Source: Social Studies of Science, vol. 25, pp. 165-183 (1995)  (Also reprinted in: Infinite Energy: The Magazine of New Energy Technology, 6 (#35): 32-40 (2001).

Hogarth Scholars Listening to a Lecture.jpg (63661 bytes)

Hogarth:  Scholars Listening to a Lecture

The Plight of the Obscure Innovator in Science


Moti Nissani


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.

In his informative and thoughtful paper, Professor Juan Miguel Campanario1 raises issues which are of the greatest possible importance to scientific progress. In this response, I should like to augment Campanario's review with additional data, interpretations, and reflections.

Three Views on the Extent of Resistance to New Ideas in Science

Everyone agrees that some seminal work has been refused publication, ignored, or scorned by the scientific community. The extent of such rejection is, however, highly controversial. This uncertainty may strike a newcomer to this field as odd, for it can be resolved through systematic historical studies. Nonetheless, such studies are yet to be carried out, and the subject at this writing remains as contentious as it has ever been.

Estimates of rejection frequencies can be best placed along a single continuum. But, for the sake of brevity and convenience, only three distinct headings will be given here. In an effort to document and capture the flavour of this debate, I shall quote at some length the views of representative proponents of each position:

The minimalist position states that rejection of new scientific ideas is rare and, hence, that it is of little consequence to scientific progress.

The scholarly ideal of open-mindedness and constructive criticism has been expressed on many occasions. One of the earliest (second century, B.C.) formulations of this ideal can be found in the dialogue between the Buddhist sage Nagasena and the Greek king Menander, a dialogue which set the ground rules for their long subsequent discussions. In response to Nagasena's insistence that they discourse like scholars, the king asks: 'How is it that scholars discuss?' To which Nagasena replies:

1. When Scholars talk a matter over one with another, then is there a winding up, an unraveling; one or the other is convinced of error, and he then acknowledges his mistake; distinctions are drawn, and contra-distinctions; and yet thereby they are not angered. Thus do scholars, O king, discuss.2

Here are the similar views of two more contemporary observers:

2. Contrary to a widely held opinion, it is extremely rare for any scientist to publish an epoch-making discovery and have it ignored. As a rule, the knowledge of the discovery spreads rapidly and the scientist is honored promptly and copiously.3

3. If we ask how Einstein's career fared in the world of professional physicists, we find that whatever resistance he encountered on the road to academic acceptance was due more to politics and anti-Semitism than to physics....In the face of [Einstein's] favorable's hard to accept the myth that scientists lack imagination....For the past century scientists have been repeatedly chastised with the accusation that they are always turning down unorthodox ideas. One consequence of this criticism has been remarkable. Scientists are able read; they are sensitive to history. Their reaction has been to become exceedingly receptive to new ideas.4

The moderate position asserts that, although rejection has only plagued a small fraction of obscure innovators, it is frequent enough to deserve serious study and perhaps even a measure of reform:

1. That some resistance occurs, that it has specifiable sources in culture and social interaction, that it may be in some measure inevitable, is not proof...that there is more resistance than acceptance in science ...Nevertheless, some resistance remains, and it is this we seek to understand and thus perhaps to reduce.5

2. There are very few Citation ClassicR papers which had problems in being published, but, precisely because of the great impact and importance of the papers involved, their rejection or delayed publication can have pernicious effects....It is clear that new ideas and theories, or reinterpretations of previous data, can encounter some difficulty in being published'6 (italics added).

The maximalist position asserts that rejection of obscure innovators is common and, hence, that it poses a serious obstacle to scientific progress.

Upholders of this view argue that the minimalist or moderate views perceive only the spire or tip of this chilling iceberg. The more correct generalization, they say, might well be: Articles which (i) have been written by obscure, not particularly well-off or well-connected, scientists and mathematicians, (ii) involve reconceptualizations, innovations, or controversies, and, (iii) fail to recruit a well-known champion, often face an uphill struggle for publication and acceptance. Such struggles, maximalists say, constitute the single most important roadblock to scholarly and artistic advances.

Over the years, variations on this view have been expressed by a small, vocal minority, of whose opinions only a sampler will be reproduced here:7

1. The myth that merit must inevitably be recognised does not bear the most casual scrutiny. Indeed, the opposite is more likely to be true: mediocrity is sure of its applause and recognition while great merit will, because of its capacity to disturb, generally be overlooked....Merit goes unrecognised except by accident ...there is more...great music entirely unknown than there is known. My hunch is that the same applies to painting and poetry too....[There are many] whose scientific discoveries when submitted to the Royal Society had been ignored.8

2. Very occasionally one thinks...something new: and waits a little bleakly for years, in the hope that it will strike a spark of recognition somewhere.9

3. The history of [Waterston's] paper suggests that highly speculative investigations, especially by an unknown author, are best brought before the world through some other channel than a scientific society, which naturally hesitates to admit into its printed records matter of uncertain value. Perhaps one may go further, and say that a young author who believes himself capable of great things would usually do well to secure favourable recognition of the scientific world by work whose scope is limited, and whose value is easily judged, before embarking upon higher flights.10

4. The history of science abounds in instances of basic papers having been written by comparatively unknown scientists, only to be rejected or neglected for years.11

5. But what remains to be said about the quantity and source of the blood which thus passes, is of so novel and unheard-of character that I not only fear injury to myself from the envy of a few, but I tremble lest I have mankind at large for my enemies, so much doth wont and custom, that become as another nature, and doctrine once sown and that hath struck deep root, and respect for antiquity, influence all men.12

It would appear, then, that commentators on the plight of obscure innovators can be placed in one of three camps. The first claims that resistance to obscure innovators does not occur often enough to merit the serious attention of sociologists, psychologists, historians, and scientists. The second claims that, although not widespread, the problem occurs often enough to justify description, analysis, and reform. The third believes that resistance is common and that it deserves the closest possible scrutiny and remediation. How does the data culled from Citation ClassicR bear upon these three views?

Citation Analysis Cannot Resolve this Controversy

In his paper, Prof. Campanario lists sixteen historical episodes of resistance to new ideas, including the well-known cases of Krebs, Mayer, Peters and Ceci, Waterston, and Yallow. Most of Campanario's paper, however, is dedicated to analyzing 316 retrospective commentaries of authors of highly-cited articles. Of these, eighteen (5.7%) encountered some administrative difficulties during the investigation or publication phases. At least some of these problematic papers reported innovative methods or presented new interpretations of previous data. Three of the papers which encountered publication problems are the most frequently cited papers from the journals in which they appeared.

Of these 5.7%, 0.6% encountered some resistance during the research phase, 1.9% encountered some resistance to publication in the journal which eventually published the paper, and 3.2% of the papers were rejected by one journal and published in another.

Campanario's historical and Citation ClassicR data may be construed as lending support to the moderate view of resistance to change. Only a few historical case histories are described or referenced. And, the great majority of the highly-cited papers in his survey experienced no problems during the research, publication, and recognition phase. Of the small fraction which did, all eventually appeared in print and gained recognition.

Proponents of the maximalist interpretation might however argue that Campanario's moderate position is a consequence of the paucity of systematic historical studies of this subject and of his methodology, rather than of historical realities. I shall have more to say about history later. At this point, I shall highlight a few methodological shortcomings of citation analysis.

Citations tell us something important about resistance to new ideas in science, but, when used as a key source, they may give rise to incorrect generalizations. To begin with, citation analysis tells us nothing about important papers which were never accepted for publication. If the maximalist position is correct, a careful historical search for such rejected contributions may yield a rich, if heart-rending, harvest. The close misses of Aristarchus, Strato,13 Waterston, and others, seem to support this view. Also, we know that some highly original contributions have been ignored for decades (e.g., Mendel,14 Rumford), centuries (e.g., Bernoulli, Da Vinci), sometimes even millennia (e.g., Aristarchus' heliocentric theory and Chinese contributions to science and mathematics). Citation data have not been around long enough to detect such instances of delayed recognition.

Many articles are frequently cited for reasons other than creativity. For instance, in chemistry one often cites the source which provides the most practical description of a technical procedure, not the paper in which this procedure was first described. Thus, some highly-cited papers are technical papers which no one, including their authors, would classify as revolutionary. Also, reviews are often highly cited, even when they do not involve original research or insights. All things being equal, contributions written by well-known authors, or by authors from prestigious institutions, are more often cited than contributions of lesser known scholars. Sometimes, citations are a matter of taste, fashion, and personal acquaintance. Moreover, the choice of citing one paper and not another is often determined by accessibility; it makes more sense to cite papers written in English than papers in Hebrew or Urdu, for example. Originality and revolutionary nature, then, are merely one possible reason among many for citing papers. By themselves, high or low citation counts tell us little about quality.

Indeed, one empirical study concludes that 'citation counts may not necessarily measure quality.' Highly cited articles are simply useful to a large number of scientists. Citations, according to this study, provide quite a limited perspective on quality and 'they measure perceived usefulness more than perceived quality.'15 Prof. Campanario cites Eugene Garfield's views on a few occasions in his paper, but the most relevant Garfield's citation, maximalists may argue, is this:

A highly cited work is one that has been found to be useful by a relatively large number of people, or in a relatively large number of experiments....O.H. Lowry's 1951 paper on protein measurements is a classic example. It was cited...more than five times as [often] as the second most highly cited work. The only thing the count indicates about this particular piece of Lowry's work was best said by him: 'It just happened to be a trifle better or easier or more sensitive than other methods, and of course nearly everyone measures proteins these days'....The only responsible claim made for citation counts as an aid in evaluating individuals is that they provide an objective measure of the utility or impact of scientific work. They say nothing about the nature of the work, nothing about the reason for its utility or impact.16

A Cursory Survey

The maximalist position leads to two predictions. The first is implied in Francis Bacon's view that 'Time is like a river which has brought down to us things light and puffed up, while those which are weighty and solid have sunk.17 The second follows from Wilfred Trotter's observation that 'the reception of new ideas tends always to be grudging or hostile....Apart from the happy few whose work has already great prestige or lies in fields that are being actively expanded at the moment, discoverers of new truths always find their ideas resisted.'18 The first prediction is, in the nature of the case, extremely difficult to test. Besides, unearthing a few episodes of misplaced priority would tell us little about the extent of resistance. The second prediction, however, if the maximalist view is nearer the mark than its competitors, should yield a bumper crop in a comparatively short time. In fact, maximalists predict that most original contributions of poorly-connected scientists, mathematicians, technologists, and other innovators, had to overcome publication and recognition hurdles.

The data below disclose the outcome of one casual survey. In the interests of brevity, most instances readily accessible elsewhere19 have been omitted. Whenever possible, the list provides quotations. These often highlight the curious fact that most biographers and historians subscribe to the minimalist position, and that, whenever they encounter a struggle for publication or recognition in science, mathematics, technology, or other fields, they tend to attribute it to the peculiar circumstances of that case history (such as nationality, belligerence, or misfortune), instead of, as maximalists might, to deep-seated psychological, sociological, and political causes. Because this list contains names which are not usually mentioned in this context, and because it is possibly one of the longest of its kind, it should also be of some interest to those wishing to understand the social dimension of resistance to innovation.

1. 'A young Swedish student of chemistry named Svante August Arrhenius was the first to suggest, in 1884, that ions are charged atoms...His notions, advanced in the thesis he presented for his degree of doctor of philosophy in that year, were so revolutionary that his examiners could scarcely bring themselves to pass him.... He was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1903 for the same thesis that nineteen years earlier had nearly lost him his doctoral degree.'20

2. Amedeo Avogadro's famous hypothesis of 1811 was "not received by chemists, owing, firstly, to the small number of cases to which it could then be applied, and, secondly, to the fact that several of those cases gave anomalous results not understood until much later. It was not until 1858, after Avogadro's death, that authoritative attention was called to it by another Italian chemist, Stanislao Cannizzaro....This long eclipse of an important law rendered the results of physical chemistry far less profitable than they might have been for nearly half a century.'21

3. 'Percussion, the science of tapping the chest and other portions of the body and interpreting the resulting sounds to determine the status of the organs beneath, had been evolved by Leopold Auenbrugger....His description of his new diagnostic principle in 1761, perhaps because of its long and involved Latin title...had largely gone unnoticed by the medical world until translated and popularized in 1808 by Napoleon's personal physician and friend.'22

4. 'A clear understanding of the nature of heat finally came with the...realization that the molecules composing a gas are in continual motion, bouncing off one another and off the walls of their container. The first investigator who attempted to explain the properties of gases from this standpoint was the Swiss mathematician Daniel Bernoulli, in 1738, but he was ahead of his times. In the mid-nineteenth century, Maxwell and Boltzmann...worked out the mathematics adequately and established the kinetic theory of gases.'23

5. In 1803, Claude Louis Berthollet published an essay which later became 'the basis of modern chemical dynamics', but which had been 'unfortunately neglected for many years.'24

6. 'One would think that by the time Boyle published the account of his experiment [on the behavior of a mercury barometer in vacuum] the whole learned world would have accepted the new ideas. But the advance of science was slow in the mid-seventeenth century, in part because of the lack of scientific societies and scientific journals.25

7. 'When lava cools, the crystals form in alignment with the [Earth's] magnetic field. As long ago as 1906, the French physicist Bernard Brunhes noted that some rocks were magnetized in the direction opposite to Earth's present magnetic field. This finding was largely ignored at the time.'26

8. Sadi Carnot founded thermodynamics in 1824 but 'the pamphlet of Carnot attracted little attention during his lifetime. The principles involved were grasped some twenty years later by...Joule.'27

9. 'The entrapment of large particles along the magnetic lines of force had been predicted in 1957 by an...amateur scientist, Nicholas Christofilos...He had sent his calculations to scientists engaged in such research, but no one had paid much attention to them. (In science, as in other fields, professionals tend to disregard amateurs.) It was only when the professionals independently came up with the same results that Christofilos achieved recognition.'28

10. 'In Chancourtois found that he could arrange the [chemical] elements in the order of increasing atomic weight in a tabular form, so that elements with similar properties fell in the same vertical column. Two years later...Newlands independently arrived at the same arrangement. But both scientists where ignored or ridiculed. Neither could get his suggestions properly published at the time. Many years later, after the importance of the periodic table had become universally recognized, their papers were published at last. Newlands even got a medal.'29

11. 'In spite of occasional dietary victories...nineteenth-century biologists refused to believe that a disease could be cured by diet, particularly after Pasteur's germ theory of disease came into its own. In 1896, however...Christiaan Eijkman convinced them almost against his own will.'30

12. 'At the start of his career, R. A. Fisher encountered great difficulties publishing papers that are now considered classic. Fisher's 1918 paper was rejected, allowed to languish for more than two years, and was eventually published only thanks to the intervention of Leonard Darwin, an amateur biologist and a nonmathematician with a very famous father and a strong belief in the genius of this obscure schoolteacher whose contributions were largely rejected by the professionals. Later, and in dire financial circumstances, Fisher was offered a job by Pearson, but on the condition that he only publish what Pearson approved. On a few other occasions in his early career, Fisher again experienced publishing difficulties which might have proven insurmountable without Darwin's help.31

13. 'In 1787, the American inventor John Fitch built a steamboat that worked, but it failed as a financial venture, and Fitch died unknown and unappreciated. Robert Fulton, a more able promoter than Fitch, launched his steamship... in 1807 with so much more fanfare and support that he came to be considered the inventor of the steamship.'32

14. Alexander Fleming 'dutifully published his [penicillin] results in 1929, but no one paid much attention at the time. Ten years later...Florey and...Chain became intrigued by the almost forgotten discovery and set out to try to isolate the antibacterial substance'.33

15. The mathematician Frege 'published his first work in 1879...but, in spite of the epoch-making nature of his discoveries, he remained wholly without recognition until...1903.'34

16. Among early hybridizers, Mendel singled out especially Gaertner and Koelreuter. Gaertner failed to achieve recognition in his lifetime, even though he had money and was the 'son of a world-famous botanist. In 1849, despairing of getting a willing publisher for his great book, he paid for the printing himself.' Koelreuter's 'book never achieved a wide circulation....Sad to relate, the records of all these experiments were passed over by almost all his contemporaries and forgotten....Koelreuter...was frustrated and bitter to the end of his days.'35

17. 'In 1876, the American physicist Josiah Willard Gibbs worked out the theory of chemical thermodynamics in such detail that this branch of science was brought from virtual nonexistence to complete maturity at one stroke. The long paper in which Gibbs described his reasoning was far above the heads of others in America and was published...only after considerable hesitation. Even afterward, [the subject was kept] under a bushel basket until Ostwald discovered the work in 1883, translated the paper into German, and proclaimed the importance of Gibbs to the world.'36

18. In the night before his death in a duel, Everist Galois, 'one of the most original mathematicians of all times...revised a paper to the Academie des Sciences (which had previously rejected it as unintelligible)...It was only after fifteen years, that, with admiration, scientists became aware of the memoir which the Academy had rejected. It signifies a total transformation of higher algebra, projecting a full light on what had been only glimpsed thus far by the greatest mathematicians.37

19. Robert Hutchins Goddard's accomplishments with rockets 'got almost no recognition, except from his outraged neighbors.'38

20. William Harvey, 'was subjected to derision and abuse and his practice suffered badly. Only after a struggle of over twenty years did the circulation of the blood become generally accepted.'39

21. 'In 1905 a Danish astronomer, Ejnar Hertzsprung, reasoned that a cool star must have a dim surface, but if it had a very large surface, the dimness of each bit would add up to a great total brightness. In other words, a bright star that was cool and red had to be a very large star indeed in order to be bright. Hertzsprung published this idea in a journal of photography and astronomers didn't notice it. Then, in 1914, the American astronomer Henry Norris Russell had the same idea independently, and this time the idea stuck and both astronomers are usually given credit.'40

22. Karl Janski, the founder of radio astronomy, 'was largely unappreciated in his lifetime.'41

23. 'Some time in the 1760s a young medical student, Edward Jenner, was consulted by a Gloucester dairymaid who felt out of sorts. Jenner thought that she might be suffering from smallpox, but she promptly replied: 'I cannot take the smallpox because I have had the cow-pox.' After nearly twenty years of struggle against the scepticism and indifference of the medical profession, Jenner succeeded in proving the popular belief that people who had once caught the cow-pox were immune against smallpox.'42

24. Joule, 'who was a brewer by profession and also lacked academic credentials, had difficulty getting his meticulous work published'.43 Joule's 'superb exposition of 1847 had been given in the form of a popular lecture in a church reading-room! This great scientific pronouncement, after rejection by several journals, appeared in a Manchester weekly paper.'44

25. After describing the effects of lead poisoning in a 1786 letter, Benjamin Franklin concludes: 'This, my dear friend, is all I can at present recollect on the subject. You will see by it, that the opinion of this mischievous effect from lead is at least above sixty years old; and you will observe with concern how long a useful truth may be known and exist, before it is generally receiv'd and practis'd on.'45

26. 'Trying his treatments on scurvy-ridden sailors, [by 1747 James Lind] found that oranges and lemons brought about improvement most quickly. Captain Cook, on a voyage of exploration across the Pacific from 1772 to 1775, kept his crew scurvy-free by enforcing the regular eating of sauerkraut. Nevertheless it was not until 1795 that the brass hats of the British navy were sufficiently impressed by Lind's experiments (and by the fact that a scurvy-ridden flotilla could lose a naval engagement with scarcely a fight) to order daily rations of lime juice for British sailors.'46

27. W. H. Lewis not only discovered pinocytosis in 1931, 'but was thoroughly aware of its significance....But for 20 years or more pinocytosis remained 'unhonoured and unsung'....Nowadays references to the phenomenon are constantly encountered in the literature.'47

28. 'McMunn discovered cytochrome in 1886, but it meant little and was ignored until Keilin rediscovered it thirty-eight years later and was able to interpret it.'48

29. It was 'scientific skepticism which brushed aside all the instances of hypnotic phenomena...and which--even in the face of the systematic demonstrations of hypnosis by Mesmer and his successors--denied for another century after Mesmer's first appearance the reality of hypnotic phenomena. When the medical profession ignored such palpable facts as the painless amputation of human limbs, performed before their own eyes in hundreds of successive cases, they acted in the spirit of scepticism, convinced that they were defending science against imposture.'49

30. 'The ancients even witnessed falls of meteorites to the earth and found some to be lumps of iron....During the eighteenth made a backward step in this respect....Farmers who came to the Academie Francaise with samples of meteorites were politely, but impatiently, shown the door.'50 'The French Academy of Science stubbornly denied the evidence for the fall of meteorites, which seemed massively obvious to everybody else. Their opposition to the superstitious beliefs which a popular tradition attached to such heavenly intervention blinded them to the facts in question....Many public museums threw away whatever they possessed of these precious meteorites: it happened in Germany, Denmark, Switzerland, Italy and Austria.'51 'When, in 1807, two Connecticut scholars...reported having witnessed a fall, President Thomas Jefferson said that he would sooner believe that two Yankee professors would lie than that stones would fall from heaven.'52

31. 'In 1920, a Yugoslavian physicist, Milutin Milankovich, suggested a cycle [of Earth's average temperature] that was 40,000 years in length....The earth would, by this theory, be particularly susceptible to glaciation in the time of the 'Great Winter'... Milankovich's suggestion did not meet with much favor when it was advanced; but in 1976, the problem was tackled.'53

32. Despite his position at Yale University, and despite his former apprenticeship with the well-known social psychologist Solomon Asch, Stanley 'Milgram's first submission...was rejected, as was his subsequent request.'54

33. 'Blowfly attack in sheep is a major problem in Australia....Several teams of scientists...devoted full-time research to the problem, but after many years were able to contribute little towards a means of prevention. A sheep farmer named Mules...[developed a surgical procedure which] has proved to be a most valuable means of preventing the disease. Incidentally, there was considerable resistance even among scientists to the acceptance of Mules' discovery....Probably the underlying reasons for the resistance were that the discovery was made by an outsider and that it involved a new principle, namely, the application of surgery to the prevention of a specific disease. It provided an interesting present-day example of the reception usually accorded to innovators though in this instance it did not amount to persecution'55 (italics added).

34. Charles Sanders Peirce, 'probably the most versatile philosophic intellect of the nineteenth century in America,' was ignored and unappreciated in his lifetime. He died 'a frustrated, isolated man...without a publisher, with scarcely a disciple, unknown to the public at large....The spectacle of America's greatest philosophic thinker of the nineteenth century, writing in the toils and travail of obscurity and neglect, is not a felicitous one for his fellow Americans to contemplate...The essence of his thought was originality in every subject he taught...It seems a great pity that as original a man as he is ... should be starved out of a career.'56

35. William Prout's 1815 paper called attention 'to the closeness with which the atomic weights of the elements, expressed in terms of relation to hydrogen, approximated to whole numbers'. Prout's paper 'had a somewhat similar history' to that of Avogadro's.57

36. 'In 1676...Roemer did succeed in timing the speed of light--on an astronomical distance scale.... His estimate was 'high enough to evoke the disbelief of his contemporaries. Roemer's results were, however, confirmed a half-century later.'58

37. 'Roentgen's first announcement of his discovery of X-rays' was greeted with ridicule.59

38. 'In science, as elsewhere, progress must struggle against inertia. The caloric theory had been accepted for a very long time, and Rumford's hypothesis [that heat is a form of motion] was so revolutionary that its acceptance was very slow in coming.'60 Rumford's and Davy's experiments on the nature of heat 'should have been conclusive; but the caloric theory, though obviously wrong, persisted to the middle of the nineteenth century.'61

39. 'In 1839, Josef Skoda published 'a treatise on percussion and auscultation which, at first ignored and even ridiculed, later became famous.'62

40. Herbert Spencer, D'Arcy Thompson, and Thorstein Veblen refused honors because they arrived too late.63

41. John Speke, who had 'actually got to the source of the While Nile in Uganda...had to wait twenty years or more before his discovery was acknowledged.'64

42. 'When Henry Thoreau died in 1862 at the age of forty-four he was virtually unknown to the reading public....It was well over half a century after his death before Thoreau's very special qualities and the real meaning of his work began to be appreciated.'65

43. Besides discovering Pluto, Clyde Tombaugh was among the first to discover the clustering of galaxies. 'Erik Holmberg and Anders Reiz independently demonstrated that the Local Group, which includes our galaxy, is part of a much larger swarm of galaxies.' The work of all three was ignored. Tombaugh urged Hubble to examine his data, but in a scene reminiscent of the astronomers who refused to look through Galileo's telescope, Hubble declined: 'Hubble remarked merely that the plates he had seen, taken in small areas but over selected regions spread out over the sky, showed a fairly uniform distribution. Tombaugh then offered to show him his records, in which he had kept careful count of the number of galaxies on each plate. Hubble was apparently not interested in seeing those either.'66

44. 'The world of science for many years ignored Tswett's [1906] discovery [of chromatography], possibly because he was only a botanist and only a Russian, while the the time were German biochemists. But In 1931, a German biochemist, Richard Willstatter rediscovered the process, whereupon it came into general use.'67

45. In 1973, Nobel laureate Harold Urey 'published a little paper in Nature arguing that several of the extinction events of the past 40 to 50 million years had been caused by impacts of large comets. Unlike his predecessors, Urey came armed with evidence....Once again silence reigned. Urey's paper...caused not a ripple despite his prominence and authority in science.'68

46. 'For an American geology student, even as late as the early 1960s, Wegener was anathema. He was not assigned to the lunatic fringe--his other contributions spared him that--but he was close. He was mentioned in textbooks and classes only for comic relief and to provide a bit of the history of geology. Papers supporting drifting continents rarely got through peer review--and often were rejected by editors without review.'69 According to one early supporter of Wegener's hypothesis of continental drift, 'deep conservatism is characteristic of the whole history of geology.'70

47. In 1903 'the Wright brothers got off the ground in a propeller-driven glider and stayed in the air for 59 seconds, flying 852 feet. It was the first airplane flight in history, and it went almost completely unnoticed by the world at large.'71


Of the three views on the obscure scientist's struggle for recognition, the historical evidence collated here would seem to tentatively support the maximalist view. Why then is this view only upheld by a small minority?

To begin with, the evidence in favour of the maximalist view is far from being conclusive. Also, this view demands a shift in our conceptions of science and scientists. We have all been raised 'with the stereotype of the scientist as 'the open-minded' man,'72 and we tend to view any allegation or evidence to the contrary with incredulity.

Another obstacle for open-minded evaluation of the maximalist view is its perceived implausibility. Historians of science and students of conceptual shift know that it is extremely difficult to abandon untenable beliefs in the absence of a reasonable alternative.73 For instance, Semmelweis was laughed at in part because he was unable to explain the observed effect of soiled hands on childbed fever. So, to be believed, widespread resistance to obscure innovators must be documented and explained. Over the centuries, many worthwhile explanations have been put forward.74 These theoretical treatments do indeed lend greater plausibility to the maximalist position. They place, in particular, an emphatic question mark on the textbook dogma of impeccable scientific rationality and fairness. Although they have failed to do so yet, one day they may also spur a systematic historical study, a study which will most likely resolve the controversy regarding the plight of obscure innovators.

My own view, as I have argued at some length elsewhere,75 is eclectic. That is, I believe that resistance can be traced to a multiplicity of interconnected causes. Instead of attempting here a comprehensive survey of all the factors which make up this complex equation, I shall briefly touch upon one factor which merits, in my view, closer attention than it has so far received.

This understated contributory factor can be best approached through the work of Peter Marris.76 Based on his studies of bereavement, Marris argues that the process of abandoning a conviction is similar to the working out of grief. According to this view, in many seemingly diverse situations, change requires overcoming an impulse to restore the past. 'The impulse to defend the predictability of life is a fundamental and universal principle of human psychology.' Human beings possess 'a deep-rooted and insistent need for continuity.' Once we understand the anxieties associated with the loss of cherished convictions, the tenacity of clinging to old beliefs can be understood. We often argue, for instance, about the need for social change, and we tend to explain conservatism as ignorance, cowardice, or protection of privilege. This is true in some cases, but our resistance to change is often traceable to a universal conservative impulse which is more pervasive and profound than simple prejudice or class interest. One extreme manifestation of this impulse is the frequent failure of people undergoing psychotherapy to restructure their mistaken, dysfunctional, and painful viewpoints and habits.

Throughout history, this human tendency has been noted by countless observers of the human condition. 'The mind', says Wilfred Trotter, 'likes a strange idea as little as the body likes a strange protein and resists it with similar energy. It would not perhaps be too fanciful to say that a new idea is the most quickly acting antigen known to science. If we watch ourselves honestly we shall often find that we have begun to argue against a new idea even before it has been completely stated.'77 'The itch to suffocate the infant ideas burns in all of us', says Walshe.78 Indeed, the philosopher Schiller believes that this inertia 'deserves to rank among the fundamental 'laws' of nature.'79

There is overwhelming experimental evidence in favour of the assertion that 'there is in all of us a psychological tendency to resist new ideas which come from without just as there is a psychological resistance to really radical innovations in behaviour or dress.'80 For instance, preconceptions of science students are remarkably resistant to change.81 ' not rush to embrace new viewpoints. Rather, they cling to ideas that form part of their world view even when confronted by information that does not coincide with this view.'82 When scientists, likewise, serve as unwitting subjects in a psychological experiment on belief revision, and when their spuriously-acquired false belief is sharply contradicted by direct evidence, they are disinclined to doubt this belief on the verbal level and are even less likely to let go of it in practice.83

Given the documented presence84 of conceptual conservatism in the laboratory, classroom, clinical psychology, everyday experiences, political history,85 business world,86 preliterate societies,87 and cults;88 given, moreover, the probable involvement of many other psychological factors; given, above all, the decisive importance of institutional, sociological, and political factors; the frequent struggles of obscure innovators are to be expected. Perhaps we have been directing our astonishment at the wrong target all along. The surprising observation, according to this view, is not that so many obscure innovators suffered, but that some achieved renown with scarcely a struggle. And it is on this score, perhaps, that the natural sciences can boast a prouder record than other scholarly and artistic areas.

Bernard Barber commented that 'one of the interesting aspects of the social process of discovery--the resistance on the part of scientists themselves to scientific discovery...has been largely neglected as a subject for systematic investigation.'89 A third of a century later, the subject has not yet received the methodical attention it so richly deserves. Only a time-consuming comprehensive historical survey will help to unravel the extent, nature, causes, consequences, and cures of this resistance. The issues raised by Prof. Campanario and others can only be resolved through such an ambitious research program. In the meantime, this note raises the possibility that prolonged struggles for acceptance by the obscure innovator may be far more common than a casual reading of the literature might suggest. This note goes on to show that their high incidence can be readily explained by--and predicted from--psychological, political, and sociological theory.


This manuscript benefited from the incisive and generous comments of David Edge and Brian Martin.

1. J. M. Campanario, 'Consolation for the Scientist: Sometimes it is Hard to Publish Papers that are Later Highly-Cited', Social Studies of Science, Vol. 23 (1993), 342-62.

2. D. Ikeda, Buddhism: The First Millennium (Tokyo: Kodansha, 1977), 65.

3. C. Zirkle, 'Mendel and his Era', in R. M. Nardone (ed.), Mendel Centenary: Genetics, Development and Evolution ((Washington, D.C.: Catholic University, 1968) 122.

4. M. A. Rothman, The Science Gap (Buffalo: Prometheus, 1992), 137-143.

5. B. Barber, 'Resistance by Scientists to Scientific Discovery', in B. Barber and W. Hirsch (eds.), The Sociology of Science (New York: Free Press, 1962), 555.

6. Campanario, op. cit. note 1, 357.

7. For additional variations of the maximalist position, see also the views of Helmholz, Lavoisier, Murray, and Planck in B. Barber, op. cit. note 5.

8. R. Duncan, 'Merit is Always Recognised', in R Duncan and M. Weston-Smith (eds.), Lying Truths (Oxford: Pergamon, 1979), 12-15.

9. C. P. Snow, The two cultures and A second look, (London: Cambridge University Press, 1964), 54.

10. Lord Rayleigh, cited in R. A. Lyttleton, 'The Gold Effect,' in Duncan, op. cit. note 8, 194.

11. R. K. Merton, The Sociology of Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973), 456-457.

12. William Harvey, cited in: W. I. B. Beveridge, The Art of Scientific Investigation ( New York: Norton, 1950), 103.

13. B. Farrington, Greek Science (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969).

14. M. Nissani, 'Psychological, historical, and ethical reflections on the Mendelian paradox', Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 37 (1994), 182-196.

15. W. R. Shadish, Jr., 'The Perception and Evaluation of Quality in Science', in B. Gholson et al. (eds.), Psychology of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 383-426; Quotes are from pp. 415-6.

16. E. Garfield, cited in ibid, 415.

17. F. Bacon, The New Organon, F. . Anderson (ed.) (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1960), 10.

18. Barber, op. cit. note 5, 542.

19. Barber, op. cit. note 5; Campanario, op. cit. note 1; D. F. Horrobin, 'The Philosophical Basis of Peer Review and the Suppression of Innovation, Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 263 (9 March, 1990), 1438-1441; R. H. Murray, Science and Scientists in the nineteenth Century (London: Sheldon Press, 1925); M. Nissani Lives in the Balance: the Cold War and American Politics, 1945-1991 (Carson City, NV: Dowser 1992); Murray's book, in particular, and the references given there, make a persuasive case for the maximalist view. See especially, the dozens of case histories given in the chapters 'Forgotten Scientists,' and 'Limitation of Scientists,' and his reference to Ferdinand Rosenberg's three volumes.

20. I. Asimov, Asimov's New Guide to Science (New York: Basic Books, 1984), 220-21.

21. C. Singer, A Short History of Scientific Ideas to 1900 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1959), 345.

22. F. G. Slaughter, Immortal Magyar: Semmelweis, Conqueror of Childbed Fever (New York: Schuman, 1950), 20-21.

23. Asimov, op. cit. note 20, 399.

24. Singer, op. cit., note 21, 342.

25. J. B. Conant, Science and Common Sense (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1951), 81.

26. Asimov, op. cit. note 20, 229.

27. Singer, op. cit., note 21, 375.

28. Asimov, op. cit. note 20, 233; a somewhat different version is given in Rothman, op. cit., note 4, 139.

29. Asimov, op. cit. note 20, 269.

30. Asimov, op. cit. note 20, 703

31. J. F. Crow and J. F. Box cited in Nissani, 1994, op. cit. note 14.

32. Asimov, op. cit. note 20, 417.

33. Asimov, op. cit. note 20, 660.

34. B. Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1945), 830.

35. R. Olby, 'Origin of Mendelism', 2d. ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 25, 5.

36. Asimov, op. cit. note 20, 400.

37. A. Koestler, Act of Creation (London: Hutchinson, 1964), 111 (the passage includes a quote of J. Hadamard).

38. Asimov, op. cit. note 20, 108.

39. Beveridge, op. cit. note 12, 103.

40. I. Asimov, Alpha Centauri, the Nearest Star (New York: Lothrop, 1976), 134.

41. Asimov, op. cit. note 20, 64.

42. Koestler, op. cit. note 37, 111; see also Beveridge, op. cit. note 12, 38.

43. Asimov, op. cit. note 20, 398;

44. Singer, op. cit., note 21, 376.

45. Excerpted in F. R. Moulton and J. J. Schifferes (eds.), The Autobiography of Science (Garden City: Doubleday, 1945), 239.

46. Asimov, op. cit. note 20, 702-03.

47. H. B. Fell, 'Fashion in Cell Biology', Science (2 December 1960), 1625.

48. Beveridge, op. cit. note 12, 104.

49. Polanyi, Personal Knowledge (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1962), 274-5.

50. Asimov, op. cit. note 20, 236.

51. M. Polanyi, op. cit. note 49, 138.

52. Asimov, op. cit. note 20, 236.

53. Asimov, op. cit. note 20, 203.

54. A. Miller, The Obedience Experiments (New York: Praeger, 1986), 262.

55. Beveridge, op. cit., note 12, 93-4. A strikingly similar case involving facial eczema in New Zealand sheep is described in Horrobin, op. cit. note 19, 1440, case 10.

56. Quotation of various authors, cited in P. Wiener, (ed,) Studies in the Philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1952), 271-9.

57. Singer, op. cit., note 21, 345.

58. Asimov, op. cit. note 20, 377.

59. Beveridge, op. cit., note 12, 106.

60. I. M. Copy and C. Cohen, Introduction to Logic (8th edition) (New York: Macmillan, 1990), 441.

61. Asimov, op. cit. note 20, 397.

62. Slaughter, op. cit. note 22, 22.

63. R. K. Merton, The Sociology of Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973), 436.

64. A. Moorehead, The Blue Nile (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 281.

65. Edward Hepburn, 'Introduction', in H. D. Thoreau, Walden (New York: Peebles, undated), xi.

66. D. Levi, 'A Grand Gathering of Galaxies', Astronomy (March 1991), 44-51.

67. Asimov, op. cit. note 20, 292.

68. D. M. Raup, The Nemesis Affair (New York: Norton, 1986), 41.

69. Raup, ibid, 204.

70. A. du Toit, cited in B. I. Cohen, Revolution in Science (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap, 1985), 455-6.

71. Asimov, op. cit. note 20, 439.

72. Barber, op. cit. note 5, 540.

73. G. Posner et al., "Accommodation of a Scientific Conception: Toward a Theory of Conceptual Change." Science Education, Vol. 66 (1982), 211-227.

74. See, for example, F. Bacon, cited in Beveridge op. cit. note 12, 107; B. Barnes, Interests and the growth of knowledge (London: Routledge, 1977); P. Bourdieu, 'The Specificity of the Scientific Field and the Social Conditions of the Progress of Reason', Social Science Information, Vol. 14 (1975), 19-47; R. Dunford, 'The Suppression of Technology as a Strategy for Controlling Resource Dependence', Administrative Science Quarterly 32 (1987), 512-525; C. C. Gillispie, The Edge of Objectivity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1960); K.-M. Kim, 'On the Reception of Johannsen's Pure Line Theory: Toward a Sociology of Scientific Validity. Social Studies of Science, Vol. 21 (1991), 649-79; Lyttleton, note 10, 190-97; B. Martin, Scientific Knowledge in Controversy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 1991).

75. See Chapter 9 of my Lives in the Balance, note 19.

76. P. Marris, Loss and Change, revised edition (London: Routledge, 1986), Quotes are taken from p. 2.

77. Beveridge, op. cit. note 12, 105

78. Walshe, cited in Beveridge, op. cit. note 12, 106.

79. Cited in Beveridge, op. cit. note 12, 106.

80. Beveridge, op. cit. note 12, 105

81. For a recent review, see: C. A. Chinn and W. F. Brewer 'The Role of Anomalous Data in Knowledge Acquisition: A Theoretical Framework and Implications for Science Instruction', Review of Educational Research, Vol. 63 (1993), 1-49.

82. N. C. Burbules and M. C. Linn, 'Response to Contradiction: Scientific Reasoning During Adolescence,' Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol. 80 (1988), 67-75.

83. M. Nissani, 'A Cognitive Reinterpretation of Stanley Milgram's Observations on Obedience to Authority', American Psychologist, Vol. 45 (1990), 1384-1385. M. Nissani and D. M. Hoefler-Nissani, 'Experimental Studies of Belief-Dependence of Observations and of Resistance to Conceptual Change', Cognition and Instruction, Vol. 9 (1992), 97-111; M. Nissani, 'An Experimental Paradigm for the Study of Conceptual Conservatism and Change,' Psychological Reports, Vol. 65 (1989), 19-24.

84. For more detail reviews, see Marris, op. cit., note 75; M. Nissani, Conceptual conservatism: an understated variable in human affairs? Social Science Journal, in press; L. Ross and C. A. Anderson, 'Shortcomings in the Attribution Process: On the Origins and Maintenance of Erroneous Social Assessments,' in D. Kahneman et al. (eds.), Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982).

85. See for instance, M. Nissani, op. cit., 1992, note 19.

86. For instance, after more than five years on the road trying to kindle the flames of corporate dynamism, Tom Peters, a well-known apostle of organizational change said in a remark typical on the field as a whole, that 'when it comes to corporate change, I must declare myself...a pessimist', see P. Strebel, Breakpoints (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1992), viii.

87. E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande (Oxford: Clarendon, 1937).

88. L. Festinger et al., When Prophecy Fails (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1956); G. G. Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973).

89. Barber, op. cit. note 5, 539, 542; see also Campanario, op. cit.