A fringe theory is an idea or a collection of ideas that departs significantly from the prevailing or mainstream view. It can include work done to the appropriate level of scholarship in a field of study but only supported by a minority of practitioners, to more dubious work. Examples include pseudoscience (ideas that purport to be scientific theories but have little or no scientific support), conspiracy theories, unproven claims about alternative medicine, pseudohistory and so forth. Some fringe theories may in a stricter sense be hypotheses, conjectures, or speculations. Characterization of a theory as fringe does not necessarily invalidate the theory. Dismissing a theory based solely, or in part, on a fringe characterization may deviate from the spirit of the scientific approach and may limit new advances and insights.
The term is not well defined, and ranges from valid, but non mainstream, science to wild ad hoc theories and "New Age mumbo jumbo", with the dominance of the latter resulting in the tendency to dismiss all fringe science as the domain of pseudoscientists, hobbyists, or quacks. Other terms used for the portions of fringe science that lack scientific integrity are pathological science, voodoo science, and cargo cult science. The term "junk science" is used in the political and health care arena to describe ideas that protagonists erroneously, dubiously, or even fraudulently, claim have scientific backing.
On the other hand, the theory of continental drift has moved from being a contested, fringe theory in geology, to becoming very widely accepted in the form of the theory of plate tectonics – one of the outstanding scientific successes of the 20th Century and the main current theory in Earth Sciences regarding the development of our planet Earth.
Fringe scientific theories tend to involve original ideas, the validity of which is still uncertain. Consequently they are often controversial and contentious. They may represent possible future breakthroughs, or they could fade into obscurity. Demarcations are often difficult to place, especially when there are several conceptual theories or candidate solutions that are competing for acceptance. Very often these theories are incomplete working models, so it can be difficult to test them. Thus the validity of these can be uncertain: they cannot be proven or disproven. Acceptance of such theories is a matter of personal belief, hence contention. For example, the Grand unification theory, the Theory of everything, and M-theory meet the definition of fringe science as they are of uncertain validity, yet are taken seriously by many in their fields.
As with fringe science, fringe history can range from non-mainstream but serious historical work supported by a minority of historians, to pseudohistory, a pejorative term applied to a type of historical revisionism, often involving sensational claims whose acceptance would require rewriting a significant amount of commonly accepted history, and based on methods that depart from standard historiographical conventions.
"Pseudoarchaeology" – also known as alternative archaeology, fringe archaeology, fantastic archaeology, or cult archaeology – refers to interpretations of the past from outside of the academic archaeological community, which typically also reject the accepted scientific and analytical methods of the discipline. These pseudoscientific interpretations involve the use of archaeological data to construct theories about the past that differ radically from those of mainstream academic archaeology in order to supplement new historic claims with evidence. Claims like these exaggerate evidence, draw dramatic, romanticized conclusions, and more.
A conspiracy theory explains an event as being the result of an alleged plot by a covert group or organization or, more broadly, the idea that important political, social or economic events are the products of secret plots that are hidden from the general public, i.e. there is a cover-up by some agency of what is alleged to be really happening.
- Shermer, Michael (1997). Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time. Henry Holt and Company. ISBN 0-8050-7089-3.
- Jaccard, James (2010). Theory Construction and Model-building Skills: A Practical Guide for Social Scientists. Guilford Press. pp. 24–25. ISBN 9781606233405.
- David Bell (December 1999). "Secret science". Science and Public Policy 26 (6): 450. doi:10.1093/spp/26.6.450.
- Milloy, Steven J. (2001). Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares & Scams. Washington, DC: Cato Institute. ISBN 1-930865-12-0. OCLC 47283040.
- Čermák, Jan Kozák, Vladimír (2010). The illustrated history of natural disasters. Dordrecht: Springer. p. 41. ISBN 9789048133246.
- Bell, David, 2005, Science, Technology and Culture, Open University Press, p. 134, ISBN 978-0335213269
- Holtorf 2005. p. 544.
- Fagan and Feder 2006. p. 720.
- Williams 1987.
- Pseudoarchaeology – Atlantis to Aliens.