Meet the Scientific Outcasts and Mavericks

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Outcasts. (Credit: Shutterstock) Outcasts. (Credit: Shutterstock)

The scientific enterprise is something of a paradox. Contrary to conventional wisdom, scientists are extremely conservative (just not in a political sense). Science moves incrementally, and the status quo is preferred to radical new ideas. Yet, simultaneously, creativity is encouraged. However, scientists who become too creative can become outcasts.

Consider Alfred Wegener, the father of plate tectonics. In his day, he was mocked and ignored. Today, his theory forms the foundation of geology, but it took more than 30 years for that revolution to occur.

Surely, there are other scientists in the world today whose ideas are scorned but may very well be correct. Only time (and more data) will tell. Let’s consider a few of those “scientific outcasts” here.

Bjorn Lomborg, Roger Pielke, Jr., Cliff Mass, and Richard Lindzen. These four distinguished thinkers come from different backgrounds. Lomborg is a political scientist and statistician; Pielke, Jr. is an environmental policy analyst; Mass is a meteorologist; and Lindzen is an atmospheric physicist. What they all have in common is a rejection of climate change alarmism. And that has unfairly earned each of them the label of “climate denier.”

To varying extents, all of them have caused trouble for themselves by daring to question the common refrain that global warming is the world’s #1 problem and is exacerbating most other problems. Lomborg believes, for instance, that fighting infectious disease and malnutrition are far bigger priorities than fighting climate change. Pielke, Jr. disagrees that climate change is responsible for the increasing cost of disasters. Similarly, Mass refuses to blame climate change on phenomena such as oyster deaths and unusually warm weather in the Pacific Northwest. Lindzen critiques climate models as inaccurate.

Mark Davis. In an editorial for Nature, Davis and 18 of his colleagues made the case to stop vilifying invasive species. They argue that invasive species are not a threat to biodiversity, and the notion that these species are little more than barbarian invaders leads to bad policy. They write, “this perspective has led many conservation and restoration efforts down paths that make little ecological or economic sense.”

Paul McHugh. In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, the former psychiatrist-in-chief of Johns Hopkins Hospital argues that sex reassignment surgery is not a good solution for transgendered individuals. He cites a disturbing study from Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet that concluded:

"Persons with transsexualism, after sex reassignment, have considerably higher risks for mortality, suicidal behaviour, and psychiatric morbidity than the general population. Our findings suggest that sex reassignment, although alleviating gender dysphoria, may not suffice as treatment for transsexualism, and should inspire improved psychiatric and somatic care after sex reassignment for this patient group."

It is vital to keep in mind that all of these contrarian scientists may or may not be correct. But, skepticism and questioning the status quo are vital to the scientific method. So as long as their conclusions are based on rigorous research and reliable data, then they ought to at least be heard and treated with respect.