The scientific establishment is inherently conservative and sets a high bar for the acceptance of new ideas, which allows for the efficient allocation of resources to fund research that makes sense and is worthwhile pursuing. Of course, like all human affairs this is not a perfect process, and sometimes the scientific establishment has rejected ideas that turned out to be true (although sometimes rightfully so), but what is the alternative? Should we have a system where every scientist with a new idea gets funded to pursue it? We can’t do this because resources are limited. The ideas of scientists are judged by the scientific establishment, which is made up of the immediate peers of scientists plus institutions, funding agencies, and the rest of the scientific community. And many of these ideas get rejected. In fact, I believe one important function of the scientific establishment is not so much accepting the right ideas but rather rejecting the wrong ones. Most scientists think that the acceptance of false ideas as true is more harmful than the rejection of true ideas as false. In this sense the scientific establishment is the keeper of the virtue of science because it protects science and society at large from ideas or claims that are wrong, fraudulent, or just plain stupid. Let’s look at some notable false ideas rejected by the scientific establishment.
Stefan Marinov (1931 - 1997) was a Bulgarian physicist who often advocated contrarian ideas in science. He strongly argued for the reality of perpetual motion machines which would yield free energy, and against mainstream scientific theories such as the theory of relativity. Marinov’s experimental results were never replicated and his views were never accepted by most scientists. Towards the end of his life even he found evidence that a perpetual motion machine he had built did not work and that a physical law that he had criticized was correct after all.
The American molecular biologist Peter Duesberg (1936 - ) performed pioneering work in how viruses can cause cancer, but when the HIV virus was identified in the 1980s as the cause of Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS), Duesberg refused to accept this, and he started publishing articles opposing the idea. Duesberg began gathering supporters which ended up forming a sizeable and vocal group that developed some political, social, and media clout. The group considered that AIDs was not caused by the HIV virus but by other factors that could include drug use, sexual behavior, malnutrition, inadequate sanitation, or hemophilia. Among the AIDS denialists were individuals of note such as Nobel Prize winning scientist Kari Mullis and National Medal of Science winning scientist Lynn Margulis. Thanks to the scientific establishment, these erroneous ideas were not accepted and the identification of the HIV virus and the acceptance that it caused AIDS permitted the development of tests and therapies. The sad exception was South Africa where the government bought into the arguments of the AIDS denialists delaying antiviral treatments to people suffering from AIDS which led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands.
Paul Kammerer (1880 - 1926) an Austrian biologist who strongly advocated a theory opposite to Darwinian evolution called Lamarckism. This theory posits that organisms can pass to their descendants traits that they acquire during their lives. To buttress his arguments he famously presented the results of an experiment where he forced toads that normally mate on land to mate in the water. He reported that over two generations the toads developed black pads on their feet (nuptial pads) which provided more traction for the process of mating in the water. He stated that these pads were an acquired trait that proved his views. However, it was discovered that the pads had been created by the injection of ink into the feet of the toads. Kammerer acknowledged the finding, but claimed he was innocent of the forgery. Other have tried to reproduce Kammerer’s experimental results, but were not successful. The scientific establishment never accepted his ideas.
In 1988 the French scientist Jacques Benveniste (1935-2004) published an experiment that seemed to lend credence to the concept of homeopathy in which extremely diluted solutions are claimed to have effects even though no trace of any solute is present. A team sent by a science journal to Benveniste’s lab could not replicate the experiment under rigorous conditions and other scientists have not been able to replicate the results either. Alleged homeopathic effects have also been claimed to have been detected by the Nobel Prize winning scientists Brian Josephson and Luc Montagnier, but attempts to validate their claims have failed. The scientific establishment does not accept the occurrence of homeopathic effects or homeopathy to be a valid science.
In 2020, the journals Lancet and New England Journal of Medicine published articles that claimed that the drug hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) did not have effects against COVID-19 and in fact was harmful to human patients. Many scientists read the articles and spotted several problems that were communicated to the editors of the journals and the authors of the articles. The articles were then retracted. Despite the criticisms, this affair demonstrated that the scientific process worked. Error was detected, addressed, and corrected. On the flipside, the claim that HCQ works against COVID-19 has been pushed by doctors such as Vladimir Zelenko, scientists such as the Yale epidemiologist Harvey Risch, and groups such as the Front-Line Doctors, but so far HCQ has not been found to work as a single agent or when combined with antibiotics against COVID-19 in the best designed studies, or to have antiviral effects against the COVID-19 virus. When it comes to HCQ the scientific establishment has been able so far to discard false claims both for and against HCQ.
The foregoing are but a very tiny fraction of the ideas that have been evaluated, questioned, and discarded by the scientific establishment. Thanks to the scientific establishment, society is not mired in error, wasting resources on nonsense, and isn’t flooded with quack cures and ineffective therapies. That is part of what the scientific establishment has done for you.
The image from Alpha Stock Images by Nick Youngson is used here under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) license.