationship between the heat of antagonism and the possible threat to established convictions from the new data or ideas. For the data of parapsychology portend, I believe, a conceptual revolution which will make the Copernican revolution seem trivial in comparison.
We may tell ourselves that this incredulity has no effect on creative achievement but I personally do not believe it. I am convinced that deep conservatism strongly influences the approach of many scientists to new ideas. I have tested this frequently by throwing out into a group of them some new idea, especially one whose acceptance would fracture favorite concepts. Almost invariably they attack it like a school of piranhas. By the time it reaches the bottom of the discussion they have stripped off its flesh.
My friends are not ordinarily destructive people. They do not injure people, only ideas. And I think this behavior has to do with a mistaken concept of the role of scientist. Certainly the role includes skepticism and tough-mindedness, but these alone are not enough. The best part of science derives from the imagination and creativity which contribute to it no less than to the arts. A scientist should examine an idea as an artist might look at a delicately enameled vase—in many different lights and positions so as to bring out all its beauty and value.
138 Ian Stevenson Scientists frequently pride themselves on not being gullible. Sometimes they do not seem to realize that they cannot be incredulous about new ideas without at the same time being excessively credulous about old ones. Between the merits of accepting too much and not enough of what is new there is perhaps little to choose, but surely that little favors a receptivity to the new since we already know so little.
I believe our conservatism has infected the financial support of scientists.
Although a lot of money flows toward scientific research we do not know how much runs in well-cut gorges and how much can irrigate new ground. But the system of project grants for research is a symptom. Nearly all the funds poured into research by foundations and the federal government reach scientists after they have submitted a project to a committee. Since a scientist must gain the approval of the committee for his project, he may not resist the temptation to design his project along the lines most likely to harmonize with the convictions of the committee. The committee in turn must account to a board of trustees or to Congress or the public for the success of the research it has supported. Who can blame the members if they behave like bankers and venture their money more readily on ‘‘good risks’’ than on ‘‘wild ideas’’?
Once he has his money, the scientist feels committed to the project he has outlined. If he makes some interesting but unexpected discovery or observation, he cannot easily abandon his main object to pursue a new line. Nearly every year he must submit an account of progress to the committee. I have heard a number of scientists tell, half laughing, half crying, how they adjusted their applications or reports, or, worse still, adjusted their scientific projects, to the real or apparent expectations of a granting committee.
It matters little that often the scientist’s fears are unjustified or exaggerated.
Certainly most scientific members of committees evaluating projects consciously wish to give the working scientists the greatest possible freedom. Still possession of the power to make decisions can eventually persuade anyone that he also has the proper knowledge to do so. The fault, I think. lies in the system, but wherever the fault, I believe that our scientists and the tellers of their money can easily become mutually involved in timid projects which always succeed but never advance.