NEW THEORIES, SCORN, & DERISION
W. Beaty, 8/95
Subject: Re: Has anyone convinced a crackpot?
R. K. wrote:
: DR. B. writes:
: >The most interesting thing about crackpot theories is that when the next
: >great breakthrough in physics occurs, it will look EXACTLY like the most
: >crackpot idea anyone can come up with.
: Not so.
: The difference between a crackpot-idea and new-theory (valid or not), is
: that the latter:
: - takes into account all previous observations
: - makes predictions that can be falsified
: - explains something that hasn't been explained before
This may be true, but it's a bit naive because it's usually only true in
hindsight. It's part of the 'rewriting of history' which all academic
groups tend to do to preserve their egos. When a new theory finally
becomes accepted, those who ridiculed and indulged in personal attacks on
its creators prefer that everyone forget this. And everyone does. I
think it is extremely unfortunate that this part of science is denied and
kept hidden, and is excused as being part of the testing of new theories.
But emotional attacks, ridiculing, derision, and attempts to suppress
unconventional work has nothing to do with testing whether a theory is
correct or not. Take a look at the history of QM, Relativity, Astronomy,
space travel, Aerodynamics, Biology, Paleontology, etc. Each contains
examples of setbacks in progress originating with the slow (or even the
non-) acceptance of innovative ideas which threatened the status quo.
Unless a new theory is conventional and represents a small addition to
current knowledge, new theories must fight an uphill battle for
acceptance. Their proposers are ridiculed, and they risk their careers by
sticking by their guns. Their papers will be attacked emotionally in peer
review and their funding put at risk. Scientists threatened by the new
theory, rather than analyzing it, assume a priori that it is wrong, and
then use suppressive tactics against it.
You'd think that science would not be like this; that innovation,
creativity, and incredible new discoveries would be welcome. But the
situation is more like the one described by philosophers in Hitchikers
Guide: WE DEMAND NARROWLY PROSCRIBED AREAS OF CREATIVITY AND INNOVATION!
A new discovery threatens current beliefs and competes for funding with
established old, 'safe' worldviews. And so innovation is attacked as
crackpottery, and funding is witheld from those who attempt to extend
current beliefs too quickly.
If a new theory appears ridiculous in light of the conventional thinking
of the time, it is in danger of being automatically rejected without being
tested. New theories must be easy to demonstrate if they are to be
successful. If the new theory is difficult to demonstrate, there is risk
that it will be supressed for long periods and progress set back for
decades. This event is common, and we even have a name for it. But the
name is not very honest. When new works are suppressed for a time and
later come to the fore, it is usual to say that the theory appeared
'before its time.' I don't buy this. The 'before its time' idea
apologizes for those who defend the status quo against all innovation, and
excuses those who emotionally attack novel works without even testing
For more on this, take a look at the archives of sci.physics.fusion and
the long-running debate on whether "cold fusion" is crackpottery or not.
Also keep an eye out for articles about the problems with the current Peer
Review system and its suppression of novelty and unconventional science.
I recall seeing numerous examples in the late 80's. I think there was
even an NSF study on it. Here's one: Boston Globe newspaper, 6/22/87.
Cornell U. astronomer Dr. Thomas Gold is quite outspoken on this issue,
and tells the story of the emotional attacks he encountered when he
proposed the ridiculous, crackpot idea that pulsars were spinning neutron
stars. Biologist Lynn Margulis tells the story of the scorn, derision,
and denial of funding she encountered because of her heretical ideas that
cell organelles are symbiotic bacteria. Today her work is in all the
textbooks, it has become part of the conventional dogma.
I find it disturbing that sociologists find that scientists practice
self-censorship for grant proposals because any research perceived as
"unconventional" has little chance at winning funding. This is not how
science should be, and we should be trying to change the situation, not
pretending that it's beneficial.
Quotes from the Globe article:
"It's like religion. Heresy is thought of as a bad thing, whereas in
science it should be just the opposite"
"...there are always going to be Newtons coming along whose ideas are so
foreign and outrageous as to be beyond the ken of the experts."
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