The Plight of the Obscure Innovator in Science

Posted by Dale on Feb 24, 2002 at 12:05

The extent of resistance to original contributions of obscure scientists is controversial. One view holds that such resistance is rare, and hence that it requires little study or remediation. A second view holds that, although not widespread, such resistance happens often enough to merit study and reform. A third view holds that this resistance is common, that it constitutes the single most formidable block to scientific advances, and that its disturbing regularity calls for a partial restructuring of the modern scientific enterprise. After documenting this crucial controversy and arguing that it cannot be resolved through citation analysis, this note tests one implication of the third view, viz., that even a cursory search of the historical and biographical literature should reveal many cases of bitter struggles for publication and recognition besides the ones which are customarily cited in discussions of this subject. Such a search has been carried out, yielding over fifty names of scientists and scholars who, by all counts, made decisive contributions to their respective fields, but who nonetheless had to struggle to have their results published or recognized. In most instances the original sources from which these cases have been culled are directly quoted, thereby showing that most historians and biographers of science tend to view the struggles they describe as rare and as owing to the peculiar circumstance of the case in question. Most likely, such struggles are traceable to many interdependent sociological, political, and psychological causes. Instead of providing a comprehensive causal analysis, this note highlights one psychological factor which may merit greater attention from social science theorists. Given these diverse roadblocks against obscure innovators, the surprising thing may well be that some unrenowned innovators, in science at least, have escaped the struggle, not that so many haven't. This note urges a systematic historical study to estimate the incidence of resistance. If such a survey shows that obscurity plus originality often lead to temporary or permanent oblivion, the case for structural reforms in science will become immeasurably stronger than it is now.

P.S. The webmaster also knows how to day-hike. Iíve been teahouse-trekking for 15 years but just didnít know what to call it. Iíve GOT to drive up to Michigan to buy this guy a beer!!! He doesnít know squat about global warming but that should only enliven a good conversation about experiencing nature by foot without pain.

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