A maverick view? Challenging the consensus

Can science cope with those who rock the boat?

There is an apparent paradox at the heart of science. Research thrives on new ideas, new theories, competition and disagreement. Debates can get heated; comments, highly personal. New studies rarely provide complete answers, and data may be interpreted in different ways.

From this disagreement an order gradually emerges as studies are replicated, more data are gathered and theories are disproved. A consensus develops. The changing views about climate change and malaria in the highlands of Kenya illustrate how ideas evolve over time.

While some experts argue that climate change is a major factor in the spread of such diseases, others are more sceptical, pointing to alternative possible explanations.

Notable nonconformists

But what if someone thinks the consensus is wrong? Over time, many scientists have challenged conventional thinking. Alfred Wegener suggested that the Earth’s continents were drifting over the surface of the planet. He was ridiculed by his peers – but was ultimately proved right. In biology heretics have included Howard Temin and David Baltimore, who showed that information could be copied from RNA into DNA, and Stanley Prusiner, who suggested that prions were infectious protein particles.

Yet for each free-thinking genius eventually proved right, there are many mavericks whose ideas have not endured. Peter Duesberg led a long campaign insisting that AIDS was not caused by HIV. More recently, Andrew Wakefield sparked a crisis of confidence in the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine by arguing that it was linked to autism, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

The processes of science can seem conservative. Peer review – the process whereby grant applications and scientific papers are judged by fellow experts to determine their validity and promise – is a good example. This process can make it hard for those whose ideas are not mainstream to continue their work.

Nonconformists may find it difficult to get funding for their research or have their findings published. Public criticism of unconventional views can be a way of stifling dissent.

Ultimately, though, ideas stand or fall on how consistent they are with data. With supporting evidence, an unfashionable theory will in time be accepted.


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Health and Climate Change’ in January 2009 and reviewed and updated in September 2014.

Statistics and maths, Ecology and environment, Careers
Health and Climate Change
Education levels:
14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development