Instinctive Suppression of Dissent(posting to SCIFRAUD mail list of Oct.15, 2001)
You have touched the theme that seemed to me most disturbing in the quoted
NYT publication (http://www.globalexchange.org/september11/nyt092801.html)
yet, of course, I have slightly different views.
You should remember that some time ago I have found some surprising
gaps in news coverage by anglophonic press. At first, I have found out
that information about unprecedented corruption scandal in Nobel committee
has never been published in English; then (just recently) that information
about existence of warnings about WTC attack was also ignored by American
press. Let's also add a hundred-fold discrepancy in estimations of the
number of killed Cambodians which also seems to be caused by some omissions
Now, in that article I see an explanation why it happens.
I am not satisfied with your concept of market discipline. Indeed,
you are right that the cases described in the article are compatible
with your explanation. Yet these are extreme cases occuring only in this
extreme situation. Under normal circumstances it is usually rather
difficult to predict the market effect of every single publication.
There should be some much simpler rule of thumb with which the editor
or manager could decide within seconds when some item in the
incoming flow of news should be ignored.
In my opinion, the clue is given by the very fact of violent
public reaction in described cases which, apparently,
does not encounter many objections. People, obviously, don't
want to see (read) what they do not like; and they express
their will actively and, evidently, very successfully.
It is reasonable to think that under normal circumstances similar
reaction against similar materials is performed by editors.
Just because editors are also a part of their people rather
than because of their attitude to listen to "volkestimme".
So the simple rule of thumb seems to be that "UNPALATABLE"
materials should not be published.
Indeed, it seems unpalatable to count killed Cambodians; it seems
unpalatable to know that Nobel prize may be bought for 9 million
dollars; and, of course, it is unpalatable to think that (probably)
WTC events might be prevented by moving several bureaucratic asses.
So, this is the explanation of information disappearances.
I have plagiarized this term from the Nature editorial (358:187, 1992)
where John Maddox actually urged other editors to reject submission
if it seems to be "unpalatable" for the majority of scientists working in
that field. Some time ago I have already shortly mentioned that
outstanding publication (Apr.11, 2000).
Certainly, I like this word. First, its meaning is rather obscure so
it may be interpreted in the most flexible manner. Let's say that
"unpalatable" means "unprofitable" and we have description of
market discipline and corruption of any colour. Let's say that it
means "ideologically unacceptable" and we have any form of
And second, most important, I think this term correctly reflects the fact
that there is usually a significant instinctive, subconscious, intuitive,
illogical (choose whatever you want) component in the process of
selecting works for suppression.
That is, I can't explain why I like tea and don't like coffee. Similarly,
it is often necessary to FEEL what work should be suppressed rather than to
explain who is offended and why it is unpalatable.
In the NYT article the case with German composer seems to be the most
telling in this regard (it was also described in more details in postings
by Peter Hinkle of Sept.19). Below are two other examples
Example No.1 -- Ignaz Semmelweis
I think, the most unpalatable discovery in the history of science
was made by Ignaz Semmelweis -- now considered to be the "father of modern
hygiene". Working in Vienna hospital, in 1847 he realized that the childbed
fever in expectant mothers is caused by infection transmitted by hands of
medical personnel when they come straight from the autopsy room. He ordered
his students to wash their hands before doing vaginal examinations --
and mortality rates immediately dropped.
Quite naturally, his views were rejected, and murderous practice
continued for many many years. Semmelweis left Vienna in 1854 and
ultimately developed a serious mental illness. He died at the age of 42
in 1865 in an insane asylum "possibly from beatings by asylum guards".
There are no questions about behaviour of Viennese medical society,
Semmelweis's claims were unpalatable to them in every possible meaning
of this word.
But what about the relatives of died women? From instinctive point
of view, it seems unpalatable to assume guilt of a doctor.
Yet, with minimal attitude to think and with availability of information
about Semmelweis's claims sooner or later some high-ranking husband
of victim might start to ask questions. Apparently, instinctive
By the way, an interesting mental experiment: suppose that Ignaz Semmelweis
has made his discovery today -- is there any hope for him for happier outcome?
Example No.2 -- Edward Gerrard
Here is some fun.
In brief, opponents of Ted Gerrard say that birds posses some sophisticated
navigation techniques -- navigation by stars, by magnetic field, perhaps
something else. Ted meticulously examined experiments supporting this claim
and demonstrated that ALL experimental designs yielding positive results have
serious methodological flaws. And, he says, that all apparent navigation
effects may be explained by trivial phototactic reactions like flying from
the dark room to the bright source of light.
At first glance, both points of view on this problem have equal chances
to survive. That is, perhaps, Ted has troubles because he was slightly
out of luck, or
Yet, according to the concept of unpalatable research Ted was destined
to be an outright dissenter. His works are really unpalatable. Let's
look who is the offended part.
Apparently, I had the right qualification in the field of birds' navigation
to come at the explanation following below. Before acquaintance with Ted my
education in this field was limited by reading tales by Seton-Thompson some
30 years ago...
When I was reading Ted's works I completely agreed with all his methodological
arguments but suddenly I have caught myself at the thought that I sincerely
wish him to be wrong. What's happening? - I asked myself. Then I recalled
Seton-Thompson and quickly realized that thanks to those tales read in
childhood, I just subconsciously want birds to be CLEVER while, certainly,
Ted argues that they are STUPID.
So, instinctively and subconsciously his works were unpalatable even to me.
Furthermore, people who become ornithologists usually choose this rare
profession because they do like birds (which is not the case with me -- I don't
like birds, in my youth I even liked to spit at the pigeons walking on Moscow
pavements). Therefore, evidently, they should experience much more serious negative
feelings against Ted. There were absolutely no chance for him to find
understanding among colleges.
Now let's answer who was the offended part in this story. The fundamental
cause of all Ted's troubles, including libel suit against him is that his works
insult BIRDS! Isn't it funny?