If you’re fairly well-informed when it comes to science, you may often feel, and sometimes express, skepticism about someone else’s supposedly scientific claims.
For example, if you were to see Suzanne Somers on Oprah telling women that injecting estrogen directly into their vaginas (don’t worry, that link does not go to a photo) will make them look and feel younger, you may think, “that’s crazy,” and you may even feel compelled to remark to someone near you that you believe “that woman is freaking nuts”.
When you criticize an apparently ridiculous person or idea, however, you open yourself up to a common line of attack, which is to point out that history’s revolutionary thinkers and inventors were usually mocked when they announced their discoveries.
I’m slogging my way through Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought right now and I came across a brilliant counter-argument to that. In this paragraph, Pinker is discussing the radical linguistic theories of philosopher and psychologist Jerry Fodor:
Fodor correctly notes that history has often vindicated unconventional ideas – after all, they all laughed at Christopher Columbus and Thomas Edison. The problem is that they all laughed at Manny Schwartz, too. What, you’ve never heard of Manny Schwartz? He was the originator and chief defender of the theory of Continental Drip: that the southern continents are pointy at the bottom because they dribbled downward as they cooled from a molten state. The point is that they were right to laugh at Manny Schwartz. Extraordinary claims [...] deserve extraordinary evidence.
So the next time someone pulls this one on you when you express skepticism about an extraordinary claim, just ask, “What, you’ve never heard of Manny Schwartz?”