Could a significant scientific breakthrough be kept hidden from the public successfully, and if so, just how dangerous would that discovery have to be? I know that if somebody discovered something independently that they felt shouldn’t be let known they would be able to keep it contained to themselves, but what if a number of people had access to this knowledge, i.e. a paper got published in some journal or a lab with a large number of people made the discovery?
Let’s say a scientist discovered a way to convert matter to energy in some new way, and published a paper on it. It is soon realized that this information would allow someone to create a weapon more powerful than a fusion bomb with $20 worth of stuff from Radio Shack. Would it be possible to cover this up? If so, how soon would this have to be done? Information can spread extremely rapidly today.
I’m pretty sure that a discovery that was obviously dangerous like the one in my example above would probably be hidden quickly, as anyone who heard about it would realize the implications and never tell anyone else about it(though of course such an invention COULD be worth a LOT of money and power…) I remember somebody saying (I THINK it might have been Carl Sagan, but I’m definitely not sure about it) that he thought it was unlikely that aliens had come to Earth and that the government knew about it, because the only way a secret like that could be kept would be if it was obvious to anyone who found out that making it public knowledge could have disastrous results. This doesn’t exactly reassure me, as my science-fiction raised brain can think of quite a few scenarios that might fit that description (one of the simplest being that the aliens would destroy us if they found out that the secret of their existence was out). What if there was a discovery that might result in drastic changes to human culture and the way civilization was run, that was not directly destructive?
What kind of secrets COULD be covered up, if any? I can think of several that might be good contenders.
New methods of mass destruction - not too sure about this one, we weren’t able to keep the atomic bomb secret for long though that was based on old theory that many people saw the implications of before anybody seriously considered making one.
New ways of killing/controlling individual people. If you knew a new way of killing someone without leaving any evidence of who did it (or that the death was unnatural), would you dare tell anyone? Likewise with mind control.
Knowledge that would have major universal effects on the way human culture thinks and lives. One example from a SF story that I read was the discovery that there is an afterlife, it’s eternal, and it’s worse than you can imagine for everyone. I imagine a similarly unpredictable and probably dangerous revelation would be that there was an afterlife and it was really great. Knowledge that life as we know it was going to be destroyed or radically changed would probably cause some serious problems as well. Proof that we were created by non-Deities would have some drastic effects too - we’ve pretty much proven evolution, but religions can adapt to that without too much problem (look at the Catholic Church), but if some aliens came forward, said they made us, and showed us proof, that would pretty much disprove many major religions.