On Ignoring Good Ideas (in Science!) — Part 1

The first post on a new blog! Starting fresh on a clean slate—but also starting without any readers. So, what better subject to start with than the thought that most ideas are never read and, of the few that are read, most are ignored?

Scott Alexander recently had a post that listed ten examples of scientists who were roundly mocked before later being vindicated. Scott went through each example and showed that most of them weren’t true—either the scientists weren’t really mocked at all, or they were briefly but were vindicated very quickly. He also looked at several areas where he once thought that the scientific consensus was badly wrong but now thinks that it is right, either because he had misunderstood what the consensus position was, or because the consensus position changed rapidly to embrace the good ideas of a new paradigm. From all this, he concludes that “scientific consensus is almost always an accurate reflection of the best knowledge we have at the time.” (Of course, his argument is more nuanced than this; read the whole thing for his thoughts).

I disagree with Scott about the accuracy of science. I think that science can go badly wrong in (at least) two ways, and Scott looked at only one of the failure modes. Scott asked whether science is frequently confronted with a loud, prominent critic and rejects that critic publically for years—only for that critic to later turn out to have been right all along. He determined that this is rare, and I agree. But the question he didn’t ask was whether science, when confronted with a quiet criticism that doesn’t demand a response, is also likely to change to the correct view.

What I want to argue is that the biggest way for science to go wrong is for it to quietly ignore good ideas, many times for decades. These good ideas might literally receive no response, or they might get people to say, “Huh, that’s interesting, someone should really look into that.” But what they don’t get is the attention and energy that would cause them to be revolutionary in the way they should be.

So, science ignores good ideas. I’m going to argue for this claim by telling a couple of stories about when it happened, and then arguing why stories don’t tell the whole picture. I’m going to present some statistics to show that the issue I’m worried about isn’t a minor exception, but rather is a major, systematic problem. And then I’m going to talk a bit about how all this changes how I think about the scientific establishment.

* * *

Story time. Let’s start with Gregor Mendel.

Most people know the basic story of Mendel from high school biology: An Austrian monk with a garden and a passion for peas meticulous research, he spent eight years painstakingly cross breeding over twenty-five thousand pea plants and working out the laws of heredity, inventing the idea of dominant and recessive traits. (Before Mendel, scientists believed in “blending inheritance,” the idea that children received an approximate average of their parents’ traits.) Mendel’s discoveries are now known as Mendel’s Laws of Heredity, the entire field is called Mendelian Inheritance, and the combination of Mendel’s insights with Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is known as The Modern Synthesis, which underpins essentially all of modern biology. As all the capital letters might indicate, Mendel’s results were a Big Deal.

But—and here’s the part that’s important to my point—no one recognized Mendel’s significance at the time. In fact, no one paid any attention to Mendel’s ideas for the next thirty-five years. And it’s not like Mendel took his work to the grave or anything; he published his results in a reputable journal and even directly mailed a copy to some of the leading biologists of the day. And (despite the storybook image of Mendel as a monk puttering around in the garden with his pea plants), it’s not that Mendel was some nobody from outside the scientific establishment. Mendel was an educated man who had studied at the University of Olomouc and the University of Vienna, where he studied under renowned physicist Christian Doppler (discoverer of the Doppler effect).

So what happened? Essentially, the scientific establishment patted Mendel on the head and then proceeded to pretend he never existed. Remember how Mendel sent his work to leading biologists? Mendel sent his results to Carl Nägeli, a prominent Swiss biologist of the day.

Nägeli praised Mendel’s dedication, and suggested that Mendel redo his experiments with Hawkweed—a plant totally unsuited to shedding light on the hereditary principles Mendel had discovered (Hawkweed reproduces asexually). Nägeli so missed the point of Mendel’s work that he later wrote a book on inheritance without ever citing Mendel (and he didn’t plagiarize Mendel’s ideas either; he just missed Mendel’s importance entirely).

The evidence for Nägeli’s oversight is especially clear, because the letters he exchanged with Mendel have survived. But the point is not to cast blame on Nägeli. Just the opposite. The point is that everyone was guilty of overlooking Mendel just as much as Nägeli was. Every biologist was working in a field that had just seen a paradigm-shifting, once-in-a-century insight, and none of them noticed.

So, how did Mendel end up in our textbooks, if he was so thoroughly ignored? Pretty much by luck. Thirty years after Mendel, Hugo de Vries replicated much of Mendel’s work without having heard of Mendel. Late in his research, he discovered Mendel’s paper, and adopted some of Mendel’s terminology as his own. De Vries was all set to publish and claim all the credit—we could all have grown up studying De Vries Laws of Heredity. But it just so happened that another scientist had also rediscovered Mendel. That scientist, Carl Correns, made it loudly clear that De Vries had not been the first person to discover those laws. And so we got Mendelian Inheritance rather than De Vriesian Inheritance.

(I first learned the story of Mendel’s near-obscurity from Bill Bryson’s excellent A Short History of Nearly Everything.)

But let’s pause for a minute to dwell on what Mendel’s close shave means. Remember, De Vries had independently replicated Mendel’s work without having heard of Mendel. So it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the history of biology would have proceeded unaltered if Mendel had never turned his mind to pea plants: De Vries would have discovered inheritance around 1900, and the march of scientific progress would have proceeded just as it did in our world.

Think about that. Mendel—rightly hailed as a genius of the first order who performed careful studies and reached bold theoretical conclusions—contributed nothing to the advancement of science. We would be in just the same spot today if Mendel had never been born. And why was his contribution so limited? Not because scientists rejected his insights, or shouted him down, or were too attached to an old paradigm. But simply because no one paid attention to him. Our biological understanding could be thirty-five years further ahead, if only Mendel hadn’t slipped through the cracks.

My claim is that Mendel is far from alone.

* * *

One obvious objection, however, is that Mendel was ignored back in the 1800s. Surely modern scientists wouldn’t ignore something with such convincing evidence, at least not for decades. In the next post, I’ll take a look at another time science ignored a breakthrough—this time, for almost 40 years and lasting until 1980.

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