Three Mavericks Who Won
The loner, not the consensus, is sometimes the one whose views get traction in science. Here are three historical examples.
The following stories have something in common: they are about people who worked alone on ideas that ran counter to their societies’ beliefs. This is not to say that they were completely right on every idea they promoted. They were at least visionaries who thought outside the box and opened up others to new avenues of inquiry that proved fruitful.
The first is a fascinating woman, Ada Lovelace (1815-1852). This daughter of English poet Lord Byron circulated in fashionable circles and married well, becoming the Countess of Lovelace in 1838. She had studied under Mary Somerville, becoming proficient in mathematics. She also corresponded with leading scientists, including David Brewster and Michael Faraday. She is best known for her association with Charles Babbage, inventor of the first general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine. She is sometimes credited with writing the first “computer program” by writing down, in 1842, a series of steps by which the machine could calculate a series of Bernoulli numbers. Lovelace greatly encouraged Babbage with her ideas about the promise of such a device. It would be nearly a century before her sweeping vision of the capabilities of general-purpose computing—a vision we all take for granted—would take root. She died of cancer at age 36.
The BBC News did a story on Ada Lovelace on the occasion of the first-time reading of some of her letters on BBC radio. “So is Ada Lovelace our first tech visionary? Or, as some critics now claim, was her contribution to computer science vastly overrated?” There are indications she was “a passionate, ambitious and flawed individual,” an ambitious socialite and flighty woman with some bouts of mania. Some of those flaws may have been ironed out at the end of her life, when reportedly “she had a religious transformation and was coaxed into repenting of her previous conduct” (Wikipedia). The BBC agrees with our focus here, though, that Ada Lovelace belongs among those “who imagine how the next generation of technology might change the world.” She and Babbage did not live to see it come, but one can imagine their delight and astonishment could they witness today’s Information Age.
There has been some controversy about the Father of Genetics, Gregor Mendel (1822-1844), whose pivotal work on garden peas was not widely recognized in his lifetime but was “rediscovered” by geneticists early in the 20th century. The “Mendel-Fisher Controversy” arose in 1936 (70 years after Mendel’s paper on inheritance) when theoretical geneticist Ronald Fisher deduced that Mendel’s data were “too good to be true” statistically. This led some critics to call him the “father of scientific misconduct” on suspicions that he must have faked his data. Gregory Radick (U of Leeds historian of science) says in Science Magazine, “The suspicions have turned out to be groundless.”
Radick does question whether Mendel’s peas could have been so neatly pigeonholed into binary categories (wrinkled vs smooth, green vs yellow) and considers it plausible that some underlying bias operated to confirm his theory, with perhaps the “help” of a well-meaning assistant. For our purposes, the fact remains that Mendel was a maverick in his monastery (an unlikely laboratory), working alone on a concept at odds with his contemporaries, but whose ideas later became mainstream. Like Ada Lovelace, Mendel did not live to see his ideas widely accepted. The fact that principles of inheritance are more nuanced these days than deterministic Mendelism would suggest does not change the fact that Mendel thought outside the box and forged a fruitful new path for generations of geneticists.
Like Lovelace and Mendel, the father of continental drift theory, Alfred Wegener (1880-1930) was a maverick whose ideas only became mainstream after his death. On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of his magnum opus, The Origin of Continents and Oceans (1915), Ted Nield celebrates a new biography of the man and his theory in Nature. In a shorter piece in Nature, Romano and Cifelli describe the resistance of the scientific community to his original thinking:
His theory of continental drift was initially viewed as heresy by the scientific community, yet his book was later translated into many languages and updated regularly until 1929…. After his death, his ideas were largely forgotten until the 1960s, when geophysicists demonstrated the phenomenon of sea-floor spreading (see N. Oreskes Nature 501, 27–29; 2013). Plate tectonics has since gained acceptance as a synthetic theory with huge explanatory power.
Continental drift theory today has run aground with anomalies and epicycles; our purpose here is not to enter that debate. What matters is that Wegener worked largely alone, forging a path that the consensus followed only after decades of scorn and neglect. Wegener’s body was not recovered from an accident when he was exploring Greenland. “He would have been glad to know,” Romano and Cifelli quip, “that it will have travelled some 20 kilometres in a million years’ time — in accordance with his visionary theory.”
Skeptics of that ending joke might wish to consult with creation geologists who deny that continental drift is linear, slow, and gradual. They have presented new theories about rapid continental drift during the Flood that not only fit the evidence better but make predictions. Still, all agree these days that continents are not static, as was largely assumed before the 1960s.
These accounts illustrate an important thing about the nature of science. Consensus really means little. Picture the consensus in the days of Lovelace, Mendel and Wegener: all confident, all agreeing with one another, all ridiculing those outside. They were wrong. Science is not consensus, and consensus is not science. The loner can be correct, and even when he or she is only partly correct, a maverick can at least open up new fruitful trails of inquiry.
What’s our take-home lesson? The consensus today can be just as wrong. Whether it’s about junk DNA, global warming or evolution, a consensus carries no necessary validity, even when globally strong. A consensus might be right, but science’s best theories are only tentative. Don’t let the powerful Darwin lobby strut its numbers. What matters is who’s got the best evidence. One maverick in town can drive out a lot of corruption.