Insightful or Wishful?

Thinking ‘outside the box’ is a trait that many of history’s most recognised scientists. The ability to find an explanation that differs from the widely accepted one has led to some of the largest discoveries and advancements in science. From the theories of evolution conflicting with then-prevalent creationist beliefs to the theory of the heliocentric universe contradicting the geocentric one, these types of revolutionary ideas have caused massive controversy throughout history. Discoveries such as this can be split into two different types, however.

Paradigm shifts are the type of discoveries that change our understanding of how the world works. They do not fit with expectations BUT over time experiments and observations are unable to disprove them and groups eventually reach a resolution (although this may take decades or even longer). Often the scientists are ridiculed for their novel ideas, as Darwin, Galileo, Feigenbaum, and countless others have been over time, but eventually their theories have gained more acceptance.

Similar to paradigm shifts, pathological science also presents a novel idea that causes great controversy and does not fit with accepted explanations. Again, scientists involved often experience ridicule because of this. In this case, however, although the scientists honestly believe that their idea is right (again, similar to paradigm shifts), experiments are not continued in an impartial way and are controlled to confirm the theory rather than to test its accuracy. This can be intentional or can be unconscious due to the bias of those creating the experiment. Discoveries such as Polywater, Mitogenetic rays, water dowsing/divining, and countless others have since been attributed to pathological science – although the scientist/s involved were convinced of their validity, others were unable to replicate the results or actively discredited these theories.

The two types of discovery have a lot in common, which means it can be very hard to tell the difference between them. Irving Langmuir was the first to characterise ‘pathological science’ with the six symptoms, Nicholas J. Turro then added three more, with Dennis Rosseau adding another to the list. Even these, such as the idea that “theories outside the field’s paradigm are suggested” present similarities to paradigm shifts which makes it even harder to tell the difference.

Ultimately the only way to tell the difference is experiments and time. Paradigm shifts will last whereas pathological science will eventually be discredited, even if it takes a lot of time to do so. Until a conclusion is reached, all that you can really do is listen to the evidence and think about it, without writing it off as either one of the two. After all, some ideas really are inspired and revolutionary, while others are simply mistaken and the product of wishful thinking.

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