Discoveries are labeled "premature" when there is a delay in their acceptance by the scientific community. The extreme case of prematurity is when even the discoverer fails to appreciate the step that has been taken, a phenomenon described as "snowblindness" by Arthur Koestler in The Act of Creation. The theory of prematurity that Gunther Stent propounded in 1972 could itself be called premature because it took more than two decades to arouse interest.
This book contains the papers delivered at a 1997 symposium and the 25 very dense chapters cover a wide range of highly technical material. The contents fall into three sections. The first consists of the editor's overview and a paper by Stent with the key arguments from his two seminal papers on this topic. The middle section is subdivided into several parts with personal reports and case studies from a number of fields. The final section consists of philosophical perspectives and closing considerations from various commentators including Stent and the editor.
Stent's examples of prematurity were Mendel's laws; the implications of Avery's 1944 report on DNA as the mediator of bacterial transformation; Michael Polanyi's 1914-1916 theory of gaseous adsorption of solids; claims for ESP (extra-sensory perception) and the 1960s claim of the transfer of memory between animals by nucleic acid extracts. His hypothesis to explain the neglect of these ideas is that the premature hypothesis cannot be connected to canonical knowledge by a simple series of logical steps. In other words there is a disjunction or mismatch between the new claim and the picture of the world that is held by other scientists. He turned to structuralism a la Piaget for further detail "In the parlance of structuralism, canonical knowledge is simply the set of pre-existing 'strong' structures with which primary scientific data are made isomorphous in the mental abstraction process. Hence, data which cannot be transformed into a structure isomorphic with canonical knowledge are a dead end; in the last analysis they remain meaningless...until a way has been shown to transform them into a structure that is isomorphic with the canon".
Critical commentators pointed out that this neurophysiological account of intellectual history does not do justice to the social or public nature of scientific knowledge, nor to the very different reasons for the delay in recognition of the individual cases. Some of the items on Stent's list were picked up immediately by some people in the field and others such as ESP are of course still beyond the pale of respectability for scientists.
We like to think that science never goes backwards, except under the kind of political control exerted by Stalin. A non-technical paper by Oliver Sacks, 'Scotoma: forgetting and neglect in science' describes how several medical conditions have been discovered and forgotten over the last two centuries. One of these was associated with migraine, which Sachs found in a search of rare (pre-1900) books in the library had been clearly described in the 1850s by the younger Hershel of the father and son team of astronomers. Similarly Sachs found virtually nothing on "Tourette's syndrome" between 1903 and 1970, though the 1903 publication was the culmination of some years of French work on the varieties of tic behaviour. In 1974 Sachs had a serious climbing accident in a remote part of Norway and for two weeks one of his legs was denervated and immobilised. He experienced the feeling that the leg did not belong to him. His surgeon had never encountered an experience of this kind (the reverse of the phantom limb phenomenon when a missing limb is experienced as "present"). Again he searched the literature and found nothing until he reached back 100 years and found extensive writing on both the phantom limb and the 'negative phantom' experiences, based on cases from the Civil War.
This book can only have limited interest for economists and political economists because the case histories are drawn overwhelmingly from the hard sciences and biology. The solitary paper on political science is only six pages in length; in it George Von der Muhll addresses the difficulty of establishing a fruitful shared perspective in the field after the Second World War when positivism was rampant in the so-called "Behavioral Revolution". The author sketched three models of inquiry of which only one, rational choice theory, has thrived in the study of politics. The other two are general systems theory and cybernetic theory. General systems theory achieved the status of the most prestigious theory in economics, a situation that calls for an explanation because even its more enthusiastic adherents do not claim that it illuminates events in the real world. The answer may lie with the powerful influence of a particular conception of the nature and function of scientific theories that was borrowed from physics, as noted below.
Several of the contributors compare and contrast Stent's theory with Kuhn's paradigm theory to account for delays and difficulties that some theories experience in achieving recognition. However there is no mention of Popper's theory of metaphysical research programs which is a potentially powerful aid to explore the influence of unstated and largely unconscious presuppositions of a metaphysical or philosophical nature. This is a serious deficiency in the book and it suggests that Karl Popper's theory may be another case of prematurity. It was published in 1982 in Quantum Theory and the Schism in Physics and it is relevant to the rise of general equilibrium theory because this field became dominated by ideas from mathematical physics under the influence of John von Neuman, as described by Ingrao and Israel (1990). In addition to propounding the theory of metaphysical research programs, Popper criticized various key components of quantum theory, especially the concern with mathematical formalism at the expense of realism which is von Neuman's legacy in quantum physics as well as economics.
The importance of Popper's ideas in evaluating research programs is that they have more "bite" than the traditional positivist (anti-metaphysical) philosophy of science in coming to grips with metaphysical ideas in a useful (critical) manner. The effort by positivist and pragmatists to eliminate talk about metaphysics did not get rid of metaphysical assumptions, it merely rendered their influence unconscious. Possibly the most helpful exponent of Popper's ideas for economists is Larry Boland (2003) who does not explicitly address metaphysical issues, however he proposed a Popper/Hayek model to increase the realism of the methodological core of neoclassical economics.
To conclude, this is a fascinating collection of papers which would require a polymath of the natural scientists to provide an adequate critical commentary. Neither the theory developed by Stent to describe the regulating principles of scientific innovation nor Kuhn's theory of paradigms provide any help to economists in search of a sustainable framework for analysis. Karl Popper and more especially Larry Boland may be more helpful in that respect.
Boland, L. A. (2003) The Foundations of Economic Method: A Popperian Perspective, second edition, (London, Routledge).
Ingrao, B. & Israel, G. (1990) The Invisible Hand: Economic Equilibrium in the History of Science, translated by Ian McGilvray (Cambridge, the MIT Press).