Battles of new ideas against conventional wisdom are common in science, aren’t they?
It’s very interesting how these certain negative principles get embedded in science sometimes. Most challenges to scientific orthodoxy are wrong. A lot of them are crank. But it happens from time to time that a challenge to scientific orthodoxy is actually right. And the people who make that challenge face a terrible situation. Getting heard, getting believed, getting taken seriously and so on. And I’ve lived through a lot of those, some of them with my own work, but also with other people’s very important work. Let’s take continental drift, for example. American geologists were absolutely convinced, almost all of them, that continental drift was rubbish. The reason is that the mechanisms that were put forward for it were unsatisfactory. But that’s no reason to disregard a phenomenon. Because the theories people have put forward about the phenomenon are unsatisfactory, that doesn’t mean the phenomenon doesn’t exist. But that’s what most American geologists did until finally their noses were rubbed in continental drift in 1962, ’63 and so on when they found the stripes in the mid-ocean, and so it was perfectly clear that there had to be continental drift, and it was associated then with a model that people could believe, namely plate tectonics. But the phenomenon was still there. It was there before plate tectonics. The fact that they hadn’t found the mechanism didn’t mean the phenomenon wasn’t there. Continental drift was actually real. And evidence was accumulating for it. At Caltech the physicists imported Teddy Bullard to talk about his work and Patrick Blackett to talk about his work, these had to do with paleoclimate evidence for continental drift and paleomagnetism evidence for continental drift. And as that evidence accumulated, the American geologists voted more and more strongly for the idea that continental drift didn’t exist. The more the evidence was there, the less they believed it. Finally in 1962 and 1963 they had to accept it and they accepted it along with a successful model presented by plate tectonics….