James Allison won a Nobel for defying scientific orthodoxy. What about the mavericks who don't succeed?

James Allison is an immunologist who rejected scientific orthodoxy early in his career, but has earned the Nobel Prize for Medicine for his revolutionary work on cancer treatment. Not all scientists who go rogue reap the rewards however, so where's the line between confidence and stubbornness?

The line between confidence and stubbornness is 'very fine': psychologist

Dr. James Allison shared the 2018 Nobel Prize for Medicine for his cancer research. (Submitted by MD Anderson Cancer Center)
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As a young scientist, Texas immunologist James Allison read all the papers he could about cancer and the immune system.

Frequently, he wondered if he was an idiot for not understanding what the scientists from prestigious institutions were writing — until one day he had a new thought.

"He realized: 'No, actually it's not me, it's them. They don't know what they're talking about,'" said author Charles Graeber.

"What a remarkable thing for a young scientist to say — but he ended up being right."

On Monday, Allison received the Nobel Prize for Medicine at a ceremony in Sweden, for his breakthrough work in cancer immunotherapy.

Graeber, who interviewed Allison for his book The Breakthrough: Immunotherapy and the Race to Cure Cancer, said that it was his willingness to push back against scientific orthodoxies that lead to discoveries that have been compared to a "penicillin moment" in the quest to cure cancer.

"His maverick aspect is essentially a confidence in his own curiosity," Graeber told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

Nuclear physicist Francis Perey had confidence in his theory about probability in the 1980s, but couldn't get his papers published. (Submitted by Veronique Greenwood)

When a theory takes you down the wrong path

Allison isn't the first scientist to hold a firm belief in his own theories, but not every maverick wins a Nobel prize.

Nuclear physicist Francis Perey also had confidence in his theory about probability in the 1980s. He was interested in why people believe certain things about probability, such as the idea that a flipped coin will come up heads 50 per cent of the time.

Perey became convinced that probabilities arose naturally from physical laws, i.e. that if you understand enough about how the coin works, then you can come up with a mathematical proof that shows exactly what will happen to it. He thought he'd found a theory that could reconcile the scientific differences between quantum mechanics and the classical physics.

But he couldn't get his papers published, or get the most eminent scientist of the day to understand what he saw as his breakthrough. One peer reviewer called his paper "maddeningly repetitious philosophical froth."

Convinced he was right, Perey devoted four years almost exclusively to this work, until he feared he might be fired for neglecting his lab duties.

Perey's granddaughter, science writer Veronique Greenwood, found his papers and correspondence after his death, and set about finding out if there was anything to his theory.

Veronique Greenwood talks Anna Maria Tremonti through her grandfather's theory about probability. 0:51

"When I started to read them I immediately realized that what I had here was a record of a series of thoughts that he had, that he thought was some of the most important work he'd ever done," she said. 

Physicists she spoke to said it was a shame that her grandfather's paper hadn't been published, because there might be interesting ideas in it. But she came to the conclusion that it's unlikely that this was really the breakthrough Perey thought it could be.

Her grandfather was stubborn, Greenwood told Tremonti, and when he turned his attention to something, he would refuse to let it go.

"The longer this idea went unpublished, the greater it grew in his mind," she said.

Francis Perey and his granddaughter Veronique Greenwood in the late 1980s. (Submitted by Veronique Greenwood)

All is not lost when research is proven wrong

The creativity needed to be a truly great scientist is the same creativity that can lead researchers down the wrong path, said Gregory Feist, who studies the psychology of science and creativity at San Jose State University, Calif.

In fact, it can often be the same scientist who has the hits and the misses, though history tends to remember what they got right.

The key to scientific success is to recognize when the evidence is pointing to your hunch being wrong, or risk veering into pseudoscience, he told Tremonti.

"The line between confidence and stubbornness is sometimes very fine," said Feist.

But all is not lost when a researcher is proven wrong. In fact, a lot of scientific progress comes from discoveries made in these mistakes.

"That's the nature of science," he said, "to have freedom to be wrong."

Graeber said this points to the importance of pure research, done for its own sake instead of in pursuit of a specific goal.

"It's the only way to achieve a true breakthrough because what we don't know is beyond our imagination, and it's unexpected."

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.


Written and produced by Karin Marley.

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