Have A Wacky Theory? Write it Up

by Seth Shostak

April 16, 2009

I get a lot of communication from people who trip across insights that have somehow eluded the tweedy practitioners of mainstream science.  Let me serve up some examples for your edification and delight:

“I am a native of another star system, sent to Earth.  You can tell this is true because my eyes are a strange color.”

“Relativity is wrong, and I can prove it using seventh grade math.”

“Aliens came to Earth a long time ago to engineer a new species, and Homo sapiens is the product.”

“SETI should stop looking for radio signals, and tune in hyperdimensional waves.”

Some of these folks think that validation of such novel hypotheses is merely a matter of explaining their idea to the right person.  So they send me an e-mail or ring me up at the office.  I’m not always impressed.

Now let’s be clear: just about every new theory appears wacko at birth.  If not, it’s unlikely to be either novel or important.  In addition, experts can be so thoroughly marinated in the “conventional wisdom” that they’ll rail at any theory that isn’t already in the textbooks.

The inability of some scientists to consider ideas that aren’t already afloat in the mainstream is a cudgel that UFO believers often wield to beat up skeptics.  And indeed, sometimes knowing too much really can be a bad thing.  In commenting on Einstein, the German mathematician David Hilbert famously wrote “Do you know why Einstein said the most original and profound things about space and time that have been said in our generation?  Because he had learned nothing about all the mathematics and philosophy of space and time.”

On the other hand, and to paraphrase Groucho Marx, sometimes a cigar really is a cigar.  Just because an idea is radical, or just because the author is unsullied by specialist knowledge, there’s no guarantee that a new theory is true.  In fact, most of the time it isn’t.  Gratuitous example: Aliens didn’t engineer our species. The evolution of DNA did.

So how should you demonstrate that your idea is wheat rather than chaff?  It’s simple: publish.  Write it up, don’t just talk it up.  If you publish, the world at large will do one of the following: (1) confirm your idea with new data, (2) send your theory to the rubbish tip with contradictory data, or (3) just ignore you.  (This last option is reserved for those ideas that are adjudged not worth the bother.)

If possible, it’s best to publish in a refereed journal, of course.  That will give your revelation the sheen of peer review.  Sure, this is daunting to non-established researchers who figure that these journals are the exclusive domain of the tried and tenured.  But they are the conduit of serious science.  Consider the caveat that physicist and author Paul Davies has put on his web site, namely that he is “not able to provide evaluations of manuscripts or papers unless submitted through a professional journal.”  He’s a busy guy.

But even unrefereed publication – indeed even that icon of immodesty, a self-published book – will buff your idea to a better gloss.  Consider: When Galileo made his telescopic discoveries of the moons of Jupiter and a few other important things, he felt the need to get them typeset and bound ASAP (he was worried about being scooped by competitors).  Rather than wait around 285 years for the Astrophysical Journal, Galileo rushed into print with his own, small book.  Smooth move. 

Frankly, it’s simply not enough to merely concoct a cunning concept.  Sure, that will provide you an interesting narrative, but that by itself won’t be compelling.  You need to substantiate your story.  Charles Darwin not only had an idea; he had a book full of data – examples from finches to whales – that supported his idea.  Galileo had night-by-night drawings of Jupiter’s moons, as seen through his telescope. 

Data are valuable. Ideas, on the other hand – like phone calls and e-mail – are cheap. Your creative genius may have hatched a truly revolutionary idea.  Indeed, you probably think so.  But no matter what your opinion of your hypothesis might be, if you hope for someone to fly you to Stockholm and hand you a check, don’t just call me up and lay out your case.  Do something better: write it up and tell the world.