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. Note as well that influential-but-flawed ideas also can prompt good science that doesn’t retain any value after those ideas are recognized as 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.
None of which means scientists shouldn’t care about being influential. I certainly want to be influential! But I don’t want to be influential for the sake of being influential, I want to be influential because I think I’m right. It’s not good for science if good, correct ideas have no influence. The point is that influence, independent of correctness, is valueless. What’s valuable in science isn’t being influential. It’s being right.
This is a lightly-edited version of a post that first ran a few years ago. Sorry for the rerun, I’m buying time to polish some good stuff.