To demonstrate that this is really the way the scientific world works, let me give two poignant examples of this system in operation from my own field of biochemistry and the medical sciences, and indeed from the very highest levels thereof. The first case involves Peter Mitchell, who in the late 1950s had the brilliance to conceive that a biochemical process called chemiosmosis could be responsible for producing the energy molecules in our bodies, called ATP, which was a puzzle that had been bugging biochemists for a while back then. Without burdening you with an attempted explanation of that process, suffice it to say that the idea was so unconventional, indeed revolutionary in its day, and based upon so little observed information, that it was categorised by many as an unfounded speculation. The torrent of international criticism of his peers was predictably harsh. He was young, vulnerable, and challenging to the old silver-backs. When presented with something challenging, the gorilla silver-back typically beats off the threat with attack. The Homo sapiens variety sitting in the accredited chair of learning in the gilded ivory tower, which is the bastion incarnate of wisdom and the accumulated highest quality sapient thought processes of our society, you might think, would have philosophised, contemplated whether the challenging ideas could in fact represent the truth, and then congratulated the young bright spark for a job well done with a sincere: “Good thinking son, but how can we prove it”?
Well not quite, but at least the human silver-backs did not resort to physical violence. Mitchell was ridiculed by both international colleagues and those at the prestigious Department of Biochemistry at Cambridge (one of ‘The Two’ British Universities) where he worked, to the extent that he was forced to resign his senior position in 1963, officially due to the failing health that was induced by his prolonged professional trauma. He suffered from gastric ulcers; a disease which, ironically, we will encounter in a few paragraphs.
If his father had been a coal-miner that would have been the end of the story and Mitchell probably would have died of coal dust-induced lung cancer sometime in the next twenty years. Fortunately, he was an independently wealthy English gentleman, and was able to raise sufficient private funds to perform further work in his own private and personally equipped laboratory, called Glynn Research Laboratories which was located at Glynn House in the tranquilly forested Glynn Valley, near Bodmin in Cornwall, where he lived. There, with the assistance of just two colleagues (this was a garage-level laboratory) he embarked on the program of research that supported his hypothesis on chemiosmotic reaction systems. Eventually, he quashed his critics. In 1978 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for the theory of chemiosmosis.[i]
The Nobel Prize is more or less acknowledged as the most distinguished honour a scientist can achieve, and it is customary for the Nobel laureate to give a speech at the official Nobel Prize banquet, describing the people, events and thoughts that led to the discovery. Mitchell took the stage and gave a 384 word speech. We can imagine him walking emotionally back to his place with an impeccably British stiff upper lip, emotions welling up and almost overwhelming him, amidst the thundering applause that had started shortly after the momentary silence as he began to walk away from the dais. By the time he sat back down the audience (which was full of envious tuxedo-clad silver-backs and ex-critics) would probably have risen to its feet. The 384 words of that extraordinary ‘more than ordinary’ speech by that extraordinary man were:
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Emile Zola described a work of art as a corner of nature seen through a temperament. The philosopher Karl Popper, the economist F. A. Hayek, and the art historian K. H. Gombrich have shown that the creative process in science and art consists of two main activities: an imaginative jumping forward to a new abstraction or simplified representation, followed by a critical looking back to see how nature appears in the light of the new vision. The imaginative leap forward is a hazardous, unreasonable activity. Reason can be used only when looking critically back. Moreover, in the experimental sciences, the scientific fraternity must test a new theory to destruction, if possible. Meanwhile, the originator of a theory may have a very lonely time, especially if his colleagues find his views of nature unfamiliar, and difficult to appreciate.
The final outcome cannot be known, either to the originator of a new theory, or to his colleagues and critics, who are bent on falsifying it. Thus, the scientific innovator may feel all the more lonely and uncertain.
On the other hand, faced with a new theory, the members of the scientific establishment are often more vulnerable than the lonely innovator. For, if the innovator should happen to be right, the ensuing upheaval of the established order may be very painful and uncongenial to those who have long committed themselves to develop and serve it. Such, I believe, has been the case in the field of knowledge with which my work has been involved.
Naturally, I have been deeply moved, and not a little astonished, by the accidents of fortune that have brought me to this point; and I have counted myself lucky that I have been greatly encouraged by the love and example of the late David Keilin, and that my research associate, Dr. Moyle, has skilfully helped to mitigate my intellectual loneliness at the most difficult times. Now, I am indeed a witness of the benevolent spirit of Alfred Nobel.
Last, but not least, I would like to pay a most heartfelt tribute to my helpers and colleagues generally, and especially to those who were formerly my strongest critics, without whose altruistic and generous impulses, I feel sure that I would not be at this banquet today.[ii]
Who knows how many Peter Mitchells ended up in coal mines, driving taxis, working on building sites, or selling door to door because they dared to be ‘circumspect’, albeit innovative and correct.
Science is a wonderful thing if one does not have to earn one’s living at it.
That Peter Mitchell’s case is not an isolated or atypical one is demonstrated by the case of Robin Warren and Barry Marshall, Australian medics who proposed that stomach ulcers were caused by the bacterium Helicobacter pylori. To briefly summarise, Warren looked at electron microscope photos of gastric ulcers – nasty festering gastric ulcers – and noticed that there were quite often little curved bacteria-shaped and -sized things in the images. Furthermore, the site of inflammation of the ulcer was invariably near these bacteria-looking things. Hmmm. All those novice but intelligent general readers out there, what is your diagnosis?
To provide fair warning before you give it, I should warn you that the prevailing dogma of silver-backed authority held that peptic ulcer disease was the result of stress and lifestyle. Prevailing dogma means scientific peers: many, many, medically educated, old and cantankerously conservative yet very, very powerful silver-backed scientific peers. So, what would be your diagnosis?
Faced with exactly that decision, Robin Warren was circumspect enough to go public with the proposition that bacteria may cause ulcers.
He was ridiculed and criticised.
By many powerful silver-back peers, of course.
That denigration seems with the benefit of hindsight to have been rather ill-directed. With the wisdom of foresight, it should have been withheld in favour of balanced appraisal: ‘Good thinking! It could be right son. Work on it.’ But silver-backs will be silver backs.
Marshall and Warren subsequently isolated a new bacterium from gastric ulcers, which they named Helicobacter pylori. Under the microscope, it looked just like those funny little bacteria-looking things that Warren had seen before in ulcers. They found that it was present in a series of clinical biopsies from practically all patients with gastric inflammation, duodenal ulcer or gastric ulcer, where it indeed looked just like those odd little bacteria-looking things. In a stunning feat of bravery that was worthy of a Hollywood epic’s plot, Barry Marshall even swallowed a culture full of the bacteria. As he had predicted, symptoms of gastric ulcers developed. These symptoms were cured when he took a course of antibiotics that he knew would kill Helicobacter pylori. Marshall had become the first human ever to be cured of gastric ulcers. Even in the late 1990s the role of Helicobacter in gastric ulcers was still being begrudgingly dragged over the coals. (‘But it may not explain all cases’, which it probably does not, but it explains a good majority of them: a possibility which the silver backs of the 1980s were not willing to concede as probable.)
In 2005 Barry Marshall and Robin Warren received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Today ulcers are treatable with antibiotics, and many people suffer considerably the less for it: among them many, many, medically educated, old and cantankerously conservative yet very, very powerful silver-backed scientific peers; particularly those with stressed lifestyles because they were wrong.
Ironically in the context of our discussion in this chapter, it was because of gastric ulcers that Peter Mitchell was forced to leave the Department of Biochemistry at Cambridge.[iii] The immune system is weakened by stress, which presumably permits the bacteria to more easily gain a foothold (or whatever hold a Helicobacter pylori needs to gain).[iv] So the silver-back peers were not wrong, they were just not as right as might have been rather more advantageous under the circumstances.
I am all too familiar with those peers and their austere rules of conservative rigidity from my own field of trained expertise. For instance see the note added in press to a manuscript in 2006 concerning a peer-rejected hypothesis, explicitly presented as a speculative model for future verification, that extra-cellular Annexin A3 protein may influence the immune surveillance and inflammatory status of cancers:[v] [Peer reviewers being the sons of unmarried mothers, according to the famous old axiom]. So let us understand the restraints imposed upon the academic archaeologist, who may even be quite an anarchist in the privacy of his own home. Yet in print, he is steadfastly non-circumspect. For the record, it must be acknowledged with due credit to Mallory and Mair that they did give us the ‘simply do not know’ position above,43 after the appropriate ritual circumlocution and caveats that were presumably acceptable to their peers, which is why I could afford to use this example.
However I argue that when it comes to the discovery of important artefacts such as the origin of the wheel, exactly the same types of filtering processes apply. Yet the implications are so much more significant that even Mallory, for whose work I have acquired the deepest respect, is wry to acknowledge the ‘simply do not know’ option. All the earliest wooden wheels, like the earliest fabrics, would have rotted to nothing (if they were not incinerated to nothing, gypsy funeral style) unless fortuitously preserved. In this matter I propose the ‘circumspect’ but reasonable concept that wheels existed for thousands of years before we find one that was preserved, because that is the most parsimonious solution for the linguistic age of the PIE language and the presence of PIE words describing wheeled vehicles.
If so, it is not unreasonable to propose that social customs may have contributed to their scarce preservation: such as limited elite ownership and/or ritual gypsy-style incineration upon the death of the owner. I can afford to print this unqualified opinion because I am writing this book as a non-academic, or rather non-archaeologist. Although I am a trained academic my job does not depend upon my reputation as an archaeologist. Although my model solution to this riddle is somewhat conjectural (a very circumspect word), it is compatible with all the evidence, and there is accordingly no evidence that it is wrong. Although this thought process may seem reasonable to the average sensible person, it is unreasonable to the (current) scientific approach, and therefore circumspect. So “circumspectness” does not reflect whether an idea might be right or wrong, but rather how well its certainty is established by the observations (or even whether a majority think it is right). Therefore the enquiring mind should not be averse to circumspect models s long as they are grounded on defendable assumptions.
[ii] Peter Mitchell’s speech at the Nobel Banquet, December 10, 1978. http://www.nobel.se/chemistry/laureates/1978/mitchell-speech.html
[iv] Weiner H, Shapiro AP. 1998. Is Helicobacter pylori really the cause of gastroduodenal disease? Quart. Journ. Med. 91:707-11.
[v] Wozny W, Schroer K, Schwall GP, Poznanovic S, Stegmann W, Dietz K, Rogatsch H, Schaefer G, Huebl H, Klocker H, Schrattenholz A, Cahill MA. 2007. Differential radioactive quantification of protein abundance ratios between benign and malignant prostate tissues: cancer association of Annexin A3. Proteomics. 7:313-322.
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