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All the sciences come across as merciless to me. If you make even one statement that turns out to be false, it seems you have no chance of recovering your career. I have heard of plenty of stories of accomplished scientists and academics losing their credentials after making claims that were either rejected from the start or later disproven. I have never heard one story of someone 'redeeming' themselves and gaining respect in any intellectual field. This all makes it look like even so much as a simple mistake can destroy your career forever.

So tell me, is there any route for someone who at some point in their lives supported conspiracy theories or something else obviously false can take to regain respect? I've noticed a lot of psychologists claiming that conspiracy theories are hopeless and impossible to 'cure'. Are the sciences just completely intolerant of imperfection or do they express some mercy?

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    Could you clarify what you’re meaning by “conspiracy theories”? If it’s the GM streetcar conspiracy that’s a different kettle of fish than if it’s that Queen Elizabeth is a reptilian. – Michael Homer Apr 25 '20 at 10:00
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    -1 Half this question is about making "statements that turn out to be false" and half is about pseudoscience/conspiracy theories. A lot of it doesn't make sense. Please focus on one or the other. – Azor Ahai -him- Apr 27 '20 at 20:19
  • Comments are not for answers nor for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – cag51 Apr 27 '20 at 22:08
  • Agree with @Azor Ahai. The question should focus on either conspiracy/quack theories or theories/statements that turned out wrong. Unfortunately my comment was purged, but the question should be edited for clarity. – henning -- reinstate Monica Apr 28 '20 at 11:21

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Let me answer this by turning it around: just because somebody hasn't supported obvious bunk doesn't mean they are even vaguely right.

One of the beauties of science is that, at the end of the day, the people don't matter to the validity of the material. As long as a document presents a clear argument, you can evaluate it for yourself, no matter whether it was presented by a known crackpot or a heroically revered elder.

That means that somebody can be ridiculously wrong in one area---even to the degree of crazy conspiracy theories---and still well respected in another, through the magic of mental compartmentalization and cognitive dissonance.

I had a direct experience of this as a young graduate student: one of the early conferences that I attended was a complex systems meeting with a very loose policy for acceptance: you basically had to be sane to give a talk, but even crazies could join the poster session. I was all charged up from earlier listening to keynotes from seriously famous luminaries, when I walked into the poster session and met a respected mathematician with a poster explaining the connection between fractals and peace, supported by poems pleading for one to use the hypotenuse and not the legs of the triangle for the sake of peace. Complete gibberish. This person, however, is apparently a well-respected researcher in their own field---they just go off and let their crazy flag fly in certain other places.

That said, if you know that somebody has gone to crazy-town, you certainly would be well advised to examine their arguments and citations quite carefully. Still, at the end of the day, the only truly unrecoverable stain is falsification, because then people can no longer evaluate your arguments without wondering whether the data is simply fictional.

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    William Shockley (invention of the transistor) and Robert Lee Moore (American mathematician) come easily to mind. – Buffy Apr 24 '20 at 19:02
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    Jack Parsons is another. – Robert Columbia Apr 25 '20 at 20:48
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    "One of the beauties of science is that, at the end of the day, the people don't matter to the validity of the material" - that would be the ideal. But in real life, humans are not perfect, and science itself is sometimes plagued by ideological and political biases. – vsz Apr 26 '20 at 14:56
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    @TimothyAWiseman the connection of Newton and the occult does not surprise me at all, as whole foundations of mathematics in ancient Greece were treated as a somewhat esoteric mystery by Pythagoras et al. Maybe it is the same exciting feeling of mystery is what drives both rigorous science and outright occultism. – dominecf Apr 27 '20 at 7:22
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    @vsz To suggest that scientists are people, who are subject to ideologies and biases, is seen as heresy by some people. Ironically, science has achieved a religion-like status for some people where anything that is published "in a study", no matter the quality, is considered as "the one and only truth". – MechMK1 Apr 27 '20 at 12:47
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Pseudoscience and conspiracy theories are one thing, but your opening paragraph reveals a much deeper worry...

All the sciences come across as merciless to me. If you make even one statement that turns out to be false, it seems you have no chance of recovering your career. I have heard of plenty of stories of accomplished scientists and academics losing their credentials after making claims that were either rejected from the start or later disproven. I have never heard one story of someone 'redeeming' themselves and gaining respect in any intellectual field. This all makes it look like even so much as a simple mistake can destroy your career forever.

...which is false. Check out the doing the right thing category on RetractionWatch. For example,

  1. “I was shocked. I felt physically ill.” And still, she corrected the record.

    Strand tells Retraction Watch that the response to her self-lustration has been:

    incredibly heartening. I didn’t know what kind of reaction this would get, and it has been great to see such support. I wanted to share the story so people could see that admitting a mistake doesn’t necessarily end your career; it’s an added benefit that now people can see the outpouring of support for transparency. This experience would have been less trying if I’d had models of what might happen and how the scientific community would respond. Although this has been a difficult experience, I’ll be very glad if it makes it easier for someone else to do the right thing in the future.

  2. “Commendable”: Researchers retract a paper when they find gene sequence errors

    Oliver Pybus, the editor of Virus Evolution, praised both the authors and the researchers who generated the original data and then corrected the sequences:

    [T]heir openness and responsiveness was commendable.

    GenBank seqs do occasionally get updated. But it’s perhaps unusual that the seq changes led to such substantial alterations to the conclusions of the paper.

    My take is that the benefits of genomic data sharing vastly outweigh the occasional costs, such as this. Everyone acted in good faith and the system self corrected quickly.

  3. “This is how science works:” Error leads to recall of paper linking Jon Stewart and election results

    As the Twitter feed reflects, Porter and Wood received praise for their handling of the mistake. Here’s a response from one follower, Michael Spagat:

    Seeing this is the best moment of my day so far. It seems that everyone involved in this has has done themselves proud. I wish this kind of thing were routine.

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There is a difference between making a scientific mistake if you are trying to honestly follow the evidence and pure intellectual dishonesty. Pushing conspiracy theories is hardly valid science but somehow 'mistaken'.

Lots of people make scientific mistakes and are honest enough to admit it and accept scientific evidence when it emerges.

Lots of other people push (what they call) "theories" with no evidence, but with some sort of political, economic, or societal agenda.

Mistakes don't need "forgiveness". A person just admits that their science was flawed. Perhaps a non-representative sample. But pushing things without valid evidence because of some agenda does require that the person seek forgiveness as they can do great evil. Should we inject Clorox to "cure" covid-19? Evidence? People die for such stupidity. Forgiveness may be slow in coming.

Follow the science and don't worry too much about the fact that mistakes do occur. But you need due diligence in your scientific pursuits. Sloppiness isn't a virtue. You can't just expect to be honored if you are sloppy.

That said, there have been a few people who have "seen the light" after a period of misadventure. They may be able to find a road back to respectability. Some have done, but it is a hard road.

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    Agenda is the word here. Most conspiracy theories have a layer of agenda which has nothing to do with the underlying truth. Once one is tainted with the reputation that one sacrifices scientific insight to drive their agenda, that's very difficult to get rid of. As it should be. – Captain Emacs Apr 24 '20 at 19:47
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    I like to think that if a researcher were to make embarrassing claims, and then sought mental health treatment and subsequently repudiated those same claims, that the scientific community would not reject later research out of hand. – EvilSnack Apr 25 '20 at 15:42
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    @Dunk: mathematicians prove all the time that something is correct. – Jan Apr 26 '20 at 12:54
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    @Buffy, if you've ever read a gender studies paper, you'll know this very true of that discipline. But I also think it's untrue of most branches of psychology, from my own experience at least. More important, it's worth noting that merely having an agenda doesn't (or shouldn't) disqualify anyone's intellectual contributions. The basic thing we all have to do in a scientific context is say low-ambiguity, testable things, and honest about the evidence. We're allowed to have an agenda as long as we follow these two basic principles. I think that's very important. – goblin GONE Apr 26 '20 at 14:29
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    Also, a third very important principle is to try to distinguish between descriptive and normative claims and not mix the two. If I think sexism is bad, for example, that's okay, but if I then start mixing the assumption that sexism is bad into sentences that are about descriptive questions, like whether a pay gap exists, that's bad. I should break my points into two different sentences, so a reader can agree with one point but disagree with the other more easily. I think it's important to talk in a brittle way and not mush things together in a way that undermines proper criticism. – goblin GONE Apr 26 '20 at 14:33
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You can make honest mistakes, and that is fine. You can do everything right, but based on later data your conclusion could be wrong. This is perfectly fine to. What is really problematic is cheating, either plagiarism or making up data. That is a career killer, and so it should be.

As to pseudoscience or conspiracy theories, it depends on when you supported them and how. If you did that in your teens, then it will raise some eyebrows, but that is in all likelihood all that happens. If you supported them when you should have known better, well then you should have known better...

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Nobody cares if you make wrong claims, only if you make fraudulent claims. Wrong is part of science. Fraud and pseudoscience nonsense isn't.

As for the effect, it depends on how well-placed the scientist is when the nonsense hits the fan. Many professors will be able to handle committing a moderate amount of fraud because they know people. It's not good for a career, but it's only really hard on early career researchers.

It's hard to prove fraud at all. It took like 3 years and a ton of work from dozens of people to get Brian Wansink force-retired from Cornell and his entire stupid career was fraud (and he was dumb enough to blow the whistle on himself by accident). We all have to put up with Jim Watson being in the news for his idiotic racist nonsense even though he hasn't been a scientist for 20 years.

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    Do you mean James Watson for his idiotic racist nonsense? – user21820 Apr 25 '20 at 15:03
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    ermm, are not these the same names? The Star Trek pilot was 53 years ago. I can understand people not knowing Ian, John, Jan, Jack are the same name, but Jim and James? – mckenzm Apr 25 '20 at 22:22
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Not my field but a high profile example of an academic mess-up is that of an economic study that turned out to be faulty because the authors made an mistake in MS Excel. And it was not just an academic mistake either because the study was used to base policy on.

As far as i can find on scholar.google.com, the authors are still publishing. Probably their reputation took a dent but it was not the end of two careers. And it should not be as it was an honest mistake.

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No, not until they have been checked and shown to be credible many times in the future. No-one should be accepted as totally credible-ie check the source and the science behind the claim.

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  • I'm not quite so pessimistic. Normally I agree with you, but there are cases of clear conversion and a clear trend away from quackery. Maybe "trust but verify" is appropriate in some cases. – Buffy Apr 25 '20 at 12:48
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Yes, but it will be much harder for him.

In science, you should judge a source by objective criteria and not by authority (who is the author). This means when someone who talks a lot of nonsense writes a good article, this article can be a good source.

But most people will not bother to evaluate an article in depth, when they already know that the author supported pseudoscience and other nonsense in the past.

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    Well, a person who has been wrong will be at a disadvantage in a debate in which ad hominem argumentation is allowed. – EvilSnack Apr 25 '20 at 15:47
  • @EvilSnack This isn't a direct ad hominem attack. Ad hominem is purely personal and unrelated to the point made. If the personal properties being used are previous experience of this person's papers using cherry picked data or dismissing arguments they couldn't address then it isn't unrelated to be more cautious of their results. – Lio Elbammalf Apr 26 '20 at 7:33
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    Actually, it is. "P is true because X." "Don't give me that. Mr. A says that, and he said Q because Y, and we know that's wrong." – EvilSnack Apr 26 '20 at 13:30
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Due to the difficulty of science there are unfortunately many examples of people who made substantial contributions in one field and then threatened to undermine their reputation (or actually undermined it) by espousing nonsense in some other field.

Jordan made fundamental contributions to QFT and quantum mechanics whilst also spouting theories of geology which were nonsensical.

Broca is known for his discoveries in anatomy and also spouted racist nonsense in his pseudoscientific work on anthropology.

Henry Heimlich famously invented the Heimlich manoeuvre and then undermined his reputation by promoting a treatment called malariatherapy, in which people were intentionally infected with low doses of malaria in the belief that it would cure them of cancer and AIDs. His reputation was so undermined that the American Red Cross now apparently refers to the manoeuvre as the 'abdominal thrust'.

Also the infamous example of Linus Pauling who did Nobel Prize-winning work on chemistry and then went on to promote pseudoscientific views on the disease-curing properties of large doses of vitamin C.

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    This answer doesn't seem to be answering the question? You're mentioning people who lost their reputation as a result of pseudoscience, but not any people who rehabilitated their reputation afterwards. – nick012000 Apr 27 '20 at 6:57
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Genetics, computer science, black holes and extraterrestrial intelligence were all called "pseudoscience" in various places at various times of the history of science. I think it should not be "forbidden topics" in research that ruin the honor if just mentioned.

The only activity that ruins the reputation of the researcher is the intentional falsification of the experimental results. If the work does not follow scientific method in general, the reviewer should care. Publishing something strange in a non scientific press is not a science but just a hobby activities of the researcher and normally should not impact much the reputation.

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I would like to provide a counter example showing that belief in crazy ideas doesn't always mean the end of your career. I did my PhD research in the Stanford Biochemistry Department, which was home to Arthur Kornberg; Nobel laureate for his discovery of DNA Polymerase. In his later career, he became obsessed with inorganic phosphate, which he felt was the key to understanding the origins of life. His evidence for this was far from convincing and every year when the faculty would introduce their research to new grad students, you could see all the other faculty cringe as he would introduce his lab.

Despite his eccentric views he was still well respected and frequently asked to speak at other universities. When he did, he refused to talk about anything other than inorganic phosphate and if anyone tried to get him to talk about DNA Polymerase, he would call it a "former distraction" and refuse to talk about it any further. This meant he didn't get a ton of repeat speaking engagements, but he still gave lectures, still was an active researcher in the Biochemistry Department, and still found students willing to research in his lab to have a Nobel laureate on their CV.

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I think we have to distinguish between what what we mean by reputation and credentials:

Science doesn't really rely on creditentials or reputation. At least in thoery, papers etc are judge on the merits of the material contained within them, not on the identity of the person submitting them (granted, big names are sometimes given an easier ride, but the problem here is that its too easy for big names, not that its too hard for everyone else).

All science is only an approximation to the truth and any paper will be proved wrong in some aspect, given enough time.

Make a mistake, or support a crazy theory - you will still be able to publish, apply for grants, teach students (as long as your crazy theory doesn't give the impression of wanting to make students unsafe).

But that is science. Scientists also enjoy a certain reputation and authority outside the actaul performing of experiments. They might be asked to weigh in on policy decisions, or speak to the media, or ask to give speeches or write books for the public. They might be asked to move into the senior management of a university to be a head of department, or a dean, or a president etc.

Here supporting pseduo-science, or making serious miskates in your scientific work probabaly does do lasting and difficult to recover from damage.

The difference is, in the first case your authority to make a claim rests on the data, while in the second case you are deriving your authority from your reputation.

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