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On Fringe Science

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In a previous post, I referred to a controversial scientific claim known as the "Allais effect" -- an anomalous change in a pendulum's oscillation that purportedly occurs during a solar eclipse -- to provide sardonic contrast to the more celebrated "Allais paradox," both ideas having been proposed by economist Maurice Allais. Basically, I asserted that Allais' effect was more important than his paradox, despite the fact that it was substantially less well documented and understood. This is because the former potentially held implications for gravitational forces operating among the sun, moon, and earth, whereas the latter simply documented the (not surprisingly) "irrational" behavior of human beings when confronted by economic uncertainties. Interestingly, several subsequent reader comments suggested that any mention of Allais' effect as a possibly valid phenomenon was beyond the pale of respectable scientific discourse. In response, I would argue that considerations of such fringe ideas are actually highly instructive for examining and clarifying the use of scientific methods.

To be clear, I use the term fringe science to describe areas of study that fall outside the mainstream of conventional science, but whose researchers generally employ standard scientific methods: statements of hypotheses, hypothesis-based predictions, carefully designed experiments, and experimental replications. Often such areas do overlap those of pseudoscience -- whose practitioners tend to rely on vague claims, esoteric knowledge, and unrepeatable eyewitness accounts -- as in the realms of free energy, cryptids, alien visitation, telepathy, psychokinesis, etc. However, fringe research is different in that it enjoys some (albeit small) chance of entering the mainstream at a future date, as did the previously scorned theories of continental drift and the Viking colonization of North America.

Naturally, giving credence to a fringe scientific claim entails certain risks:

  • It can cast unjustified doubt on the obvious successes of conventional science. For example, a claim of cold fusion created by a simple laboratory apparatus may give the impression that today's scientists possess a poor understanding of basic nuclear forces and interactions.
  • It can create a conceptual misunderstanding of scientific methods, suggesting that it is science's role to prove "negatives" (that is, to show that any purported claim, no matter how farfetched, is false). For instance, one might profess a belief in Bigfoot simply because science has failed to demonstrate its nonexistence.
  • It can appeal to anti-intellectual, conspiracy-theoretic proclivities, and even be used to promote a political agenda. In this case, it probably is best to let the reader think of his/her own bête noire.

Nevertheless, peremptorily dismissing a fringe idea may do more harm than good:

  • In protecting the integrity of established science, it can forgo the opportunity to explore potentially legitimate phenomena. In the case of Allais' effect and similar claims of eclipse-related gravitational anomalies, it certainly is plausible that subtle deviations are caused by the cooling of the earth's atmosphere during an eclipse, and that these effects are difficult to replicate because of variations in local meteorological and geological conditions.
  • In separating the wheat from the chaff, it can create the perception of a "religion of science" in which heretical ideas are suppressed, even if amenable to scientific testing. With regard to Allais' effect and comparable anomalies, failing to reject the "no-effect" null hypothesis does not require proving a negative (although it probably would require expensive testing procedures to control for a variety of meteorological and geological conditions).
  • In attempting to allay anti-intellectual, conspiracy-theoretic impulses, it actually can foment such attitudes. Along these lines, consider the "suspicious" absence of follow-up to NASA's promised tests of the Allais effect in 1999.

In sum, I believe that the careful consideration of fringe science is useful both for understanding exactly what is meant by scientific methods and for demonstrating the appropriate and transparent application of those methods. In this regard, we would do well to recall the words of astronomer Carl Sagan in critiquing the fringe astronomical theories of Immanuel Velikovsky:

My own strongly held view is that no matter how unorthodox the reasoning process or how unpalatable the conclusions, there is no excuse for any attempt to suppress new ideas, least of all by scientists committed to the free exchange of ideas. ["An Analysis of Worlds in Collision," 1977]