The Rise and Fall of Bodies of Knowledge.
121 Westfields, St. Albans AL3 4JR, England.
The Information Scientist 12 (4) December 1978, pp. 137-144.
It is argued
that the self-protecting nature of the knowledge establishment leads to the
suppression of new ideas. Proposals are put forward for the establishment of
'Communication nets' which having no central points are incapable of
principle of free communication of ideas is a basic tenet of the scientific
community, there are numerous examples of their suppression. Professor Herbert
Dingle, who wrote a book on relativity in the 1920s as well as a section on
relativity for ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA, and was the man chosen by the BBC to
give the eulogy on Einstein when he died, developed doubts about the special
theory of relativity around 1955. To his astonishment, he found that the
scientific journals and institutions suddenly closed their pages and doors when
he wanted to write or say something unorthodox; that is, heretical. A scientist
might say, 'something that was incorrect'. He describes his experience in his
book, SCIENCE AT THE CROSSROADS (1).
Immanuel Velikovsky painstakingly developed the heretical theory
that Venus as a planet is only some 3,500 years old, that it moved for
centuries on a very eccentric orbit, and about 1500 BC made its two closest
approaches to the Earth. During the eighth and seventh centuries BC, the comet
Venus repeatedly approached Mars, and Mars in turn menaced our planet. Only
after all these encounters did Venus finally lose its last cometary
characteristics and settle down to its present planetary behaviour. Velikovsky believes that the effects of these encounters on
the Earth, especially the earlier ones, where truly catastrophic. He wrote a
book about his theories, called WORLDS IN COLLISION (2).
reading Velikovsky's book, the Professor of Astronomy
at Harvard warned Macmillan not to publish anything by Velikovsky,
saying that if they did, Macmillan would be boycotted by the academic
community. Macmillan bowed to the pressure, and fired the editor who had
accepted Velikovsky's manuscript, because he had
accepted heretical material (3,4).
The computer journals and conferences in Britain and the USA consistently evaded 'The Glitch', the way in which computers spontaneously go mad for no apparent reason. http://www.ivorcatt.co.uk/x5a6.htm . The lengthy private correspondence with the editor of SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN which culminated in his being forced to give 'The Glitch' a passing mention, in April 1973, is very revealing. It took ten years of dedicated hard slog by a group of scientists in the University of Washington, St. Louis, to get it into the professional journal, the IEEE Transactions on Computers, in June 1975. http://www.ivorcatt.co.uk/DJKinniment-He-Who-Hesitates-is-Lost.pdf
instances could be cited of the suppression of new or unusual, that is
'heretical', ideas by scientific institutions. The system of refereeing
technical articles before publication (and I myself have acted as a referee) is
a system of censorship, the censor having no training in how to differentiate
between 'wrong' and 'heretical'.
it is easy to look at the suppression of free communication in science from the
Basil Bernstein point of view (6), that 'knowledge is property with its own
market and trading value', to be protected by the practitioners of that
particular brand of knowledge - it may be sociology, mathematics, psychology,
or some sub-set of these. We might regard the suppression of new ideas and the
obstruction of outsiders when they try to trespass into a branch of knowledge
as pernicious and retrograde. As one example of many suppressions, digital
electronics, otherwise called computer hardware design, can be taught in
virtually no college in the world today. It is suppressed by the older
knowledge groups of computer science, which means programming, and by
electronics, which means telecommunications. Dr Charles Seitz was chased out of
the University of Utah when he opened up a laboratory with digital electronic
hardware within the Computer Science Department. He then called himself a
'defrocked computer scientist'. (After a long gap, he is now lecturing at
If we were
certain that the suppression of free communication was wrong, it would merely
be necessary to expose the fact that editors of scientific publications work to
suppress scientific communication, rather than to sustain it; that university
faculties work to block new disciplines, rather than help them to develop, and
we would organize methods to prevent editors, professors and conference
organizers from suppressing new developments in the future.
across this vista, like a blaze of light, comes the dictum of Dr A. W. Holt, 'Without
barriers to communication there can be no communication'. This is one of the
great profound truths which often appear facile at first sight.
illustration of Holt's thesis, when I publish something in a scientific journal,
a large part of what I am publishing has already been said before the first
word of the piece. The fact that I am publishing in that scientific journal means
that I accept virtually the whole of what Galbraith calls the 'conventional wisdom'
which is accepted by subscribers to that journal and its editors. This rigidly
limits the scope of my communication. I want to publish in that journal because
I accept the frame of reference established by that journal and the group of
scientists who support it. If something were published in that journal by
someone who did not accept virtually all the precepts enshrined in previous issues
of the journal, it would carry little meaning, or communication, because having
broken with the traditional agreed premises of the journal, no reader would any
more know what was still agreed; no one would even be sure what the words in
the revolutionary article meant. After all, the meaning of a word is a creature
of the frame of reference within which it has traditionally been used. (M.
Polanyi in PERSONAL KNOWLEDGE says
that every time a word is used, it alters or reinforces its meaning as a result
of its being used in a different context (7).) As further illustration of the Holt
dictum, we can take something that the poet Stephen Spender once said. He
argued for writing in an already accepted style. He said that if one created a
new style, one's own style, one ran the risk of creating an 'historical
object', and not communicating. Similarly, one could say that if one wrote a
revolutionary article in a journal, one would create an historical object; what
one said would be unintelligible to the reader. The only meaningful
communication is one which only marginally alters the frame of reference.
language of T. S. Kuhn (8) it is permissible to write and speak within the
limitations of a shared paradigm, and even to marginally modify the shared paradigm.
This is an acceptable, meaningful exercise in what he calls 'normal science'.
What is not permissible is to write or say something which contradicts the
shared paradigm, and expect it to be tolerated by the accepted journals, conferences
and faculties. In so far as such institutions allowed the ingress of
revolutionary ideas, they would be inhibiting the proper flow of very useful communication
of the normal kind, of normal science, because the shared paradigm, a necessary
frame of reference in normal scientific communication, would be undermined.
Bernstein writes, apparently critically, that a body of knowledge is property,
with its own market value and trading arrangements, to be protected by the
social group which administers that body of knowledge. However, one can look at
such defensiveness in a favourable way. If no one were to defend the integrity
of a body of knowledge against assault from laymen outside, the clarity and
coherence of that body of knowledge, and in particular the solidity and
validity of the shared paradigm which is its foundation, would be undermined.
Any body of
knowledge, which embraces both information and understanding, needs its own
body of dedicated practitioners, who exercise their knowledge and keep it
alive. Also, they put up barriers around it to defend it against confusion.
Without these barriers to more or less random communication, giving precedence
to communication between the select few within the barriers, within their
journals and conferences (and churches), the body of knowledge that they are
protecting would lapse into confusion. That is why 'without barriers to
communication there can be no communication'.
From time to
time, new knowledge tries to break through the defensive barriers into the main
body of knowledge, and an important role of the priests within is to analyse
these new ideas and decide whether to accept or reject them. All the while they
must defend what they already have. It is therefore important that a limit be
placed on the amount of new knowledge attempting to break through to the inner
sanctum. If too much were allowed in for analysis at any one time the result
would be confusion and damage to the valuable body of knowledge already
new knowledge which attempts to break in beyond the barriers and articulate on
to the already established knowledge plays an important role. The existence of
such conflicts attracts people of high calibre towards the centre of the
knowledge and towards its fringes. Even the rejection of a new piece of
knowledge is a useful exercise, because in the process the main body of
knowledge is exercised, and the practice of manipulating it will be kept alive
among the priests in the inner sanctum.
As a body of
knowledge increases in size and complexity, the problem created by each quantum
of new knowledge which attempts to break through into the inner sanctum is
greater. For this reason, the defences surrounding a large body of knowledge
are rightly much higher, more difficult to surmount, than those surrounding one
that is smaller, less complex and less mature. However, new knowledge still
comes in, and the body of knowledge continues to grow, albeit at a slower and
slower rate. Unfortunately, however, when the body of knowledge is bogger and
the rate of inflow of new knowledge is smaller, more and more of the activity
within the knowledge becomes 'celebration', more and more ceremonial rather
than exercise in depth. As a result, a different calibre of person is attracted
to the large knowledge, lacking the ability to understand and defend a body of
knowledge with many levels of meaning. They are 'maintenance men' rather than
'builders'. The central body of knowledge ossifies, becomes brittle and disintegrates.
This is how civilizations collapse, how religions and cities collapse, and how
a scientific community will collapse.
We can expect
bodies of knowledge to grow rapidly at first, grow more slowly when they are
large, and then steady to a more or less fixed maximum. After some time at this
maximum they will disintegrate.
investigations indicate that our knowledge and understanding of electromagnetic
theory reached its zenith in about 1910, and we have since lost most of what we
knew about the subject. I cannot find anyone in the world today who professes
to be an expert on electromagnetic theory, or who is researching into the
art had reached a large size and complexity as a body of knowledge in 1944,
which appears to have been its practical limit. Since there has been no advance
in the last thirty years (9), it must be well on its way to disintegration.
In the language
of Professor Lehman's theory of growth dynamics (10) 'progressive' work has
come to a halt and all activity is 'anti-regressive' maintenance work. Lehman
says that at this point, further advance can only be made if the foundations of
the knowledge are re-examined and streamlined.
is at this point that the Holt barriers to communication play an unfortunate
role. By the time fundamental change is needed, we have seen that there are
good reasons why the calibre of the 'guardians of the faith', the high priests,
will have sunk to an all-time low, becoming worried, inadequate functionaries
holding in reverence their predecessors who engineered the era of fast growth
and progress. As the need for fundamental change increases, their blocking of communication
of new ideas will become more complete and the established institutions more
closed and rigid.
technology will grind to a halt and even regress unless we fundamentally alter
its underlying structure. The key problem is that as a body of knowledge
matures, that is, ossifies and becomes decadent, channels of communication are
shut off by the vested, mature groups, in a manner vividly described by Dr
Charles McCutchen (11).
Need for a
New System of Communication.
is needed is a new system of communication between peers which cannot be
strangled in the normal way when the relevant body of knowledge reaches
maturity. The key to the design of an irrepressible communication system, which
we can call a 'Communication Net', is that it should have no central control
point, no single focus whose capture leads to strangulation. [dec98 See footnote.] This is how
established institutions are easily emasculated. For instance, control of the
staff appointments to a college faculty makes it easy to destroy the elan vital
of that faculty. Control of the reviewing process of a professional journal
makes it easy to suppress further constructive communication. Similarly the technical conference, with its small cabal
choosing the list of speakers, is easy prey to a decadent clique.
I am not
saying that the forces of decadence know that they are strangling their social
group's future - indeed the essence of their decadence is their ignorance of
what they are doing. Generally, they believe they are maintaining standards.
design a system which retains the good intent of the established institutions -
search after truth, free communication, appraisal by peers - but does not have
their unsound structure, vulnerable to capture by a career- and prestige-oriented
clique. One might even go so far as to say that more rugged structures are a
prerequisite for the technological revolution, and that the reason for the
failure of high technology to generate vast profit is the strangulation of its
a communication net contains equal individuals, each of whom keeps an up to
date list of articles that he recommends and copies of which he is willing to
supply on request at twice the direct cost involved; 25p would be the kind of
sum that another member of the net would send in advance when requesting one
article. The reason for charging double is that this gives anyone in the net a
surplus of funding which he uses to finance the voluntary sending of
unrequested articles - for instance an important new article, or articles to
someone who is being invited to join the net.
includes, in his bibliography of a certain subject, only those articles - by
himself and others - which he thinks make a contribution to the subject. Each
subject will have its own net, and on request amember
will supply his bibliographies to all nets of which he is a member. This will
break down interdisciplinary boundaries, which is one of the main problems in
membership of a professional institution costs about £15 p.a., it will be
reasonable to expect such members to spend about £5 p.a. on communication nets,
that is about twenty communications per year; quite enough in practice.
Once the nets
are in operation, a prestige-oriented scientist will aim to belong both to a
professional institution and to a communication net.
distribution of one's article on a net, particularly if it appeared in
bibliographies supplied by a number of eminent experts, would soon become more
prestigious than publication in a professional journal. In job applications it
would be useful to show that one's articles were recommended by top people in
the field - this is a facility unavailable at present.
A member of a
net will include in his bibliography a sdtatement of
the hours during which he is available on the telephone. It looks as though two
hours per week would be reasonable, and it might be necessary to restrain calls
by ohnly allowing trunk calls on the net.
and the direct dial telephone appeared after the philosophical and
organizational structure of professional institutions ossified, and the
institutions make no concessions to such technological advances. Communication
nets should be able to adjust rapidly to new communication developments and
In a BBC
programme it was estimated that on average a published article was read 1.3
times - that is, articles are read 30% more often than they are published. I
asked the editor of AFIPS, a leading computing journal, about this, and he said
he thought the figure was probably more like four. Whoever is right, it is
clear that even after suppression of important articles, the dissemination of
what is allowed through by the censors (reviewers) is ineffective and
expensive. It seems eminently economical by comparison to Xerox (say) ten
copies of an article and mail them to those likely to read them.
I myself am
setting up at least three nets - one being on electromagnetic theory, a subject
totally suppressed by the journals. Another net that I shall start will be a
net giving advice on what nets exist. Net design can be expected to improve
rapidly during the first ten years or so after their inception, and it is
important that improvements in their structure are widely communicated as they
communication nets are successful, it may be possible to use their structure as
the basis for the design of organizations dedicated to other activities than
flow of information. These other activities may develop spontaneously within
communication nets, or alternatively they may be consciously started at a later
date after some experience has been gained with communication nets.
[Dec98 Footnote. Obviously, today we
will compare the 'Communication net' with the internet of twenty years later.
The critical question is, does the internet have a central control point?
Possibly not. Also, compare the Holt thesis with today's 'spamming' on the
Dingle, Science at the Crossroads, Martin Brian & O'Keefe,
Velikovsky, Worlds in Collision, Sphere,
3. De Gracia (Editor), The Velikovsky
Affair, Sidgwick & Jackson, 1966.
4. Velikovsky reconsidered, Pensees,
R. Couranz and D. F. Wann,
Theoretical and experimental behaviour of synchronizers operating in the
metastable region, IEEE Trans. Computers, C-24, June 1975, pp. 604-15.
Bernstein, Class, Codes and Control, Vol. 1, Routledge and Kegan
Paul, London, 1962. [dec98.
Compare with Brian Martin elsewhere on this website.]
Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1962,
S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of
Chicago Press, 1962.
9. I. Catt, Computer
Worship, Pitman, 1974, p. 125.
10. L. A. Belady and M. M. Lehman, Programming System Dynamics,
IBM Research Report RC 3546, 1971.
McCutchen, An Evolved conspiracy, New Scientist, 29 April 1976, p.
Reprinted in I. Catt,
Electromagnetic Theory vol. 1, C.A.M. Publishing 1979. p. 117
The scientific reception system as a
Published in the Journal of Information Science 2(1980) 307-308.
In order to
survive, a body of knowledge must attract funding. 'Funding' can mean, quite
crudely, supplies of cash. It can also mean the support of acolytes, or
'researchers', willing to 'work' for nothing and therefore subsidize the body
of knowledge. Instead of money, such people accept as payment pieces of paper
called 'degrees', institution membership, etc. We shall call this activity
'zero purchase'. To attract funding, the body of knowledge must stabilize and
create an easily recognizable destination for funding. This destination may be
a university faculty or a scientific institution. Credibility is gained by such
an institution if it owns known leading knowledge brokers, or 'experts'. An
individual achieves expert status by accumulating status symbols, from Nobel przes down to A level passes, and by becoming the editor of
an obscure journal or by publishing papers and obscure books. An important
distinguishing feature of virtually all of these status symbols is that they
are not directly profitable at point of purchase. Anticipated fringe benefits
are all. For example, the book with low sales and low royalty counts as a
status symbol for the author, but the profitable best seller does not.
in unremunerative activity helpful to a body of knowledge, a would-be knowledge
broker gains 'credit points' for 'selflessness' and 'scientific honesty'. If he
gains enough such crredit points, he may become one
of the leading members of the knowledge establishment and recoup his investment
of unpaid toil during the previous decades. However, most people who run in the
'academic selflessness' sweepstakes never recoup in cash terms, but have to be
satisfied with the periodical reception of further pieces of paper - M. Sc.,
Fellow of the Institute, CBE, etc.
scientist has attained guru status within an organization and helps it to
attract funding, it is important for him and for the organization that his guru
status should be made secure. He can ensure this either (1) by continuing to
maintain mastery of the evolving body of knowledge, or more simply (2) through
his refereeing and editorial power, by stabilizing that knowledge and
preventing it from developing, or (3) by some combination of the previous two
techniques. In practice, he opts for stability but garnished with gradual
growth at a pace well within his (possibly by now failing) capabilities.
As well as by
ownership of gurus, an organization uses its official journals to establish
itself as a proper destination for funding (and zero purchase). However, in the
same way as a salesman tries not to disturb or confuse the customer when making
a sale by throwing doubt on the merit of his product, journals can only serve
their purpose if they contain no hint that the fount of knowledge may not
reside within the organization. On the other hand, totally bland discourses in
its journals (and totally bland lectures by its resident gurus) pose another
threat to an organization's money supply; the charge that they have gone to
sleep, or are old, decadent and rusty. Discussion and dispute must be seen to
occur, and this needs to be reasonably orchestrated so as to give both the
indication of internal division (or life) in the organization, but not at such
a level as to threaten fragmentation leading to the need for the money source
(perhaps a government committee or charitable foundation) to take sides by
deciding which fragment to finance in the future. Organizations which fail to
'fine tune' this orchestration have disappeared, so those that survive have
source (and even more so a 'zero purchase' Ph. D. student) also has to achieve
status by pointing to the status of the organization or organizations it
supports. In engineering terms, any 'life', or 'dispute', represents positive
feedback, a destabilizing factor with dangerous possibilities, contrasting with
the stabilizing effect of the reiteration of antique ideas.
years ago, I designed a triple Darlington amplifier, and was surprised to find
that in addition to the heavy D.C. current, it could oscillate at low amplitude
and very high frequency, the frequency of the first, small, drive transistor,
with the following two high power, low speed, transistors acting passively as
forward biased conducting Vbe diodes. This is a good
model for the compromise invariably reached by the organizations milking a body
of knowledge in order to secore their continued
funding. The high frequency, superficial, harmless oscillation, or argument,
shows the signs of life needed to reassure the funding sources, while
paradoxically at the same time the large, steady, bland communication lower
down serves to reassure. This is why a body of knowledge will tolerate, and
even encourage, argument and violent disagreement about trivial detail while at
the same time blocking all questioning of fundamentals. To change the metaphor,
a body of knowledge is like a large raft on which all kinds of violent games
can and must be played, but no one must attack the raft on which they stand,
because then everyone would drown in new ideas.
I Catt, The rise and fall of bodies of knowledge [see above].