Why better theories fail – and why academia needs to change.

I wrote this in reply to James McGinn who has come up with some ideas about the way water behaves as a gas (which are not totally absurd) who had said:

“It’s funny, but when I first set out to tell the world of my new theory I expected people to be thankful that I was reviving an intellectually dead subject. Convection theory was so ephemeral and vague that I knew nobody would or could defend it, as has been the case. However, I never expected the depth of emotions that people have for what is such a non-starter of a theory. “

What I said, was that coming up with new theories is easy. Off the top of my head I have:

I’ve also got some interesting ideas:

So, the problem is not finding a better theory that is more “right” than what others currently accept … it’s basically a PR campaign trying to get people aware of the idea and to slowly accept it … which takes time, effort, facts.

You’ve got to give people a reason for going through the whole laborious exercise of relearning what they thought they knew … then understanding what it is the theory is trying to say … then trying to understand why the theory is wrong … then trying to understand why the new theory is right … and even then … even when people say “yes that’s a better theory” … unless they in turn are inspired to go out and tell other people … it will still be just a small group with a new idea and go anywhere … and even then … if there are powerful interests (like global warming and the political influence of Greens) … then even if you have all the above, the theory may still go nowhere.

To be cynical, over the years, I’ve learnt that theories are just conceptual models that people have that that in practice (not what they say but how they behave), they really don’t care  if they are wrong … unless there is a real tangible problem it causes to them.

So, e.g. I keep asking (to James) “is there any evidence you have … in effect that shows using the current theories does not reasonably well predict what happens. Because even with the best will in the world, I’ve got plenty of other things that I’m working on and unless I have something tangible that really affects me personally it is difficult to justify spending the time and energy looking at someone else’s idea.

Thanks Josh cartoonsbyjosh.com

Thanks Josh cartoonsbyjosh.com

A very good example of how a theory can be right … yet it just sits on my website is the “Caterpillar theory“. This just says that the temperature expands the crust causing plate movement. There’s nothing new here … it’s just the application of known physics. And there is evidence that it is happening it in the ridges at the centre of the Atlantic (which show modulations over ice-age periods). So, I’d say there is perhaps 70-90% chance of it being correct. However as you will see from the picture right “I see no Caterpillar”, I knew that the theory would struggle to be accepted even amongst sceptics (I might even  say especially amongst sceptics!)

So, why isn’t the world biting my hand to get this theory? The answer is simple:

There’s no reason for anyone to accept the theory.

Having come up with the theory …and worse published it outsider academia …. academics who usually credit themselves with all discoveries … now can’t credit themselves with my discovery. (And I knew that would happen! ) Nor is it in their interest to promote this theory because it proves how they missed something pretty simple.

Nor to be frank is it in my interest. I cannot see myself becoming rich as a result- quite the reverse – I can see that the huge effort to make people aware of the theory would consume vast amounts of my time and money.

To put it bluntly neither academics nor I stand to gain commercially from this theory.

This is why academia appears to be the “font of all discoveries”- because in the past, it was far too expensive for any individual to try to run the huge publicity campaign necessary to get public acceptance. So when public paid academics could go out to industry, pick up ideas from people who had no (commercial) interest in telling other people about them … they would then write them up as “their” idea.

Yes technically that is theft – but (unless it could be sold in its own right) as those outside academia had no commercial interest – it really didn’t matter to anyone (except for a few bruised egos).

And because in academia there was personal advantage to be had by “discovering” ideas academics benefited commercially through career advancement and added kudos. So, there was an economic advantage for academics in “discovering” ideas (from others). And (in the past) the rest of us benefited by having people who would systematically record other people’s ideas (even if the whole system was a bit corrupt – those outside USED TO benefit).

So, in reality,  we created a useful parasite in academia … one where people got on by taking other people’s ideas and claiming it as their own. But that beast can only work if there are people outside creating new ideas (for them to steal) and if those people themselves don’t go through the process of claiming ownership of these new ideas.

That system worked when publishing was an expensive and time consuming thing to do. Only academics had the commercial interest in going through the laborious process of getting something into print … and even if the original person who came up with the idea complained … what were they going to do? Unless they had already published the idea, they had no proof … and it was academics who wrote up the history of science … so for obvious reason we (USED TO) hear almost nothing about all the people that were written out of (academic) history.

In the past, the only way to get ideas accepted as your own by the academic “gatekeepers”, was to become an academic, then submit to their power and authority … wait for the people whose ideas and theories you were overthrowing to die (so that you were now top of the tree and could dictate what was “science”) … and then to publish.

For obvious reasons – given that new ideas often come from the young – and the old who champion the status quo are in charge – change within academia was measured in life-times (unless someone could come up with unequivocal evidence and then force it through against the old guard)

However, that has all changed with the internet.

Now we have a record of those ideas before academia pinched them … and worse … through the “anti-industry” policies brought on by the “scientific staza governmental advisers”, we (in the UK) have massively lost the engineering powerhouse that used to be the engine of some many new ideas.

So, not only has the source of new ideas dried up, but academia can no longer so easily half-inch everyone else’s ideas and claim it as their own. The result is that academia is now spending more and more of its time trying to police it control of ideas (on the internet and media) and thus spending more and more of its time rejecting news ideas from outside (e.g. climate scepticism).

This is really what the climate “wars” have been about. It is a war for control of the ideas underpinning how we view climate … one which academia lost because it went down a blind alleyway on (anti-engineering) CO2.

So, one of the reasons I do not submit my ideas to academia … is because that old system whereby academia assumed control of ideas and theories can no longer be sustained in an age of the internet.

But climate may also be the way to rejuvenate academia and make it fit for the new internet age.

Academia can no longer thrive as it used to in the past:  living as a parasite off the ideas generated in industry & wider society (particularly when it intentionally set out to destroy UK and US engineering). Nor can it, by its control of publishing, now claim to be the source of other new ideas from outside academia (are there any new ideas from within academia?)

I’m not sure what the new world order is going to look like when academia is finally forced to admit it was never the “font of all knowledge” that it has claimed. But I’m sure the sooner we get to that situation in the UK, the better off both wider society and academia will be.

The climate wars – are important, because never before has so much of academia unified together to back an idea that then so quickly proved to be such an appalling disaster. Hopefully that will be a wake up call to academia (along with all the other smaller “turf wars” triggered by those challenging it from the internet).

We can’t uninvent the internet – we cannot stop people outside academia being sceptic of some of its more daft ideas like “doomsday warming”.  Thus, the change is going to have to come from within academia itself. Somehow, academia is going to have to learn how to live in a world where it is no longer in control of ideas – where it can no longer “half-inch” ideas from outside and claim it as their own.

That doesn’t stop academia being a useful group within society – it just means that academics (and perhaps all of us) are going to have to find a new way to justify their work which doesn’t involve the false idea that somehow academia is “better” than other people or worst of all that someone we “need” acadmics to “invent” new ideas.

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10 Responses to Why better theories fail – and why academia needs to change.

  1. markstoval says:

    We can’t uninvent the internet – we cannot stop people outside academia being sceptic of some of its more daft ideas like “doomsday warming”.

    This is true, but the State can control the internet if it so chooses to do so. Laws, regulations, and prosecutor’s interpretations could prevent you from challenging the Academics if the State decided that was in “national interest”. There was the recent example of the guy who wanted all skeptics charged under the RICO act. (USA only? or planet wide? who knows?)

    In general I agree with you and I sure hope that the State does not use its power to control the internet to censor all debate on scientific ideas.

    As a side note; how in the hell did we get to the point in time where educated people really thought that CO2 and “back-radiation” could warm the surface of the planet by 33 degrees? Jesus, Joseph, and Mary.

    ~ Mark

    • Scottish-Sceptic says:

      The simple answer to that is that because CO2 changed over the ice-age cycle and no other explanation was available academics put 2 + 2 together and made a mountain (and yes there’s no relationship between the answer and the sum).

      There’s also the problem that academics believe that if they can measure all the radiation coming into the earth and leaving … that that means they must know how much the earth will warm/cool. What they don’t understand is “shit happens” … that the earth is far far far more complex and that there are many many reasons why the surface temperature might go up without a change in the net radiation.

  2. James McGinn says:

    Excellent post.

    I’m mostly in agreement with everything you say here. I am, maybe, a little less cynical toward academia than you are. They are overwhelmed with the politics and all of the dotting of I’s and crossing of T’s they have to do to create the illusion that they have brought something new to subjects they often don’t understand that well. They don’t have the luxury of looking at things from the interdisciplinary perspective that you and I have.

    When a scientific theory is devoid of details and facts people’s minds just naturally fill-in those details with their imagination, like children do with fairy tales. And they are more emotionally attached to these created details than they would be if the details were conveyed to them by somebody or if they had read them in a book.

    Here is an example of the emotions my theory stirs up:

    Also take note of my response. The $100,000.00 US offer is not a joke.

    James McGinn
    Solving Tornadoes

    • Scottish-Sceptic says:

      The response – if it’s by academics – is instinctive and to be fair to them, they probably have very little control over their reaction.

  3. wyoskeptic says:

    I agree to a large degree. I also think that for a lot of things, unless there is a need for a new theory, even a theory that is obviously wrong will persist long after it should be replaced. Something like inertia will keep it around, just because it is not easy for most people to change the direction of their thinking, much like the way that a very, very large tanker takes a lot of ocean to turn around in.

    As for your Caterpillar theory, I have been thinking about it while looking at the ocean bottom age overlays in Google earth, and if I toss in some thoughts about shell gravitation theory going hand in hand with the tidal effects of the moon’s orbit as it lifts plate tectonics while temperature expansion from underneath pushes and, (just for good measure,) some electrical eddy currents (caused by induction from the current flows generating the earth’s magnetic field) that in turn leads to localized hot spots within the crust, and it all makes sense to me. However, the inevitable conclusion sends most any conventionally trained Geo type into a catatonic fit.

    Well, actually not catatonic but rather more toward raging mad dog foaming at the mouth fits. Or so has been my experience.

  4. markstoval says:


    I know you don’t need me to create more work for you, but sometimes a blogger enjoys hearing a good idea. (well, I hope it is a good one) So here goes …

    You have posted several times that the Slayers were right on the science but horrible on the PR. In other words, they lost the propaganda war even though truth was on their side. So, what about a post (and then discussion) on how their ideas could be presented at places like WUWT or JoNova’s site and people understand what they are saying? WUWT would be the hardest place since the Slayers and the regular posters at WUWT went to war once upon a time.

    How can the truth be told to the luke-warmer side of the debate? What would make them see that CO2 don’t do what they think it does?

    • The thing that is true is that lapse rate and atmospheric pressure are the two main factors most important for the establishment of the greenhouse effect. However you’ve got to add to this “effective radiative height”. This is the height at which on average the earth emits radiation. And it is this height that is modified by changing gas composition.

      If you were to change CO2 composition (or H2O or clouds), the effect is to change effective radiation height. And because of the way gas concentration falls off, you get a logarithmic change in height with composition.

      And for this change to crate a new equilibrium, there is required to be a net change in heat flow. (For heating), some of that heat flow is a REDUCTION in convection, and some of it is a change in net IR … which could be described as “back radiation”.

      So, increasing CO2 does cause a change in “back radiation” … but it’s really the tail wagging the dog, because this is not setting the temperature, instead it is a symptom of the lapse rate and changing irradiative height changing the temperature.

      So, the “slayers” are right when they say that the greenhouse effect is largely determined by planetary gas pressure and lapse rate. However, they are wrong when (or if) they say there is no “back radiation”.

      And the “heat capture” crowd like Watts are right when they say that there is “back radiation”, but they are barking up the wrong tree when they suggest that this is what creates the greenhouse effect and utterly wrong to dismiss the lapse rate and planetary pressure.

      As for Anthony Watts – my own impression is that he is pig-headed, extremely opinionated and judges work by what is on the cover and not what is in the content. However, his worst failing, is he gives absolutely no feedback as to why he doesn’t like material presented to him.

      However, my impression is that he wants material presented in a pseudo-academic or as it might well be called “pseudo-scientific” style … that is to say a style where long “scientific sounding” words replace simple English words. Where mathematical equations are used where simple English sentences would suffice and which dress up simple ideas to make them sound grandiose.

      I like to make complex idea sound simple … Anthony likes people who can take simple ideas and make them sound complex. So, I’m afraid me and Anthony don’t see eye to eye on how to present climate.

      (Note … the lapse rate itself is not a constant, due to the change in moist and dry lapse rates … and so the level of water vapour and cloud formation is very important and this may be affected by other changes. So, the model I present of “effective radiation height” is one that assumes a constant lapse rate … i.e. one that is unchanged by other changes … which is not necessarily a valid assumption).

      • Just to build on that more … Anthony has the personality typical of accountants, quartermasters and other people who demand things to be neat and in order. And whilst the world would not operate without the type of people who are accountants, companies run by accountants never go bust … they just never succeed.

        Because if you want to sell an idea (or product) to the populace you need salesmen. But, (like most accountants & engineers) Anthony hates with vengeance the salesman mentality … woolly brained, pandering to the populace, not neat and tied down to hard facts. That is why his site is so successful amongst engineering types … because he never lets anything that even smacks of being “sales” aimed at the populace onto his site … but that means what he prints goes down like a lead balloon amongst most ordinary people.

        However, as you might realise, I’m a very poor quality salesman … but I always reckoned it was better to have even a very few poor quality salesmen … than none at all (as Anthony would have had it).

      • James McGinn says:

        However, my impression is that he wants material presented in a pseudo-academic or as it might well be called “pseudo-scientific” style … that is to say a style where long “scientific sounding” words replace simple English words. Where mathematical equations are used where simple English sentences would suffice and which dress up simple ideas to make them sound grandiose.

        James McGinn:
        Meteorology is its own art form that is meant to be convincing, and part of being convincing is glossing over what you don’t really understand with terminology that will leave the public confused enough not to ask follow-up questions. Watt’s is a typical meteorologists. It’s kind of a cult or a belief system. He’s like a pastor or a priest. He’s not a genuine scientist. But that is true for all meteorologists. Keep in mind, meteorologists don’t do experiments. They do observation.

  5. James McGinn says:

    Mark Stoval:
    What would make them see that CO2 don’t do what they think it does?

    James McGinn:
    I don’t think you understand the nature of the problem, Mark. You are suggesting that they (the luke warmers in this instance) have 1) thought about CO2 and 2) that they have a well-defined conceptual model of it and 3) that they are cognitive of this well-defined conceptual model.

    The reality is that all three of these are wrong. The reality is, 1) they haven’t thought about CO2 2) They do not have a well-defined conceptual model, and 3) they are not cognitive of the fact that they do not have a well-defined conceptual model.

    This is a problem with the atmospheric sciences in general. And it is inclusive of many different issues in the atmospheric science, CO2 forcing, Thermodynamics, convection model of storm theory. And, depending on the issue, no faction is immune to these shortcomings. Surely you have noticed, for example, some of the absurd conversations that have taken place between Joe Postma and people that have tried to explain to him that colder objects don’t have the ability to sense they are the colder objects and turn off their outflow of EME.

    People have blind spots. And they tend to collectivize with others that share their blind spots.

    I would suggest to all to be less concerned about the blind spots of other and more about their own.

    The mother of all blind spots involves H2O, not CO2:
    Current models of water maintain over 60 anomalies. That is 60 as in a six with a zero behind it. That is 5 to 10 times more anomalies than any other substance.

    James McGinn
    Solving tornadoes

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