Below is a fascinating report in the NYTimes about a long-retired professor who found that his work was being cited by “creationists” and THEREFORE decided to retract it. But, as an attorney friend points out, the very concept of “retraction” is inapplicable here. A retraction is something the original author is entitled to do ONLY IF he has discovered, by re-examining his original data or reasoning or mathematics, that it was flawed.
That’s not what happened here. Instead, we have a situation in which — if we take the scientist (Homer Jacobson) at face value — later work by other people implies that the earlier work was wrong for some other reason. The proper action in such a case is not to “retract” a paper — which is an effort to erase it from the record — but to acknowledge it to have been in error, as revealed by later work. Such an acknowledgement is not a power unique to the author — anyone can declare an older theory superseded by a later one.
For example, (and I’m continue to crib from my attorney friend) take Darwin’s theory of how genetic information is passed on: not via DNA, of which he knew nothing, but by little items he called “gemmules” generated by each organ, and sent to the genitals to be combined in some way. He theorized that as the environment caused changes in the organs of a creature, the gemmules generated by that organ would reflect the changes, and that is how new body forms would show up in the offspring. Of course, the theory has been rejected, but still it is praised as good scientific theorizing — which it was. But so too is the work in this scientist’s 1955 paper. Even if it is wrong, it ought to remain on the public record. But by having its author not merely dsavow its superseded conclusions, but formally “retract” the paper, the effect is to wipe it out of history.
Welcome to the world of scientific revisionism.
’55 ‘Origin of Life’ Paper Is Retracted
By CORNELIA DEAN | NYTimes | October 25, 2007
In January 1955, Homer Jacobson, a chemistry professor at Brooklyn College, published a paper called “Information, Reproduction and the Origin of Life” in American Scientist, the journal of Sigma Xi, the scientific honor society.
In it, Dr. Jacobson speculated on the chemical qualities of earth in Hadean time, billions of years ago when the planet was beginning to cool down to the point where, as Dr. Jacobson put it, “one could imagine a few hardy compounds could survive.”
Nobody paid much attention to the paper at the time, he said in a telephone interview from his home in Tarrytown, N.Y. But today it is winning Dr. Jacobson acclaim that he does not want — from creationists who cite it as proof that life could not have emerged on earth without divine intervention.
So after 52 years, he has retracted it.