Seeking examples of people smarter than me who got hung up

by MichaelBishop1 min read13th Jan 201353 comments


Personal Blog

I'm looking for historical examples of scientists who were 
a) very intelligent and still
b) continued to put themselves behind a theory in their discipline long after it was rejected.  Maybe they got too attached to it, refused to be wrong, got emotional, but they somehow let their hangups get in the way.

Maybe I'm being too demanding, but if you can resist, give me fewer cranks, pseudoscience, and wierd sociopolitical commitments and more theories that were credible until they became incredible to all but their big fancy until-then-respected proponent.

To get you started: 
* Fred Hoyle against the Big Bang
* Lord Kelvin and Hoyle on microbes from spce
* Tesla against relativity and other chunks of modern physics.
* Heaviside against relativity
* George Gaylord Simpson against plate tectonics
* Newton on alchemy


Posted on behalf of a friend. Thanks.

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Newton on alchemy

I don't think that believing in alchemy in Newton's lifetime went against the consensus.

Look up the "Nobel Syndrome," e.g. here:"

And yeah, Linus Pauling.

On a more sinister level, there are people like Peter Duesberg:

The Monty Hall problem is a classic example of smart people refusing to go against their intuition despite resounding evidence. Paul Erdős refused to accept a formal proof of the solution and only accepted it after seeing a statistical simulation give confirmation. (Source: "The Drunkard'ss Walk: How Randomness Rules our Lives" by Leonard Mlodinow.)

[-][anonymous]8y 7

Penrose on the human brain doing quantum-gravity-based hypercomputation?

I don't think there was ever a time where people considered the human brain doing quantum-gravity-based hypercomputation to be a credible thesis.

The idea was always fringe and doesn't fit into the class of ideas that were once credible but later incredible.

I feel it worth pointing out that this is a very poor name. It's not a disease that infects Nobelists - perhaps it even infects them less than others. RationalWiki agrees, saying:

In reality, this "disease" most likely demonstrates that even the most brilliant people are not immune to crank ideas and belief in such ideas will persist to some degree even among Nobelists

Also, in their list, two people are accused of supporting "eugenics". While a popular boo light, there's nothing unscientific or false about the basic proposition that deliberate breeding of humans can reinforce many specific positive traits, and reduce the occurrence of many specific negative ones. It's especially effective for combatting classic recessive disorders like sickle-cell anemia.

I'd guess the article name came from the blog post referenced below.

That post refers to the name as an existing one, though.

Cool, I collect these too. I'll trade you climate change denialist Ivar Giaever for creationist Rick Smalley, a Philipp Lenard for a Johannes Stark, and autism crank Nikolaas Tinbergen for faciliated communication fan Arthur Leonard Schawlow.

Hi, I wrote the post. I want to be good at being wrong, I want to be excellent at it. I aspire to develop habits of thought that will protect me and my peers from nursing too gently the need to be right. I thought I might learn something from the ugliest cases.

What happens to even the greatest minds that causes them to get attached to their theories? I don't know, but your examples will help me find out. A history of baggage? A reputation to protect? Mere age? Pure guts? I agree with pragmatist that Einstein's concerns about QM aren't a great example of the prompt. Hoyle, on the other hand, is a great example --- he resisted the Big Bang to his death --- for decades after it had become the most plausible model.

Each of the bulleted examples up top was a great mind with too much emotional baggage to keep from being left behind by science. I don't want it to happen to me, and generally I want to cultivate in scientific discourse a tone that makes it safe for even the most agitated reasoner to bow out with grace. Thanks for your input and for your leads.

I want to be good at being wrong

Not 'less' wrong? I'm not even sure from reading the rest of your comment whether this is a typo or whether you intended something I didn't understand.

Sorry if I wasn't clear. I want to be good at admitting that I was in error, and to collect cases of great thinkers who failed to do that. So yes, I want to be less wrong. Admitting one's errors is a tool in the less wrong toolbox. We like to think we're good at it, that its easy, that we're detached, but I've seen that being content with my level of self-criticality creates complacency and fosters lapses. These examples demonstrate it.

On the subject of admitting one's errors, I think DanArmak is right that Newton doesn't belong on the list if his opinions of alchemy were representative of the time. To replace him, two others from my list of leads: Ernst Haeckel on Lemuria and Jagadish Chandra Bose on sensation/perception in plants and inorganic compounds.

Why do you care which scientific theories are right?

This post is less about The Truth that and more about science as a personal endeavor, as something you do on yourself to be a better thinker, or not.

But what is it that you want to be better at thinking about?

Priestley on phlogiston.

Einstein + quantum mechanics.

Somewhat exotic and recent example from my field: Don Rubin's claim that adjusting for covariates always reduces confounding bias (it does not). There is a famous Pearl/Rubin argument about this. There is some discussion on Andrew Gelman's blog about it, starting here: It's a pretty interesting read (perhaps less so if you aren't familiar with the question or personalities involved), if for no other reason than the anatomy of modern academic disagreements.

Einstein + quantum mechanics.

Not sure this is a good example. Einstein didn't deny the predictive utility of quantum mechanics, he denied that QM is a complete description of reality. He believed that there were hidden variables that would account for quantum statistics in a local and deterministic manner. Of course we now know that this is impossible, but its impossibility only became clear with Bell's work in the 60s, after Einstein's death. While Einstein was alive, I'm not aware of any conclusive reason to regard his hope for a local deterministic theory as futile.

Not to mention that Einstein was perfectly right about a correct physics containing no randomness and no mysteriously-non-communicating FTL influences, which at the time was part of the then-dominant Copenhagen interpretation of QM. Basically, everything that made Einstein throw up got thrown out. His intuitions were accurate.

Einstein backed local realism and the ensemble interpretation, both of which have been "thrown out".

Einstein was actually against what is now termed "objective collapse" models, not Bohr's "shut up and calculate". And yes, the hints are increasingly pointing toward something along the lines of RQM.

Einstein was perfectly right about a correct physics containing no randomness

Maybe you should try playing your own rationalist's taboo with the term "randomness". For example, if you define it instrumentally as inability to predict an outcome of a measurement, then it trivially goes through in the MWI model. What's your definition?

no mysteriously-non-communicating FTL influences

Try similarly tabooing "influence". It is likely that you will find that "non-communicating influence" is devoid of meaning (it's a piece of logic disconnected from physics, using your favorite duality).

rolls eyes at RQM (due to physicists trying to play silly semantic games that don't actually translate into any coherent epistemology)

Try similarly tabooing "influence".

Okay. "Without causal graphs that violate the Markov condition."

It is likely that you will find that "non-communicating influence" is devoid of meaning

See above.

"Without causal graphs that violate the Markov condition."

If someone could draw this graph for me for the case of the purported EPR FTL influence without relying on objective collapse, I'd appreciate it.

Physical indeterminism is still an open question, so nothing got "thrown out". You don't get to pretend an answer you happen to like is accepted fact.

Ok, fair. Does the lesswrong dialect of Markdown support strikeouts?

edit: Hidden variable intuitions are fairly interesting. It must have seemed strange to Einstein, but these days it's not so strange that you could have descriptions of objects that behave as a "latent variable model" of sorts without there being any hidden variables in its description. You don't even need to go to quantum theory to find such objects. Here's a simple graphical model (we call them "MAGs"):

A -> B <-> C <- D

The way people usually interpret this model is that there is some DAG in the background like this:

A -> B <- U -> C <- D

and we then do not get to observe U. But you can think of another description of this model, which is that it is all probability distributions where the following independences hold:

(1) A _||_ C,D

(2) D _||_ A,B

Nothing in this description mentions U. We can even parameterize this model (say variables are binary) by a set of parameters that look like this:

q(a), q(d), q(b|a), q(c|d), q(b,c|a,d). Again, nothing in these parameters mentions U. And yet the model resembles a hidden variable DAG with a U in the pattern of constraints it imposes. And we know there is no U in the model, because if there was, there would be a Bell inequality, which there isn't as the only constraints are (1) and (2).

No. (Unless you use the "no" symbol button to retract the comment, in which case the entire comment is struck through.)

[-][anonymous]8y 2

It's incredibly annoying, too. Someone should fix that.

[-][anonymous]8y 0


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Look up what Einstein's Nobel was for. It wasn't for relativity.

Probably most people would add Jaynes position on QM to this. I believe he died still questioning Bell's Theorem, and not accepting ontological randomness.

I actually think that's correct, but I think I'm in the minority on that one.

It may be correct, but not for the reasons usually given: the non existence of ontological randomness is in now way entailed buy the existence of epistemic inderminism.

The results of this discussion could go into wiki, probably under "argument by authority".

Charles Babbage against Organ Grinders.

Smalley against the possibility of nanotechnology.

Not a great example in this context since it hasn't really happened yet to a substantial extent.

Again, from memory (sorry if mistaken): Leibniz and Newton were in disagreement on the nature of the fundamental constituent of our universe. Leibniz thought it monads; Newton thought it Force.

I suppose they were both right (except for the aiua quality Leibniz seemed to think monads possessed, to borrow a concept from Orson Scott Card), though it was not at all obvious at the time - and to some degree still isn't.

aeiou quality

aiua is a reference to a fictional term used by OSC in some books, not an actual term used by Leibniz.

I know, I was just pulling out an old animaniacs joke.

B.F. Skinner and the humans as a 'black box'. A subtle shift in the field from Behaviourism to Cognitive Psychology, which has led to the establishment of neuroscience.

My memory fails me, but from recollection I believe Noam Chomsky criticised a 195X paper by Skinner, asserting Skinner's models were inaccurate and not psychologically real. Chomsky thought the behaviourist approach insufficient to fully comprehend the brain, and called for an alternate approach.

Apparently Noam Chomsky criticising B.F. Skinner was a big deal, and the disagreement entered the mainstream news. I cannot recall if they furthered the debate.

I'm not sure if this qualifies.

So which theory are you hung up on / alternatively: what sparked your writing that post?

Thanks for asking. I accidentally responded off the main thread.

Phillip Henry Gosse with Omphalos

was an English naturalist and popularizer of natural science, virtually the inventor of the seawater aquarium, and a painstaking innovator in the study of marine biology. Gosse was also the author of Omphalos, an attempt to reconcile the geological ages presupposed by Charles Lyell with the biblical account of creation. After his death, Gosse was portrayed as a despotic father of uncompromising religious views in Father and Son (1907), the literary masterpiece of his son, poet and critic Edmund Gosse.[2]

Newcomb against planes.

We probably shouldn't include modern theorists in the list, for example Fred Hoyle, on the grounds that they may still turn out to be correct, or at least more correct than the theory they opposed. (Consider that Hoyle's creation fields theory is very similar to Hubble's Law; if BBT turns out to be false, Hoyle will be remembered by posterity considerably better than he is regarded today in this matter, even if his theories aren't true either.)

I distinctly recall reading that this was the case with Dmitri Mendeleyev in his later years, but I can't recall with respect to what, and a quick googling isn't resolving the question.

Possibly his skepticism about Arrhenius's theory of acids and bases? At one point he did object to that, although I don't know the details, other than more or less what it is summarized by Wikipedia.

I don't think that was what I had read about, I think it was something along the lines of denying the existence of radioactivity, but I might be mixed up on that count.

I do recall that the source in which I read about it said that when element 101 was named, the scientist who introduced its name joked "fittingly, considering its namesake, it is an unstable element." (paraphrased from memory.) It gave the impression that he became well known for having crackpot tendencies in his later years.