A fringe theory is, broadly speaking, an idea or viewpoint held by a small minority of supporters. It includes the theories and models of fringe science as well as comparable work in other areas of scholarship, such as the humanities. Commonly, the phrase is used in a narrower sense, as a pejorative roughly synonymous with various forms of pseudo-scholarship. Precise definitions that distinguish between more widely-held views, fringe theories, and pseudo-scholarship are difficult or impossible to construct because of the demarcation problem. Issues of false balance can occur when fringe theories are presented on equal footing with their better established alternatives.
Fringe theories are ideas that depart significantly from the prevailing or mainstream view in their appropriate field of study; they are neither the majority opinion nor that of a respected minority. Financial journalist Alexander Davidson characterized such ideas as being "peddled by a small band of staunch supporters", but not necessarily without merit. Fringe theories meet with varying levels of academic acceptance. Daniel N. Robinson described them as occupying "a limbo between the decisive dead end and the ultimately credible productive theory." Although some fringe theories include work done to the appropriate level of scholarship in their field of study, the term in general is closer to the popular understanding of the word theory—a hypothesis, guess, or uncertain idea—than to the concept of an established scientific theory. Margaret Wertheim suggested that they should be treated in a manner similar to outsider art, and curated an 2003 exhibition at the Santa Monica Museum of Art dedicated to the work of fringe physicist Jim Carter. While the phrase is often used in the context of fringe science, fringe theories have been discussed in diverse areas of scholarship, including Biblical criticism, history, finance, law, medicine, and politics. Fringe theories even exist relative to fields of study that are themselves outside the mainstream, such as cryptozoology.
Ideas are often deemed fringe theories pejoratively, their advocates dismissed as cranks or crackpots, out of touch with reality. Fringe theories are sometimes considered to overlap, or be interchangeable with, more disparaging categories, such as pseudoarchaeology, pseudohistory, or pseudoscience. The term is also used to describe conspiracy theories in the derogatory sense. These fringe theories are explanations of historical or political events as the accomplishments of unrealistically powerful, secretive organizations: "a vast, insidious, preternaturally effective international conspiratorial network", according to Richard Hofstadter, or "conspirators of almost superhuman power and cunning", as described by historian Esther Webman. However, labeling ideas as fringe may be less pejorative than describing them as pseudo-scholarship; it is unlikely that anyone would identify their own work as pseudoscience, for example, but astrologer David Cochrane is "proud to be a fringe theorist".
Wertheim wrote that a "credentialed physicist ... can generally recognize a fringe theory by sight" when it comes in the form of an eccentrically formatted manuscript. However, it is difficult to distinguish between fringe theories and more respected minority views, and a workable definition of what constitutes a fringe theory may not be possible. This represents an aspect of the demarcation problem, even when the disciplines involved are the humanities, rather than science.
Geologist Steven Dutch approached the demarcation problem by dividing scientific ideas into three categories: center, frontier, and fringe, based on their adherence to scientific methodology and level of acceptance. Later authors, including Richard Duschl, expanded on these classifications. Under this system, fringe theories represent a mix of legitimate new ideas and pseudoscience. They await analysis to determine if they will pass into the frontier or be rejected entirely.
The majority of fringe theories never become part of established scholarship. Rejected ideas may help to refine mainstream thought, but most outside theories do not even do this; they are simply incorrect. Nevertheless, some ideas do gradually receive wider acceptance until they are no longer viewed as fringe theories, and occasionally such theories even become the mainstream view. One of the most widely known examples is Alfred Wegener's theory of continental drift, which eventually served as the basis for the accepted model of plate tectonics. Other ideas to make the transition include the germ theory of disease, prions, and complexity theory in project management. Behavioral finance was described in a 2002 journal article as "at the fringe of ... modern financial theory", but was widely applied in many fields of business a decade later. Other times, this change is not gradual, and represents a paradigm shift. Writing for the New York Law Journal, Andrew Bluestone described how a single court case in New York changed use of an obscure common law statute regarding attorney misconduct from a "fringe theory of law" to an accepted, mainstream cause for legal action in the state. In a similar manner, what were once mainstream theories, such as phlogiston or luminiferous aether, can be superseded and relegated to the fringe.
Such shifts between fringe theory and accepted thought are not always complete nor clear-cut. In 1963, Reuben Fine wrote that mainstream psychology had adopted aspects of Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis, but that many students of the discipline believed psychoanalysis to be a "lunatic fringe theory which has little to do with 'scientific' psychology". The relationship between psychoanalysis and psychiatry remains complex.
The media can have a role in the dissemination and popularization of fringe theories. Efforts to maintain an appearance of journalistic objectivity sometimes reduce complex topics to two sides, often framing issues in terms of an underdog challenger facing off against the established mainstream. Biblical scholar Matthew Collins wrote that this simplification can be "both misrepresentative and misleading, especially when a far-fetched fringe theory is, in the name of neutrality and fairness, elevated to the role of equally legitimate contender." This false balance can become the expected media behavior. When the New York Times published an article strongly supporting the mainstream scientific stance on the thimerosal controversy, others in the media condemned the Times for portraying the vaccine-autism connection as a fringe theory, calling the article a "hit piece".
Issues of false balance also arise in education, especially in the context of the creation–evolution controversy. As science, creationism is discredited, a fringe theory akin to Lamarckism or the cosmology of Immanuel Velikovsky's Worlds in Collision. Because advocates of creationism want schools to present only their preferred alternative, not the entire variety of minority views, they have attempted to portray scholarship on the issue as equally divided, and between only two models.
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