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Mary Douglas – Why scientists whine

April 3, 2015

“Scientific precursors disappear from view because they never had an earthly chance of making their way to the surface of public memory. Forgotten discoverers are like a lot of forgotten ancestors. The pattern of their failure is not random. The strategies to validate scientists’ claims use originality as a main criterion for prizes and positions. The belief in a first discoverer is nothing without the prizes and renown. The custom of naming immediately gives a major advantage to claimed originality and a disadvantage to the fact of rediscovery. What seems dysfunctional when enraged scientists make a public display of their vanity may be counted as the cost of keeping the race open to the swift. …

Most rediscovered theories turn out not to have built originally on the current cognitive infrastructure and so to have missed savings in energy. Often when a new scientific discovery has been rejected and left to lie inert until later, it is precisely an idea which lacked formulaic interlocking with normal procedures of validation. The best chance of success is to confront the major public concerns and to exploit the major analogies on which the socio-cognitive system rests.”

(from How Institutions Think [1986])


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