The general public believes that successful scientists are those who discover something important or propose a new theory that explains things that no one could explain before. However, this belief leaves out a critical detail. How is it decided whether the discovery is valid or the theory is right? After all, maybe the scientists made a mistake in the observations and/or experiments that the discovery is based upon, or maybe the scientists missed some crucial details when formulating the theory. Who decides if this is the case? The answer is: their peers.
The work of scientists is evaluated by their peers. These are scientists who are also experts in the field. Successful scientists are not just those who make discoveries and propose new theories. Successful scientists are those who convince their peers that the discoveries they made are valid and that the theories they proposed are right. The peers of a scientist are what constitute the most immediate branch of the so-called “scientific establishment”. Success in science is convincing the scientific establishment that you are right.
In this sense the scientific establishment is the keeper of the virtue of science. If you want to get your ideas accepted and the old ideas thrown out, you have to convince other scientists that you are right. Many of these scientists are going to evaluate your ideas and even try to reproduce your observations and/or experiments, and if they don’t think your ideas make sense, or they don’t obtain the same results, or make the same observations, you will get nowhere. And the more revolutionary your ideas are, the harder it is to convince the scientific establishment. This is because science is very conservative and the bar to overturn established scientific knowledge is set quite high.
Because of the above, the scientific establishment sometimes rejects new ideas that are true. I have already mentioned the cases of Carlos Finaly who proposed that mosquitoes transmitted Yellow Fever, Alfred Wegener who proposed that that continents move (Continental Drift), and of Stanley Prusiner who proposed the existence of a new infectious agent (Prion) made up only of protein. These scientists had to persevere for a long time against resistance and often outright hostility from their peers to get their ideas accepted. However, for every visionary that is given a hard time by their peers and nevertheless succeeds, the scientific establishment rejects hundreds of others that most of the time are just individuals who propose an idea that turns out to be wrong and even sometimes individuals who turn out to be frauds.
When a scientist is rejected by the scientific establishment what happens next depends on the individual scientist. Some scientists are unconvinced by the objections to their ideas and keep on fighting to get accepted. Others admit that their ideas were not so great after all and move on to developing other ideas. Still another group of scientists may quit research altogether and go into other areas where their scientific training allows them to make a living. Nevertheless, all these scientists share one characteristic. They are all willing to be judged by their peers. They understand that their success relies in convincing other scientists that they are right. All these scientists, whether they make it in science or not, accept the role of the scientific establishment as the ultimate arbiter of what is accepted or not.
However, a new option has opened up for scientists in modern times, and that is taking your case to “The People”. This option works best if your particular area of research has captivated the attention of the public, and especially if it has become politicized. The individuals that exploit this option claim that the scientific establishment is beholden to powerful interests, and because their ideas go against those interests, they are being unfairly attacked and rejected by their peers. These scientists normally peddle their grievances to segments of the population that for one reason or another are opposed to the scientific establishment. The beauty of this approach is that, 1) the general public is not qualified to judge the quality of a scientist’s ideas in a complex field of research, and 2) you will always find a lot of goodwill among people if you are perceived to be battling their favorite boogeyman.
If the scientists taking their case to "The People" are savvy in public relations and communication, they can develop a large following of individuals who will attend their lectures, buy their books and other products, and even make donations to promote their cause. Scientists that are successful in taking their case to "The People" have bypassed the checks and balances of science and are free to promote any idea regardless of its scientific validity. Far from this being an innocuous activity, capturing the imagination of people with wrong or unproven ideas can have dire consequences.
For example, I have mentioned the case of the scientist Peter Duesberg who back in the 1980s opposed the finding that the HIV virus causes the disease AIDS, and that antiretroviral drugs were required to treat AIDS patients. Duesberg developed a very vocal following of scientists and non-scientists who were dubbed the AIDS denialists. This group and their ideas was shunned by the scientific establishment, but they succeeded in convincing many people among which was the South African president Thabo Mbeki who delayed the introduction of anti-AIDS drugs into South Africa leading to hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths.
Another example I have mentioned is the case of the British scientist Andrew Wakefield who in 1998 published an article where he alleged a link between the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. The article was widely publicized by the media, and many parents concerned about the issue refused to vaccinate their children leading to an increase in the rates of the diseases and several deaths. It was eventually found that Wakefield had modified the patients’ medical histories and the article was retracted due to scientific misconduct. Numerous studies have not found any links between autism and vaccines. Wakefield lost his license to practice medicine in the United Kingdom, and moved to the US where he acquired a large following and helped spawn the modern antivaccination movement which has created the dangerous situation of vaccine hesitancy.
So be highly skeptical of scientists that take their case to “The People”. These individuals have been rejected by their peers for a reason. It is very likely that their ideas are wrong. If you follow them, you do so at your own peril.
The image, which is not related to the topic of this post, is a free download from pixy.org, and is in the public domain.