Being influential doesn’t compensate for being wrong (UPDATED)

All scientists get things wrong. And not just matters of empirical fact. Hypotheses, methods, conceptual frameworks, and even entire subfields that initially seemed promising can turn out to be unfounded, nonstarters, or dead ends. Even very widely-believed empirical claims, well-studied hypotheses, popular methods, established conceptual frameworks, and popular subfields can turn out to be wrong.

When a very influential idea turns out to be wrong, it’s often argued that the idea’s influence compensates for its wrongness. “Ok, that idea turned out to be wrong–but look at all the good science it inspired!” I’ve heard something like this said about neutral theory in ecology, a commenter on this post said something like this about much of Stephen J. Gould’s work, and one could imagine saying something like this about lots of other influential-but-wrong ideas in ecology and evolution, like the intermediate disturbance hypothesis.

I don’t buy it. I don’t think the fact that an idea is influential compensates in any way for it being wrong. Yes, influential-but-incorrect ideas often prompt lots of good science, which may well retain some value after those ideas are recognized as incorrect or otherwise flawed.* But here’s the thing: had that incorrect idea never been proposed, the people who did that good science would have done different good science instead, under the influence of other ideas, some of them correct. Insofar as incorrect ideas are influential, they’re just robbing Peter to pay Paul, shifting the composition of our science but not affecting the absolute amount of it. Unless influential-but-incorrect ideas increase the absolute amount of good science of lasting value (e.g., by attracting into science money that otherwise would’ve been spent on non-science, and people who otherwise would’ve pursued non-scientific careers), I don’t see how their influence can be said to be a good thing. And frankly, I doubt that you can name an influential-but-incorrect idea in ecology that appreciably increased the absolute number of ecologists or the absolute amount of funding for ecology.

Now, often the only way to find out if an influential idea is correct (or useful or productive or whatever) is to pursue it. So it’s inevitable that some fraction of all of our science is going to be based on ideas that ultimately prove flawed. But just because that’s inevitable doesn’t mean it isn’t also unfortunate. Science based on flawed ideas may retain some value even after those ideas are exposed as flawed–but science based on sound ideas retains more value, all else being equal.

Influence, independent of correctness, is valueless. What’s valuable in science isn’t being influential. It’s being right.

UPDATE: Forgot to point out that, the more influential a wrong or otherwise flawed idea is, the harder it is to convince people that it’s wrong or otherwise flawed. Which is another reason why being influential does not somehow compensate for being wrong.

*Note that influential-but-incorrect ideas also can prompt good science that doesn’t retain any value after those ideas are recognized as incorrect or otherwise flawed. For instance, technically-sound attempts to replicate a flawed experiment often lack lasting value, at least lasting positive value. Nobody builds on them; their only value is the negative one of exposing the original experiment as flawed. But I’m leaving aside such cases to avoid stacking the deck in my own favor.

17 thoughts on “Being influential doesn’t compensate for being wrong (UPDATED)

  1. Strongly agree with you on this Jeremy. The idea that some wrong idea or other was useful in the end because it spawned further research is often nothing more than an excuse designed to save face. It’s one thing if you just propose possible explanations for some phenomenon, including the presentation of new ideas or data that might have been overlooked, or the application of a new analytical method which perhaps needs refinement but break out of old thinking boxes in some way. It’s another thing altogether if you just plain made a conceptual error, or a statistical error, or some other type of outright *mistake*, as I have seen happen recently with a very well known paleoclimatologist who published a completely faulty work earlier this year. When that happens just own up to it, don’t fall back on vague rationalizations about how you’re “spawning productive discussion”.

  2. I’m not entirely sure what your point was on this post. Are you just incensed that people defend bad ideas by saying they inspire good science? Sure, a wrong idea is ultimately wrong, but they are just as useful to the advancement of the field as a correct idea. I think that a strong, well thought out idea, that requires lots of work to falsify ultimately advances the field of ecology. As you said , ideas are either correct or incorrect. An implausible incorrect idea will require less work to falsify then a very plausible but ultimately incorrect idea. Some of these ideas may take years to completely falsify and require an incremental body of evidence to build before the false idea can be toppled. In major cases this results in complete paradigm shifts in the theory. In short every experiment or body of experiments must have multiple alternate hypotheses that are credible. The falsified ones are just as valuable to advancing the field as the supported ones. We’d not know the value of the supported hypotheses and theories without the falsification of the alternate theories.

    It is counter productive when those falsified theories keep rising from the grave again and again as you’ve pointed out, quite enjoyably, in many of your earlier posts. When those ideas lived though, they were just as valuable as the alternate ideas that turned out to be correct.

    • I think there are several issues here. Part of what you’re getting at, I think, is what I noted in the post: the only way we can tell if an idea is correct (or valuable or whatever) is to pursue it. And as you point out, that pursuit can often take a long time and require a lot of effort. It’s only in retrospect that we can say, “You know, it would’ve been better if idea X had never been proposed, because it turned out to be wrong”. So if you want to say, “There’s no way to tell in advance which ideas will turn out to be right, so no sense in looking back and lamenting having pursued the ones that turned out to be wrong,” that’s absolutely fair enough.

      What I object to is when, after an idea has been shown to be wrong, people still give it “extra credit” for having been influential and inspired lots of good science, as if lots of good science wouldn’t have gotten done anyway. Keep in mind that, if influential-but-false idea X had never been proposed, other ideas, possibly including some true ones, would’ve been more influential than they actually turned out to be. For instance, had influential-but-false idea X never been proposed, the many grad students who built their dissertations around false idea X would’ve instead done dissertations built around other ideas, some of them true, thereby making those other ideas more influential. Influence is a zero-sum game, since even the most influential scientific ideas generally don’t increase the total amount of science that gets done (that mostly depends on things like government decisions to fund science vs. other things governments fund).

      Another thing you’re getting at, I think, is the question of whether there are cases in which it doesn’t even make sense to talk about ideas as right or wrong. Maybe all there is is influence–paradigms rise and fall, people pursue one idea using one approach, and then later pursue a different idea using a different approach, without the first idea being wrong or the second idea being right. This is one way of reading philosopher and historian Thomas Kuhn, whose work I’ve mentioned in an old post.

      A third thing I think you’re getting at, which I intentionally fudged in the post, is that scientific ideas can have other virtues besides being correct. For instance, a false-but-fruitful idea might inspire others to think of related and true ideas that they otherwise wouldn’t have thought of, thereby increasing the total amount of true ideas in the world. Which would be a good thing. There’s much more that could be said here, about the many virtues a scientific idea might have and how those virtues affect the advance of science.

      And yes, it really is objectionable for an idea to remain influential after it’s been shown to be wrong. Those are zombie ideas. 😉

  3. About your update: I have called this previously the “Dieter Bohlen Effect” – for those less familiar with German pop music, Dieter Bohlen is this hugely successful, but seemingly rather simple-minded frontman of the former pop-duo “Modern Talking”. He’s running the German version of “American Idol”, and it drives me crazy overhearing people all the time with sentences like: well, he doesn’t appear to be so bright, but if he is so successful, he must be smarter than he seems.

  4. I completely agree, but if you’ll forgive a possibly trivial observation, you are excluding ideas that are right in their domain but are subsequently refined – like Newtonian and Einsteinian gravity.

    • Yes, “right” is not always clear cut. In a very profound way, the world is non-Newtonian (no absolute frame of reference, etc.) But from a practical point of view, Newtonian physics isn’t so much wrong as an extremely good approximation to the truth (you can launch spacecraft using Newton’s laws, it works just fine). These sorts of conceptual niceties don’t undermine my main point, I don’t think…

  5. Interesting thought, which leads to lots of other interesting questions. I would think that being right generally makes you more influential. And if you are influential, your next idea will attract more attention and will also be more thoroughly scrutinized or tested. At the same time, the more influential you are, the more people probably are willing to take your word for whatever you come up with (yes, even among scientists…). Is there a degree of influentialness (is that even a word?) at which the two are optimally balanced? Or will individuals always strive to maximize their influence, causing inefficiency because excessive effort is needed to disprove faulty ideas of influential people?

    Another interesting question with potentially far-reaching consequences… do you get punished (do you lose influence) for being proven wrong?

  6. You say: “Insofar as incorrect ideas are influential, they’re just robbing Peter to pay Paul, shifting the composition of our science but not affecting the absolute amount of it.”

    In the field of fisheries we would say “robbing Peter to pay Pauly”, given the controversy over Daniel Pauly’s paper “Fishing down marine food webs” and the newer papers showing that the original results and the interpretation of these are no longer valid at a global level. Here are a few of the updated interpretations of global fishing patterns on food webs:

    Essington, T. E., A. H. Beaudreau, and J. Wiedenmann. 2006. Fishing through marine food webs. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences U.S.A. 103:3171-3175.

    Sethi, S. A., T. A. Branch, and R. Watson. 2010. Fishery development patterns are driven by profit but not trophic level. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences U.S.A. 107:12163-12167.

    Branch, T. A., R. Watson, E. A. Fulton, S. Jennings, C. R. McGilliard, G. T. Pablico, D. Ricard, and S. R. Tracey. 2010. The trophic fingerprint of marine fisheries. Nature 468:431-435.

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  10. Yep, and being right doesn’t compensate for being invisible
    …because if the message (from scientific research) isn’t what people want to hear, they just shut you down.
    Then what?
    Influence and social media popularity and valuies shouldn’t overrun kn owledge

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  12. While I agree with you on the trope of using the trope as a cheap excuse, the history of scientific advance seems to be replete with “influential ideas” that have not been the brain-child on any one researcher or group of scientists, but instead emerged from scientifically un-guided intuitions of every John Doe. At some point they got explicated (for example, as spontaneous generation, caloric, classical 4 elements, aether, phlogiston). In turn, the experimental refutations of these “influential ideas” were themselves the huge advances in the respective sciences. In ecology, something like the complexity-begets-stability or some sort if balance idea may have had similar intuitive (unscientific) roots.

    The question then becomes, whether the alternative to start from the correct idea existed in the first place? For example, could humans have started from assuming, contrary to plain view, that the Earth moved around the sun?

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