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Pet Theories....

 Mon, 21 Dec 1998 16:28:38.  Re: Pronunciation, Humor & Deinonychus, Ralph
Chapman wrote 

"It can be a very odd experience to put pet theories to the test by trying
to get them into the literature. I know lots of pros who try not to publish
them because they know they will die ugly deaths and they don't want to lose
them as a crutch for their talks...."

As a wise man once said, you can publish just about anything - good, bad or
indifferent - if you just keep trying long enough.  Sooner or later someone,
somewhere, will agree to publish it.  For that reason a fair number of pet
theories do get into print in obscure places.  It can happen by default, or
it can happen deliberately - when an author fears the idea will be rejected
out of hand by higher-profile journals, and so elects to plant it as a
sleeper in an inconspicuous corner of the literature.  If, 10 years down the
track, the idea proves to have been hopelessly wrong, no one will care, or
even notice.  If it comes good, however, the author can pull out the
published pet theory, blow off the dust and claim priority and/or prescience.

A common alternative is to insert key elements of pet theory into the
'Discussion' section of a paper on some related, but less contentious,
subject.  If it's presented carefully enough, with innocuous phrasing and no
special emphasis, your pet theory may well creep into the literature unnoticed.

Shortly before his retirement some years ago, John Maddox, editor of Nature,
published a revealing explanation of the criteria used to select papers for
publication in Nature.  So far as I recall, there was plenty of scope in
there for acceptance of pet theories - providing they were grounded in good
science and were potentially productive.  (The 'good science' requirement is
essential to weed out the work of psedoscientists and crackpots; it
definitely does NOT mean slavish adherence to currently fashionable thought
or practice.)  And, true enough, Nature has published some fairly quirky
papers in its time (e.g. Peter Scott et al. on the Loch Ness monster?!).
It's a pity that such liberal policies aren't adopted more widely.

In short, pet theories don't necessarily "die ugly deaths".  A fair number
do get into the literature, though they rarely make the headlines.

Anyone who relies on a pet theory "as a crutch for their talks" can't,
surely, have very much that's worthwhile to talk about?   I can imagine
unpublished pet theory being an interesting embellishment, or digression, in
a talk.  It's harder to imagine unpublished pet theory as a crutch, or
cornerstone, for a talk.  (Unless, of course, the talk is titled "My Pet
Theory".)    Finally, if a pet theory has any merit, then it's decidedly
risky to air it in a talk, even as 'a crutch'.  Someone else will surely
seize on it, and you can then say goodbye to 'your' pet theory.

Back to the swamp...

Tony Thulborn