Many snippets of wisdom that have permeated our culture are routinely quoted in social media such as the one from the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw featured in the image above that states that all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
Everyone seems to have an affinity with this particular trope. After all, who doesn’t love the story of the little guy fighting against the establishment? It seems that most of us, within reason, are programed to root for the underdog. The mavericks, the misfits, the fringe-thinkers, the outcasts: why do these characters have a place in our hearts? Is it perhaps because in the daily tedium of our lives, as we persevere overburdened by challenges at work, in our homes, and in society, we sometimes wish we could upturn the established order and restart anew? Perhaps we have considered going against the current, challenging the system, rocking the boat, but then deemed the risks of doing so too dire and just bowed our heads and kept on going. So maybe when one of these colorful characters that actually dares to challenge the powers that be comes along, we live vicariously through their plight a fantasy that we ourselves are too cowardly to bring to reality.
Be that as it may, in the field of science many of these characters have captivated the public’s imagination. Take the case of Dr. Barry Marshall who proposed the hypothesis that stomach ulcers are not caused by excessive acid secretion due to stress, as was thought by most experts, but by infections with a type of bacteria called Helicobacter pylori. Dr. Marshall failed to convince the scientific establishment. He was not able to develop an animal model of the disease, and could not obtain funds to perform a human experiment. So what did he do? He experimented on himself! He drank a broth infected with the H. pylori isolated from a patient who had developed severe gastritis. Within days he developed the same symptoms the patient had, and he was able to cure himself using antibiotics. It took another decade of struggles, but gastroenterologists were eventually convinced of the truth of his claim, and Dr. Marshall won a Nobel Prize in 2005.
Isn’t that a great story? And like this story, there are many other such stories of the unreasonable man battling the system and prevailing in the end. However, the popularization of these stories has generated several notions in the public consciousness that are not accurate.
The first is the notion that the only way science makes progress is when one of these characters upends conventional wisdom and triggers a revolution. This is not true. Most of the time progress in science occurs incrementally as thousands of scientists perform vital work within the system developing new knowledge, methodologies, procedures, and applications. The backgrounds and expertise of these scientists are fundamental to driving any new or old area of science forward. Without these individuals working within the system there would be no science. The notion that ALL progress, at least in science, depends on the unreasonable individual is simply false.
The second notion is that just because you are one of the unreasonable individuals you must be right, and the scientific establishment must be wrong. It must be understood that for every individual who has challenged the established order successfully, there have been dozens to hundreds of other individuals who have challenged the established order and were proven to be wrong. The stories of these individuals are normally not of interest except, if at all, to those whose write historical descriptions of the development of a given scientific field, and they are barely mentioned in the popular press.
Finally, the last (and probably most troublesome) notion is that when the scientific establishment lashes out at one of these unreasonable individuals, this is taken as proof that there is a bias within the scientific community motivated at best by intellectual conformity and closed-mindedness, or at worse by corrupt influences tied to granting agencies or corporate interests. However, what the public may interpret as an unfair treatment of a scientist by the scientific community is more often than not due to the fact that science is a very conservative enterprise, and the bar to overturn or reinterpret established science is set pretty high. Science is biased towards established knowledge; as it should be! When you go against established science, you’d better have some exceptional evidence and arguments or else you are going to be given a very hard time! Even scientists with Ph.Ds. can propose things that are wrong, misguided, or just plain stupid. Not all ideas deserve to be treated equally, not all evidence is sound, and not all interpretations of the data are correct.
What most individuals seeking to change the prevailing scientific paradigm do is address the criticism made by their peers, generate more evidence, and reformulate their ideas or their presentation. Convincing other scientists that you are right is the warp and woof of science. However, a disturbing phenomenon has emerged. Today those individuals who have been rebuffed by the scientific community can take their case to “the people” arguing that they are victims of a corrupt scientific establishment that is hell bent on silencing them and discrediting their ideas. Such is the case of Dr. Andrew Wakefield who, when his views that vaccination was linked to autism were rejected by the medical community, took his case directly to the public. He actually succeeded in convincing many parents to avoid vaccinating their children leading to a spike in infant deaths from some diseases that are preventable nowadays.
Established science is called that for a reason. Scientific theories are constructs that have grasped important aspects of the realties they seek to explain, and they cannot be overturned on a whim. The quixotic quest of the unreasonable man must not be romanticized. These individuals are wrong most of the time, and established science must be protected from them. If you want to upend established science, the burden of proof is on you!
The image of George Bernard Shaw was modified from a photograph in the George Grantham Bain collection at the Library of Congress and has no known copyright restrictions.