Wierdness is not a valid reason to disqualify a hypothesis.

Oftentimes on the boards, I’ll see a discussion of some non-standard hypothesis about the world, for example, the “hollow Earth theory” or “auras” or whatever. People will chime in to rebut it.

However, it seems that often people will reject a hypothesis only because it is ‘odd’ or ‘different’ from those they’re used to following. This does not seem to be very rigourous to me.

IMHO, the only reason for disqualifying any hypothesis is that it predicts things about the universe that can be tested, and the tests prove false.

If the hypothesis under consideration explains something as well as the normal accepted ones, but offers no way to be tested, it is unverifiable, and needs to be either set aside or extended until it can be tested.

And, of course, if the hypothesis yields tests that prove true, the hypothesis is on its way to becoming part of the normal accepted worldview.

So… how do people justify rejection of hypotheses just because they’re ‘weird’?

Sorta tangential, but might answer your question.

Well, the point is that you just can’t hypothesize anything and expect it to be taken seriously. Some people seem to have this misguided notion that they can come up with any hypothesis and other folks are supposed to waste their time explaining why it doesn’t make sense or else those other people aren’t being open-minded.

Poppycock! If you have a hypothesis, the burden of proof is on you. And, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Well, first of all, the two examples you picked, hollow Earth and auras, aren’t really hypotheses because they aren’t attempts to explain anything. Instead, they are claims of phenomena without proof that the phenomena actually exist.

In most cases, “weird” translates into “apparent violation of either known physics or our commonsense understanding of the world”. This brings you into “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proofs” territory. That is, there are an infinite number of unprovable weird claims that can be made, e.g. the core of the Earth consists of hot fudge. Even though this theory can’t be disproven, it’s sufficiently implausible so that it can be dismissed out of hand (unless the proposer of that theory can demonstrate a volcano emitting chocolatey goodness).

By the way, you might want to look at this recent thread (in addition to the hollow earth one that you mentioned) so that we don’t end up repeating ourselves here.


Ah but it can. We know the physical properties of hot fudge, and can check to see if the seismic data is consistent with that hypothesis.

I am just as guilty as anyone else of rejecting an idea out of hand every once in a while. Helps keep me sane. It still falls to the people with “weird” theories to make compelling, consistent arguments for them.

One definition that I’ve heard for a scientific hypothesis is that it MUST be able to be tested to become accepted as a hypothesis; i.e. if it’s not possible to test a hypothesis, then it’s not considered a hypothesis, merely a guess. For example, if we were to say that ‘There are Giant Invisible Snotballs in space that cannot be detected by our technology’, then that would not be considered as a hypothesis, but merely a guess tossed out by some wacko. This seems to merely quantify what everyone does automatically; if something seems too far out of line with what what we know and accept to be true, then we tend to discard it quickly.

I agree with the OP in principle, that a hypothesis should not be rejected merely because it is weird.

Having said that, there’s a practical side too. I help go through Cecil’s mail, and we just don’t have the resources or the desire to try to respond rationally to every screwball question we get. In the last week, I’ve dealt with everything from Canada was behind the 9/11 attacks, to why a voodoo doll didn’t work as advertised, to whether there are a million people living in the New York sewers. Some of these would be impossible to “disprove” even if we had unlimited money and resources – how would we prove there aren’t a million people living in the sewers? Send teams to scour through all the sewers? But maybe they simply evaded detection. So, we often just say, “Too weird to live” and mutter something about “burden of proof lies on the person proposing the theory” and hit the DELETE button.

Except, of course, every once in a while, Cecil takes one of those crackpot ideas as basis for a column – like the Bush family ties to the Nazis.

To the above comments, I would add that many weird hypothesis are set up (apparently) to frustrate disproof.

Philisophical principles such as Occam’s Razor and “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” protect us from this sort of intellectual dishonesty.

A weird hypothesis that is open to disproof is not all that troubling. What is suspect is the theory that restricts its own refutation.

Yes… I’ve seen many times here on the SDMB someone putting forward a hypothesis, but then not providing ways to test it.

C K Dexter Haven, going along with the ‘weird’ filter set to ‘discard’ is a useful short-cut, since a lot of weird stull is not rigourously-biult, vut yes, there is the danger of tossing the occaisional grain of truth, kinda like spam-filtering.

Wasn’t there an SF story about someone who comes up with a working anti-gravity device, but nobody believes him, and he has to finance it through ads in superamrket tabloids and such?

And, lucwarm, I’d agree with what you said about some ‘weird stuff’ being set up to be ‘un-disprovable’.

I wonder whether part of the problem here is that people are proposing ideas to believe in as articles of faith*, but cloaking them in scientific clothing, so to speak, because we all know how impressive and successful the results of science have been.

*I know, that sounds like they are making deliberate rational choices about it, which is probably not true, but you get the drift.

[sub]A Moderator replied in my thread! A Moderator!!! :smiley: [/sub]

Just remember that it was only science fiction. I really have not seen much evidence produced in a real world that scientists have given inadequate airing to claims. I mean, like what happened with cold fusion. I was at Cornell as a grad student at the time and I can tell you that a few very smart postdocs wasted a few days at least of their time coming up with some theory where they proudly were able to get the probability of fusion down from like 10^{-150} to 10^{-75}. (I’m basically making the numbers up because I don’t remember, but you get the drift.)

On a smaller scale, my thesis consisted of coming into a field neither my advisor nor I had worked in and telling them that something they seemed to generally believe was in fact wrong. We had no problem getting it published though we certainly were careful to present the best evidence we could muster to support our claim.

Yes, I think you are on to something here. Science has been so successful that even people who are being quite anti-science will pretend they are being pro-science. A stunning example is the Wall Street Journal editorial page which will, for example, embrace a few dissident scientists on global warming while completely ignoring the tons of careful science from National Academy of Sciences and refereed journals that goes against their political beliefs.


Wasn’t there an SF story about someone who comes up with a working anti-gravity device, but nobody believes him, and he has to finance it through ads in supermarket tabloids and such?


You might be talking about John Hutchinson, who claimed to be able to make any kinds of heavy objects levitate and some other weird effects. I’ve seen videos on it, and I would like to see stuff like this researched more, instead of disgarded like it seems to be.

Actually, I knew someone who was building an anti-gravity device. He showed myself some photos once. He believed that the moment he went public with it, the oil industry would bribe him quiet with a massive pay-off. Not seen him for a while, tho’.

The actual device in question is from a quite publicised design based on a Russian scientist’s work. I forget his name, but NASA has actually paid out around $250,000 to research it.

The antio-gravity device in question does not actually levitate of it’s own accord, or behave in any manner you would expect from a sci-fi story. The actual properties claimed is that a metal disc caused to spin at high speed within an electromagnetic field will appear to lose “some” of it’s mass - but only somewhere in the region of less than 10%.

One hypothesis involved is that there is an association between the electromagnetic force and gravity that we are not properly aware of, and has not yet been described. This is not as ridiculous as it sounds - this suggestion was repeated earlier this year over the issue of slightly disparate measurements of Newton’s Gravitational Constant, from different centers around the world.

However, there is no certainty on the issue yet. Any relationship has yet to be proven. But the hypothesis is being tested according to scientific method.

What if it predicts things about the universe that cannot be tested (i.e. unfalsifiable by nature, not because of current technological limitations)?

I, Brian, I’m familiar with the device, and I believe Martin Gardner and Robert Heinlein are as well. It’s been around for a while, and basically, it messes with the scale itself, not with its own weight. I think Jerry Pournelle has a good debunking on his website, come to think of it.

Mangetout, isn’t that religion?

Then it must not be very useful. If a theory by definition has no testable implications then it never can be anything more than a shot in the dark. In any event, how do you settle the ridiculous but inevitable arguments? ie. “My untestable hypothesis is better than your untestable hypothesis!”

If however someone’s theory has some effect on the universe we live in then it is that person’s intellectual duty to come up with a way to test it. The rest of society isn’t just going to take his word for it; if we did that would truly be psuedo-science.

“Weird” ideas are only useful when grounded understanding is allowed to demystify them. Mystery for the sake of mystery is religion’s business, not science.

You mean, like those wacky Wright Brothers, whom everybody thought were lying for years about having flown a powered aircraft?

toadspittle: I hadn’t heard that everyone thought they had been lying for years. Do you have a cite on that? At any rate, maybe they did not provide good enough evidence for their claims. It is not only necessary to be right in science but also to provide evidence to back it up.

Electromagnetism and gravitation could be related, if the physicists can ever pull together their Grand Unified Theory. So the idea that there could be or is a device that could exploit part of this is interesting, and could be real-world data for the support of a unified theory, but until then, I think it’s fair to hold the relationship ideas at arms-length.

Do a search for

“wright brothers” “scientific american” hoax