A place for new ideas to settle.

15 April 2014

On the word “fringe”

Disambiguation: I’m not talking about the T.V. show called “Fringe.” That show is awesome and I love it to death, but wholly unrelated to this post.

As my previous blog posts may suggest, I’m a (at times, masochistic) fan of politics and the way people think. As such I tend to eagerly participate in online discussions, in an attempt to encounter beliefs not the same as my own. One exchange got me thinking about the way I use words—specifically, the word ‘fringe.’ What do we mean when we talk about “fringe theories” or “fringe ideas”? Fundamentally, I think, ‘fringe’ is a political term.

I’ve often heard ‘fringe’ used in the context of the so-called “demarcation problem” in science: how can we tell whether something is science, or pseudoscience? “Fringe” therefore takes on the connotation of pseudoscience, but I think they’re describing two very distinct things.

Pseudoscience has a historic quality about it: you can't have a pseudoscience without reference to a previously-established fact. But more than that, an idea must emerge from the crucible of robust criticism before it can really be called pseudoscience. To persist even in the face of overwhelming counter-evidence is, a key element of the pseudoscientific research program. In the absence of criticism, it’s just one hypothesis among many.

A fledgling idea may be destined for the shambling half-life of pseudoscience (for these theories are quite resistant to discrediting), and it may be fringe, but not all fringe ideas have such a fate. Fringe is a much larger set than just the pseudosciences, and there are pseudosciences that are definitely not fringe. Perhaps the confusion comes from the fact that the scientific method is a really good method of figuring out what’s true, so it's highly unlikely that a theory with mountains of empirical confirmation—the theory of evolution by natural selection, or Newtonian physics—will be completely overturned. In the case of Newton, he wasn’t utterly wrong, just incomplete. Therefore any theory claiming to “utterly refute” Newton (or worse yet, Galileo [NOTE: The author of that blog is a horrible anti-Semite, stick to the archive.is cache]) is probably bogus. Culture and politics are much more fuzzy.

Whereas pseudoscience is often defined as not only outside the scientific mainstream, but actively rejected by it—see also Martin Gardner’s excellent Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science for a classic treatment of cranks and their pseudosciences—fringe is defined as not only outside the cultural mainstream, but relatively unknown. Weird and unexpected are the hallmarks of fringe: to put it simply, the fringe is “incredible.”

When it comes to politics, then, the so-called “art of the possible,” describing a theory of fringe carries political meaning: “This idea will require more than the usual amount of work for more than a few people to accept it.” The connotation obviously depends on who's making the argument. But I think it's possible to use ‘fringe’ without automatically coming across as adversarial. After all, I’m partial to several political fringe ideas (for example, that we should adopt a system of land value taxation, and explore the possibility of uplifting certain animal species to something like human-level sentience). However, it’s important—vital—to recognize fringe beliefs as a means of properly weighting the chances of political acceptance.

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