Could a scientific breakthrough be suppressed?

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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

Probably not. Science just sorta happens, and if you discover something and keep it a secret, someone else will discover the same thing sooner or later.

A perfect example of this is public key cryptography. Some folks working for the GCHQ(?) in England discovered Diffie-Hellman type key exchanges a few years before Diffie and Hellman did. The English kept the discovery top secret (along with all other work done by GCHQ and the NSA) but it was rendered obsolete by a couple of guys who got the same Good Idea.

I’m sitting here feeling like the biggest cynic of the 20th AND 21st centuries put together, Badtz. :frowning:

No, because people blab. Especially about something important (“I gave the President of the United States a blowjob!”) Imagine how powerful you would feel if you’d just discovered a fantastic new powerful bomb, or a cure for old age so everybody could live forever, or the fact that the Christians were right and there really IS a Hell? No way would you be able to keep your mouth shut. Look at all the people today who already think they’ve discovered these things. Are THEY keeping THEIR mouths shut? No way. Everybody wants to rule the world…Everybody wants to feel like an insider, the one with Classified information, but there’s no point in being an insider with classified information if you can’t spill the beans just a tiny bit and impress people.

Whether or not it might be dangerous to the human race to have this fantastic new weapon wouldn’t enter into your mind, in your compulsion to be instantly famous as the Inventor of the Z-Bomb. Your smiling face on the cover of Rolling Stone

No, they wouldn’t.

No. As a matter of fact, governments everywhere would immediately be in a race to see who could build the biggest and most powerful version before anybody else. Hint–does the phrase “Cold War” ring a bell? :smiley:

No, it wouldn’t.

Yes, they would.

Duh. You just answered your own question. :smiley:

It’s the 1950s science fiction movie thing–“We can’t tell anyone. We’d have worldwide panic! No, Jim, we’ll have to deal with this ourselves…” That’s a crock. Look at all the people today who think they know that aliens have in fact come to Earth. Are they keeping their mouths shut so that folks won’t panic? No way.

So, Jim finds out that aliens have landed on Earth, but the aliens tell him, “We’ll kill everyone if you tell.” So, um, he just keeps his mouth shut? And doesn’t tell anyone at all? Not even his wife? His doctor? His pastor? Doesn’t post it on his website? He just carries the tremendous burden of this knowledge around with him to his dying day?

Um, yeah… :rolleyes:

Well, I’m a normal human being, but there are a lot more ABnormal human beings out there, and if one of THEM got hold of mind control technology, I’d give it about 2 weeks before he wouldn’t be able to resist telling someone, “Hey, I’m the King of the World, and ya wanna know why?”

There are lots of people nowadays who already think they know this. Are they keeping their mouths shut so people won’t be upset? No.

Once again, it’s the 1950s science fiction movie thing, “we can’t tell anyone–they would panic!” In real life, when you know a disaster is coming, you run around squawking, “Help! Help!” You don’t just suck it up and go back to work.

Er, no, actually I think the world’s major religions would either simply ignore it, refuse to believe their “proof”, or find a way to work it into their theologies.

Nice talkin’ to ya. :smiley:

[slinking away to commune with other world-class cynics]

These days governments don’t try cover things up, they just try diffuse them with similiar stories and such like.

For example a new technology may be rubbished by government sponsored university professors in relevant publications ( sometimes its very expensive to replicate an experiment ! ) while really the government investigate it themselves etc.

People can be bought off.

A lot of UFO stuff was put out by the government as a cover for the stealth program ( some planes were actually designed to look like a UFO in case ruskies saw them flying over there lands ! ).

It works like an orange, layer upon layer upon layer of stories, often including real ones so in the end you can’t tell what is true and what isn’t.

In the end the technology does filter down though, for example computer people built code breaking machines during WWII and then left to found computer firms etc.

Ah, dude, you wouldn’t have a cite for that “planes were actually designed to look like a UFO in case ruskies saw them” thing?

There is a Stealth/UFO connection. Y’know “Area 51”? Um, that’s where all these super-secret stealth planes were developed. So yeah, lots of high security, lots of stony-faced guards with M16s, lots of oddly-behaving objects flying around. But no crashed spaceships, just stealth planes, various RPVs, and other experimental craft.

And remember, the US is not the only country in the world. Suppose the US government shuts down any investigation into cold fusion. Um, why haven’t the Japanese developed it yet? The laws of physics are the same all over the world. And there are very very few revolutionary inventions or discoveries. Generally every new discovery is a pretty obvious consequence of previous work.

And this: “It works like an orange, layer upon layer upon layer of stories, often including real ones so in the end you can’t tell what is true and what isn’t.”

Um, there is a way to tell what is true and what isn’t. It’s a little method we like to call science, dude. If you’ve discovered cold fusion it doesn’t stop working just because the MiB tell everyone it doesn’t work.


I think you might mean Onion?


when IBM introduced the AT computer in 1985? it used an Intel 286 but ran at 6 mhz. the processor was rated at 8. i replaced the crystal on a number of machines and ran them at 9 mhz. IBM modified the BIOS to do a speed test and if the machine was running faster than 6 it would lock up. a company named Spye Technologies came out with box that mounted in the rear panel that would run the machine at 6 long enough to pass the test then increase the speed depending on the setting of a knob on the back. at a little past 10 mhz the floppy drive would stop working and much past that the machine would fail.

there was a company called Rosen Motors that had a gas turbine generator for an electric car with a flywheel in a vaccuum bottle to store energy. the auto industry was not interested.

i think a lot of stuff is not so much suppressed as ignored and not implemented because it won’t make more money. some technology is a threat to the status quo.

Dal Timgar

Try thinking about it a different way.

Instead of a bad breakthrough, think of a good breakthrough. instead of the purpose of suppression being alturism, let’s make it money.

For example, a bunch of scientists working on AIDS research makes an amazeing discovery…AIDS can be cured by eating grass! Thats right, the kind that grows in your front yard. Suddenly, the AIDS drugs that the company is making millions on is worthless. This dicovery could financially destroy them all!

Luckly the scientists involved all became nihlists in medical school. The owners of the lab want to keep the dough rolling in. They simply burn a few papers on go on like it never happened.

But, I have been told, that’d be cruel and inhuman of them. No scientist (or businessperson) would let millions die! Well, scientists worked on the atomic bomb. Tobacco businesspeople continue to watch people die using their products. Thousands of Nazi’s “just followed orders”. Sometimes the lure of cash (and, as ** dal timgar** put it, status quo, is just to great.

I really think this could happen. Cover ups happen all the time in governments. That is why we have spys! It’s scary isn’t it?

I can think of a few instances where a technological breakthrough was supressed through social means. Both the crossbow and gunpowder weapons were supressed for a long time in Greece and Japan, respectively. The recipe for Greek fire drifed off into obscurity until Cece reconstructed it for us. But that was then…

Inventions now are collaborative efforts. Unless we’ve missed a few of the simple ones, lots of folks are going to have at least some knowledge of what’s going on. But are they going to blab? I don’t know…

As a personal example, my father was completely nonplussed by all of the hoo-haa over Reagan’s Star Wars plans. I remember at one point he burst out laughing when I told him my physics professor said that our technology would need to advance by an order of magnitude in order to work as advertised, but I thought nothing of it at the time.

Then one day a couple of years ago we were touring the Air and Space Museum’s warehouses up in Maryland when the guide mentioned in passing, “you space guys might be interested to see this Air Force anti-satellite rocket.” My dad lurched to a halt.

“Well I’ll be damned,” he said.

It turned out that this particular vehicle was a much newer device than the one he had worked on, but he felt that since this puppy was now in a museum he was no longer compelled to keep silent about the general subject. Even so, the fact that he worked on ASATs, hypergolic lasers, and ballistic tracking devices twenty years before Reagan became president is all he feels free to tell me, an aspiring historian and his own son. But it’s pretty easy to connect the dots from there.

Would he have ever said anything at all about such things if he hadn’t seen that museum piece? I don’t think so.


Originally posted by even sven
For example, a bunch of scientists working on AIDS research makes an amazeing discovery…AIDS can be cured by eating grass! Thats right, the kind that grows in your front yard. Suddenly, the AIDS drugs that the company is making millions on is worthless. This dicovery could financially destroy them all!
A couple of things make this scenario unlikely. First, along the lines of what Sofa King said, inventions are usually gradual. The information that grass cures AIDS isn’t likely to come in a bolt from the blue. Incremental inventions will start pointing to grass. At that point, there will be a competition to find the missing link.

Second, though I realize the grass hypothetical is meant to be overly-simplified, its over-simplification obscures an important point. Inventions aren’t normally of the simplicity of “take everyday object A and solve a problem that has been vexing mankind for decades or centuries.” If grass did cure AIDS, it would do so in a manner that is not obvious. Therefore, the method of using grass to cure AIDS could be patented or kept as a trade secret. Voila! You’re rich!

Speak for yourself. 8^) I am absolutely certain that I could keep most of those secret (though I’d toss and turn on the cure for old age). I know a lot of people blab, but people CAN be silenced, and there are some things you won’t blab about.

Who would YOU tell if you invented some super-bomb? I’d think you’d have to be an idiot to tell anyone. If the information did become common knowledge, there WOULD be terrorists nuking cities left and right, and if it didn’t make it to common knowledge, but the authorities found out about it, you could pretty much count on being killed.

Many breakthroughs are not easy to discover without a lot of expensive equipment and top techies - have you any idea how many barriers there are to getting funding for these cutting edge things ?

You are correct, if it is out there then it can be discovered by someone else or again - there are many cases in history of ‘lost knowledge’ coming back again from a different source.

Profit does motivate discovery etc. so your right, we don’t hear a lot about those things… when was the last time you saw an advert on tv about losing weight that just said ‘er, eat healthy and exercise lots, er, you don’t need this diet or that equipment to be honest’.

re: The aliens at area 51, the point is, if there were aliens the government would plant dis information stories instead of just denial and shut up.

Trying real hard to not sound like an idiot, I would say that technology can be easily suppressed.

I read about the cold fusion, then the disclaimers, then the great expose’s about the scam and then, … suddenly the scammers were out of the news. No one, later, could understand why two reasonably intelligent scientists would publicly show off something that could not be reproduced knowing that standard scientific policy requires a reproduction of any discovery.

Shortly after, it was disclosed somewhere, and I forgot where, that one of the greatest critics of cold fusion, a scientist who is connected to the fuel industry, quietly patented his own version of the device and any future versions he could think of.

Why patent a device which doesn’t work. Plus, the original ‘fakers’ dropped out of the news, apparently enriched.

Cold fusion, right now, would be devastating to the oil and power industry. Can you imagine the economic rumbles id everyone could suddenly have almost free power for homes, businesses, cars and things? Banks would fall! Great tax bases would topple. Whole industries would crumble.

While I’ve read how the cold fusion thing is impossible, I often wonder about it. It would be to the advantage of major financial institutions and governments to supress it and work it in later. Much of our economy is based on expensive power, what with major banks basing loans on oil prices, financing scores of power related companies, whole empires based on crude oil and virtually every city with a power plant rakes in vast taxes under the disguise of fuel ‘adjustments’. Plus the charges for providing the power in the first place.

Everyone saw how fast the cheap, clean power from nuclear means was discredited, harassed and eventually, virtually abandoned, so everything went right back to oil generated electricity.

So, yes. Technology could be suppressed.

I mean, the British invented the first real computer during WW2, then sat on it afterwards and the Americans rediscovered it and capitalized on the technology. For years, we thought America had developed the first computer, but were wrong. We just took it public.

Of course scientific discoveries can be ignored or suppressed. Not only are most R&D projects cooperative, but they also take place in funded laboratories.

In the private sector, discoveries made in corporate laboratories are the intellectual property of the corporation. Scientists must waive the right to take their discoveries elsewhere, whether by signing affidavits of noncompetition or other some such privacy documents. If the corporation does not wish to disseminate the discovery, it gets tabled. Scientists run the risk of sabotaging their careers if they wish to take their discoveries elsewhere.

This has certainly happened before. How long has the tobacco industry been hiding its findings from the general public?

The same reasoning applies to university research. If your research is not consonant with the university’s “program of truth,” as Foucault would say, you can kiss your grant money goodbye, regardless of your discoveries.

This “orange” metaphor was obviously planted by the Government in order to confuse and suppress dude’s point.

Layers, man. Layers.

Our government has an anti munitions law which restricts the computer encryption industry.
Lets say you come up with a computer program, based on a mathematical equation, which encrypts data so that unauthorised eyes can’t see what you’re storing or transmitting. Only those with the decryption key can unlock the data.
Guess what? If our government can’t break your code, they have the power to take your encryption program away from you!

Um, they published their results. In public, right? Anyone who has a chemistry lab can do the same things, they didn’t have anything too exotic. But NO ONE could reproduce their findings. What we had was a classic example of self-delusion. They were SURE they had something, so they ignored the contrary data and didn’t bother to examine other possibilities. This is why we have peer review, so someone who isn’t emotionally invested in the results can critique them.

Cite? They didn’t “Drop out”, they are still around, trying to prove cold fusion really works. But they are failing. The media ignores them because they are failures.

Hmph! Anthracite would have your head for that remark! Only a tiny fraction of our electricity is generated from oil. Most is coal, hydro, and nuclear. Coal, coal, coal! In Japan and France, most is nuclear. Japan has to import every drop of oil, every lump of coal, every slug of uranium. Don’t you think that some Japanese scientist could reproduce Pons and Fleischman’s experiments if there was anything to them?

Sure, the coal and petroleum industries would lose from effective alternate power sources. But you forget. There are thousands of OTHER industries that would benefit tremendously. Buggy-whip manufacturers and horse-breeders were against cars. They couldn’t stop the car, could they?

Just because the Airline industry would be ruined by teleportation doesn’t mean the Airlines are suppressing teleportation technology.

Proves my point. The Brits tried to sit on the invention. The Americans duplicated it. No one can keep the laws of physics secret. Sitting on an invention that could change your industry is very foolish, although perhaps some companies try to do it. Because eventually your competitors are going to discover the same thing and since you haven’t patented your discovery, they are going to get all the profits from it.

Sofa King writes:
I can think of a few instances where a technological breakthrough was supressed through social means. Both the crossbow and gunpowder weapons were supressed for a long time in Greece and Japan, respectively. The recipe for Greek fire drifed off into obscurity until Cece reconstructed it for us. But that was then…
Actually, although Japan successfully sat on the use of firearms (see the book “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword”, Europe did a lousy job of keeping the crossbow a secret. Despite a decree from the Vatican, the crossbow became a mainstay in Europe after the Middle Ages. This has always seemed to me to be a significant difference between the East and the West – the Japanese rulers willingly ignored an invention to keep things even, but the European rulers wanted any advantage they could get. Since both inventions came out, in time, in both East and West, it seems a given that you can’t keep secrets bottled up. This is especially true when you consider that a lot of people can and have independently re-discovered the same ideas, processes, and inventions over and over. Even if Edison hadn’t been born, we’d still have the phonograph and the incandescent bulb.

Apparently you don’t even need a conspiracy to keep discoveries supressed.

According to this article, the only lab that makes the tetanus vaccine is considering stopping production because it is not profitable enough. We may soon face a resurgence of that deadly disease.

Anybody remember the 200 MPG carburator? This is an urban legend that surfaces every few years. It goes like this:
A brilliant inventor comes up with a super-efficient carburator (usually using a total of $5.00 worth of parts). He then goes broke trying to sell his invention to Monolithic Motors Inc. Finally, he persuades an auto executive to try the device – and it works as he promised! At this point, the evil oil companies find out, and succeed in buying up the patents to the device! They then remove the device from the market. Unfortunately for them, a few of the test cars get sold to dealers by mistake-then the “men in black” hunt down the 200 MPG cars and destroy them!
This legend got started in the 1930’s, and flourishes to the present day-in spite of the fact that the slightest application of logic would expose it as nonsense!
Yet, this story is the source of thousands of worthless gas mileage enhancement devices, which have fleeced MILLIUONS of people!