The story of Alfred Wegener and his theory of continental drift is one of the most cited instances of an outsider who proposed a radical theory that was dismissed by the experts in the field. Of course he turned out to be right. Wegener was a conscientious scientist who had gained a doctorate in astronomy, but he was also a daring explorer who made expeditions in the arctic and held the record for the longest hot air balloon ride. This meant he observed the geology of the Earth first hand but he was not a trained geologist influenced by the favoured theories of the day.
Some time before 1903 he had noticed that the coastline of the American continents matched the shape of Africa and Europe in surprising detail. His theory based on this was simply that the continents had once been joined together in a supercontinent he called Pangea. In fact this had been remarked upon by many others before him and there had been plenty of theories to explain it. Some had thought that the earth had originally been fully covered in a crust, but the earth expanded and it broke apart with water filling in the cracks to form the oceans. Superficially such an idea looked right at the time, but science requires proper investigation based on theory and observation and the expanding earth theory just did not hold up.
If Wegener had just stopped there he would have been just one of many people with the same idea but he started to look for evidence. He noticed that the geology of the continents actually coincided at the points where he imagined they had broken apart, even to the extent that coal seams on either side of the Atlantic can be matched up. His confidence in his theory was boosted.
Another unsolved problem of the day was how animal life on Earth had spread to continents that seemed disconnected, especially Australia. From the fossil record it seemed that similar species existed on different continents at the same time as if they had somehow crossed over the wide ocean. Wegener saw this as strong evidence for continental drift but two other competing theories sprang up. One said that there had been land bridges that joined the continents before collapsing. The third theory was that the continents had not changed much at all, and the animals had spread via existing land routes that were sometimes frozen over. Some similarities were attributed to convergent evolution or just plain coincidence.
With hindsight we can see that Wegener had the best evidence in his favour, but he was not regarded as an expert in geology. The people who were regarded as experts were not ready to accept the new idea and so they attacked it. They criticised continental drift on the grounds that the land could not float on the ocean crusts as if it was a fluid. Indeed Wegener did not have a fully formed theory of how continental drift worked but he had considered it beyond the point at which he was being attacked. He was aware of the mid-ocean ridges and suspected that the oceanic crusts were spreading out from there, as indeed they were.
Some of the attacks on Wegener were quite vehement. His theory was called preposterous, antiquated, a serious error, footloose and dangerous. He won support from some lesser geologists but his opponents were considered the authorities and no amount of evidence or reason was ever going to convince them at that time. Wegener died young when an Arctic expedition turned to tragedy in 1930. After that, little progress was made until the 1950s when people started to look at how rocks were magnetised. This provided almost indisputable evidence that the land masses had moved and in 1953 Samuel Carey developed the theory of plate tectonics that finally explained the mechanism behind continental drift.
The moral of this story is that the experts in a subject are not always the best authorities. Sometimes they are too versed in current theories to see the truth of a new idea even when the evidence come up in its favour. Of course this does not mean that every crazy idea is going to be right, most are not, but ideas have to be judged on the best observational evidence and not on dogma. This is why when you learn something you should always question it. Just how good is the evidence? Don’t accept it because your teacher says it is right, but don’t reject it just because you don’t understand it either. The truth lies in reason and evidence and the mainstream view is sometimes still open to question. When new observations come along they sometimes show that earlier accepted ideas were wrong. Often we are left wondering why we were so sure of those previous ideas in the first place. The answer is sometimes just because they were written in the textbooks.