Fringe science: Wikis


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Fringe science is scientific inquiry in an established field of study that departs significantly from mainstream or orthodox theories, and is classified in the "fringes" of a credible mainstream academic discipline. Mainstream scientists typically regard fringe concepts as highly speculative or strongly refuted, as opposed to protoscience, which is plausible emerging science.[1]

Though there are examples of mainstream scientists supporting maverick ideas within their own discipline of expertise, fringe science theories and ideas are often advanced by individuals either without a traditional academic science background, or by researchers outside the mainstream discipline,[2] although history of science shows that scientific progress is often marked by interdisciplinary and multicultural interaction.[3] Friedlander suggests that fringe science is necessary for mainstream science "not to atrophy", as scientists must evaluate the plausibility of each new fringe claim and certain fringe discoveries "will later graduate into the ranks of accepted" while others "will never receive confirmation".[4] The general public has difficulty distinguishing between "science and its imitators",[4] and in some cases a "yearning to believe or a generalized suspicion of experts is a very potent incentive to accepting pseudoscientific claims".[5]

The term fringe science is sometimes loosely used to describe fields that are actually pseudosciences, or fields which are referred to as sciences, but entirely lack scientific rigor or plausibility. Scientists have coined the terms pathological science, voodoo science, and cargo cult science to describe inquiry lacking in scientific integrity. Junk science is typically used politically to describe agenda-driven science. Fringe science, in contrast, does have some degree of scientific rigor, plausibility, and integrity, though it is usually highly disputed. Fringe science is sometimes also referred to as questionable science.



Traditionally, the term fringe science is used to describe unusual theories and models of discovery that have their basis in established scientific principle. Such theories may be advocated by a scientist who is recognized by the larger scientific community (typically due to publication of peer reviewed studies by the scientist), but this is not always the case. Mainstream science is likely to fail or make errors, but broadly speaking, a fringe science is in accord with accepted standards, and its character of resistance to change forms a mark of sound judgment as a reaction.[6]

Some of today's widely-held theories (such as plate tectonics) had their origins as fringe science, and were held in a negative opinion for decades.[7] It is noted that:

The confusion between science and pseudoscience, between honest scientific error and genuine scientific discovery, is not new, and it is a permanent feature of the scientific landscape [...] Acceptance of new science can come slowly.[8]

The categorical boundaries between fringe science and pseudoscience are often disputed. Fringe science is seen by most scientists as rational, but unlikely. A valid fringe science may avoid recognition by a scientific consensus for a variety of reasons, including incomplete or contradictory evidence.[9] Fringe science can be a protoscience that is not yet accepted by the vast majority of scientists. A fringe scientist may make observations through the scientific method. Whether a fringe science is accepted by mainstream scientists has largely been based on the quality of the discoveries made by a given fringe science.

The phrase "fringe science" is sometimes considered pejorative. For example, Lyell D. Henry, Jr. wrote that "'fringe science' [is] a term also suggesting kookiness."[10] This belief may be inspired by eccentric, groundbreaking researchers on the fringe of science (colloquially known as mad scientists).[11]



Fringe science can be distinguished from other controversial fields of study as follows:

  • Pseudoscience is notoriously lacking in rigorous application of the scientific method, and reproducibility is typically a problem. This is not so in fringe science.
  • The term junk science is used to describe agenda-driven research that ignores certain standard methodologies and practices in an attempt to secure a given result from an experiment. Fringe science, as in standard methodology, proceeds from theory to conclusion with no attempt to direct or coax the result.

Contemporary examples

Relatively recent fringe sciences include:

  • Aubrey de Grey, featured in a 2006 60 Minutes special report, is working on advanced studies in human longevity.[12] Many mainstream scientists believe his research, especially de Grey's view on the importance of nuclear (epi)mutations and his purported timeline for antiaging therapeutics, constitutes "fringe science."De Grey Technology Review controversy In an article released in a 2006 issue of the magazine Technology Review (part of a larger series), it was written that, "SENS [De Grey's hypothesis] is highly speculative. Many of its proposals have not been reproduced, nor could they be reproduced with today's scientific knowledge and technology. Echoing Myhrvold, we might charitably say that de Grey's proposals exist in a kind of antechamber of science, where they wait (possibly in vain) for independent verification. SENS does not compel the assent of many knowledgeable scientists; but neither is it demonstrably wrong."[13]
  • A nuclear fusion reaction called cold fusion occurring near room temperature and pressure was reported by chemists Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons in March 1989. Numerous research efforts at the time were unable to replicate these results.[14] Subsequently, a number of scientists with a variety of credentials have worked on the problem or participated in international conferences on cold fusion. In 2004, the United States Department of Energy decided to take another look at cold fusion to determine if their policies towards the subject should be altered due to new experimental evidence, and commissioned a panel on cold fusion.
  • The theory of abiogenic petroleum origin holds that natural petroleum was formed from deep carbon deposits, perhaps dating to the formation of the Earth. The ubiquity of hydrocarbons in the solar system is taken as evidence that there may be a great deal more petroleum on Earth than commonly thought, and that petroleum may originate from carbon-bearing fluids which migrate upward from the mantle. Abiogenic hypotheses saw a revival in the last half of the twentieth century by Russian and Ukrainian scientists, and more interest has been generated in the West after the publication in 1999 of The Deep Hot Biosphere by Thomas Gold. Gold's version of the hypothesis partly is based on the existence of a biosphere composed of thermophile bacteria in the Earth's crust, which may explain the existence of certain biomarkers in extracted petroleum.

Responding to fringe science

Michael W. Friedlander suggests some guidelines for responding to fringe science, which he argues is a more difficult problem to handle, "at least procedurally,"[15] than scientific misconduct. His suggested methods include impeccable accuracy, checking cited sources, not overstating orthodox science, thorough understanding of the Wegener continental drift example, examples of orthodox science investigating radical proposals, and prepared examples of errors from fringe scientists.[16]

Historical examples

Cases of historical note include:

  • Wilhelm Reich's work with orgone, a physical energy he claimed to have discovered, contributed to his alienation from the psychiatric community and eventually to his jailing.
  • Linus Pauling's belief that large amounts of vitamin C functioned as a panacea for a whole host of diseases, a claim that has largely been refuted.


Towards the end of the 20th century, religiously-inspired critics cited fringe science theories with limited support in the scientific community in attempts to classify as "controversial" entire fields of scientific inquiry (notably paleo-anthropology, human sexuality, evolution, geology, and paleontology) which contradicted literal or fundamentalist interpretation of various sacred texts. Describing ongoing debate and research within these fields as evidence of fundamental weaknesses or flaws, these critics argued that "controversies" left open a window for the plausibility of divine intervention and intelligent design.[17][18][19]

However, epistemologists have noted these religiously-motivated efforts are typically rooted in misunderstandings of science: the scientific method is often regarded as an ongoing dialogue which aims for perpetual debate and inquiry, and not for inviolable conclusions. As Donald E. Simanek asserts, "Too often speculative and tentative hypotheses of cutting edge science are treated as if they were scientific truths, and so accepted by a public eager for answers," ignorant of the fact that "As science progresses from ignorance to understanding it must pass through a transitionary phase of confusion and uncertainty."[20]

The media also play a role in the creation and propagation of the view that certain fields of science are "controversial". In "Optimising public understanding of science: A comparative perspective" by Jan Nolin et al., the authors claim that "From a media perspective it is evident that controversial science sells, not only because of its dramatic value but also since it is often connected to high-stake societal issues."[21]

See also


  1. ^ Dutch Steven I (January 1982). "Notes on the nature of fringe science". J Geol Ed 30 (1): 6–13. ERIC EJ260409. ISSN 0022-1368.  (ed. Identifies three classifications of scientific ideas (center, frontier, fringe) and defines fringe as a region where ideas are highly speculative or strongly refuted.)
  2. ^ Friedlander, Michael W., "At the Fringes of Science," p. 58.
  3. ^ Isaac Asimov (1980). Left Hand of the Electron. Bantam Books. ISBN 9780440947172. 
  4. ^ a b Friedlander, Michael W., "At the Fringes of Science," p. 173.
  5. ^ Friedlander, Michael W., "At the Fringes of Science," p. 176.
  6. ^ Friedlander, Michael W., "At the Fringes of Science," p. 172.
  7. ^ Friedlander, Michael W., "At the Fringes of Science," p. 5.
  8. ^ Friedlander, Michael W., "At the Fringes of Science," p. 161.
  9. ^ Friedlander, Michael W., "At the Fringes of Science," p. 183.
  10. ^ Henry Lyell D (1981). "Unorthodox science as a popular activity". J Am Culture 4 (2): 1–22. doi:10.1111/j.1542-734X.1981.0402_1.x. 
  11. ^ Runco Mark A; Pritzker Steven R (1999). Encyclopedia of Creativity. i-z. p. 10. 
  12. ^ "The quest for immortality: Want to live 500 years? One scientist says it may be possible one day". CBS News. 2005-12-28. 
  13. ^ Pontin, Jason (2006-07-11). "Is defeating aging only a dream?". Technology Review.  (includes June 9, 2006 critiques and rebuttals)
  14. ^ "A report from the American Physical Society spring meeting - 1–2 May 1989 Baltimore, MD Special session on cold fusion". Retrieved 2009-04-14. 
  15. ^ Friedlander, Michael W., "At the Fringes of Science," p. 174.
  16. ^ Friedlander, Michael W., "At the Fringes of Science," p. 178-9.
  17. ^ "The dangers of creationism in education". Council of Europe. 2008-03-31. 
  18. ^ "The Wedge" (PDF). Discovery Institute. 1999. 
  19. ^ "Edwards v. Aguillard". : Amicus curiae brief of 72 Nobel laureates, 17 state academies of science, and 7 other scientific organizations in support of appellees in 482 U.S. 578 (1987)
  20. ^ Simanek, Donald. "Cutting edge science". Retrieved 2008-04-01. 
  21. ^ Nolin Jan et al.. "Optimising public understanding of science: A comparative perspective" (PDF). p. 632. 


  • Brante Thomas; Fuller Steve; Lynch William (1993). Controversial science: from content to contention. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press. OCLC 26096166. 
  • Brown George E Jr (23 October 1996). Environmental science under siege : fringe science and the 104th Congress. Washington, DC: Democratic Caucus of the Committee on Science, U.S. House of Representatives. OCLC 57343997. 
  • ed. by Sharon M. Friedman .... (1998). Communicating uncertainty: Media coverage of new and controversial science. Mahwah, New Jersey; London: Lawrence Erlbaum. ISBN 0805827277. OCLC 263560777. 
  • Dutch Steven I (January 1982). "Notes on the nature of fringe science". J Geol Ed 30 (1): 6–13. ISSN 0022-1368. OCLC 92686827. 
  • Frazier Kendrick (1981). Paranormal borderlands of science. Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books. ISBN 0879751487. OCLC 251487947. 
  • Friedlander Michael W (February 1995). At the fringes of science. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press. ISBN 0813322006. OCLC 31046052. 

Further reading

External links


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