Regarding Alternative Scientific Theories: A Reply to Pigliucci, Val Dusek

SERRC —  June 7, 2017 — Leave a comment

Author Information: Val Dusek, University of New Hampshire,

Dusek, Val. “Regarding Alternative Scientific Theories: A Reply to Pigliucci.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 7 (2017): 10-14.

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Image credit: Otto Magus, via flickr

Massimo Pigliucci (2017) rejects Paul Feyerabend’s plea for pluralism as unneeded. I claim that there are many cases where viable or valid alternative theories that were rejected.

How much pluralism exists depends on what one counts as pluralism. Also, there is the difference between pluralism within an established field of science, such as professional physics, geology, or biology and pluralism involving theories outside the institutionalized science profession, such as holistic medicine, Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, creationism and intelligent design, or various New Age conceptions.

There certainly have been limits on the permissible alternatives. This does not mean that Thomas Kuhn’s “paradigm monopoly” thesis is correct for all subfields of science. There have been periods in the history of science when competing theories openly divided the scientific community. Examples are the opposition between the wave and particle theories of light in the early nineteenth century and Wilhelm Weber’s action at a distance versus Maxwell’s field theory in electromagnetism in the late nineteenth century. However, pluralism has been suppressed in a number of fields during various time periods.

I give six examples of valid or at least respectable alternative theories in physics, biology, and geology, respectively, that were rejected and largely suppressed from discussion in print by the community of professional scientists. I also add the case of one New Age theorist considered beyond the fringe, but with impeccable scientific credentials.

On Felix Ehrenhaft

Feyerabend came to recognize the suppression of alternative views through exposure to two controversies. In Austria Feyerabend attended lectures of Felix Ehrenhaft, who questioned the claim that electrons have unitary charge, showing experiments that he claimed exhibited electrons with fractional charges. His claims were dismissed, largely because the idea of fractional charges was thought ridiculous. (Decades later charges of 1/3 were found in quarks.) The standard experiments concerning the charge of the electron were those of Robert Millikan at Chicago. It has later turned out that Millikan removed from his published reports observations that went against his thesis. One could say, in the manner of Michael Polanyi’s authoritarian and hierarchical view of science, that, as in the cases of Newton and Mendel, there may be fudging or worse going one, but that the genius and intuition of the great scientist gave prophetic insight.

The other area in which Ehrenhaft presented views that were rejected is in his claim that there are magnetic monopoles, that is particles with a magnetic north pole but not a south pole, or vice versa. Here again the notion of monopoles (though not Ehrenhaft’s macroscopic observations) came to be respectable, if not confirmed, with the recognition of the asymmetry in Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism and the consequences of Paul Dirac’s equations for relativistic quantum theory of the electron. Dirac in 1931 derived the existence of monopoles but this did not become a center of interest Post-1950 quantum field theory. In 1974 two physicists using the gauge theory of the electroweak field independently derived monopoles as Moebus-strip-like twists in the relevant fiber bundles. When This field theory is combined with theories of the origin of the universe, one gets the prediction that in the early universe there was asymmetry Though no monopoles have been confirmed the acceptance of the monopole is shown by physicists’ enthusiasm for several apparent observations, one in 1975, immediately after the such as a Spanish one on Valentine’s Day 1982 while no one was in the lab. At my university, the soon discredited discovery led to the college of engineering and physics to call a public meeting to explain the observation of the monopoles, which shortly after was discredited.

On David Bohm

The second controversy that led Feyerabend to point out the lack of pluralism in science is the cases of the decades-long rejection of David Bohm’s alternative version of quantum mechanics with hidden variables. Bohm’s theory is based on a simple mathematical transformation of the standard Schroedinger equation and is logically unexceptionable, but physicists at the time general rejected it as crackpot. Cushing’s fascinating Copenhagen Hegemony and Historical Contingency shows how de Broglie’s alternative, deterministic quantum mechanics was basically shouted down and the big Solvay meeting in 1927, and his approach was not revived until the 1950s with David Bohm and Jean-Paul Vigier. There were two major reasons for the discrediting of their views.

One was John von Neumann’s proof, or supposed proof that deterministic hidden variables are impossible. Most working physicists hadn’t read the proof, and many chemists and solid-state physicists, wouldn’t have understood it, given the highly abstract algebraic formulation of quantum theory in which it is formulated. Yet it was taken on faith because of von Neumann’s superior ability in abstract mathematics. This was until John Bell reexamined it in the early 1960s, and even then it took time for Bell’s critique to sink in in the 1970s and 1980s. Secondly, the Marxism of the two determinists helped discredit their approach.

At the Institute for Advanced Study Oppenheimer accused Bohm of being a “Trotskyite” (as the assembled physicists were mostly ex-orthodox Stalinists) and said “We will refute Bohm by not reading him.” Not all the rejection was that of Marxism. De Broglie was not Marxist, but his 1927 original pilot wave theory was rejected. He kept silent for twenty-five years, until Bohm’s theory appeared, which gave him the courage to revive his original theory. This is just one example, and Bohm was whom Feyerabend defended in his debates with Hanson. Bohm’s alternative wasn’t developed by many until the 1990s and beyond. Even then it remains very much a minority view.

Examples From Biology

There are also examples in biology. One is the claim that there is genetic material in the mitochondria in the cell, different from the main genetic material in the nucleus of the cell. Initially supporters of mitochondrial DNA were accused of being Communists. This was due to the need for militant opposition to Stalinist Lysenkoite biology. Lysenko, a non-scientist agronomist was supported by Stalin because of initial success with improving wheat output and later bogus promises of improving all crops without lengthy, multi-generational breeding and selection of strains. Lysenkoism’s support by Stalin led to the suppression of Mendelian genetics in the USSR, including the Siberian exile or execution of recalcitrant geneticists. In reaction to the Western biologists combatted any suggestion that the simplest nuclear and chromosomal account of genetic material was incomplete. Hence what later was to become accepted theory was rejected.

Another case where an alternative theory has been rejected is Barbara McClintock’s theory of mobile genetic elements or “jumping genes.” Although McClintock’s orthodox work on maize genetics and meticulous experiments within it were respected, her claims that experiments of hers showed that genetic material could migrate around on or among the chromosomes was rejected. Ironically, her theory was only accepted over three decades later, not because of her experiments and observations, but because of results in bacterial genetics within molecular biology. Evelyn Fox Keller’s account, involving, among other things, the rejection of McClintock’s work because she was a woman, and the rejection of her empathetic, non-dominant-manipulative was of doing science, has been later criticized by those who wish to defend the detached and objective portrait of science, such as by Comfort. However, even he accepts much of the story of the rejection of jumping genes.

Continental Drift and Prehistoric Floods

In geology, a classic example of rejection of a superior alternative theory is that of Wegener’s theory of continental drift. When I describe the account of spread and migration of prehistoric creatures such a dinosaurs and early mammals via narrow “land bridges” between the continents, such as between Africa and South America across the Atlantic Ocean that was scientifically accepted until 1967 and that I learned as a child and as a college student, my students laugh and wonder how such a ridiculous theory was believed. Yet the alternative theory of drifting continents was ridiculed and rejected for the first two thirds of the twentieth century. Only when radiometric evidence of sea floor spreading and subduction of continental plates was collected, did Wegener’s theory become accepted. It has been claimed that Wegener’s lack of a physical mechanism for his process prevented geologists from accepting his theory. However, many of the theories accepted by paleontologists were not founded on physical mechanisms, but through qualitative theorizing.

Another, less famous case of an alternative, valid theory being rejected, despite much descriptive observation in its favor is J Harlen Betz’s theory of humongous prehistoric floods in the American West. Betz in the early 1920s, on the basis of his observations in eastern Washington state that there had been gigantic floods in the area of the Channeled Scablands. He noted that the desert landscape must have been sculpted by massive erosion from what he called the Spokane Flood. Massive ice dams had built up during the Ice Age in around Missoula MT and Spokane WA, which burst and produced a vastly forceful flood over eastern Washington state. For fifty-five years Betz’s theory was rejected as crackpot by the geology profession despite respect for his other work. Again, only by 1967, on the basis of improved knowledge of glaciation and aerial photography of the scablands that Betz’s theory was accepted, praised, and received awards. (One may wonder why both Wegener’s and Betz’s theories were both finally accepted only in 1967. The standard account appeals to further empirical observations, but might it be that the loosening up of thought during the radical and countercultural sixties?)

Now the defender of the claim of tolerance within the scientific community may answer that all these alternative theories were eventually accepted, or at least deemed acceptable, even if several or many decades later.

Morphogenetic Fields

An interesting case of a New Age theory that has been totally rejected by mainstream science and is explicitly associated with the most far out hippie conceptions, drug exploration, and shamanism, is Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of morphogenetic fields. Unlike much New Age or countercultural theory this theory is propounded by someone with top scientific qualifications. Sheldrake received studied at Harvard, earned a PhD in biology at Cambridge University, was a fellow of Clare College and did research on embryology.

Sheldrake has proposed the reality of “morphic resonance,” in which form is transmitted via action at a distance among crystals and biological organisms. One crystallographer of my acquaintance who was rabidly opposed to New Age thought surprised me by agreeing with Sheldrake and telling a story of such transmission of crystal shape concerning industrial crystal growing.

Again, unlike many New Age theorists, Sheldrake has suggested several simple, easy to perform experiments. One includes having people sit with their backs to the observer with a baffle or board around them so that they cannot see in back of them, and then to guess whether the other subject is looking at them or not. Another is to place video recorders in the house in which a dog has been left alone in the house of its owner, who is away at work. The experiment is to see whether the dog shows heightened activity and agitation when the owner, at her office, begins to get ready to commute home.

The prestigious Nature magazine’s editor Maddox wrote an editorial advocating that Sheldrake’s New Theory of Life should be burned. Even the most adamant defender of the reality of the Popperian or Mertonian openness to alternatives in science would have to admit that this shows some desire to suppress an alternative theory.

Sheldrake has associated himself through video dialogues with Ralph Abraham, a leading theorist of chaos theory, advanced theoretical mechanics, and global analysis, who supports Hindu accounts of the world and notoriously mentioned in the men’s magazine GQ that countercultural drug use had offered a gentle “kiss” to topologists in the 1960s. Also involved in the trialogue was the prematurely deceased Terrence McKenna, far out Amazon psychedelic drug explorer, chemist, and shaman, who found enlightenment dialoging with a grasshopper in the rainforest. These associations, among other, would understandably alienate more buttoned up mainstream scientists, but don’t prejudge the results of his suggested experiments.


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