Thursday, March 24, 2011

From out of left field

During the twenty years I was writing Science Musings for the Boston Globe, I frequently received letters from people (invariably men) promoting some off-beat scientific theory ranging from the clever to the merely silly. They were almost always accompanied by protests against the "close-mindedness" of the scientific establishment.

Can a fresh or oddball idea receive a fair hearing in science? Or is science locked up in an iron-bound orthodoxy that admits no breach of faith?

Any system of ideas that makes a claim to truth must be conservative. If every idea has equal currency in the marketplace of ideas then truth becomes a matter of whim, politics, expediency, or the tyranny of the strong.

Science has evolved an elaborate system of social organization, communication, and peer review to ensure a high degree of conformity with the existing orthodoxy. This conservative approach to change has allowed for an orderly and exhaustive examination of fruitful ideas. It has allowed science a measure of insulation from fads, political upheavals, religious conflicts, and international strife.

An offbeat idea has a hard time of it in science, but not an impossible time. Revolutions in science are few and far between, but they do happen. Science is conservative, but of all truth systems that have helped people organize experience, science is the most progressive.

My formulation was always this: Science must be radically open to marginal change and marginally open to radical change.

Pseudoscientists concentrate on anomalies and ignore the vast system of interlocking ideas that is orthodox science. Scientists focus on the orthodoxy and sometimes ignore the exceptions. Neither attitude towards observations is ideal, but the latter is certainly the most fruitful.

For the folks who sent me home-grown theories, the path towards scientific acceptance seems frustratingly strewn with obstacles. But science is the one truth system with its goal set firmly in the future rather than the past. Ironically, some measure of conservatism may be the best way to ensure that progress is made.