Science and Social Intelligence about Anomalies: The Case of Meteorites

Westrum, Ronald M.Westrum, Ronald M.: Social Studies of Science, vol. 8, n° 4, pp. 461-493, 1978

n1Ron Westrum is Associate Professor of Sociology, Eastern Michigan University. He is interested in social reactions to, and knowledge about, anomalous events. He is working on a book in this area to be entitled: Anomaly and Society: Social Reactions to Impossible Events. Author's address: Department of Sociology, Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, Michigan 48197, USA. n2The author wishes to acknowledge the helpful critiques of several persons who read earlier drafts of this paper: Barry Barnes, Roger Hahn, David Jacobs, G. R. Levi-Donati, Marcello Truzzi, and three anonymous referees of this journal.

In making decisions about the reality of alleged anomalous events, scientists are likely to weigh both the a priori plausibility of what is alleged and the credibility of the reports which reach them. The present paper is an attempt to examine the anomaly reporting processes which led to the scientific recognition of the reality of meteorites in the eighteenth century. It is shown that scientists fail to make realistic assumptions about anomaly reporting, and that this failure affects the accuracy of the decisions made about anomalies. The treatment of reports about alleged anomalous events is further shown to be related to the scientific community's concerns about protecting its internal processes from external Interference. The recognition of meteorites took place only when the savants of the eighteenth century 1) found a way of evaluating the reports, 2) devised a theory to explain them, and 3) received unimpeachable eyewitness testimony of their occurrence.

An under-explored area in the sociology of science is the process by which data from scientific observations or experiments come to be accepted as genuine. While historical material on controversies over data is abundant, there are relatively few studies which attempt to consider these cases in the light of a theoretical framework n31. Discussions with my father, Professor Edgar F. Westrum, Jr, a physical chemist, have convinced me of the importance of data quality control for the practising scientist. The work of Harry Collins in this regard is very suggestive. See his 'The Seven Sexes: A Study in the Sociology of a Phenomenon, or the Replication of Experiments in Physics', Sociology, Vol. 9, No. 2 (May 1975), 205-24, and also his 'Upon the Replication of Scientific Findings: A Discussion Illuminated by the Experiences of Researchers into Parapsychology', mimeo, in Proceedings of the First International Conference of the Society for Social Studies of Science, Cornell University (4-6 November 1976). See also G. N. Gilbert, 'The Transformation of Research Findings into Scientific Knowledge', Social Studies of Science, Vol. 6, Nos. 3 and 4 (September 1976), 281-306.. Even less studied, however, are those cases in which data originating outside the scientific community have become accepted within it. The control of the boundary between the institution of science and other parts of society by the acceptance or rejection of observations from outside the scientific community is nonetheless critical for the autonomy of science, and for social control within it. What I intend to do here is to examine this problem posed in its most extreme form: the response of the scientific community to reports from non-scientists of hypothetical anomalies n4 The type of anomalous events I am interested in here are not the same as the 'anomalies' which operate in Kuhn's theory of scientific revolutions. (See T. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd edn. [Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1970].) They do not necessarily pose problems for scientific theory, and unlike the anomalies with which Kuhn is concerned, it is the existence of these anomalies which is controversial, not their interpretation. I have considered several alternative designations for these events, but none, including 'occult', 'controversial', and 'hypothetical', is really satisfactory. Nonetheless, it is evident that UFOs, sea-serpents, ghosts, psychic events, and abominable snowmen all share a common intellectual situation in that 'witnesses' allege to have seen them, while scientists firmly deny that they exist. Charles Fort referred to them as 'damned' data because of their scientifically unacceptable character in terms of current 'dominants' (paradigms). See The Book of the Damned, in T. Thayer (ed.), The Books of Charles Fort (New York: Henry Holt, 1941). Again, however, it is often scientific intuitions which are offended by these events, rather than scientific theory.. In two previous papers on Unidentified Flying Objects and seaserpents n5R. Westrum, 'Social Intelligence About Anomalies: The Case of Unidentified Flying Objects', Social Studies of Science, Vol. 7, No. 3 (August 1977), 271-302, and 'Knowledge about Sea-Serpents', in R. Wallis (ed.), Sociological Review Monographs, special number of 'Rejected Knowledge' (forthcoming, 1979). I explored the way in which accounts of these hypothetical events reach the scientific community, and how these reports are considered within it. But both of these studies dealt with objects at best hypothetical, and possibly imaginary n6G. Maxwell argues very cogently that 'theoretical entity' is not a useful concept in his 'The Ontological Status of Theoretical Entities', in H. Feigl and G. Maxwell (eds), Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Vol. III (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1962), 3-27. Discussion of this point is outside the scope of this article.. How would the scientific community respond in the case of a 'real' anomaly? Would information be treated in the same way? To find a partial answer to this question I will examine a case which has become a classic one in the history of science: the meteorite controversy of the eighteenth century.

The choice of the meteorite controversy might be criticized on a number of grounds, the most obvious of which is that the term, 'the scientific community', refers to different entities in the eighteenth and twentieth centuries. This criticism has considerable face validity. After much study of the meteorite case, however, I am even more convinced of its relevance to other anomalies than I was when I began. Study of the meteorite case, in conjunction with those of UFOs and sea-serpents, shows suggestive, although far from exact, parallels between the three controversies.

There is, however, a closely related reason why the meteorite controversy ought to be examined from the point of view of the sociology of knowledge. Savants' n7I have used 'savant' in preference to other terms as the one in most common use at the time in France to designate the people we now refer to as 'scientists'; the most common British term at the time seems to have been 'philosopher'. Both of these terms, however, were also used to designate non-scientists. It is ironic that words for the individual specialties were in common use while there was no term to describe scientists in general. See S. Ross, 'Scientist: The Story of a Word', Annals of Science, Vol. 18, No. 2 (June 1962), 65-85. rejection of meteorites has now become part of the rhetoric used by anomaly advocates to argue that the resistance of scientists to accepting UFO or sea-serpent reports is not based on adequate reasons, but is simply characteristic of scientific resistance to new ideas n8 The classical expression of this view is that of Charles Fort. See Fort, op. cit. note 2, 19-21. See also A. C. Oudemans, The Great Sea Serpent (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1892), ix-x.. Anomaly critics have used the controversy in turn to argue that the evidence for meteorites and UFOs is very different, and that in fact the cases are very far apart n9P. Morrison, 'The Nature of Scientific Evidence: A Summary', in C. Sagan and T. Page (eds), UFOs ― A Scientific Debate (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1972), 276-90.. Secondary sources on the controversy are often inaccurate, leading some individuals into making erroneous statements about it n10For instance, the information on meteorites in D. H. Menzel, 'Case Against UFOs', Physics Today (June 1976), 13-15, is inaccurate.. It is important to get the facts in the meteorite case right, if only for purposes of comparison.

The controversy took place during the last years of the eighteenth century and the first years of the nineteenth century. In one sense the controversy began with a formal rejection of three meteoritic stones by the French Academy of Sciences in 1772. But the true debate did not begin until 1794, when the German physicist Chladni published a small book advocating the reality of meteorites n11 E. F. F. Chladni, Uber den Ursprung der von Pallas gefundenen und anderer ihr ahnlicher Eisenmassen, und uber einige damit in Verbindung stehende Naturscheinungen (Riga: J. F. Hartknoch, 1794).. In the same year a widely-publicized fall took place in Siena, Italy n12D. Tata, Memoria sulla Pioggia di Pietre (Naples: Nobile and Co., 1794).. The response to both these events was generally negative n13See Leman, article on 'Pierres meteoriques', in the Dictionnaire d'Histoire Naturelle (Pans, 1818), 237-83, at 248.. Chladni and other advocates of the reality of meteorites were under constant attack on the grounds that their ideas offended either theology or the ideas of the Enlightenment n14E. F. F. Chladni, über Feuermeteore und uber die mit denselben herabgefallenen Massen (Vienna: J. B. Huebner, 1819), 9-10. Chladni would not even publish the names of other physicists who agreed with him, for fear their reputation might be harmed.. At the turn of the century, however, with more falls having been reported, the general attitude changed from outright denial to uncertainty. After 1803 the reality of meteorites became generally accepted.

The last comprehensive histories of the meteorite controversy were written in the early nineteenth century n1513. The best general overview of the meteorite controversy is still M.P.M.S. Bigot de Morogues, Mémoire Historique et Physique sur la Chute des Pierres Tombées sur la Surface de la Terre à Divers époques (Orléans: Jacob Ainé, 1812). Many of the relevant documents are given in J. Izarn, Pierres Tombées du Ciel ou Lithologie Atmosphèrique (Paris: Delalain Fils, 1803).. Although there have been some recent short treatments s1D. W. Sears, 'Sketches in the History of Meteoritics, 1: The Birth of the Science', Meteoritics, Vol. 10, No. 3 (1975), 215-26; P. M. Sears, 'Notes on the Beginnings of Modern Meteoritics', ibid., Vol. 2, No. 4 (1965), 293-99; G. R. Levi-Donati 'La Polemica sulla "piogetta di sassi" del 1794', Physis, Vol. 17 (1975), 94-111. which give the outline and important details of some aspects of the controversy, these articles have not dealt with the broader issues in the sociology of knowledge to which the meteorite controversy is relevant. These issues will be the focus of this study.

It is often suggested that the reason that scientists reject reports of anomalies is that they consider these things to be implausible for a priori theoretical reasons. Perhaps this is a complete explanation in some cases (ghosts, for example). I would like to argue in what follows, however, that a major factor in the rejection of the existence of such anomalies is the quantity and quality of reports about them which reach scientists. If reports (or their relative absence) are indeed important in scientists' rejection of anomalies, then we ought to investigate the way in which reports from alleged anomaly percipients reach (or don't reach) scientists. I would like to suggest that only by understanding the social intelligence system which transmits these reports - and, in particular, how scientists regard its processes - can we truly comprehend scientists' opinions about anomalies like UFOs, sea serpents, and (in the eighteenth century) meteorites. As we will see, the rejection of these anomalies takes place on sociological as well as scientific grounds. Hence our concern here will be to examine the validity of the sociological premises on which this rejection is based.