Cosma Shalizi, indubitably one of the smartest persons in the blogoshere, has posted a brilliant and very substantive review (in other words, he has said in an erudite manner what I thought but couldn’t express anywhere nearly as well when I read the book) that he wrote of Stephen Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science, when it had come out a couple of years ago:
Normally, scientific work is full of references to previous works, if only to say things like “the outmoded theory of Jones , unable to accommodate stubborn experimental facts [2–25], has generally fallen out of favor”. This is how you indicate what’s new, what you’re relying on, how you let readers immerse themselves in the web of ideas that is an particular field of research. Wolfram has deliberately omitted references. Now, this is sometimes done: Darwin did it in The Origin of Species, for instance, to try to get it to press quickly. But Wolfram has written 1100 pages over about a decade; what would it have hurt to have included citations? In his end-notes, where he purports to talk about what people have done, he is misleading, or wrong, or both. (An indefinite number of examples can be provided upon request.) To acknowledge that he had predecessors who were not universally blinkered fools would, however, conflict with the persona he is try to project to others, and perhaps to himself.
Let me try to sum up. On the one hand, we have a large number of true but commonplace ideas, especially about how simple rules can lead to complex outcomes, and about the virtues of toy models. On the other hand, we have a large mass of dubious speculations (many of them also unoriginal). We have, finally, a single new result of mathematical importance, which is not actually the author’s. Everything is presented as the inspired fruit of a lonely genius, delivering startling insights in isolation from a blinkered and philistine scientific community. We have been this way before.