On ignoring ideas

Another run in or two with some internet ‘eccentrics’ has prompted me to consider the oft expounded idea that to ignore something makes you close minded / incapable of handling the ‘truth’ / not a proper (or good enough) scientist etc. When you do dismiss an idea near instantly, it’s easy to give that impression to an outsider, but I suspect the truth may come as a surprise both to them and even to those with a decent understanding of science or a particular field. It is often a time saver – you have to demonstrate that your idea is worthy of consideration and that demands an understanding of the problems at hand – and no serious researcher is going to bother wasting time explaining why elephants can’t fly, the moon is not a body of gas, or that you can’t achieve nuclear fission in a soup can. Other things might sound much more reasonable, but can be dismissed just as easily and as quickly.

Science is, almost by definition, the search for reliable answers. As such we don’t dismiss ideas lightly and researchers can be very open minded. Reading a few of the more obscure papers out there, or going to a conference to hear talks or even just speaking to researchers will quickly show you that some have ideas that, at best, can be considered ‘controversial’. Some ideas just will not die despite the lack or evidence for them, or the huge stack of evidence against them. That may not be open mindedness so much as misguided dogmatism, but any accusation of close mindedness is silly if directed at science in general, even if it *might* be applicable to an individual. However, what is generally the cause of the instant dismissal is one of three things.

Firstly, and most simply, is a lack of evidence. Coming forward with an assertion with nothing to support it at all can be fairly dismissed out of hand. No evidence, no dice. Alternatively, trying to revive an obviously incorrect or highly questionable idea with no *new* evidence is just as dead in the water. The idea has been tested and the evidence evaluated and found wanting. If you don’t bring something new (and preferably big, dramatic and unquestionable) to the table then don’t wonder why you get dismissed.

Secondly, there is the lack of appreciation for what a researcher might know. You might not realise why you idea must be wrong, or cannot be right and we do. We do tend to know a thing or two about science oddly enough. If we fail to explain it or at least direct you to the information that will, then we are at fault. However, you’ll still be wrong, and it’s not being close minded or incompetent on our part to know you are wrong before reaching the end of your opening sentence if you have the expertise to know.

Thirdly is the one that’s surprisingly close to the first, but I left it till last as it might be a surprise. You would be simply amazed at some of the ideas science has actually considered over the years. Some truly outrageous ideas, concepts, and hypotheses have actually be put forward quite seriously AND tested seriously and properly. You might think your idea is being ignored without proper consideration, but it’s already had proper consideration and found wanting and we are back to the first problem. No new evidence, the idea stays defunct.

I’m happy to dismiss the idea that bats or birds are the nearest relatives to pterosaurs for example, not only because of the wealth of information that I know about phylogenetics and taxonomy and the profound differences in morphology and evolutionary history between the three groups, but also because this idea was actually taken seriously for a while (admittedly a rather long time ago) and people went over the details and looked at their similarities and differences and concluded they could not be closely related. At first and indeed second glance this should be obviously incorrect and no more worth of serious consideration than say the idea that manatees and mudpuppies could be closely related because of a few very vague similarities in body plan and lifestyle. But someone actually sat down and cross referenced birds and pterosaurs and bats and pterosaurs to test this idea. It’s been done already. Done properly in the way good science should be done, and found wanting. It can therefore be dismissed.

Researchers are open to ideas, but if you are going to come up with something odd, make sure you have evidence for it, and make sure the evidence is solid and really do make sure it’s not already been disproved. You can try to accuse a dismissive response as being close minded, but the answer is instead likely to lie with your own ignorance. I don’t have to revaluate your ideas now when someone did it a century ago and noting since has provided any support for the idea. Science does move rather slowly, but it does move forwards, and starting at the front and assuming there is nothing behind it will not help your cause. It just demonstrates that people were open minded enough to consider it, it’s just that it’s wrong.

6 Responses to “On ignoring ideas”

  1. 1 Dave Howlett 05/04/2010 at 7:18 am

    Of course, barring a shift in the classification of Ornithodira as monophyletic, birds are the nearest *living* relative of the pterosaurs – the important thing is to understand that doesn’t mean they are that closely related to them. Quite a lot of the people I know don’t understand this, to be honest.

    • 2 David Hone 05/04/2010 at 7:22 am

      Well this goes back to my post on relatives and relatives. Though here of course I’m talking about ancestor-descendant or sister-taxon relationships.

  2. 3 David Peters 05/04/2010 at 10:33 am

    This blog strikes close to home. Since you brought up the pterosaur sister group question, David, it would be very helpful if you can name for us three outgroup genera to the Pterosauria and an increasing list of pterosaur synapomorphies for each one. Short lists (4-5 traits) will do. Doesn’t even matter how distant these closest genera are. I trust that we will be able to test this list by deleting skull characters or post-cranial characters and still retain tree topology (something Scleromochlus fails to do with hind limb characters deleted). I’m eager to hear this, since it wasn’t explicit in Hone & Benton 2007, 2008) but should be available. Parasuchia and Proterochamsidae often come up (e.g. Nesbitt & Norell, 2006), but those don’t make sense.

    • 4 David Hone 05/04/2010 at 10:51 am

      David, read the papers, check the specimens, check the characters, write papers. Don’t try and argue this stuff on here or with me by e-mail. I am not interested, as I have said so repeatedly. This not because I am not interested in the question, but because I am not interested in your interpretations of that data or the way you try to argue it. As such I am only interested in conducting any discussion with you about pterosaurs via the scientific literature.

      Your references to my papers are irrelevant here in the context that you claim (i.e. that I did not make it clear what successive outgroups are present or what characters support those nodes) since that is not what those papers were about or were testing. They were effectively review papers looking at how other people had analysed things while I suggested that some hypotheses were better supported than others, I was only recycling and reexamining other data. Thus my papers were never intended to provide the answers you seem to think I did not clarify.

  3. 5 FoundOnWeb 05/04/2010 at 11:55 am

    Good examples of how open science is to new ideas and what is required for their success is the discovery of ‘high temperature’ supeconducting in 1986 and ‘cold fusion’ in 1989. Announcement in a science journal of the discovery of materials that were superconducting above 30K, thought impossible at the time, was immediately followed by successful replication of the results. The excitement ran so high that scientists were sleeping in their labs so that they could keep working on the topic. Cold fusion, announced at a press conference, but with the example of high temperature superconductivity in mind, initially generated equal excitement, until the results proved irreproducible.

    Both cases generated enthusiastic responses (scientists _like_ new areas for study, and grant applications), but only one provided good results and solid evidence.

  4. 6 qilong 05/04/2010 at 12:55 pm

    Dave (Peters),

    I’m going to briefly introduce you to a man known as Stephan Pickering (don’t worry, you won’t want to thank me for it):


    Unlike you, Pickering has never attempted to publish in a legitimate arena, and has refused (outrightly and rudely) to supply several people he didn’t like (for any cost) any version of his “publications,” while at the same time crying censorship of his ideas.

    There are “eccentrics” out there that have nothing on you, Dave (Peters), so you are fairly tame even though many may disagree with your ideas. You have shown (somewhat) an intention to modify your fact-finding abilities, even though many of us still disagree with some specifics. You, at least, don’t call peple “anti-semites” for disagreeing with you.

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