In a nostalgic review article titled “Twenty years of the Weyl anomaly” [Michael J Duff, Class. Quantum Grav. 11, 1387 (1994)], Duff recalled the history of his discovery of the Weyl or conformal anomaly in quantum theory with Derek Capper.
Duff talked about the early reactions of esteemed physicists to his new idea on the anomaly, which could be summarized below as quoted in the article,
Some cynic once said in order for physicists to accept a new idea, they must first pass through the following three stages:
(1) It’s wrong,
(2) It’s trivial,
(3) I thought of it first.
The same thing has occurred also to my new mirror matter theory. Besides the three points, I have also experienced long dead silence from eminent physicists. The silence may be because of the above-mentioned points #1 and #2. That is, they possibly think that my idea must be either wrong or trivial so that they don’t feel like saying anything.
Most bizarrely, I watched all the above-quoted three stages with one single physicist at the same time. He was a referee for some of my manuscripts submitted for publication. And he is clearly an expert and has his own favorite model on mirror matter theory (I probably know who he is). He has tried his best to block publication of my papers in different journals. He wrote quite a few referee reports (some are like a few pages long) firmly against publication. In at least one of his long reports, he unbelievably demonstrated all the above-mentioned three points as an ultimate example of such phenomena, as he claimed: it is wrong [read: “only my model works”], trivial [read: “nothing is new”] and I thought of it first [read: “not citing enough my works”], in the same report!
It appears that more eminent scientists are more stubborn against new ideas. Their persistence may be the reason why they have become a dominating figure in their field first. This could be why most of scientific discoveries (similarly social revolutions) have been led by young people or at least the ones before they are well established.
Planck, one of the best-known physicists in early 20th century, once said,
“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it. “
Unfortunately, Planck’s statement has too often been verified in the relatively short history of science. For example, in a National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) working paper, “Does Science Advance One Funeral at a Time?“, the authors quantitatively explored how established star scientists shape the vitality of new ideas in their fields by examining what happens to the fields when dominating scientists pass away prematurely.
It seems unlikely for eminent experts to change their minds and accept new ideas in time. This may be why human societies had developed very slowly before they invented written languages. Without a written language, a brilliant idea stifled by authoritative elderly could be easily lost and hard to be passed from one generation to another. As such, rediscovering the idea or reinventing the wheel had to be a common practice in ancient times.
Nowadays, all scientific advancements are well documented and even peculiar ideas have a niche for their record. However, the organization of science community is still authoritative in nature and lacks democracy in support of high risk/high gain ideas. Truly innovative ideas are still easily buried and difficult to thrive.
Similar to the giant corporations in economic business, science has its own dominating elite circles in terms of authority and resources. Contrary to the business world, we don’t have real support for scientific “startups”. The result is that new ideas are hard to find suitable soil in science to germinate and grow.
The best cure for the current situation is to resort to the practices of open science. We don’t need to wait for stubborn eminent scientists to die out before developing new ideas. We just have to balance the support of both an authoritative senior scientist body and a host of scientific startups. Resources especially funds should be allocated more to the exploration of new ideas with new minds under no interference from the authoritative body.
The scientific publication system needs to be renovated as well, for example, by establishing an arXiv-based overlay journal system with a well-thought review/credit mechanism. Many other open practices in scientific research are helpful as well. A new open science society will ensure that more pearls of wisdom will be cultured and revealed timely to the best benefits of humankind.