COMPLAINTS OF INTELLECTUAL
SUPPRESSION ARE NOT
2004 W. Beaty
First, does intellectual suppression exist in science? Of course it does,
since research journals publish only a small portion of the submitted
articles. Suppression is normal and expected. The beneficial purpose of
suppression is triage: the rejection of unacceptable science articles.
Since there are plenty of other journals besides big-name Nature and
Science, there are varying levels of suppression. At minimum, it's used
to set minimum quality standards, or to prevent obvious troublemakers from
wasting our time. For example, if I submit rambling drunken poetry and
nude photographs to a science journal, they'll be discarded. That's
"intellectual suppression." And when forum moderators try to filter the
postings so spammers can't fill them with advertising, that's suppression
too. Nothing wrong with it. And it's very, very common.
Appropriate intellectual suppression is the job of any journal
editor or forum moderator.
Inappropriate suppression exists as well. One common example is the well
known backroom politics, e.g. governmental/industrial leaders try to
prevent whistleblower-scientists from publicizing embarrassing mistakes
and criminal acts. In other words, "intellectual suppression" often means
the same thing as "management coverup."
Dr. Brian Martin maintains an entire website on the problems of political
intellectual suppression in the sciences, see
Suppression of Dissent
Intellectual suppression also has a long history involving eccentric but
revolutionary science. Throughout the history of science, famous
researchers, the ones who eventually created entire new fields of science,
found it nearly impossible to publish their early research. Some didn't
succeed for years, even decades. The scientific community ignored them,
but eventually they were heard; eventually they conquered the suppression,
but only after a major fight. The journal editors rejected their papers
because the new research results was in conflict with common knowledge; it
was too eccentric. Yet the "eccentric" ideas were correct, and common
knowledge was wrong. Wegner proposed drifting continents, while any
geologist of the time knew that no such thing could happen. Semmelweis
proposed that doctors' filthy hands were killing mothers after childbirth,
an idea that would draw sneers from physicians of the time. Journal
editors didn't realize that sometimes "eccentric" equals "breakthrough."
Note well that nobody CONSPIRED to silence these revolutionary
researchers. Editors and fellow scientists simply assumed that the
eccentric papers were misguided, or were outright crackpotism. Here's a
small list of examples of cutting-edge research which was unwittingly
suppressed by a disbelieving scientific community:
Ridiculed, vindicated discoverers
There's no question that inappropriate intellectual suppression is a real
problem in the sciences. But there's no question that appropriate
suppression is both a common and essential part of science.
Isn't this a fairly simple concept?
Yet in recent years I've noticed a strange group-think phenomenon among
skeptical scientists online. It appears commonly in USENET forums
whenever crackpots start discussing topics such as antigravity, perpetual
motion, etc., and the crackpots complain that no science journal will
publish their research. Their scientist opponents then sneer, insisting
that these crackpots are nothing but conspiracy theorists.
Let's get this straight. First an amateur wants a major physics
journal to publish their maverick physics paper where they prove Einstein
Was Wrong... then the papers are rejected everywhere... and finally, if
the crackpot complains that everyone is against them, it means that the
crackpot is a deluded conspiracy theorist?! But... but... all the
physics journals REALLY DO reject those papers! Scientists everywhere
really are against them. The crackpot really is being suppressed;
their publications are being blocked from all legitimate journals (usually
with good reason, but occasionally not.)
At first I suspected that the skeptics might be joking, but in questioning
them I find that they're not. They really insist that anyone who
complains about intellectual suppression is a delusional conspiracy
theorist who can be safely ignored and dismissed without inspection. They
really believe that intellectual suppression doesn't exist.
Over the years I've found that this strange reasoning seems to be very
widespread among the online scientific community. I find it somewhat
embarrassing for me to be pointing out this flaw to those who accuse
crackpots of paranoia. (And I feel very confused when my complaints are
then rejected out of hand, and the skeptics making these flawed arguments
continue to do the same thing time and again.)
Just to make things perfectly clear once more: intellectual suppression
is very real, and is a valid part of the science culture. Therefore when
an author complains of universal suppression, he/she is complaining about
something genuine. Journal editors need not "conspire" together before
rejecting my (heh!) risque science photographs, or before rejecting papers
about Bigfoot or Cold Fusion or Continental Drift or the need for sterile
hands during surgery. It's not a conspiracy if those editors
individually are disbelievers. That's why they universally reject
the "eccentric" articles out of hand.
Here's something (perhaps TMI!) from my personal life that may shed light
on the proceedings. In marriage counseling I encountered a very common
human foible: "Invalidation." If someone doesn't wish to deal with their
spouse's complaints, they can choose to "not hear" those complaints via
an effect labeled Invalidation. We simply declare the complaints to be
disingenuous. We assume they aren't what they seem, but
instead are ploys motivated by vengeance, jealousy, etc. Rather than our
taking the complaints seriously, our ears are blocked, and the poor
complainer is essentially silenced.
When skeptics declare a crackpot's complaints to be "conspiracy theories",
...this looks to me like a clear example of Invalidation: it's an
irrational psychological defense where the purpose is to erase any need to
take the crackpot's complaints seriously (or even to hear them at all.)
In order to block our ears against crackpots, we can declare their
complaints to be delusional. Since we rarely take an obvious conspiracy
theorist seriously, or even listen to their claims, our declaring a
noisy crackpot to be a conspiracy theorist is a good way to excuse
ourselves from having to listen.
But it's dishonest.
When someone complains of suppression, their complaint is almost always
genuine. And note well: in most cases they never complained about any
conspiracy. It was the skeptic, the person supposedly in support of
reason and rational argument, who used the straw-man fallacy, and put
those words about conspiracies in the crackpot's mouth.
OK, since this debating tactic is so common, perhaps it needs its own
name. "Suppression-complaints are conspiracy theories" is a bit wordy.
"Conspiracy Accusation?" "Labeled As Paranoid?" Besides general
Straw-Man, under which class of logical fallacy does this fall?