False, trivial, obvious: Why new and revolutionary theories are typically disrespected
Bruce G. Charlton,
Medical Hypotheses 2008; 71: 1-3
An old joke about the response to revolutionary new scientific theories states that there are three phases on the road to acceptance: 1. The theory is not true; 2. The theory is true, but it is unimportant; 3. The theory is true, and it is important – but we knew it all along. The point of this joke is that (according to scientific theorists) new theories are never properly appreciated. The ‘false’ phase happens because a defining feature of a revolutionary theory is that it contradicts the assumptions of already-existing mainstream theory. The second ‘trivial’ phase follows from a preliminary analysis which suggests that the new idea is not in fact contradicted by the major existing evidence, but the new theory seems unimportant because its implications do not seem to lead anywhere interesting when explored in the light of current theory. A stronger version of this second phase happens when the implications of a theory are regarded as not merely unimportant but actually dangerous, because a scientific revolution is certainly destructive (especially of established reputations) yet its potential benefits are conjectural. However, once a new and revolutionary theory is in place, its importance is ‘obvious’ such that it becomes hard to imagine how anybody could ever have believed anything else. Theory for scientists is like water for fish: the invisible medium in which they swim. Observations and experiments, on the other hand, are like toys in the fish tank. New toys are attention-grabbing; but when the tank gets cloudy, its water needs changing.
Like water for fish
One of the most annoying experiences for those advocating revolutionary new theories occurs when their ideas are prematurely or erroneously rejected. Perhaps even more annoying is when a theory is adopted but its originator is not credited with the discovery.
This is embodied in the cynical description of the acceptance of revolutionary new scientific theories as having three stages in which the idea is first rejected as false, then dismissed as trivial, and finally accepted as obvious.
The three phases of response to a new theory on the road to its acceptance are
1. The theory is not true.
2. The theory is true, but it is unimportant.
3. The theory is true, and it is important – but we knew it all along.
The point of this joke is that (according to scientific theorists) new theories are never properly appreciated.
There is a superficial, but correct and important, level of critique in which premature or incorrect rejection of new theories is often a consequence of either the lack of sufficient attention being paid to the new theory, so that the critic never considers the new theory with sufficient care; or the sheer ignorance or incompetence of the critic such that – even if critics do pay sufficient attention – they are simply unable to comprehend the new theory due to knowledge deficiencies or a lack of brain-power.
Quantitatively, therefore, even when it is not ignored, a new idea tends get buried beneath shallow and dumb criticisms.
1. False: the theory is not true
At a deeper level, however, the ‘false, trivial, obvious’ joke implies that the reason theories are seldom appreciated is related to the primacy of theory in science.
Theories come before facts, since facts only get their ‘factual’ status from the theory in which they are embedded; such that science can most simply be conceptualized as a process of generating and testing theories against observations.
The defining feature of a revolutionary theory is precisely that it seeks to replace the assumptions of an already-existing theory – so a new theory cannot be evaluated on the basis of the assumptions of the old theory. This is why a new and revolutionary theory will almost invariably strike people as false.
In a sense, a new theory is perceived by an old theory as if the new theory were an observation. When a new theory is revolutionary, then it is perceived as an observation which is incompatible with the old theory. From this perspective either the new theory must be rejected, or else the old theory abandoned.
2. Trivial: the theory is true, but it is unimportant
The second phase is dismissing a revolutionary idea as ‘trivial’. This follows from a preliminary analysis which suggests that the new idea is not, after all, contradicted by the major existing evidence – so the new theory cannot simply be rejected as ‘false’.
However, although it may be true, the new theory seems unimportant; because its implications do not seem to lead anywhere interesting from the perspective of current theory.
A new theory may, therefore, seem trivial because it is trivial in the context of the old theory. Only from the perspective of the new theory itself can its importance be recognized.
In this sense, a theory must be ‘accepted’ (at least provisionally) before its importance can be appreciated.
2. (a) Trivial: the theory is true, and it is important, but dangerous
A stronger version of this second ‘trivial’ phase happens when the implications of a theory are regarded not merely as unimportant but actually dangerous.
It is never possible absolutely to exclude in advance the possibility of some catastrophe from a wide range of potential disasters. Nor is it possible to prove that the adoption of a new theory will almost certainly provide greater overall and general benefit compared with the old theory.
New theories often seem dangerous because their destructive effect is proximate and certain, while their potential to serve as a basis for future progress is distal and unpredictable.
In fact, the most compelling ‘danger’ of a new revolutionary theory is the real and present harm its acceptance would inflict on the power, wealth or prestige of adherents to the already-existing theory.
3. Obvious: the theory is true, and it is important – but we knew it all along
However, for reasons good or bad, and against these odds, some revolutionary theories do become adopted and displace the theories that went before.
Once a new theory is in place, its explanatory and predictive power is evident, its importance is ‘obvious’ (since the new theory now forms the framework for scientific investigation and communication), and indeed it becomes hard to imagine how anybody could ever (rationally) have believed anything else.
After a successful scientific revolution it seems (it ‘feels like’) everyone had always known that the new theory was true; because looking-back it is clear that the new theory makes sense-of, is explanatory-of, all observations of current-significance that went before.
Precursors and partial expressions of the new theory apparently abound, and it can become hard to recognize or acknowledge that past (‘pre-revolution’) scientists were operating on the basis of quite different over-arching theories.
Forgotten are the vast difficulties a new theory originally overcame in getting attention, refuting shallow and dumb criticisms, and demonstrating its validity and importance – so the achievement of the originating theorist may seem slight (and this is assuming the discoverer has not by this time been overlooked, forgotten, or robbed of credit by a more powerful colleague).
The path to fame as a theorist surely is long, winding and replete with pitfalls.
Like water for fish
So – theory for scientists is like water for fish: the invisible medium in which they swim. Observations and experiments, on the other hand, are like toys in the fish tank.
New toys are attention-grabbing; but when the tank gets cloudy, its water needs changing.