A fringe theory is an idea or viewpoint held by a small group of supporters. Fringe theories include the models and proposals of fringe science as well as similar ideas in other areas of scholarship, such as the humanities. The term is commonly used in a narrower sense as a pejorative that is roughly synonymous with pseudo-scholarship. Precise definitions that distinguish between widely held viewpoints, fringe theories, and pseudo-scholarship are difficult to construct because of the demarcation problem. Issues of false equivalence can occur when fringe theories are presented as being equal to widely accepted theories.
Fringe theories are ideas which depart significantly from a prevailing or mainstream theory. A fringe theory is neither a majority opinion nor that of a respected minority. 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. Although the term is often used within the context of fringe science, fringe theories have been discussed in diverse areas of scholarship, including Biblical criticism, history, finance, law, medicine, and politics. They even exist in fields of study which are themselves outside the mainstream, such as cryptozoology and parapsychology.
Fringe theories meet with varying levels of academic acceptance. Financial journalist Alexander Davidson characterized fringe theories as "peddled by a small band of staunch supporters," but not necessarily without merit. Daniel N. Robinson described them as occupying "a limbo between the decisive dead end and the ultimately credible productive theory." However, the term is also used pejoratively; advocates of fringe theories are dismissed as cranks or crackpots who are out of touch with reality. In this sense, there is some overlap with other dismissive labels, such as pseudoarchaeology, pseudohistory, and pseudoscience. Describing ideas as fringe theories may be less pejorative than describing them as pseudoscholarship; while it is unlikely that anyone would identify their own work as pseudoscience, astrologer David Cochrane is "proud to be a fringe theorist."
The term is also used to describe conspiracy theories. Such theories "explain" historical or political events as the work of a powerful secret organization — "a vast, insidious, preternaturally effective international conspiratorial network," according to Richard Hofstadter. The conspirators are possessed of "almost superhuman power and cunning," as described by historian Esther Webman.
Margaret Wertheim suggested that fringe theories should be treated in a manner similar to outsider art. In 2003 she curated an exhibit at the Santa Monica Museum of Art which was dedicated to the work of fringe physicist Jim Carter.
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 respected minority theories. A workable definition of what constitutes a fringe theory may not actually be possible. This is an aspect of the demarcation problem that occurs within both science and the humanities.
Geologist Steven Dutch approached the demarcation problem by dividing scientific ideas into three categories: fringe, frontier, and center, based upon their adherence to scientific methodology and their level of acceptance. Later authors, including Richard Duschl, expanded these categories. Under Duschl's system, a fringe theory is a mix of legitimate new ideas and pseudoscience; it awaits analysis to determine whether it 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 are simply incorrect and have no wider impact. Nevertheless, some ideas do gradually receive wider acceptance until they are no longer viewed as fringe theories. Occasionally such theories even become the mainstream view.
A widely known example is Alfred Wegener's theory of continental drift, which eventually served as the basis for the accepted model of plate tectonics. Other ideas which have made the transition include the germ theory of disease, Birkeland's explanation of the aurora, 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 it has since been widely applied in many fields of business.
Sometimes this change is not gradual; in such cases it represents a paradigm shift. Writing for the New York Law Journal, Andrew Bluestone described how a single court case in New York changed the 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.
Such shifts between fringe theory and accepted theories are not always 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 news media may play a role in the dissemination and popularization of fringe theories. The media sometimes reduce complex topics to two sides and frame issues in terms of an underdog challenger fighting the mainstream theory. 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 equivalence can become the expected media behavior. When The New York Times published an article strongly supporting the mainstream scientific stance on the thiomersal controversy, others in the media condemned the Times for portraying the alleged 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. Creationism has been discredited as 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 being equally divided between only two models.
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