No one who has been much in contact with the past, and with the study of the past, will be surprised to hear that new ideas often meet opposition from the scholarly world. This is true in the humanities, where the unspoken general mandate is to preserve previous ideas about of the past. Somewhat less predictably, it is also true in the sciences, where the utility and even the profit of new ideas would seem to be more obvious. The record shows no lack of generals who would rather lose a war than acknowledge an improvement, and in the laboratory culture also, we find Priestley impervious to Lavoisier, Virchow arguing against Semmelweiss, and Gauss cold-shouldering Abel. There are several varieties of this reaction, and it may reduce bafflement to list a few of them here:
- Inertia. People like things the same. They are willing to learn something once, by way of acquiring a teaching credential, but not twice. Twice would mean changing their lecture notes, and it is easier not to change one'e lecture notes.
- Indignation. People may take offense on behalf of the culture, as defined by the culture's previous understanding of itself. This is especially likely when some classical text is shown to be later than supposed, or some emblematic figure proves to be mythical.
- Insult. People may feel that their professional dignity has been compromised. Semmelweiss was in effect suggesting that puerperal fever was caused by the unclean hands of the medical personnel, coming to the maternity ward straight from the dissecting room.
- Invidia. People wish they had thought of it themselves. A version of the preceding, where not dirty hands, but a slow brain, is felt to be the issue. Briggs to Napier, on Napier's invention of logarithms: "I wonder nobody else found it out before; when now known it is so easy."
A favorite metaphor has it that each new contribution "adds a stone to the previous pile of knowledge." The corollary is that the new stone must leave all the old stones in the pile. But genuine advances will sometimes disturb the pile. Kuhn has written, perhaps too schematically, about the conditions under which the community of scientists is willing to see the old pile replaced by a new one. They are not frequent.
So common is resistance to new ideas that it is necessary to caution the newcomer. And in this way: The rejection of a theory does not atomatically prove that the theory is correct. It may in fact deserve to be rejected. Check the figures one more time, before opening the champagne. Whether you drink the champagne in company or alone.
- Eric Temple Bell. Men of Mathematics. Simon & Schuster 1937
- James Bryant Conant. Science
- Thomas Kuhn. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
7 Nov 2000 / Contact The Project / Exit to Outline Index Page