Once in a great while, revolutions succeed; far more often, however, they fail in their attempts to overthrow the prevailing order. A few revolutionaries are well-prepared and methodical in their assaults; far more are wild-eyed and fuzzy-minded, impatient and inconsistent.

Revolutionary attacks on science are no exception. Most cranks begin from a state of ignorance about the fortress they're going up against. Their big mistake is to launch their assault on orthodoxy in areas where the defenses are too strong, where things are solidly known.

Every physics professor in a respectable institution has had the pleasure of receiving a thick envelope (or nowadays a bulky email) from an unknown party, working in isolation, who purports to have found a gaping flaw in the underpinnings of quantum mechanics, or special relativity, or Einstein's theory of gravity (aka general relativity). These manuscripts are almost always a total waste of time. Their authors have fundamental misunderstandings of both the theories they are attacking and the experimental evidence supporting those theories.

Look at the situation a century ago. Newtonian physics was strong, virtually impregnable in its predictions across a huge range of phenomena. The quantum mechanical revolution succeeded because it attacked classical mechanics at a weak point: the behavior of tiny objects such as atoms and electrons. Special relativity succeeded because it attacked another vulnerability: the behavior of fast things, objects moving at or near the speed of light. General relativity succeeded because it attacked yet another weakness: the behavior of heavy things.

If today's quantum theory were as trivially wrong as many cranks postulate, then it wouldn't be able to compute the hydrogen spectrum to parts per billion or better precision. If special relativity were trivially wrong it would fail a myriad tests involving high-energy particles and electromagnetic waves. General relativity is a bit less well-protected --- but it gets solid support from its successful predictions of light-bending near massive objects, gravitational redshifts, and planetary orbits.

And note that all three Twentieth Century revolutions in physics have one thing in common: they agree perfectly with old calculations for the vast realm of ordinary-sized objects moving at slow velocities. None of the existing Newtonian evidence has to be discarded.

So, coming back to the present, where should Science be attacked? That's easy: all the places (there are many) where experiment and observation don't fit our current understanding. Of course, to do this one has to know something about the "current understanding", and that takes a serious investment in study. (Too bad for those who want a quick and easy win.) An attacker is not likely to succeed alone, so the fame and glory of victory will have to be shared, perhaps widely. (Too bad for megalomaniacs.)

Successful scientific revolutionaries must be not just clever, but also methodical in their scholarship and generous in sharing their work. They shouldn't expect wealth or widespread recognition. They have to engineer their overthrows from within the system. And they do exist, in large numbers. They're called "scientists".

(see also NegativeResults (2 Nov 1999), ExposureAndEncapsulation (7 Jan 2000), ScienceAndPseudoscience (6 Oct 2001), HighPrecision (16 July 2002), ...)

TopicScience - 2002-08-16

(correlates: KnowledgeAndConsistency, PhiloSpam, LearningInvestment, ...)