Fringe theory

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For the Wikipedia guideline, see Wikipedia:Fringe theories.

A fringe theory is an idea or viewpoint held by a small group of supporters. It includes the theories and models 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.


Part of a fringe theory periodic table
Part of the periodic table, according to Jim Carter's fringe theory

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.[1][2] Financial journalist Alexander Davidson characterized such ideas as being "peddled by a small band of staunch supporters", but not necessarily without merit.[3] Fringe theories meet with varying levels of academic acceptance.[4] Daniel N. Robinson described them as occupying "a limbo between the decisive dead end and the ultimately credible productive theory."[5] 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.[6] 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.[7] 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,[8] history,[9][10] finance,[3] law,[11] medicine,[12][13] and politics.[14] Fringe theories even exist relative to fields of study that are themselves outside the mainstream, such as cryptozoology.[15]

Ideas are often deemed fringe theories pejoratively, their advocates dismissed as cranks or crackpots, out of touch with reality.[16][17] Fringe theories are sometimes considered to overlap, or be interchangeable with, more disparaging categories, such as pseudoarchaeology,[10][18] pseudohistory,[10] or pseudoscience.[19] 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,[20] or "conspirators of almost superhuman power and cunning", as described by historian Esther Webman.[21] However, labeling ideas as fringe may be less pejorative than describing them as pseudo-scholarship;[22] it is unlikely that anyone would identify their own work as pseudoscience, for example,[23] but astrologer David Cochrane is "proud to be a fringe theorist".[24]

Demarcation problem[edit]

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.[16] 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.[1][2] This represents an aspect of the demarcation problem, even when the disciplines involved are the humanities, rather than science.[25]

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.[26] 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.[27]

Mainstream impact[edit]

Alfred Wegener
Alfred Wegener advanced the theory of continental drift, an example of a fringe theory later adopted by the mainstream community.

The majority of fringe theories never become part of established scholarship.[17] Rejected ideas may help to refine mainstream thought,[28] but most outside theories do not even do this; they are simply incorrect.[17] 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.[17][29] Other ideas to make the transition include the germ theory of disease,[30] prions,[17] Birkeland's theory of the aurora and complexity theory in project management.[31] Behavioral finance was described in a 2002 journal article as "at the fringe of ... modern financial theory",[32] but was widely applied in many fields of business a decade later.[33] 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.[11] In a similar manner, what were once mainstream theories, such as phlogiston or luminiferous aether, can be superseded and relegated to the fringe.[34]

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".[35] The relationship between psychoanalysis and psychiatry remains complex.[36]

False balance[edit]

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."[8] 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,[37] others in the media condemned the Times for portraying the vaccine-autism connection as a fringe theory, calling the article a "hit piece".[38]

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.[39][40]


  1. ^ a b Jasanoff, Sheila (1992). "What judges should know about the sociology of science". Jurimetrics: 345–359. 
  2. ^ a b Rundlett 2013, p. 5-88.
  3. ^ a b Davidson 2002, pp. 125–126.
  4. ^ Abrams, Eleanor; Wandersee, James H. (1995). "How to infuse actual scientific research practices into science classroom instruction". International Journal of Science Education 17 (6): 683–694. doi:10.1080/0950069950170601. 
  5. ^ Robinson, Daniel N. (2007). "Theoretical Psychology: What Is It and Who Needs It?". Theory & Psychology 17 (2): 187–188. doi:10.1177/0959354307075042. 
  6. ^ Morrison, David (2005). "Only a Theory? Framing the Evolution/Creation Issue". Skeptical Inquirer 29 (6): 35– 41. 
  7. ^ Wertheim 2011, pp. 11–12, 44.
  8. ^ a b Collins, Matthew A. (2011). "Examining the Reception and Impact of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Some Possibilities for Future Investigation". Dead Sea Discoveries 18 (2): 226–246. doi:10.1163/156851711X582541. 
  9. ^ Joseph, Simon J. (2012). "Jesus in India? Transgressing Social and Religious Boundaries". Journal of the American Academy of Religion 80 (1): 161–199. doi:10.1093/jaarel/lfr094. 
  10. ^ a b c Fritze, Ronald H. (2009). "On the Perils and Pleasures of Confronting Pseudohistory". Historically Speaking 10 (5): 2–5. doi:10.1353/hsp.0.0067. 
  11. ^ a b Bluestone, Andrew Lavoott (2014-09-25). "Judiciary Law §487 Cases on the Rise After 'Amalfitano'". New York Law Review. Retrieved 2015-09-25. 
  12. ^ Sabbagh, Karl (1985–86). "The Psychopathology of Fringe Medicine". Skeptical Inquirer 10 (2): 154–164. 
  13. ^ Batt 1996, p. 206.
  14. ^ Quinn 2012, p. 143.
  15. ^ Shiel 2013, p. 157.
  16. ^ a b Wertheim 2011, p. 4.
  17. ^ a b c d e Timmer, John (2009-11-09). "Examining science on the fringes: vital, but generally wrong". Ars Technica. Retrieved 2014-09-25. 
  18. ^ Magnusson, Magnus (1974-02-02). "Mortar-board Cagney". The Spectator (7597): 16–17. 
  19. ^ Thurs & Numbers 2013, p. 138.
  20. ^ Hofstadter, Richard (1964). "The paranoid style in American politics". Harper's Magazine 229 (1374): 77–86. 
  21. ^ Webman 2011, p. 8.
  22. ^ Fritze 2009, p. 18.
  23. ^ Hansson, Sven Ove. "Science and Pseudo-Science". In Zalta, Edward N. The Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 ed.). 
  24. ^ Cochrane, David (2011-06-09). "Proud to be a Fringe Theorist". Cosmic Patterns. Retrieved 2014-09-27. 
  25. ^ Hansson 2013, pp. 64–65.
  26. ^ Dutch, Steven I. (1982). "Notes on the Nature of Fringe Science". Journal of Geological Education 30 (1): 6–13. ISSN 0022-1368. 
  27. ^ Erduran & Dagher 2014, p. 117.
  28. ^ Ullmann-Margalit 2006, p. 20.
  29. ^ Bell 2005, p. 138.
  30. ^ Velasquez-Manoff 2013, p. 40.
  31. ^ Curlee & Gordon 2013, p. 198.
  32. ^ Leong, Clint Tan Chee; Seiler, Michael J.; Lane, Mark (2002). "Explaining Apparent Stock Market Anomalies: Irrational Exuberance or Archetypal Human Psychology?". Journal of Wealth Management 4 (4): 8–23. doi:10.3905/jwm.2002.320422. 
  33. ^ Steverman, Ben (2014-04-07). "Manipulate Me: The Booming Business in Behavioral Finance". Bloomberg. Retrieved 2014-09-25. 
  34. ^ Shermer 2013, pp. 220–221.
  35. ^ Fine 2013, p. 228.
  36. ^ "The Challenge to Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy: Psychoanalysis and Psychiatry". American Mental Health Foundation. Retrieved 2014-09-25. 
  37. ^ Harris, Gardiner; O'Connor, Anahad (2005-06-25). "On Autism's Cause, It's Parents vs. Research". New York Times. Retrieved 2014-09-25. 
  38. ^ Offit 2010, p. 182.
  39. ^ Edwords, Frederick (1980). "Why creationism should not be taught as science". Creation/Evolution Journal 1 (1): 2–23. 
  40. ^ Wexler, Jay D. (2006). "Intelligent Design and the First Amendment: A Response". Washington University Law Review 84: 63–98. 


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