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Examples of vindicated "crazy" scientists?
August 7, 2010 6:57 PM   Subscribe

Famous scientists and doctors who were once ridiculed for their ideas but, later vindicated?

It seems as though our pattern as humans is to discredit "unconventional ideas". To call people crazy for having an idea that is different. And, "seems" to them false.

I'm wondering if people could provide specific examples of scientists, doctors, theorists who were once ridiculed, or considered "crazy" for their ideas but, later vindicated?
posted by learninguntilidie to Science & Nature (36 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
 
Galileo.

In kind of a major way.

Less famously, Fritz Zwicky.
posted by chicago2penn at 6:59 PM on August 7, 2010


Semmelweis.
posted by dilettante at 6:59 PM on August 7, 2010 [5 favorites]


Here's a list called Ridiculed Discoverers, Vindicated Mavericks.
posted by amyms at 7:04 PM on August 7, 2010 [4 favorites]


Louis Pasteur, Edward Jenner.


However, I think it is dangerous to extrapolate from anecdotes, and the nature of scientific inquiry has changed -- while there is no guarantee that an unconventional idea will be accepted. There is more acceptance of demonstrated, though unexpected, results.
posted by Some1 at 7:16 PM on August 7, 2010


Western Union famously said the telephone wasn't practical and they "had no use for it".
posted by pallen123 at 7:18 PM on August 7, 2010


Alfred Wegener, although he had no mechanism for how the continents could move, assembled the best evidence for continental drift available at the time.
posted by mollweide at 7:20 PM on August 7, 2010 [4 favorites]


The term "Big Bang" was originally a derisive nickname, coined by Fred Hoyle, of Georges Lemaître's theory of the origin of the universe. Although Lemaître wasn't considered crazy, his theory met with a great deal of skepticism (even from Einstein) before it was eventually accepted.
posted by dephlogisticated at 7:30 PM on August 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Boltzmann
posted by notned at 7:32 PM on August 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Thomas Edison, inventor of the direct current, did everything in his power to discredit Nikola Tesla's superior alternating current system, including electrocuting an elephant with Tesla's system to portray it as dangerous. Unflattering PR like this led Tesla to die a penniless laughingstock, yet today every wall outlet in the world outputs AC power, and his eccentric research is now regarded as one of the pioneers of electromagnetism.
posted by Rhaomi at 7:38 PM on August 7, 2010 [4 favorites]


Nicola Tesla was the target of a lifelong smear campaign by Edison. Tesla invented some of the most important technologies--such as alternating current and radio--that we still use today, but most of us are unaware of his contributions.
posted by Aanidaani at 7:39 PM on August 7, 2010


Luis Alvarez, the physicist who discovered a layer of iridium covering the earth 65 million years deep, evidence for the impact theory of dinosaur extinction. Many geologists criticized his work, partially because he was from a different field, until the crater was found after his death.
posted by acidic at 7:39 PM on August 7, 2010


Beaten to the punch...
posted by Aanidaani at 7:39 PM on August 7, 2010


Yeah, Wegener and continental drift:

Reaction to Wegener's theory was almost uniformly hostile, and often exceptionally harsh and scathing... By the late 1960s, plate tectonics was well supported and accepted by almost all geologists.
posted by mediareport at 7:44 PM on August 7, 2010


Barry J. Marshall and J. Robin Warren discovered Helicobacter pylori as an important cause of stomach ulcers, but were not taken seriously by the medical establishment for a number of years. Eventually, Marshall infected himself with H. pylori and published the results, contributing to acceptance of the discovery.
posted by NucleophilicAttack at 7:45 PM on August 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Not that his ideas on the mechanism of inheritance are true in the main, but scientists are finding that in some cases, traits acquired in one generation can be passed to the next through epigenetics.
posted by grouse at 7:47 PM on August 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yersin who discovered the transmission of plague was initially derided.
posted by smoke at 7:55 PM on August 7, 2010


Edward Jenner is my favorite. He claimed that if you took puss from a sick cow and poked a person's arm with it, it would somehow prevent the person from getting sick! It was the basis for all modern vaccination.
posted by exphysicist345 at 8:01 PM on August 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


In defense of Wegener's critics, he had no direct evidence of seafloor spreading (which came in the 1960s) nor any solid ideas on how the continents could move. The later in particular was a big stumbling block for his theories. Derision and ridicule seem pathetic in hindsight but may have been merely inappropriate and unseemly. Although, if he were taken more seriously at the time and directly spurred more research, perhaps we would have accepted this fundamental fact about our home a bit sooner.
posted by mollweide at 8:04 PM on August 7, 2010


The term "Big Bang" was originally a derisive nickname

Schrodinger's Cat was a thought experiment intended to show how silly and unrealistic quantum theory is.

Almost every idea that was unusual in its time was derided then, and sometimes even still is, depending on how difficult it is to understand. Of course, absolute loonies get the same treatment, since they're loonies. There are a lot more loonies than there are people who discover revolutionary ideas.
posted by galadriel at 8:24 PM on August 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


The geologist J. Harlan Bretz argued in the 1920s that the Channeled Scablands of eastern Washington State were sculpted by sudden, massive, catastrophic floods. (When I say massive, I mean massive: about ten times the flow of all the world's rivers combined.) The prevailing scientific orthodoxy since the mid-19th century (uniformitarianism, as we call it) had favored slow, uniform processes as the principal agent of geomorphological change, so this went against the grain.

Bretz's theory was widely ridiculed at the time—it seemed absurd, like Creationists invoking Noah's Flood to explain the Grand Canyon. But guess what? Bretz was right!

Related to Wegener and continental drift—if you're interested in digging deeper there, read Naomi Oreskes' masterful history, The Rejection of Continental Drift.
posted by cirripede at 8:25 PM on August 7, 2010


It seems as though our pattern as humans is to discredit "unconventional ideas".

Is that really true? Afterall, science is the process of discovering new things, which inherently means coming up with unconventional ideas. It's why many people become scientists, for the romantic image of discovering something new and overturning the old. New ideas are accepted and incorporated all the time, so long as they are shown to be likely true.

One has to be careful not to make the logical fallacy that just because a lone wolf has an unconventional idea doesn't mean he may be right, it's a form of confirmation bias to look at the examples above, it plays into our desire, nay need, for a good story, and in America, to root for the underdog. These are all nice feeling emotions but at the end of the day the unconventional idea has to stand on its own two legs, not nonsense on stilts.
posted by stbalbach at 8:26 PM on August 7, 2010


Seconding stbalbach on confirmation bias. The reason these stories are so fascinating is because they are so unusual. They are the "man bites dog" of the scientific world. For every ridiculed crazy idea that later turned out to have even a germ of truth in it, there must have been hundreds or thousands that had none whatsoever.
posted by grouse at 8:29 PM on August 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Barbara McClintock worked out aspects of gene regulation and transposition in the 40s and wasn't understood until decades later.
posted by thirteenkiller at 8:41 PM on August 7, 2010


Robert Koch, doctors should wash their hands.
posted by yoyo_nyc at 9:12 PM on August 7, 2010


I want to thank everyone for some wonderful examples.

In regards to the points mentioned by stbalbach & grouse, what I see is a pattern, a human one, where good ideas are often discredited. Not for scientific reasons, but because humans are often prideful, insecure, and self-focused.

I see this play out in modern medicine today. Why are so many chronic illnesses developing or increasing in numbers (Autism, depression/anxiety, add/adhd, inflammatory disorders, etc,.?) Why is the medical establishment sooo focused on prescribing a med for problems that research has linked to a person's digestive/immune system health?

This isn't about the underdog scientist. This is about people suffering from needless disease because the good ideas that could treat them (good nutrition, correcting imbalances in gut flora) are being discredited.

If We Don't Learn Our History, We're Doomed to Repeat It
posted by learninguntilidie at 9:44 PM on August 7, 2010


Robin Warren and Barry Marshall won the Nobel Prize for Medicine after being ridiculed.

Their work showed that many stomach ulcers were caused by a bacteria. At the time there was a lot of money to be made in researching drugs to alleviate those ulcers.

You may be interested in the book Bad Science by Ben Goldacre. Goldacre is a doctor who looks at what causes poor scientific practice in medicine and what is junk science and he looks both at how the drug companies corrupt research and how alternative medicine is often nonsense.

There are incentives in medical research that cause people to look into certain areas such as cancer more than other areas like Alzheimers or Malaria (although this is changing).
posted by sien at 10:19 PM on August 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


In regards to the points mentioned by stbalbach & grouse, what I see is a pattern, a human one, where good ideas are often discredited. Not for scientific reasons, but because humans are often prideful, insecure, and self-focused.

You can't adequately judge whether or not we have a tendency to fight good ideas without knowing the counterpart to your question: How many crazy scientists are justifiably dismissed because their ideas really are bunk? A list like you've solicited here makes the path of genius look like it requires the scorn of your peers until you're vindicated. The reason we reject a lot of ideas is because a lot of ideas aren't worth pursuing, and filtering what we accept allows us to focus our efforts on likely successes.

You seem like you're looking for a reason to be open-minded and optimistic about fringe research for which we have justifiable reasons to reject the theories. I'm not saying this justifies being an asshole, but it's pretty predictable that, unless we uncritically research everything, there'll be a bit of baby thrown out with the bathwater.
posted by fatbird at 12:34 AM on August 8, 2010 [9 favorites]


Dr. Jack Kevorkian
posted by motown missile at 1:03 AM on August 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


Snowflake Bentley's work wasn't appreciated until he was in his sixties...

of course, we might forgive his fellow Vermonters a little for finding it a bit cracked to think snowflakes were anything out of the ordinary
posted by jammy at 5:12 AM on August 8, 2010


John Snow. In 1854 an outbreak of Cholera was killing hundreds of people in London, but doctors were helpless to prevent the spread of the disease because the miasma theory still prevailed -- everyone believed diseases were spread by bad air. By patiently, methodically mapping out exactly where the deaths were occurring he was able to track the source to one water pump. He got the local authorities to remove the pump handle but later government officials replaced the pump handle without moving the well from the nearby leaking cess pit. Politically the idea that water infected with feces was causing disease was too repugnant for consideration.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 6:43 AM on August 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


In regards to the points mentioned by stbalbach & grouse, what I see is a pattern, a human one, where good ideas are often discredited. Not for scientific reasons, but because humans are often prideful, insecure, and self-focused.

I don't think this is a correct summary of most of the cases listed above. It's easy for all of now to say that Tesla, Semmelweis et al were obviously correct, but their critics had only their contemporary body of scientific knowledge as a reference. Any new idea that challenges the common viewpoint is going to have to do significant work to overcome that. But as all of the examples give prove, it's not impossible.

In addition, almost all of these examples are from an earlier age of scientific discovery, when much of the basic work of such important disciplines as electromagnetism and medicine were still being worked out. With such a large, professionalized scientific community today, it is much easier for a "crazy scientist" to be able to get respect for good work (you don't have to rely on a petulant Edison to vindicate you) and also to be discredited.
posted by gabrielsamoza at 7:00 AM on August 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Related examples: "Erroneous Predictions and Negative Comments Concerning Scientific and Technological Developments".
posted by yz at 7:27 AM on August 8, 2010


In regards to the points mentioned by stbalbach & grouse, what I see is a pattern, a human one, where good ideas are often discredited. Not for scientific reasons, but because humans are often prideful, insecure, and self-focused.

Woah there. Turf wars happen and new ideas have a threshold to overcome in science, but as a whole, scientists are exceptional in their willingness to discard old ideas when obviously better explanations come along.

This is about people suffering from needless disease because the good ideas that could treat them (good nutrition, correcting imbalances in gut flora) are being discredited.

I think you're confused. These ideas aren't being discredited outright. I can name a couple of dozen researchers that are studying the microflora of the gut, but the fact of the matter is, we don't have a solid enough understanding of what's in there to base medical decisions on the findings. The contents of the gut are an enormously complicated soup of different species, and doing fine manipulations of that ecosystem in order to positively impact the human host is still way beyond our understanding.

Basically what I'm saying is, that it's impossible to make sound medical decisions based on anecdotal evidence and new theories. It takes time for new findings to be validated, and even more time to figure out the best way to intervene medically. These things are being researched heavily, but it may be a decade before patients begin to see the fruits of this research. This isn't due to pride or arrogance, but rather the opposite: the humility to know that we don't understand things fully, and being cautious because the first rule of medicine is "do no harm".

Please remember: "Keep an open mind - but not so open that your brain falls out"
posted by chrisamiller at 9:15 AM on August 8, 2010 [4 favorites]


J. Harlen Bretz is the best example I know of this; he hypothesized that the Washington State Scablands were caused by a single, catastrophic flood, and was able to show that the geologic data were consistent with his hypothesis. He was ridiculed and drummed out of academic circles not because his theories were flawed but because the Catastrophic idea of geologic history was largely being championed by kooks, weirdos, and Biblical literalists, and he was attacked on those grounds. He was eventually vindicated after new evidence emerged about the nature of the Missoula Floods.
posted by KathrynT at 11:47 AM on August 8, 2010


Goddard, early American rocket scientist
posted by bardophile at 12:44 PM on August 8, 2010


[comment removed - OP if you're asking a legitimate quesiton that's fine, if you want to get into a discussion about this topic, please do not do this here. It's not what AskMe is for.]
posted by jessamyn at 6:14 PM on August 8, 2010


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