Tuesday, April 26, 2016

scientifically public versus scientifically popular

Despite many 'just so' stories to the contrary, an even half way determined scientist trying to change a current paradigm can always get scientifically published - even if only as one of the published abstracts of papers verbally delivered at a minor local meeting of a nationally important scientific society.

I am thinking specifically of a particular scientist from 1930s upstate NY and his paper "Virulence for mice of certain pneumococcus strains following induced specific type transformation".

This long forgotten and quietly rebellious scientist, Dr Albert H Harris of Slingerlands NY, at least got his views published.  IE, it was scientifically public, so I was at least able to find his paper's abstract online seventy five years later.

But as an indication how token this 'scientific publication' really was, all the dozens of abstracts from all these local meetings were bundled under one heading at the back of the journal, meaning they'd only be found by someone reading the entire issue, every issue, from cover to cover.

Or by a modern search engine "whole word search" which how I stumbled on it, by sticking in a lucky and random selection of my key words.

Harris confirms Dawson & Warbasse

Anyway, Harris was employed in life-saving but also boringly routine pneumonia typing work for the NY state government lab at Albany when he decided to conduct a bold freelance experiment, presumably during his off hours.

On April 29th 1938 he gave a verbal paper about the results before a minor local meeting of the "Eastern NY" branch of the American Bacteriological Society.

An abstract of his paper, as was routinely done for all of such obscure meetings, was nonetheless then printed in the journal of that organization, a journal and a society that were very prominent in its then very important field, both in the Americas and overseas .

In his paper he claimed he had successfully induced Dawson & Warbasse styled HGT between two very different strains of capped and virile ("S") type pneumococcus.

I can well imagine the silent response of his elders : "Oh no, a confirmation of the successful transforming of S into S,  just as Dawson & Warbasse had claimed".

In other words, an unwanted confirmation of something they found extremely intellectually threatening.

For his new report sharply challenged the current scientific paradigm wherein HGT transformation was quietly dismissed as merely 'restoring' the inherent ability of all pneumococcus to produce all 90 different types of pneumococcus external capsules, something that had been temporarily lost in the defective "R" types.

This silly notion clearly contradicted the scientific elite's most fundamental scientific paradigm : that the tiny bacteria, being at the very bottom and very beginnings of Darwin's Tree of Life, ipso facto had to be incredibly simple beings, genetically speaking.

Yet this daft explanation for HGT said that these supposed primitive and energy-starved tiny beings carried, as a mere metabolical dead weight, a truly extraordinary number of mostly unused genes.

Our current explanation - which has near universal scientific support - is that one S type bacteria deliberately insert some of the DNA from another S type into its own genome.

Between the 1920s to the 1950s, about the easiest new gene to detect as a result was the one that gave that these bacteria a new and highly specific external goo capsule.

stupid bacteria best the smartest geneticists in the universe

The intellectual problem this minor report raised for the senior scientists & elite society of the day was that it suggested that Life's weakest beings had genetic skills far beyond the expertise of Life's supposedly most advanced beings, European scientists.

(And that was almost as transgressional as suggesting that darkies (like Vivien Thomas) could do difficult heart surgery better than whities (like Afred Blalock.)

Despite the popularity of the current paradigm among the frightened scientific elite, Harris was able to at least 'put his dissenting views on the public record'.

Most scientific rebels do much better than he, at least in getting scientifically published.

They are published in well regarded, albeit specialist, national scientific journals  with some circulation to the very largest of research libraries overseas.

But regardless if they are 'scientifically public', they are doomed by not being 'scientifically popular'.

For there is a world of difference between those two phrases.

What not being "scientifically popular" doesn't look like

To start with, their rebel notions are publicly ignored, which is a fate far worse than being hotly and publicly critiqued.

In private and in semi secrecy, their views are dismissed so vehemently that they don't get ever good job offers, or tenure, or the good grants, the big invites to big conferences, or get invited to write big review articles and become journal editors or society presidents.

They don't become department heads at big universities or named to high prestige endowed chairs, they don't sit on the big grant committees, they don't get invited to comment on science news in the big prestige lay media, they don't get to write chapters in the big textbooks.

They don't get asked to hold conferences on their subject or even to teach a intro course in it, let alone found an entire new scientific sub-field on it at some ambitiously expanding university.

Above all, the criteria for rejecting their hubris-threatening thesis - 'not sufficient data' - is unevenly applied.

For when the hubris of scientists and elite educated society likes what it hears about a new theory or discovery, much less data backup is required before it is 'splashed about' worldwide.

Trust me, older science may only occasionally speaks to us today in telling us something accurate and complete about the outer real world.

But it always - always - tells us all we ever need to know about the inner mental world of the scientists and elite society of that period of time ...

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