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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Thursday, December 7, 2017

How to Get Your Weak Scientific Theory Accepted

Imagine you create some scientific theory, and you want the theory to be generally accepted in some corner of the academic world. You might think that this is an incredibly hard task, requiring that you both come up with a new theory and somehow marshal convincing evidence showing that the theory is correct. But it may not be so hard. The world of scientific academia is often not a world of dispassionate judges weighing evidence with great objectivity. It is often a world in which sociological effects, psychological effects and ideology play a large role. So the path to getting the academic world to accept your theory may not be so difficult, and there are techniques you might use to get even a very weak or dubious theory accepted by the academic world.

The first step is to get some scientific paper published describing your weak theory. This is not particularly hard to do, because there are ways to make weak ideas seem rather impressive-sounding. The first way (very commonly used) is to load almost every paragraph of your paper with dense, all-but-impenetrable technical jargon. Such jargon will impress lesser reviewers of your paper.

The second way to make your weak theory sound rather impressive is to load up your paper with obscure mathematics. You need not worry that anyone will complain that the mathematics were irrelevant, for almost no one makes such a complaint about scientific papers, even when the mathematics is absurdly extraneous. The all-but-incomprehensible math in your paper may impress some peer reviewers of your paper, giving them the impression that your weak theory is a weighty intellectual contribution.

Once your paper is published, you will need to start leveraging the popular press, so that some articles about your theory will appear in magazines and online web sites. The first step is to get your college or university to release a fawning press release trumpeting your weak scientific paper and claiming that it is a stunning breakthrough. This is very easy to do. The writers of university press releases are a very compliant lot, and will be unlikely to challenge your extravagant claims. The rule for university press releases seems to be that it is okay to trumpet utterly far-fetched claims, as long as such claims somehow seem to shed glory and prestige on the university.

Then you may have to reach out to some science journalists to get them to write about your weak scientific paper. This is not very hard to do. Today's science journalists are very often docile and compliant “pom-pom journalists” eager to repeat any claim you may make to have achieved a “stunning theoretical breakthrough.” There will be very little chance that the science journalists you contact will subject your claims to much critical scrutiny.

Having got some press coverage, you now need to reach out to a few of your pals in the academic world, to get them to make supportive comments about your weak theory. This will probably not be very hard, as the world of academia has countless “I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine” relationships. If you have been a professor for many years, you probably know quite a few people who owe you favors, such as people whose books you favorably commented on.

You can then start using authority techniques, by calling your weak theory “science.” Using such verbiage will be like sprinkling magic fairy dust, and will cause many a person to start treating your weak theory with great respect. If someone objects, claiming that science is best defined as facts that have been determined by observation and experiment, and that there are no such facts substantiating your weak theory, you can respond by presenting an alternate definition: the much looser definition (recently stated by a scientist blogger) that science is simply whatever scientists are working on. Of course, under such a definition every weak theory published in a scientific journal is “science.” 

weak theory

The next step requires audacity. The idea is to start claiming that your theory is starting to achieve mass acceptance among your little tribe of scientific peers. There are various artful expressions you can use to make such a claim. For example, you can say that “a consensus is starting to emerge” that your theory is correct, or that “a growing number of experts” are adopting your theory. No one will be likely to challenge these claims, which are hard to verify.

The next step requires even more audacity. At some point you can stick your neck out and claim that there is now a consensus of experts in your field who believe that your theory is correct. Such a claim will be difficult or impossible to verify, but it will have enormous force and power from the sociological perspective of the bandwagon effect. If people hear such a claim repeated enough times, then your theory will get all kinds of new supporters who never would have adopted it, but who will now adopt it just because they want to run in the direction they think the herd is running. No one wants to be in defiance of a consensus of experts. So countless people will flock to your weak theory the moment they hear that there is a consensus of experts in favor of your theory, even if no such consensus has really developed. Claims that a consensus of experts has agreed on something often are kind of self-fulfilling claims that help cause such a consensus to appear because of a sociological bandwagon effect.

This step may fail, and you may fail to get people to accept your claim that there is a consensus of experts in favor of your weak theory. But if you get people to accept such a idea, even if a consensus does not yet exist, then your work is almost done. The bandwagon effect will continue, the snowball effect will keep rolling, and your theory will have triumphed in some little corner of the academic world.

There may still remain many who think that your theory is pure nonsense. But since you have now got something you can claim to be a consensus of experts, you can now make use of a technique that is incredibly popular in the academic world: the technique of nonconformity shaming tactics. You could employ this technique, by calling your weak theory “science,” and demonizing all who oppose it as “anti-science.” Few will object in the academic world, where the term “anti-science” is shamelessly employed with reckless abandon, such as by those who call anyone preferring not to consume gene-spliced food as “anti-science.”

Your efforts in this regard will be enormously more likely to succeed under two cases: (1) if your weak theory allows scientists to enhance their prestige by triumphally claiming that they have solved some long-standing mystery; (2) if your weak theory allows scientists to claim they have an explanation for some event or phenomenon that does not fit in with their claims that everything can be explained by random physical processes. In the latter case, there will be a kind of “ideology boost” that will make your theory 300% or 400% more likely to be accepted than if it had no ideological relevance. Your fellow scientists will show almost infinite tolerance for accepting silliness in theories that seem to help them evade what they most dread: that there may be spirits or souls, or that the universe or life may be the result of intentional purpose.

Yes, given the very strong influence of sociological and ideological factors in the success of academic theories, you could use all of these tactics to get the academic world to adopt your weak theory. But you would not be a very honest person if you did that. It would be much better to not do such things as I have mentioned here, and to have greater intellectual integrity, even at the price of having less success in getting people to adopt your theory. And it is much better to honestly admit your ignorance about some great mystery than to get the academic world to accept some very dubious theory of yours about that mystery, some theory that does not warrant belief.