Thursday, January 12, 2012

Pushing forward the frontiers of knowledge

Last month, a friend pointed me to an article entitled, "In Physics, Telling Cranks from Experts Ain't Easy". It's true. Here is my response:

Anyone who advances the frontiers of human knowledge must, almost by definition, be "heretical" to some extent (according to the common wisdom of the day). But that does not imply that all (or most, or even any) wild theories are therefore correct. Most are just imaginary; many are plausible but wrong; some may have more than a grain of truth; finding the very few that change our understanding of some important aspect of our world is a very important, and extremely difficult, task. I am not aware of any reliable means to accomplish it.

So we rely on proxies, any of which may fail: Does this person have relevant credentials (education, professional experience, peer reviewed publications, endorsements, etc.)? Has this person distinguished him/herself in this or a related field previously? Does this person stand to financially profit by this assertion (patents, getting paid by companies/special interest groups, etc.)? Is the person mentally stable?

For those that get through these (arbitrary, perhaps useful) filters, read the details of the hypothesis closely. Is it coherent? Does it make sense? Is it self-consistent? Are its promised results readily observed?

If so, test them in more detail. If that passes, replicate. Eventually, adopt it into the generally accepted view of the world.

Then repeat with new outlandish hypotheses.

The problem is that it takes time and energy to validate claims; which ones do you look at? If none, we'll never progress - new advances require challenging existing assumptions. If all, we'll never progress - the number of cranks out there exceeds the number of qualified professionals (and the effort required to come up with a potentially revolutionary theory is usually less than the effort required to [in]validate it).

It's a perennial problem.


  1. Fortunately, history provides us with many examples of challenges to scientific orthodoxy that were accepted fairly quickly because the evidence was there.

    Harvey's theory of the circulation of the blood was contrary to centuries of anatomical thought but Harvey's case was incontrovertible. The geocentric view of the universe quickly collapsed after Copernicus challenged it, and, more recently, the theory of plate tectonics, initially a fringe theory with little supporting evidence, quickly became the accepted model once the data started piling up.

    1. There are indeed several examples of scientific orthodoxy being overthrown in the face of compelling evidence.

      The key phrase in your comment is "once the data started piling up." In order to collect data, you need to know what you are looking for. Given dozens or hundreds of fringe but plausible theories, which ones do you spend time, money, and scarce resources attempting to [dis]confirm?

      It's easy in hindsight to determine that one person was nuts and the theories inaccurate, while another was eccentric with deep insights. But making that initial evaluation takes time and energy, which is one reason why many advances take decades or generations to be incorporated into common wisdom.