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Reactions to Criticism
This discussion in Nature naturally stimulated a large amount of correspondence (unpublished) from persons of various degrees of distinction and qualification in the subject. Some of the more important parts of this will be more fittingly dealt with later, but I record now the outstanding revelation which the whole matter had forced on me, namely,the almost complete failure of scientists to recognise the distinction between the question whether the theory was right or wrong and the moral obligation to approach that question without prejudice. I had been prepared for objections on scientific grounds to the arguments which I had advanced: I had not been prepared for the lapse from scientific integrity which the various evasions and distortions of the simple point at issue showed to be so general, and it became clear to me that this was an even more serious matter than the tenability of special relativity itself. For, in an age in which science had acquired such power over a public which was of necessity quite unable to exercise any control over its quite incomprehensible operations, complete integrity was a prime necessity, and unless that was preserved the consequences might be inestimably disastrous. Accordingly, in the autumn of 1963 I sent the following letter to Nature, with reasons for its publication; it bore the tide, 'Scientific Integrity':
The purpose of this letter is not to discuss a scientific question but to call attention to a decline in standards of scientific integrity which, unless it is checked, may have grave consequences. The letter is addressed to all to which this is a matter of concern, regardless of their qualification to pass judgement on the particular scientific questions involved.
I have recently, on three successive occasions,1 given a proof that the special relativity theory is false. This was universally ignored until, on the last occasion, attention was practically forced to it, whereupon only one answer from a recognised authority was forthcoming,2 and that confessedly changed my statement into another which it was not difficult to expose as invalid. My proof has accordingly been ignored, and the theory remains at the basis of current experiments and predictions.
In addition to the profound implications of this result for theoretical physics and philosophy, there is the undeniable fact that modern physical experiments are of such a character that an error in theoretical expectations might have the most dire consequences. Should a disaster occur at an atomic energy establishment, the cause might be undiscoverable, but there can be no doubt of the public reaction to the knowledge, which would undoubtedly then transpire, that a clear warning of the possibility of such an event had been repeatedly given, side-tracked if noticed at all, and altogether unheeded; and such reaction would be entirely justified.
This is not a unique case.
The most fundamentally serious aspect of this state of affairs lies not in the answers to the scientific questions involved, but in the fact thatreason has been jettisoned and prejudice substituted for it. If I am right, the asymmetrical ageing controversy shows that the relativity theory is generally misunderstood, and the later controversy shows that it is wrong, and the seriousness of this can hardly be exaggerated; but even more menacing is the attitude, unmistakably revealed, which allows untested theories to be accepted as established truths and criticism of them to be bypassed instead of directly faced. Yet that is the prevailing attitude in mathematical physics today.
I write this with great reluctance and after long hesitation: I would far rather have adopted a course, had such been possible, unattended by the risk of creating sensation and endangering friendships which I value highly. But I now sec no alternative. For eight years, in world-wide private correspondence and such published matter as I have succeeded in getting accepted, I have stressed the realities of the situation, and the consistent and universal response has been evasion, suppression, and even, on occasion, falsehood, and that from the highest quarters. For the greater part of that time I have been fully aware of the peril in which we stand, but I have kept hoping that continued insistence on the pure logic of the matter would suffice to awaken some mathematical physicist (no one else can command an effective hearing in these matters) to the possible consequences of working with a misconceived theory. It is now clear beyond doubt that that hope was illusory, and I have no right to nurse it any longer - if, indeed, I have not already done so unwarrantably long.The fact must be plainly stated that, in a situation in which the safety of the world lies in the hands of a comparatively minute body of men whose activities are necessarily so abstruse as to be altogether beyond the comprehension of the vast majority, the obligation that rests on them to honour unreservedly the traditional scientific principle of utter subservience to truth and rejection of prejudice is one of which they are quite unaware. This needs no scientific knowledge for its verification; the references I have given, though far from telling the whole story, will make it clear beyond question to anyone, whether physicist or not, who cares to examine them. He will see the reiteration of my syllogism, but he will find no answer to it. He will see that the only authoritative answer to my thrice published disproof of the special relativity theory openly changes it into something else and then answers that.
I do not imagine that those who behave in this way are fully conscious of what they are doing:the fact is simply that the sine qua non of true scientific research - the ever-present consciousness that the demands of no theory, however successful, must be allowed to qualify those of fact and reason Ч has silently faded away. The automatic reaction to criticism is not to face it but to look elsewhere for some independent justification for ignoring it. The depth to which we have descended is exposed with Gallic frankness by one ardent believer in the relativity theory, H. Arzelies8, who asserts that criticisms of that theory are symptoms of mental abnormality and that to treat them seriously is a waste of time. That this - though not usually so candidly acknowledged - truly describes the general attitude I have overwhelming evidence, and until it is brought clearly to light and ruthlessly transformed our peril is inestimable. In these circumstances I can do no other than to bring the whole matter before those whose influence is greater than mine - perhaps some biologist who is still capable of perceiving a distinction between mathematical consistency and physical necessity - in order that the deterioration may be arrested before it is too late.
The then editor, the late Mr L. J. F. Brimble, replied courteously, but would not consent to publish this letter.Like my correspondents in general, he seemed unable to distinguish the moral from the scientific question. 'I do not think,' he wrote, 'any useful purpose would be served by publishing this form of communication in Nature. I have had a very large number of Letters since your original publication dealing with special relativity, and have had to reject them since there are such demands on space in Nature; in any case, as you have already yourself stated, most of these authors are not very outstanding in their fields of research.' A further attempt to convince him that the point of my letter was not the status of special relativity but the title which I gave it - "Scientific IntegrityФ - likewise failed. 'As you are aware', he wrote, 'for a number of years now this question of special relativity has been raised time after time... As you can well imagine, it is impossible for Nature to publish this apparently incessant correspondence which invariably seems inconclusive. Moreover I do not feel disposed to challenge the integrity of scientists in the columns of Nature without much further evidence than I have at the moment.'
It then seemed to me that my most promising course would be to write to scientists of distinction who, for one reason or another, would be expected to appreciate the ethical side of the question more vividly than the average scientist, especially so if their work was not directly related to relativity. Names which occurred to me were those of Sir Robert Robinson, O.M., former President of the Royal Society (who, rightly or wrongly, it had been represented to me was dissatisfied on other grounds with the ethical conduct of modern scientific research), Sir Julian Huxley, Professor C. A. Coulson of Oxford, and the late Professor (later Dame) Kathleen Lonsdale. I therefore wrote to Sir Robert Robinson after the rejection of my letter by Nature, describing the situation, mentioning that I had found it impossible to persuade any physicist of repute (other than Born, who had misread it) to say a word about my criticism, and adding: 'I have wondered whether, as a last resort before raising an unholy row, you would be prepared to use your influence to persuade some mathematical physicist who himself has influence in these matters, really to rid his mind of prejudice and read my reasoning without the presupposition that there must be a flaw in it; and then, if he can't find one, to have the guts to say so openly and prevent any further risks being taken.' Sir Robert replied as follows:
I started to read your letter with considerable apprehension because I thought you might be asking me to express some opinion on a matter which is quite beyond my comprehension. I have read your letters and the proposed Letter to 'Nature' very carefully and am quite clear that your demand for discussion and attempted refutation is absolutely just and must be met.
This is only a note acknowledging yours and I will in the meantime see what I can do by either getting a statement that no one is sufficiently interested to discuss your ideas, or by finding somebody with sufficient authority in the field who will do his best to try and understand your point of view and make some pronouncement.
You have given me an exceedingly difficult task but my blood will certainly boil if I am unable to do something about it.
This was encouraging, for it showed that one scientist at least of universally acknowledged distinction was still aware of the ethical obligations of scientists, and I had some hopes of a successful issue. Unfortunately they did not materialise.When, about six months later, I met Sir Robert at a social function, he told me that he had tried to induce several scientists, generally regarded as authorities on relativity, to answer my criticism, but had failed; not one of them would do so.
I shall mention later the results of my appeals to Professors Coulson and Lonsdale, although they came before that to Sir Julian Huxley which, since it can be dealt with more compactly, I will next describe. After setting before him the general position which I have already outlined, and being not unacquainted with the attitude of Thomas Henry Huxley to the ethical aspects of science, I wrote:
I see no way of getting the situation rectified except by enlisting the help of someone with influence, who is concerned that the principles of strict scientific inquiry shall be observed and not merely preserved as a tradition, and who is also sensible of the responsibility of scientists to the public. I therefore write to ask you what, in the circumstances, you think it best to do. Would you, for instance, think it fitting to write to Nature as a non-specialist in the subject but one who perceives its possibly very serious connotations, saying that the correspondence with Max Born has been left in an unsatisfactory state, and asking that some authority on relativity should either give a clear answer to the point I raised or else acknowledge that it is unanswerable and that therefore its conclusion, with all its necessary implications, must be accepted and acted upon? Such a letter from you could hardly be refused publication. But I do not wish even to appear to dictate any particular course, but would rather, having set out the bare essentials of the position as well as I can, leave it to your judgment to advise me as you think best.
Sir Julian replied as follows:
I feel I really cannot intervene in this matter. I am so un-mathematical that I cannot begin to understand your reprints, and I have never even tried to follow the theory of relativity, because I knew I couldn't! However, more important than this, a letter from me to Nature would be worse than useless Ч all the physicists would say 'here is another biologist butting in on something he knows nothing about'. I am sorry not to be more helpful, but I really feel that any intervention on my part would be worse than useless.
I confess that it surprised me to learn that a Huxley should be deterred from urging that the ethical obligations of scientists should be honoured, by the fear of provoking disrespectful irrelevant comment, but the reply showed once more theparalysing effect, on the intellects of even leading thinkers, of the word 'relativity'. I had not asked Sir Julian to comment on relativity, but only to help to ensure that criticism should be met, and not evaded or ignored, yet his immediate reaction was to explain why he had never tried to understand it. The magical influence of this word has transformed science in this field into a superstition as powerful as any to be found in primitive tribes.
I pass over much correspondence with interested persons, and proceed to a second attempt to get my criticism of the theory published by the Royal Society, which would increase the likelihood of its receiving the attention to which any serious criticism of a fundamental scientific theory is entitled. I had already made one (unsuccessful) attempt, as is recorded in my discussion with Viscount Samuel, A Threefold Cord, but by the time of which I am now writing I had not only reduced the criticism to a simpler (though not more logically sound) form, but also had obtained, through my correspondence, a clearer idea of both the genuine and the spurious difficulties of those who rejected it. I was thus able to accompany my simplified treatment of the main point by answers in advance to the likely objections.
It may be helpful here to interpolate a note on the function Ч or one of the functions Ч of the Royal Society, and the manner of its procedure in dealing with papers submitted to it. In general terms, its aim is the discovery and publication of the truth in scientific matters. At the time of its foundation its purpose was expressed in these words9:
To examine all systems, theories, principles, hypotheses, elements, histories, and experiments of things natural, mathematical, and mechanical, invented, recorded or practised, by any considerable author ancient or modern... In the mean time this Society will not own any hypothesis, system, or doctrine of the principles of natural philosophy, proposed or mentioned by any philosopher ancient or modern... nor dogmatically define, nor fix axioms of scientifical things, but will question and canvass all opinions, adopting nor adhering to none, till by mature debate and clear arguments, chiefly such as are deduced from legitimate experiments, the truth of such experiments be demonstrated invincibly.
There has been no revision or modification of this aim but, of course, practical considerations demand that papers submitted to the Society shall be scrutinised by competent persons before a decision is reached concerning their publication. As may easily be imagined, there is no lack of communications from those whose unrealised ignorance of essential facts invalidates the ideas they present, so a rule has been laid down that papers may be submitted to the Society only by a Fellow, who is recommended, though not compelled, to assure himself before doing so that the paper is worthy of serious consideration. It is then, as a general rule, submitted to one or more referees who report, anonymously, on the character and suitability for publication of the paper, in the light of which information a decision is reached on whether the paper shall be published or not.However, the Society in earlier days was very conscious of the greater danger resulting from rejection of the truth than from publication of error (as I have already pointed out, the very nature of scientific investigation ensures that error must inevitably reveal itself sooner or later), and it made a rule, which is still held to be binding on referees of papers, which requires that 'a paper should not be recommended for rejection merely because the referee disagrees with the opinions or conclusions it contains, unless fallacious reasoning or experimental error is unmistakably evident'. In other words, a paper is not required to prove its innocence; it is held to be innocent unless proved guilty.
It is easy to see how necessary such a rule is, if the basic aim of the Society - the discovery of truth - is to be achieved, for without it the most dangerous of all errors - those universally held - are automatically preserved from discovery. However disinclined a referee may be to accept the implications of a paper, the rule lays on him the duty of pinpointing a specific error in it before recommending its rejection: if he cannot do so, then, however unexpected or unwelcome or revolutionary the consequences and probable effect of the paper may be, he is precluded from recommending its rejection - and therefore, by implication, the Society is committed to the duty of presenting it to the world. I do not know if the Royal Society is unique in this respect, but, as the leading scientific society in this country, if not in the world, and as a body supported by, and so responsible to, the public, its ordinances, if they are strictly obeyed, ensure that anyone who has a contribution to make to the advancement of science has at least one medium through which he can be sure that that contribution can in fact be made. There is only one means by which this obviously desirable and originally intended object of the Society may be circumvented: there is nothing to require that a Fellow of the Society shall submit a paper to it, whatever the import of that paper may be. If he does so, the referee is bound, if he fulfils his obligation, to pass it if an error in it is not 'unmistakably evident' - not merely suspected, but clear beyond doubt Ч but there is nothing to ensure that it shall ever reach a referee. I make no comment on this: I simply point out the fact because of its relevance to much that follows.
To resume the story, then Ч I wrote a rather detailed paper, setting out as clearly as I could the fundamental defect of the theory and discussing the problems which its abandonment would arouse. I then wrote to Professor C. A. Coulson, Professor of Mathematics at Oxford, whom I chose first because, although his work was not specially concerned with relativity, he was a mathematical physicist, and the work of no such scientist today can be independent of it. The theory had - quite wrongly, I think, but still undoubtedly -been transferred from its proper field of physics to the field of mathematics, and Professor Coulson, besides being highly distinguished in that field, was also well known for his strong adherence to an ethic that places a high value on truth. He replied in the most friendly terms, and not only expressed his readiness to help, but took much trouble to ensure, so far as he conceived it to be within his power, that the paper should receive proper consideration. What, however, he would not do was to read the paper himself or communicate it to the Royal Society for attention. Had he read it he would have seen that it contained nothing that was not fully within the comprehension of his own undergraduates, but, so convinced was he, like practically everyone else not specialising in the subject, that relativity was a profoundly recondite matter - and (I have no doubt) that if my criticism should be such that he could detect no flaw in it, that would in all probability indicate his incompetence in the subject - that he did not feel justified in going further than to try to persuade colleagues who were generally regarded as authorities on relativity to read and, if they then felt able to do so, to communicate my paper to the Royal Society. This he did, but seven months later he had to report that, after several attempts, he had failed to find anyone who would consent to look at the paper. I do not know who the unwilling specialists were, but, knowing the narrowness of the field and the extent of my own unsuccessful efforts to get my question answered, I cannot doubt that, at any rate, most of them were already aware of the problem that would face them if they agreed to communicate my paper Ч for, being specialists themselves, the duty of recommending it for publication or else making 'unmistakably evident' an error in it would inevitably be laid on them if they did so. Had Professor Coulson himself communicated the paper, he would not, of course, have been called upon as a referee of it since the subject did not lie sufficiently close to his field of work, but he felt that, though permissible, it would be improper for him to do so.
I then approached Kathleen Lonsdale, who was not only a former colleague at University College London but also a close personal friend. Her work also was only indirectly related to relativity, and she shared the general belief in its essentially mysterious essence in even greater measure than most, for it had been presented to her in her student days cloaked in such metaphysical irrelevancies that, being naturally predisposed to ascribe the appearance of nonsense in the instruction of her tutors to her own incompetence rather than to actual fact, she had been rendered unable to hear the word 'relativity' and retain her power of simple reasoning. 'It interested me so little that I forgot it as quickly as possible,' she wrote. Nevertheless, she agreed to read my paper and try to follow it, but found herself powerless to do so. 'My difficulty is that I get so far and my mind goes blank. I never would have supposed that it was so difficult to read and understand something outside one's own field.' 'I spent about six months trying to make sense to myself of your paper, but each time I tried, my mind just went blank. Apart from trivialities I could neither criticise nor approve it. The best that I could say to myself, to justify my communicating it at all, was that - for what my judgment was worth - I could not see the fallacies in it, if there were any... If I were to spend six weeks reading it again it would still mean nothing to me. My mind is not built that way. The whole of Einstein's theory just seems esoteric nonsense, as far as I am concerned... My mind simply does not care whether clocks go at the same rate or whether they don't, and it refuses to work when I try to make sense of it. I'm sorry.'
Kathleen Lonsdale was one of the most intellectually honest people I have known, and that her mental endowments were too slight to enable her to follow the simple piece of reasoning given on p. 45 is too ludicrous to be entertained by anyone who knew her or even knew of her. The fact that she could write in these terms is an outstanding testimony to the harm which has been done by the illusions that are so widespread concerning relativity. We shall sec that it is general; the more distinguished and the more mentally honest and the more concerned in their work with the special theory of relativity the experimental physical scientists may be, the more convinced they are that the theory is unintelligible to them. What they cannot transcend is the conviction that the 'mathematicians' do understand it and cannot be wrong: they choose to believe themselves fools rather than that. We shall meet with other examples; Kathleen Lonsdale merely expresses it more starkly.
To continue, however, with the course of events. She did communicate my paper to the Royal Society, so that it could be submitted to a referee, but without any recommendation for or against its acceptance. In due course the reports of two referees were received, as a result of which the Society rejected the paper. It would be impracticable to quote them at length since they would be unintelligible without the paper itself, even if with it. It must suffice to say that the essence of the paper was the criticism of the theory already given, and that neither referee even attempted to refute it by answering the all-important question given on p. 45. There were comments on details, but on the essential point the conclusion of one referee was: 'In some cases of this type publication might still be justified because the alleged objections and the arguments which have to be used to deal with them may be instructive. However, in the present case the fallacy is so elementary that I must recommend the rejection of the paper.' The other referee merely wrote: 'Although he has much to say which is of interest to historians of science and which might with advantage be published elsewhere, my view is that the Society would make itself ridiculous by publishing this paper.' The remarks of both referees on minor points were such as to give an uninformed reader the impression that the author was unacquainted with the subject. Kathleen Lonsdale could make no more sense of the reports than of the paper, but agreed to act as postman between the unknown referees and me. I replied to their criticisms, but no further communication could be obtained from the Society.