Have A Wacky Theory? Write it Up

I get a lotof communication from people who trip across insights that have somehow eludedthe tweedy practitioners of mainstream science. Let me serve up some examplesfor your edification and delight:

?I am anative of another star system, sent to Earth. You can tell this is true becausemy eyes are a strange color.?

?Relativityis wrong, and I can prove it using seventh grade math.?

?Alienscame to Earth a long time ago to engineer a new species, and Homo sapiens isthe product.?

?SETIshould stop looking for radio signals, and tune inhyperdimensional waves.?

Some ofthese folks think that validation of such novel hypotheses is merely a matterof explaining their idea to the right person. So they send me an e-mail or ringme up at the office.? I?m not always impressed.

Now let?sbe clear: justabout every new theory appears wacko at birth. If not, it?s unlikely to beeither novel or important. In addition, experts can be so thoroughly marinatedin the ?conventional wisdom? that they?ll rail at any theory that isn?t alreadyin the textbooks.

The inabilityof some scientists to consider ideas that aren?t already afloat in themainstream is a cudgel that UFObelievers often wield to beat up skeptics. And indeed, sometimes knowingtoo much really can be a bad thing. In commenting on Einstein, the German mathematicianDavid Hilbert famously wrote ?Do you know why Einstein said the most originaland profound things about space and time that have been said in our generation?Because he had learned nothing about all the mathematics and philosophy ofspace and time.?

On theother hand, and to paraphrase Groucho Marx, sometimes a cigar really is acigar. Just because an idea is radical, or just because the author is unsulliedby specialist knowledge, there?s no guarantee that a new theory is true. Infact, most of the time it isn?t. Gratuitous example: Aliens didn?t engineer ourspecies. The evolution of DNA did.

So howshould you demonstrate that your idea is wheat rather than chaff?? It?s simple:publish.? Write it up, don?t just talk it up. If you publish, the worldat large will do one of the following: (1) confirm your idea with new data, (2)send your theory to the rubbish tip with contradictory data, or (3) just ignoreyou. (This last option is reserved for those ideas that are adjudged not worththe bother.)

Ifpossible, it?s best to publish in a refereed journal, of course. That will giveyour revelation the sheen of peer review.? Sure, this is daunting tonon-established researchers who figure that these journals are the exclusivedomain of the tried and tenured.? But they are the conduit of seriousscience. Consider the caveat that physicist and author Paul Davies has put onhis web site, namely that he is ?not able to provide evaluations of manuscriptsor papers unless submitted through a professional journal.? He?s a busy guy.

But even anunrefereed publication ? indeed even that icon of immodesty, a self-publishedbook ? will buff your idea to a better gloss. Consider: When Galileomade his telescopic discoveries of the moons of Jupiter and a few otherimportant things, he felt the need to get them typeset and bound ASAP (he wasworried about being scooped by competitors). Rather than wait around 285 yearsfor the Astrophysical Journal, Galileo rushed into print with his own,small book. Smooth move.?

Frankly, it?ssimply not enough to merely concoct a cunning concept.? Sure, that will provideyou an interesting narrative, but that by itself won?t be compelling. You needto substantiate your story. Charles Darwin not only had an idea; he had a bookfull of data ? examples from finches to whales ? that supported hisidea. Galileo had night-by-night drawings of Jupiter?s moons, as seen throughhis telescope.?

Data arevaluable. Ideas, on the other hand ? like phone calls and e-mail ? are cheap.Your creative genius may have hatched a truly revolutionary idea. Indeed, youprobably think so. But no matter what your opinion of your hypothesis might be,if you hope for someone to fly you to Stockholm and hand you a check, don?tjust call me up and lay out your case. Do something better: write it up andtell the world.


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Seth Shostak
Senior Astronomer, SETI Institute

Seth Shostak is an astronomer at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in Mountain View, California, who places a high priority on communicating science to the public. In addition to his many academic papers, Seth has published hundreds of popular science articles, and not just for Space.com; he makes regular contributions to NBC News MACH, for example. Seth has also co-authored a college textbook on astrobiology and written three popular science books on SETI, including "Confessions of an Alien Hunter" (National Geographic, 2009). In addition, Seth ahosts the SETI Institute's weekly radio show, "Big Picture Science."