Prematurity in Scientific Discovery

Prematurity in Scientific Discovery: On Resistance and Neglect

EDITED BY Ernest B. Hook
Copyright Date: 2002
Pages: 398
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1pnwvf
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  • Book Info
    Prematurity in Scientific Discovery
    Book Description:

    For centuries, observers have noted the many obstacles to intellectual change in science. In a much-discussed paper published inScientific Americanin 1972, molecular biologist Gunther Stent proposed an explicit criterion for one kind of obstacle to scientific discovery. He denoted a claim or hypothesis as "premature" if its implications cannot be connected to canonical knowledge by a simple series of logical steps. Further, Stent suggested that it was appropriate for the scientific community to ignore such hypotheses so that it would not be overwhelmed by vast numbers of false leads. In this volume, eminent scientists, physicians, historians, social scientists, and philosophers respond to Stent's thesis.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-92773-5
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. LIST OF FIGURES AND TABLES
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. PREFACE
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
    Ernest B. Hook
  5. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  6. LIST OF CONTRIBUTORS
    (pp. xix-xx)
  7. PART ONE Introduction
    • CHAPTER ONE A Background to Prematurity and Resistance to “Discovery”
      (pp. 3-21)
      Ernest B. Hook

      Scientists and historians can cite many cases of scientific and technological claims, hypotheses, and proposals that, viewed in retrospect, have apparently taken an unaccountably long time to be recognized, endorsed, or integrated into accepted knowledge and practice.¹ Indeed, some have had to await independent formulation. While some frequently cited cases, such as the particulate theory of heredity attributed to Gregor Mendel, are, on closer examination, somewhat problematic exemplars of the thesis, there are, I contend, many clear examples of what may be termed, for want of a better term, “delay.”²

      Such delay, of course, inhibits and even may deny contemporary...

    • CHAPTER TWO Prematurity in Scientific Discovery
      (pp. 22-34)
      Gunther S. Stent

      One of the depressing by-products of the fantastically rapid progress that was made in molecular genetics in the past twenty-five years is that now merely middle-aged participants in its early development are obliged to look back upon their early work from a depth of historical perspective that, in the case of biological specialties that came into flower in earlier times, had opened up only after all the witnesses of the first blossoming were long dead.¹ I have been trying to make virtue out of necessity and actually exploit this singular position for fathoming the evolution of a scientific field. Thus,...

  8. PART TWO Observer and Participant Accounts
    • CHAPTER THREE Prematurity, Nuclear Fission, and the Transuranium Actinide Elements
      (pp. 37-45)
      Glenn T. Seaborg

      In 1934, some five years before the discovery of nuclear fission, as a first-year graduate student at Berkeley I began to read the papers coming out of Italy and Germany describing the synthesis and identification of several elements thought to be transuranium elements. In their original work that year, E. Fermi, E. Amaldi, O. D’Agostino, F. Rasetti, and E. Segrè bombarded uranium and other elements with neutrons and obtained a series of beta-particle-emitting radioactivities.¹ On the basis of the periodic table of that day, they believed that the first transuranium element, with atomic number 93, should be chemically like rhenium...

    • CHAPTER FOUR Resistance to Change and New Ideas in Physics: A Personal Perspective
      (pp. 46-58)
      Charles H. Townes

      I will try to illustrate the problems which Gunther Stent and others have raised about the hang-ups in science; what we do wrong and what we miss. Striking examples have occurred in radio astronomy and in development of the maser and laser. As I’ve had some contact with these fields, I’ll develop these ideas from a very personal point of view. That may help to provide some specific insights.

      Radio waves were detected in outer space by Karl Jansky, an engineer at Bell Labs who was assigned the idea of finding out from where radio noise was coming.¹ He was...

    • CHAPTER FIVE The Timeliness of the Discoveries of the Three Modes of Gene Transfer in Bacteria
      (pp. 59-69)
      Norton D. Zinder

      There are three modes of gene transfer in bacteria: conjugation, transduction, and transformation.¹ I was involved in one way or another with all three and thus feel qualified to comment on the zeitgeist surrounding these discoveries.

      Stent’s definition of a premature discovery as one that cannot be connected to the canonical knowledge of the time by a sequence of logical steps means one and only one thing to me: All true discoveries are premature; all other “discoveries” are at best just clever, logical extrapolations, although occasionally they also entail brilliant technical innovation.² They could be called postmature, a term that...

    • CHAPTER SIX Scotoma: Forgetting and Neglect in Science
      (pp. 70-84)
      Oliver Sacks

      We may look at the history of ideas backward or forward—we can trace the earlier stages, the intimations, and the anticipations of what we think now; or we can concentrate on the evolution, the effects and influences of what we once thought. Either way, we may imagine that history will be revealed as a continuum, an advance, an opening like the tree of life. What one often finds, however, is very far from a majestic unfolding, and very far from being a continuum in any sense. This is a conclusion that I will try to illustrate by some stories...

  9. PART THREE Historical Perspectives
    • SECTION A: Relatively Unproblematic Examples
      • CHAPTER SEVEN Prematurity and Delay in the Prevention of Scurvy
        (pp. 87-91)
        Kenneth J. Carpenter

        Gunther Stent has used the concept of prematurity to explain missed opportunities, where knowledge was available but not used. In my own reading the most striking example of such a phenomenon is the failure of the British navy from 1755 to 1795 touse lemon juice to prevent disabling outbreaks of scurvy in their ships kept at sea for long periods.¹ It appears that this came about because there was no appealing theory to support its use, while there was an attractive theory, with prestigious backing, that supported an alternative measure even though the alternative had never been put directly to...

      • CHAPTER EIGHT A Triptych to Serendip: Prematurity and Resistance to Discovery in the Earth Sciences
        (pp. 92-108)
        William Glen

        The global-warming debate, now “perhaps the most pressing and urgent environmental issue on the world’s agenda,” invites comparison with earlier and contemporary theoretical debates that have triggered upheavals in science during the past half century.¹ Many of the templates I fashioned in the past from historical studies of the debate over continental drift/plate tectonics and the meteorite impact/volcanism/mass-extinction conflict seem also to fit the global-warming controversy, which has been well delineated by Spencer Weart.² I compare here the three controversies from various vantage points and bolster illations of both commonalities and differences among them by referring to episodes of discovery...

      • CHAPTER NINE Theories of an Expanding Universe: Implications of Their Reception for the Concept of Scientific Prematurity
        (pp. 109-123)
        Norriss S. Hetherington

        One may regard Gunther Stent’s formulation of prematurity in scientific discovery as a work in progress in the best sense of this term, given the wider range of issues discussed in this volume. I explore here the delayed response to theories of an expanding universe. My approach departs radically in some ways from Stent’s concept as he presented it originally, but owes much to the stimulation of his 1972 papers, as well, in its revision, as to comments by others advanced at the conference that preceded this volume.¹

        Several mathematical models of an expanding universe appeared in the scientific literature...

      • CHAPTER TEN Interdisciplinary Dissonance and Prematurity: Ida Noddack’s Suggestion of Nuclear Fission
        (pp. 124-148)
        Ernest B. Hook

        Enrico Fermi and his colleagues observed products of artificially induced nuclear splitting in 1934. But they did not recognize them for what they were. Not until 1939 did the combined work of Otto Hahn, Fritz Strassmann, Lise Meitner, and Otto Robert Frisch lead to the realization that what Frisch termed “nuclear fission” explained the reported observations of Fermi’s group.¹ This interval provokes some pertinent questions bearing on Gunther Stent’s definition of the prematurity of scientific discovery. For if a premature discovery (implicitly, a premature claim or a hypothesis) is one that cannot be connected to generally accepted knowledge by a...

    • SECTION B: Disputable Cases
      • CHAPTER ELEVEN Michael Polanyi’s Theory of Surface Adsorption: How Premature?
        (pp. 151-163)
        Mary Jo Nye

        Adsorption is a process whereby gases are attracted and held to the surface of a solid. In his 1972 essays on prematurity and scientific discovery, Gunther S. Stent presented Michael Polanyi’s potential theory of adsorption as an example of “delayed appreciation” of a scientific discovery.¹ Drawing upon Polanyi’s article “Potential Theory of Adsorption,” published inSciencein 1963, Stent wrote:

        Despite the fact that Polanyi was able to provide strong experimental evidence in favor of his theory, it was generally rejected. Not only was the theory rejected, but it was considered . . . ridiculous by the leading authorities of...

      • CHAPTER TWELVE Prematurity and the Dynamics of Scientific Change
        (pp. 164-174)
        Frederic L. Holmes

        On the “author’s page” of the issue ofScientific Americanin which one version of Gunther Stent’s article “Prematurity and Uniqueness in Scientific Discovery” appeared in 1972, he explained that he had first presented these ideas in a brief commentary at a meeting in 1970 at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The vigorous discussion that had ensued, he said, persuaded him that he should focus his ideas more sharply.¹ I was at this discussion, and I remember the lively response that Stent’s ideas elicited. Robert Merton particularly was impressed that his view of premature discoveries was a novel...

      • CHAPTER THIRTEEN Barbara McClintock’s Controlling Elements: Premature Discovery or Stillborn Theory?
        (pp. 175-199)
        Nathaniel C. Comfort

        Barbara McClintock’s discovery of movable genetic elements seems to provide a case study in prematurity.¹ The standard version of the story was first articulated in Evelyn Fox Keller’s widely read biography.² In this version, McClintock’s discovery in the late 1940s that genetic elements in maize (Indian corn) could transpose, or move, was met with an initial burst of skepticism and derision. The discovery was greeted with “stony silence”; it “fell like a lead balloon”; “with one or two exceptions, no one understood.”³ Scientists reacted to her findings with “puzzlement, frustration, even hostility.”⁴ This skepticism soon settled into a humiliating silence....

      • CHAPTER FOURTEEN The Work of Joseph Adams and Archibald Garrod: Possible Examples of Prematurity in Human Genetics
        (pp. 200-210)
        Arno G. Motulsky

        Two British physicians, Joseph Adams (1756–1818) and Archibald Garrod (1857–1936), set out principles and facts pertinent to modern human and medical genetics, but their insights were not recognized until more recent times. The contributions of these two men may be examined within the framework of Gunther Stent’s concept of prematurity in scientific discovery.

        As a physician-scientist I have had the advantage of doing both research and clinical work in human and medical genetics, and I continue to work in both areas. In one sense, understanding the science and practical background of a technical field is an advantage when...

  10. PART FOUR Natural Selection and Evolution from the Perspective of Prematurity
    • CHAPTER FIFTEEN The Prematurity of Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection
      (pp. 213-238)
      Michael Ruse

      It is customary and convenient when speaking of evolution to make a threefold division between thefactof evolution, thepathof evolution, and themechanismorcause(orcauses) of evolution.¹ Defining these alternatives will lead us to the main topic of discussion: the extent to which natural selection can be considered an idea that appeared before its time. The answer is more intriguing than you might expect.

      Thefactof evolution is simply the idea that all organisms living and dead were produced by natural (that is to say, law-governed) processes from forms very different.² The diagram of...

    • CHAPTER SIXTEEN Prematurity, Evolutionary Biology, and the Historical Sciences
      (pp. 239-250)
      Michael T. Ghiselin

      A number of Charles Darwin’s scientific discoveries are major components of modern theory. Some were immediately accepted by the scientific community, whereas others had to wait over a hundred years for acceptance. Still others may yet have their day. Darwin’s case is noteworthy partly as a result of the remarkably detailed historical record that allows us to document his accomplishments. As a consequence of that record, we have an excellent opportunity for testing the utility of Gunther Stent’s seminal insights about prematurity in scientific discovery.

      Stent terms a discovery as “premature if its implications cannot be connected by a series...

  11. PART FIVE Perspectives from the Vantage Point of the Social Sciences
    • CHAPTER SEVENTEEN The Prematurity of “Prematurity” in Political Science
      (pp. 253-259)
      George Von der Muhll

      Shortly after the Second World War, the “Behavioral Revolution” swept through the academic study of politics.¹ From that point onward, professional students of the subject have searched for a single organizing paradigm that would provide their field with the shared concepts and established propositional canon they see in the natural sciences. None has yet emerged. Instead, several proposed theoretical perspectives have competed for attention within the various disciplinary subfields of political “science.” Their proliferation has so far served mainly to emphasize a conspicuous deficiency of logical integration within the discipline.

      In such a setting, it is impossible to say that...

    • CHAPTER EIGHTEEN The Impact and Fate of Gunther Stent’s Prematurity Thesis
      (pp. 260-279)
      Lawrence H. Stern

      Gunther Stent’s concept of premature discovery in science has become a part of the lexicon in science studies. But to what extent, and how, have scholars investigating the processes of scientific development used Stent’s concept? Has it been fruitful? Has the concept had a tangible impact on the work of scholars investigating processes of scientific development? To address these questions I used theScience Citation Index (SCI)and theSocial Science Citation Index (SSCI)and identified 76 papers that cited either of Stent’s two prematurity articles between the years 1973 and 1997.

      The analysis proceeds in two parts. First, I...

    • CHAPTER NINETEEN Premature Discovery Is Failure of Intersection among Social Worlds
      (pp. 280-292)
      Elihu M. Gerson

      The notion of premature discovery exerts a kind of dramatic fascination, encouraging thoughts of insightful and creative scientists struggling to articulate their ideas and convince indifferent communities of their new truths. But there are many difficulties with the notion, melodrama aside, and it is time to sort them out and identify what is useful about the notion. I focus here primarily on the organizational and institutional issues that arise in thinking about prematurity. My approach stems from the Pragmatist philosophy of John Dewey and George Herbert Mead and from the Chicago school of sociology that it influenced.¹

      Let me begin...

  12. PART SIX Philosophical Perspectives
    • CHAPTER TWENTY Fleck, Kuhn, and Stent: Loose Reflections on the Notion of Prematurity
      (pp. 295-305)
      Ilana Löwy

      I present here some reflections on the possibility of linking prematurity with the ideas developed by Thomas Kuhn and Ludwik Fleck (especially the latter) on the structure of scientific communities and the organization of scientific work.

      According to Gunther Stent, “A discovery is premature if its implication cannot be connected by a series of simple logical steps to contemporary canonical [or generally accepted] knowledge.”¹ This definition includes several terms that need to be clarified.

      Discovery:one may assume that Stent uses the term to describe a collective process of recognition of the importance of a theory, a set of observations,...

    • CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE The Concept of Prematurity and the Philosophy of Science
      (pp. 306-326)
      Martin Jones

      In this paper, I shall ask and answer several questions about the precise delineation of Gunther Stent’s notion of prematurity as it applies to scientific discoveries. With a specific understanding of the notion thus in hand, I will then make a few points about ways in which thought in the philosophy of science can be seen as having tackled the phenomenon of prematurity, even though the term itself has not entered the standard vocabulary of the philosopher of science; I will also point out that one particular subspecies of premature discovery has not been much discussed.¹ Finally, I will emphasize,...

  13. PART SEVEN Closing Considerations
    • CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO Prematurity and Promise: Why Was Stent’s Notion of Prematurity Itself So Premature?
      (pp. 329-341)
      David L. Hull

      This essay is divided into three parts. Initially, I try to clarify such concepts as retrospective prematurity, here-and-now prematurity, postmaturity and so on. “Getting clearer” is not something anyone can do in advance. Until one learns what readers think one has written, one cannot decide what needs clarifying and what can be left untouched. With respect to prematurity, this process is only beginning. Prematurity was largely ignored when Gunther Stent introduced it, and thus far few people seem to think that it needs rehabilitation. Ernest Hook has attempted to change that. He hopes to make prematurity less premature by inviting...

    • CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE Reflections on Hull’s Remarks
      (pp. 342-345)
      Gonzalo Munévar

      I comment here on two aspects of David Hull’s main themes: Gunther Stent’s notion of prematurity, and the notion of promise.

      Hull’s first order of business is to try to clarify Stent’s notion of prematurity. He does so by listing a series of concerns about the Stentian idea that sometimes a scientific discovery is not accepted at the time because “its implications cannot be connected by a series of simple logical steps to contemporary canonical, or generally accepted, knowledge.”¹ By “logical steps” Stent did not mean formal logical inferences, as analytic philosophers may expect, but, as he explains, a “chain...

    • CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR Comments
      (pp. 346-353)
      Gunther S. Stent

      I thank the authors of the preceding essays for the effort they expended on the reexamination of an essay I published 30 years ago that addressed, in part, prematurity in scientific discovery. In midcareer and less experienced at that time, I thought that prematurity was a fairly obvious and straightforward historical concept. I shared this evidently mistaken idea with Martin Jones, who expresses the opinion in his contribution to this volume that “all this is very familiar territory to anyone in a science studies discipline.”

      In writing my essay I had overlooked some very cogent examples of premature discovery brought...

    • CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE Extensions and Complexities: In Defense of Prematurity in Scientific Discovery
      (pp. 354-366)
      Ernest B. Hook

      Gunther Stent’s essays on prematurity in scientific discovery have stimulated such a range of comments and viewpoints that one might regard his papers as analogous to a Rorschach test for those working in the natural sciences or their metastudies. Part of the interest of these responses lies in their self-reflective quality. They indicate how individuals highly trained in at least one discipline, be it scientific or metascientific, react to the “stimulus.” But, in light of the responses, rather than develop this theme, I think it more important to attempt some further defense of Stent’s core notion and its utility.

      Clearly,...

  14. INDEX
    (pp. 367-378)