Cutting Edge or Over the Edge?

By Michael Edmonds 23/01/2014 5


Those promoting pseudoscience often invoke the Galileo Gambit, claiming that like Galileo they are being persecuted and that in the future they will be vindicated and their radical ideas will be proven to be true. Of course this never happens.

But how do we tell the difference between a radical new idea that could be a paradigm changer in science, and one based in pseudoscience? Is it cutting edge or has the scientist making the claim gone over the edge?

In my opinion a lot can be determined from the behaviour of the scientist doing the research. If a radical new idea is rejected by his or her peers, a scientist will look for additional evidence and/or carry out additional experiments to determine whether or not his/her idea continues to be supported by the evidence. If it does, the accumulated evidence will eventually be convincing enough to convince the scientific community. If additional evidence does not support the idea, then a scientist will either modify it or drop it. One example of such scientist include Barbara McClintock whose discovery of transposons showed that genes could move on chromosomes and could be switched on and off under certain conditions. While her initial claims were ignored further research by Dr McClintock and also other researchers eventually resulted in the award of a Nobel prize 30 years after her  early research.

Another example is Barry Marshall and Robin Warren who demonstrated that some stomach ulcers were caused by the Helicobacter pylori bacterium. While their peers were initially skeptical, continued research eventually confirmed their findings resulting in a Nobel prize.

 

When a radical new idea is rejected by the peers of a scientist embracing pseudoscience, he/she may look for additional evidence to support the idea, but will cherry pick data, and continue to push the idea even in the face of contrary evidence. He/she may look for support from other pseudoscientific beliefs, complain of conspiracies and even attack genuine science as flawed. Over time he/she may associate more with pseudoscientific groups, seeking support from those incapable of assessing the research objectively.

Examples of such scientists include those associated with AIDS denialism and anti-vaxxers. Although these ideas have no scientific merit some scientists persist with their beliefs and progressively distance themselves from science. For example some AIDS denialists have supported the use of vitamin and homeopathic remedies as an alternative to the effective antiviral treatments for HIV infection and AIDS.

Also, if we look at history we find that with time the radical ideas that turn out to be right are incorporated into science and that the period between development and acceptance of the idea seems to be growing shorter. For example, Alfred Wegner’s theory of continental drift had to wait over 50 years before being fully accepted in the 1960’s and 70’s, Barbara McClintock’s work took about 30 years to be accepted in the 1980’s while it only took 20 years for Marshall and Warren’s work to gain them the Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2005.

*The pace of science may be slow but this is what helps maintain its’ integrity.

So the next time you hear someone claim that they are another Galileo take a closer look at the evidence for their radical idea – you may find it is more hype and hot air than genuine science.


5 Responses to “Cutting Edge or Over the Edge?”

  • But the cranks think they are another Barbara McClintock or Marshall and Warren. That they are providing all the evidence mainstream science needs but are still being rejected because of [insert conspiracy theory here].

    More persuasive might be examples of scientists who “If additional evidence does not support the idea, then a scientist will either modify it or drop it.”

    Happen to know any of those?

  • Good point Darcy, I suspect most scientists will have to drop a favoured hypothesis at one stage or another – the problem is that this is probably never considered worthy of publishing or discussing.

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