IVOR CATT, 121 Westfields, St. Albans AL3
in 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
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).
journals and conferences in Britain and the USA consistently evaded 'The
Glitch', the way in which computers spontaneously go mad for no apparent
reason. 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.
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
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.
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.
As an 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.
In the 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.
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
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'.
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 entrenched within.
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 bigger 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 in electromagnetic theory, or who is researching
into the subject.
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.
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).
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
We must 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 institutions.
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 a member 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 high
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.
nets are in operation, a prestige-oriented scientist will aim to belong
both to a professional institution and to a communication net.
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.
of a net will include in his bibliography a statement 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 only
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 opportunities.
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
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 are received.
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, London,
Velikovsky, Worlds in Collision, Sphere,
3. De Gracia (Editor), The Velikovsky
Affair, Sidgwick & Jackson, 1966.
4. Velikovsky reconsidered, Pensees, May 1972.
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, p. 208.
S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago
9. I. Catt,
Computer Worship, Pitman, 1974, p. 125.
A. Belady and M. M. Lehman, Programming System
Dynamics, IBM Research Report RC 3546, 1971.
McCutchen, An Evolved conspiracy, New Scientist, 29 April 1976,
Reprinted in I. Catt,
Electromagnetic Theory vol. 1, C.A.M. Publishing 1979. p. 117
The scientific reception system as a servomechanism
Published in the Journal of Information Science 2(1980) 307-308.
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 prizes 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.
When a 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)
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 succeeded.
A money 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
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 secure 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.
The rise and fall of bodies of knowledge [see above].
To magnificent articles by Hiram Caton