Some of the comments on my last post reminded me of a common bit of science mythology, namely the idea that scientific advances come from lone geniuses who overthrow the existing orthodoxy, after years of ridicule and dismissal by the scientific establishment. There are two things to remember about this idea:
1. To a truly excellent approximation, this never happens. It’s just not how science generally works. In the modern era, Wegener and continental drift is about the only example I can think of that might count, but I know essentially nothing about the history of that subject, so I can’t say. It certainly is not true, for instance, that they laughed at Einstein: his ideas were recognized as important and worthy of serious consideration pretty much right away.
2. Even if it does occasionally happen that lone geniuses who are ridiculed by the establishment have great ideas, the converse doesn’t follow: people who are ridiculed by the establishment aren’t necessarily lone geniuses with great ideas. As Carl Sagan put it a long time ago, they laughed at Galileo, they laughed at the Wright brothers, but they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.
The history of science has very few crazy ideas that turned out to be right, in comparison with the number of crazy ideas that turned out to be crazy.