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Fringe theory

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A fringe theory is an idea or a viewpoint that differs significantly from the accepted scholarship of the time within its field. Fringe theories include the models and proposals of fringe science, as well as similar ideas in other areas of scholarship, such as the humanities. In a narrower sense, the term fringe theory is commonly used as a pejorative, roughly synonymous with the term pseudo-scholarship. Precise definitions that make distinctions between widely held viewpoints, fringe theories, and pseudo-scholarship are difficult to construct because of the demarcation problem. Issues of false balance or false equivalence can occur when fringe theories are presented as being equal to widely accepted theories.


Segment of the periodic table reformulated according to the fringe theory of "circlons" proposed by Jim Carter
Part of the periodic table, according to Jim Carter's fringe theory

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.[1][2] In general, the term fringe theory is closer to the popular understanding of the word theory—a hypothesis or a guess or an uncertain idea—than to the concept of an established scientific theory.[3] Although often used in the context of fringe science, fringe theories have been discussed in fields of scholarship, such as Biblical criticism,[4] history,[5][6] finance,[7] law,[8] medicine,[9][10] and politics.[11] They even exist in fields of study which are themselves outside the mainstream, such as cryptozoology[12] and parapsychology.[13]

Fringe theories meet with varying levels of academic acceptance.[14] Financial journalist Alexander Davidson characterized fringe theories as "peddled by a small band of staunch supporters," but not necessarily without merit.[7] Daniel N. Robinson described them as occupying "a limbo between the decisive dead end and the ultimately credible productive theory."[15] However, the term is also used pejoratively; advocates of fringe theories are dismissed as cranks or crackpots who are out of touch with reality.[16][17] In this sense, there is some overlap with other dismissive labels, such as pseudoarchaeology,[6][18] pseudohistory,[6] and pseudoscience.[19][20] Describing ideas as fringe theories may be less pejorative than describing them as pseudoscholarship;[21] while it is unlikely that anyone would identify their own work as pseudoscience,[22] astrologer David Cochrane is "proud to be a fringe theorist."[23]

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.[24] The conspirators are possessed of "almost superhuman power and cunning," as described by historian Esther Webman.[25]

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 pseudoscientist Jim Carter.[26]

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 respected minority theories. A workable definition of what constitutes a fringe theory may not actually be possible.[1][2] This is an aspect of the demarcation problem that occurs within both science and the humanities.[27]

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.[28] 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.[29]

Mainstream acceptance of fringe theories[edit]

Alfred Wegener
Alfred Wegener advanced the theory of continental drift, a fringe theory which was later adopted by mainstream science.

Most fringe theories never become part of established scholarship.[17] Rejected ideas may help to refine mainstream thought,[30] but most outside theories are simply incorrect and have no wider impact.[17] Nevertheless, some ideas gradually receive wider acceptance until they are no longer viewed as fringe theories, and 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.[17][31] Other ideas that have made the transition include the germ theory of disease,[32] Birkeland's explanation of the aurora,[33] prions,[17] and complexity theory in project management.[34] Behavioral finance was described in a 2002 journal article as "at the fringe of ... modern financial theory",[35] but it has since been widely applied in many fields of business.[36]

Sometimes, the change is not gradual but 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.[8]

Conversely, former mainstream theories such as phlogiston and luminiferous aether may be superseded and relegated to the fringe.[37]

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,"[38] and psychoanalysis is now generally considered discredited, according to author Frederick Crews who stated, "if you consult psychology faculties in top American universities, you will find almost no one now who believes in the Freudian system of thought. As a research paradigm it's pretty much dead."[39]

False balance[edit]

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."[4] This false equivalence can become the expected media behavior. When The New York Times published an article strongly supporting the mainstream scientific stance on thiomersal and vaccines,[40] others in the media condemned the Times for portraying the alleged vaccine-autism connection as a fringe theory, calling the article a "hit piece".[41]

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.[42][43]


  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. ^ Morrison, David (2005). "Only a Theory? Framing the Evolution/Creation Issue". Skeptical Inquirer. 29 (6): 35–41.
  4. ^ a b Collins, Matthew A. (2011). "Examining the Reception and Impact of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Some Possibilities for Future Investigation" (PDF). Dead Sea Discoveries. 18 (2): 226–246. doi:10.1163/156851711X582541. hdl:10034/613253.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ 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. S2CID 144988932.
  7. ^ a b Davidson 2002, pp. 125–126.
  8. ^ a b Bluestone, Andrew Lavoott (25 September 2014). "Judiciary Law §487 Cases on the Rise After 'Amalfitano'". New York Law Review.
  9. ^ Sabbagh, Karl (1985–86). "The Psychopathology of Fringe Medicine". Skeptical Inquirer. 10 (2): 154–164.
  10. ^ Batt 1996, p. 206.
  11. ^ Quinn 2012, p. 143.
  12. ^ Shiel 2013, p. 157.
  13. ^ Stokes, Douglas M. (1999). "Reviews of Scholarly Books—Christine Hardy; Networks of Meaning: A Bridge Between Mind and Matter". Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research. 93 (4): 366–372.
  14. ^ 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. Bibcode:1995IJSEd..17..683A. doi:10.1080/0950069950170601.
  15. ^ Robinson, Daniel N. (2007). "Theoretical Psychology: What Is It and Who Needs It?". Theory & Psychology. 17 (2): 187–188. CiteSeerX doi:10.1177/0959354307075042. S2CID 143248701.
  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. ^ Gordin, Michael D (2017). "The problem with pseudoscience: Pseudoscience is not the antithesis of professional science but thrives in science's shadow". EMBO Reports. 18 (9): 1482–1485. doi:10.15252/embr.201744870. ISSN 1469-221X. PMC 5579391. PMID 28794200.
  20. ^ Thurs & Numbers 2013, p. 138.
  21. ^ Fritze 2009, p. 18.
  22. ^ Hansson, Sven Ove (3 September 2008). "Science and Pseudo-Science". In Zalta, Edward N. (ed.). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 ed.).
  23. ^ Cochrane, David (2011-06-09). "Proud to be a Fringe Theorist". Cosmic Patterns. Retrieved 2014-09-27.
  24. ^ Hofstadter, Richard (1964). "The paranoid style in American politics". Harper's Magazine. 229 (1374): 77–86.
  25. ^ Webman 2011, p. 8.
  26. ^ Wertheim 2011, pp. 11–12, 44.
  27. ^ Hansson 2013, pp. 64–65.
  28. ^ Dutch, Steven I. (1982). "Notes on the Nature of Fringe Science". Journal of Geological Education. 30 (1): 6–13. Bibcode:1982JGeoE..30....6D. doi:10.5408/0022-1368-30.1.6. ISSN 0022-1368.
  29. ^ Erduran & Dagher 2013, p. 117.
  30. ^ Ullmann-Margalit 2006, p. 20.
  31. ^ Bell 2005, p. 138.
  32. ^ Velasquez-Manoff 2013, p. 40.
  33. ^ Jago 2002, pp. 270–272.
  34. ^ Curlee & Gordon 2013, p. 198.
  35. ^ 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. S2CID 155028711.
  36. ^ Steverman, Ben (2014-04-07). "Manipulate Me: The Booming Business in Behavioral Finance". Bloomberg. Retrieved 2014-09-25.
  37. ^ Shermer 2013, pp. 220–221.
  38. ^ Fine 2013, p. 228.
  39. ^ PBS NewsHour: Professor Frederick Crews, PBS, 6 Jan 1999, archived from the original on 24 June 2016, retrieved 26 May 2016
  40. ^ Harris, Gardiner; O'Connor, Anahad (2005-06-25). "On Autism's Cause, It's Parents vs. Research". New York Times. Retrieved 2014-09-25.
  41. ^ Offit 2010, p. 182.
  42. ^ Edwords, Frederick (1980). "Why creationism should not be taught as science". Creation/Evolution Journal. 1 (1): 2–23.
  43. ^ Wexler, Jay D. (2006). "Intelligent Design and the First Amendment: A Response". Washington University Law Review. 84: 63–98.


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