"My Ideas Threaten the Establishment..."

An inventor or quack scientist who is turned down for publication in conventional journals may feel scorned and unjustly ignored by the scientific community. Such a scientist is likely to interpret criticisms as hostile attacks and evidence of conspiracy against innovation. The quack scientist may conclude that the "scientific establishment" is trying to suppress a new idea because it challenges business-as-usual or threatens to disturb comfortable and familiar assumptions.

What is wrong with the "my ideas threaten the establishment" argument?

This argument betrays a misunderstanding of science as an institution. Scientists put a premium on new ideas that "shake the establishment." It is definitely true that individual scientists may become invested in their pet theories and resentful of challenges. That depends upon individual personalities, and it always will. Nobody can legislate open-mindedness. However, science as an institution welcomes innovation and challenges to existing ideas.

Consider Einstein's Theory of Relativity, one of the great discoveries of the 20th Century. It has been proven (tested) by numerous critical experiments. Yet astronomers like Bradley Shaefer of Yale University continue to look for exotic phenomena (such as millionth of a second differences in the speed of gamma rays arriving from the edges of the universe) which might contradict it.

Why was an astronomer testing a well-accepted theory?

Why do astronomers bother torture-testing a theory that almost nobody doubts is true? Schaefer describes the relativity tests as "anomaly searches." "We push as hard as we can, hoping that something breaks," he says. "Who knows what kind of subtle discrepancies we may find? That would be big news and would lead to a new important step." (Schilling, 2000)

Those are not words of somebody trying to defend the status quo. In fact, there are few incentives for defending existing theories, in scientific work. There are payoffs for coming up with something unexpected and different—especially something which contradicts the accepted wisdom—as long as it is backed by good evidence.

True, one must be willing to take criticism, or face up to doubt, and one must be willing to invest time and effort to make one's point clearly and effectively. This means (among other things) gathering several different forms of evidence to back up controversial ideas and being willing to expose these ideas at appropriate forums such as in scientific meetings or journals. Among people willing to do that, it is the innovators—not the people defending old ideas—who become celebrated scientists.

Write to Dr. Dewey at psywww@gmail.com.

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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey