The Rise and Fall of Bodies of Knowledge.
- I. Catt, The Information Scientist 12 (4) December 1978, pp. 137-144.
It is argued that the self-protecting nature of the knowledge establishment leads to the suppression of new ideas. Proposals are put forward for the establishment of 'Communication nets' which having no central points are incapable of suppression.
Although the principle of free communication of ideas is a basic tenet of the scientific community, there are numerous examples of their suppression. Professor Herbert Dingle, who wrote a book on relativity in the 1920s as well as a section on relativity for ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA, and was the man chosen by the BBC to give the eulogy on Einstein when he died, developed doubts about the special theory of relativity around 1955. To his astonishment, he found that the scientific journals and institutions suddenly closed their pages and doors when he wanted to write or say something unorthodox; that is, heretical. A scientist might say, 'something that was incorrect'. He describes his experience in his book, SCIENCE AT THE CROSSROADS (1).
Immanuel Velikovsky painstakingly developed the heretical theory that Venus as a planet is only some 3,500 years old, that it moved for centuries on a very eccentric orbit, and about 1500 BC made its two closest approaches to the Earth. During the eighth and seventh centuries BC, the comet Venus repeatedly approached Mars, and Mars in turn menaced our planet. Only after all these encounters did Venus finally lose its last cometary characteristics and settle down to its present planetary behaviour. Velikovsky believes that the effects of these encounters on the Earth, especially the earlier ones, where truly catastrophic. He wrote a book about his theories, called WORLDS IN COLLISION (2).
Without reading Velikovsky's book, the Professor of Astronomy at Harvard warned Macmillan not to publish anything by Velikovsky, saying that if they did, Macmillan would be boycotted by the academic community. Macmillan bowed to the pressure, and fired the editor who had accepted Velikovsky's manuscript, because he had accepted heretical material (3,4).
The computer journals and conferences in Britain and the USA consistently evaded 'The Glitch', the way in which computers spontaneously go mad for no apparent reason. The lengthy private correspondence with the editor of SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN which culminated in his being forced to give 'The Glitch' a passing mention, in April 1973, is very revealing. It took ten years of dedicated hard slog by a group of scientists in the University of Washington, St. Louis, to get it into the professional journal, the IEEE Transactions on Computers, in June 1975.
Many other instances could be cited of the suppression of new or unusual, that is 'heretical', ideas by scientific institutions. The system of refereeing technical articles before publication (and I myself have acted as a referee) is a system of censorship, the censor having no training in how to differentiate between 'wrong' and 'heretical'.
Superficially, it is easy to look at the suppression of free communication in science from the Basil Bernstein point of view (6), that 'knowledge is property with its own market and trading value', to be protected by the practitioners of that particular brand of knowledge - it may be sociology, mathematics, psychology, or some sub-set of these. We might regard the suppression of new ideas and the obstruction of outsiders when they try to trespass into a branch of knowledge as pernicious and retrograde. As one example of many suppressions, digital electronics, otherwise called computer hardware design, can be taught in virtually no college in the world today. It is suppressed by the older knowledge groups of computer science, which means programming, and by electronics, which means telecommunications. Dr Charles Seitz was chased out of the University of Utah when he opened up a laboratory with digital electronic hardware within the Computer Science Department. He then called himself a 'defrocked computer scientist'. (After a long gap, he is now lecturing at CALTECH.)
If we were certain that the suppression of free communication was wrong, it would merely be necessary to expose the fact that editors of scientific publications work to suppress scientific communication, rather than to sustain it; that university faculties work to block new disciplines, rather than help them to develop, and we would organize methods to prevent editors, professors and conference organizers from suppressing new developments in the future.
The Holt Dictum.
However, across this vista, like a blaze of light, comes the dictum of Dr A. W. Holt, 'Without barriers to communication there can be no communication'. This is one of the great profound truths which often appear facile at first sight.
As an illustration of Holt's thesis, when I publish something in a scientific journal, a large part of what I am publishing has already been said before the first word of the piece. The fact that I am publishing in that scientific journal means that I accept virtually the whole of what Galbraith calls the 'conventional wisdom' which is accepted by subscribers to that journal and its editors. This rigidly limits the scope of my communication. I want to publish in that journal because I accept the frame of reference established by that journal and the group of scientists who support it. If something were published in that journal by someone who did not accept virtually all the precepts enshrined in previous issues of the journal, it would carry little meaning, or communication, because having broken with the traditional agreed premises of the journal, no reader would any more know what was still agreed; no one would even be sure what the words in the revolutionary article meant. After all, the meaning of a word is a creature of the frame of reference within which it has traditionally been used. (M. Polanyi in PERSONAL KNOWLEDGE says that every time a word is used, it alters or reinforces its meaning as a result of its being used in a different context (7).)
As further illustration of the Holt dictum, we can take something that the poet Stephen Spender once said. He argued for writing in an already accepted style. He said that if one created a new style, one's own style, one ran the risk of creating an 'historical object', and not communicating. Similarly, one could say that if one wrote a revolutionary article in a journal, one would create an historical object; what one said would be unintelligible to the reader. The only meaningful communication is one which only marginally alters the frame of reference.
In the language of T. S. Kuhn (8) it is permissible to write and speak within the limitations of a shared paradigm, and even to marginally modify the shared paradigm. This is an acceptable, meaningful exercise in what he calls 'normal science'. What is not permissible is to write or say something which contradicts the shared paradigm, and expect it to be tolerated by the accepted journals, conferences and faculties. In so far as such institutions allowed the ingress of revolutionary ideas, they would be inhibiting the proper flow of very useful communication of the normal kind, of normal science, because the shared paradigm, a necessary frame of reference in normal scientific communication, would be undermined.
Knowledge as Property.
Basil Bernstein writes, apparently critically, that a body of knowledge is property, with its own market value and trading arrangements, to be protected by the social group which administers that body of knowledge. However, one can look at such defensiveness in a favourable way. If no one were to defend the integrity of a body of knowledge against assault from laymen outside, the clarity and coherence of that body of knowledge, and in particular the solidity and validity of the shared paradigm which is its foundation, would be undermined.
Any body of knowledge, which embraces both information and understanding, needs its own body of dedicated practitioners, who exercise their knowledge and keep it alive. Also, they put up barriers around it to defend it against confusion. Without these barriers to more or less random communication, giving precedence to communication between the select few within the barriers, within their journals and conferences (and churches), the body of knowledge that they are protecting would lapse into confusion. That is why 'without barriers to communication there can be no communication'.
From time to time, new knowledge tries to break through the defensive barriers into the main body of knowledge, and an important role of the priests within is to analyse these new ideas and decide whether to accept or reject them. All the while they must defend what they already have. It is therefore important that a limit be placed on the amount of new knowledge attempting to break through to the inner sanctum. If too much were allowed in for analysis at any one time the result would be confusion and damage to the valuable body of knowledge already entrenched within.
However, the new knowledge which attempts to break in beyond the barriers and articulate on to the already established knowledge plays an important role. The existence of such conflicts attracts people of high calibre towards the centre of the knowledge and towards its fringes. Even the rejection of a new piece of knowledge is a useful exercise, because in the process the main body of knowledge is exercised, and the practice of manipulating it will be kept alive among the priests in the inner sanctum.
As a body of knowledge increases in size and complexity, the problem created by each quantum of new knowledge which attempts to break through into the inner sanctum is greater. For this reason, the defences surrounding a large body of knowledge are rightly much higher, more difficult to surmount, than those surrounding one that is smaller, less complex and less mature. However, new knowledge still comes in, and the body of knowledge continues to grow, albeit at a slower and slower rate. Unfortunately, however, when the body of knowledge is bigger and the rate of inflow of new knowledge is smaller, more and more of the activity within the knowledge becomes 'celebration', more and more ceremonial rather than exercise in depth. As a result, a different calibre of person is attracted to the large knowledge, lacking the ability to understand and defend a body of knowledge with many levels of meaning. They are 'maintenance men' rather than 'builders'. The central body of knowledge ossifies, becomes brittle and disintegrates. This is how civilizations collapse, how religions and cities collapse, and how a scientific community will collapse.
Growth of Knowledge.
We can expect bodies of knowledge to grow rapidly at first, grow more slowly when they are large, and then steady to a more or less fixed maximum. After some time at this maximum they will disintegrate.
My recent investigations indicate that our knowledge and understanding of electromagnetic theory reached its zenith in about 1910, and we have since lost most of what we knew about the subject. I cannot find anyone in the world today who professes to be an expert on electromagnetic theory, or who is researching into the subject.
The computer art had reached a large size and complexity as a body of knowledge in 1944, which appears to have been its practical limit. Since there has been no advance in the last thirty years (9), it must be well on its way to disintegration.
In the language of Professor Lehman's theory of growth dynamics (10) 'progressive' work has come to a halt and all activity is 'anti-regressive' maintenance work. Lehman says that at this point, further advance can only be made if the foundations of the knowledge are re-examined and streamlined.
However, it is at this point that the Holt barriers to communication play an unfortunate role. By the time fundamental change is needed, we have seen that there are good reasons why the calibre of the 'guardians of the faith', the high priests, will have sunk to an all-time low, becoming worried, inadequate functionaries holding in reverence their predecessors who engineered the era of fast growth and progress. As the need for fundamental change increases, their blocking of communication of new ideas will become more complete and the established institutions more closed and rigid.
High technology will grind to a halt and even regress unless we fundamentally alter its underlying structure. The key problem is that as a body of knowledge matures, that is, ossifies and becomes decadent, channels of communication are shut off by the vested, mature groups, in a manner vividly described by Dr Charles McCutchen (11).
Need for a New System of Communication.
Clearly, what is needed is a new system of communication between peers which cannot be strangled in the normal way when the relevant body of knowledge reaches maturity. The key to the design of an irrepressible communication system, which we can call a 'Communication Net', is that it should have no central control point, no single focus whose capture leads to strangulation. This is how established institutions are easily emasculated. For instance, control of the staff appointments to a college faculty makes it easy to destroy the elan vital of that faculty. Control of the reviewing process of a professional journal makes it easy to suppress further constructive communication. Similarly the technical conference, with its small cabal choosing the list of speakers, is easy prey to a decadent clique.
I am not saying that the forces of decadence know that they are strangling their social group's future - indeed the essence of their decadence is their ignorance of what they are doing. Generally, they believe they are maintaining standards. We must design a system which retains the good intent of the established institutions - search after truth, free communication, appraisal by peers - but does not have their unsound structure, vulnerable to capture by a career- and prestige- oriented clique. One might even go so far as to say that more rugged structures are a prerequisite for the technological revolution, and that the reason for the failure of high technology to generate vast profit is the strangulation of its institutions.
In principle, a communication net contains equal individuals, each of whom keeps an up to date list of articles that he recommends and copies of which he is willing to supply on request at twice the direct cost involved; 25p would be the kind of sum that another member of the net would send in advance when requesting one article. The reason for charging double is that this gives anyone in the net a surplus of funding which he uses to finance the voluntary sending of unrequested articles - for instance an important new article, or articles to someone who is being invited to join the net.
A member includes, in his bibliography of a certain subject, only those articles - by himself and others - which he thinks make a contribution to the subject. Each subject will have its own net, and on request a member will supply his bibliographies to all nets of which he is a member. This will break down interdisciplinary boundaries, which is one of the main problems in high technology.
Since membership of a professional institution costs about £15 p.a., it will be reasonable to expect such members to spend about £5 p.a. on communication nets, that is about twenty communications per year; quite enough in practice.
Once the nets are in operation, a prestige-oriented scientist will aim to belong both to a professional institution and to a communication net.
Wide distribution of one's article on a net, particularly if it appeared in bibliographies supplied by a number of eminent experts, would soon become more prestigious than publication in a professional journal. In job applications it would be useful to show that one's articles were recommended by top people in the field - this is a facility unavailable at present.
A member of a net will include in his bibliography a statement of the hours during which he is available on the telephone. It looks as though two hours per week would be reasonable, and it might be necessary to restrain calls by only allowing trunk calls on the net.
Xerography and the direct dial telephone appeared after the philosophical and organizational structure of professional institutions ossified, and the institutions make no concessions to such technological advances. Communication nets should be able to adjust rapidly to new communication developments and opportunities.
In a BBC programme it was estimated that on average a published article was read 1.3 times - that is, articles are read 30% more often than they are published. I asked the editor of AFIPS, a leading computing journal, about this, and he said he thought the figure was probably more like four. Whoever is right, it is clear that even after suppression of important articles, the dissemination of what is allowed through by the censors (reviewers) is ineffective and expensive. It seems eminently economical by comparison to Xerox (say) ten copies of an article and mail them to those likely to read them.
I myself am setting up at least three nets - one being on electromagnetic theory, a subject totally suppressed by the journals. Another net that I shall start will be a net giving advice on what nets exist. Net design can be expected to improve rapidly during the first ten years or so after their inception, and it is important that improvements in their structure are widely communicated as they are received.
If communication nets are successful, it may be possible to use their structure as the basis for the design of organizations dedicated to other activities than flow of information. These other activities may develop spontaneously within communication nets, or alternatively they may be consciously started at a later date after some experience has been gained with communication nets.
1. Herbert Dingle, Science at the Crossroads, Martin Brian & O'Keefe, London, 1972.
2. Immanuel Velikovsky, Worlds in Collision, Sphere, 1972.
3. De Gracia (Editor), The Velikovsky Affair, Sidgwick & Jackson, 1966.
4. Velikovsky reconsidered, Pensees, May 1972.
5. George R. Couranz and D. F. Wann, Theoretical and experimental behaviour of synchronizers operating in the metastable region, IEEE Trans. Computers, C-24, June 1975, pp. 604-15.
6. Basil Bernstein, Class, Codes and Control, Vol. 1, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1962.
7. Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1962.
8. Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press, 1962.
9. I. Catt, Computer Worship, Pitman, 1974, p. 125.
10. L. A. Belady and M. M. Lehman, Programming System Dynamics, IBM Research Report RC 3546, 1971.
11. Charles McCutchen, An Evolved conspiracy, New Scientist, 29 April 1976, p. 225.
[Reprinted in I. Catt, Electromagnetic Theory vol. 1, pub. C.A.M. Publishing 1979, p. 117]
The scientific reception system as a servomechanism
-I. Catt. The Journal of Information Science 2(1980) 307-308.
In order to survive, a body of knowledge must attract funding. 'Funding' can mean, quite crudely, supplies of cash. It can also mean the support of acolytes, or 'researchers', willing to 'work' for nothing and therefore subsidize the body of knowledge. Instead of money, such people accept as payment pieces of paper called 'degrees', institution membership, etc. We shall call this activity 'zero purchase'. To attract funding, the body of knowledge must stabilize and create an easily recognizable destination for funding. This destination may be a university faculty or a scientific institution. Credibility is gained by such an institution if it owns known leading knowledge brokers, or 'experts'. An individual achieves expert status by accumulating status symbols, from Nobel prizes down to A level passes, and by becoming the editor of an obscure journal or by publishing papers and obscure books. An important distinguishing feature of virtually all of these status symbols is that they are not directly profitable at point of purchase. Anticipated fringe benefits are all. For example, the book with low sales and low royalty counts as a status symbol for the author, but the profitable best seller does not.
By indulging in unremunerative activity helpful to a body of knowledge, a would-be knowledge broker gains 'credit points' for 'selflessness' and 'scientific honesty'. If he gains enough such credit points, he may become one of the leading members of the knowledge establishment and recoup his investment of unpaid toil during the previous decades. However, most people who run in the 'academic selflessness' sweepstakes never recoup in cash terms, but have to be satisfied with the periodical reception of further pieces of paper - M. Sc., Fellow of the Institute, CBE, etc.
When a scientist has attained guru status within an organization and helps it to attract funding, it is important for him and for the organization that his guru status should be made secure. He can ensure this either (1) by continuing to maintain mastery of the evolving body of knowledge, or more simply (2) through his refereeing and editorial power, by stabilizing that knowledge and preventing it from developing, or (3) by some combination of the previous two techniques. In practice, he opts for stability but garnished with gradual growth at a pace well within his (possibly by now failing) capabilities.
As well as by ownership of gurus, an organization uses its official journals to establish itself as a proper destination for funding (and zero purchase). However, in the same way as a salesman tries not to disturb or confuse the customer when making a sale by throwing doubt on the merit of his product, journals can only serve their purpose if they contain no hint that the fount of knowledge may not reside within the organization. On the other hand, totally bland discourses in its journals (and totally bland lectures by its resident gurus) pose another threat to an organization's money supply; the charge that they have gone to sleep, or are old, decadent and rusty. Discussion and dispute must be seen to occur, and this needs to be reasonably orchestrated so as to give both the indication of internal division (or life) in the organization, but not at such a level as to threaten fragmentation leading to the need for the money source (perhaps a government committee or charitable foundation) to take sides by deciding which fragment to finance in the future. Organizations which fail to 'fine tune' this orchestration have disappeared, so those that survive have succeeded.
A money source (and even more so a 'zero purchase' Ph. D. student) also has to achieve status by pointing to the status of the organization or organizations it supports. In engineering terms, any 'life', or 'dispute', represents positive feedback, a destabilizing factor with dangerous possibilities, contrasting with the stabilizing effect of the reiteration of antique ideas.
Once, many years ago, I designed a triple Darlington amplifier, and was surprised to find that in addition to the heavy D.C. current, it could oscillate at low amplitude and very high frequency, the frequency of the first, small, drive transistor, with the following two high power, low speed, transistors acting passively as forward biased conducting Vbe diodes. This is a good model for the compromise invariably reached by the organizations milking a body of knowledge in order to secure their continued funding. The high frequency, superficial, harmless oscillation, or argument, shows the signs of life needed to reassure the funding sources, while paradoxically at the same time the large, steady, bland communication lower down serves to reassure. This is why [owners of] a body of knowledge will tolerate, and even encourage, argument and violent disagreement about trivial detail while at the same time blocking all questioning of fundamentals. To change the metaphor, a body of knowledge is like a large raft on which all kinds of violent games can and must be played, but no one must attack the raft on which they stand, because then everyone would drown in new ideas.
I Catt, The rise and fall of bodies of knowledge (see above).
[Reprinted in I. Catt, Electromagnetic Theory vol. 2, pub. C.A.M. Publishing 1979, p. 320]