“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but “That’s funny…” ~ Isaac Asimov
One of the great obstacles to progress in scientific understanding was well described by Nobel Prize-winning Cambridge emeritus professor Brian Josephson as “pathological disbelief.” Josephson used the term in a lecture he gave that mirrored a lecture called “Pathological Science” given by chemistry laureate Irving Langmuir.
In the abstract to the lecture Josephson noted:
Langmuir discussed cases where scientists, on the basis of invalid processes, claimed the validity of phenomena that were unreal. My interest is in the counter-pathology involving cases where phenomena that are almost certainly real are rejected by the scientific community, for reasons that are just as invalid as those of the cases described by Langmuir.
Josephson cited the example of Alfred Wegener’s theory on continental drift, proposed in 1912, which hypothesized that the continents slowly drift around the earth. Wegener was unable to come up with a convincing mechanism to explain this movement and though his theory was correct, it was not generally accepted until 1950. What is most interesting about Wegener’s experience was the vehemence of the attacks launched against him and the outright dismissal of his theory, despite the overwhelming evidence in its favor.
Josephson also noted that:
In such situations incredulity, expressed strongly by the disbelievers, frequently takes over: no longer is the question that of the truth or falsity of the claims; instead, the agenda centres on denunciation of the claims. …In this “denunciation mode”, the usual scientific care is absent; pseudo-arguments often take the place of scientific ones.
Fanaticism reigns supreme when intellectual terror usurps the place of honest scientific enquiry. The same holds true in religious circles, for every time that blind faith supplants gnosis, man is imprisoned by his so-called understanding.
I’ve been following the current vitriol aimed at anyone who dares to suggest a link between vaccination and autism. The phenomenon of pathological disbelief is present in the medical community and you needn’t look further than the treatment Dr. Andrew Wakefield received after publishing his 1998 study of the MMR vaccine. The press constantly stated that Dr. Wakefield claimed that the MMR vaccine caused autism, but even a layperson reading the study could see that he never made such a claim. What he did claim was that children with autism often suffer from bowel disease, a hypothesis with an abundance of evidence in its favor.
Will we get to the bottom of what has caused Autism’s 60 fold increase in just 30 years? If we find a way to set aside the pathological disbelief I am confident that we will. If not, I fear for the future health and wellbeing of our children’s children.
Josephson noted that the unscientific attitude he called “pathological disbelief” is embodied by the attitude “even if it were true, I wouldn’t believe it.” When it is put that way it is a little scary, isn’t it?
“Science without conscience is the soul’s perdition.” ~ François Rabelais