Do you have a revolutionary new scientific theory ?

After several decades working as a science writer and part-time academic, I’ve had many emails, letters, papers – and in one case an entire set of files – setting out new scientific theories of everything from the origin of the universe to how aircraft fly. They often come with a covering note saying that no scientist has been prepared to take the theory seriously, and wondering if I would be willing to help. And indeed I am – with the following advice.

First, a lack of response from professional scientists does not (necessarily) mean they think you’re intellectual pondlife, your idea is beyond stupid, or that there is a conspiracy to prevent your genius being recognised.  The boring reality is that most researchers are under relentless pressure even to get their own work done.  As a result, they will only spend time reviewing ideas that are (a) of direct personal interest; (b) from colleagues, and/or (c) from the editors of journals asking them to assess (“referee”) a new research claim for possible publication. Chances are your work doesn’t fall into any of these categories, which isn’t a good start.

They might, nonetheless, be willing to cast an eye over something potentially interesting. But in the “hard” sciences this is extremely unlikely to take the form of a claim based on an appeal to “common sense arguments” or observations that are “obviously” true. This is because (sadly) both strategies have long been known to be unreliable in these fields.  For example, the geocentric theory of the solar system was based on the “obvious” fact that the sun goes round the Earth – which we see happen every day, but now know to be an illusion. In mathematics, Euclid took as an axiom (i.e. a statement so obviously correct it required no proof) that parallel lines only meet at infinity. The study of non-Euclidean geometry (e.g. spheres) by Gauss and others showed this not to be the case.

It is for this reason that the hard sciences rely so much (arguably in some case, too much) on mathematics for insight. The upshot is that your ideas won’t be taken seriously until you are able to state them convincingly in mathematical language,  make some testable predictions – and ideally have some experimental evidence to back them up.  The trouble is, that also means that assessing your idea will also involve some serious investment of time – which few professional researchers will be willing to make. It’s the Catch-22 facing everyone wanting to get their new idea taken seriously.

Finally, please do not think you are being persecuted simply for being an “outsider”, “just an ordinary person” etc. As this Physics World article shows, it doesn’t make much difference even if you’re a celebrated researcher,  a Fellow of the Royal Society or even a Nobel Prize-winning theorist. Getting radical ideas taken seriously, let alone accepted, has always been, and will always be, extremely difficult. 

Researchers asked to assess some new idea from non-academics have long replied with a response along the lines of “Please submit your ideas to an academic journal, who will assess your ideas professionally”. However, I feel this advice must now be modified to specify “…a serious academic journal”. Over recent years, there has been a dramatic rise in so-called predatory journals which  publish research after claiming to referee it…and then demanding a publication fee running into hundreds of dollars.  In reality, they publish any tosh produced by authors foolish enough to pay.

How can such journals be identified ? With many “serious” journals publishing complete tosh, this is harder than it should be, but listings of suspected predatory journals are available online, and these should be avoided as their content is not taken seriously by the academic community.  

Good luck in your efforts to push back the frontiers of science. It’s a tough job, but it has to be done – and done properly.

Robert Matthews

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