What are the most glaring examples — if any — of when the professional scientists or mathematicians were wrong, but the nonprofessionals were right?
It seems ball lightning was disbelieved by scientists until around 1960. See Wikipedia .
I knew a geologist who told us how his eye-witness account of ball lightning had been ridiculed. He had learned not to mention it when he interviewed for jobs as a professor of geology.
In 1726's Gulliver's Travels, Jonathan Swift mocked the learned scientists of Britain for not having solved the Longitude problem: Figure out a way to keep track of one's east-west location to within a mile after making a round-trip across the Atlantic. This was one of the most important scientific challenges of the 18th century. The British Parliament had an outstanding offer of £ 20,000 for a solution, and had trusted the astronomers at the Royal Observatory with awarding the prize. The prize was worth several times the modern-day Nobel Prize, and was famous at the time.
In 1731, a watchmaker named John Harrison solved the problem. The astronomers at the Observatory refused to believe him. Over the next 40 years, Harrison steadily refined his solution, but the astronomers never did award him the prize. It took an act of Parliament in 1773 before Harrison was finally given his prize, and east-west navigation could be made safe.
This isn't a topic I'm familiar with, just something I've read on Quanta, but according to this article, Richard Kershner of Johns Hopkins claimed to have a complete classification of convex pentagon tilings in 1968, though he notably said that "The proof that the list in Theorems 1 and 2 is complete is extremely laborious and will be given elsewhere" and that "a complete proof would require a rather large book".
However, after Martin Gardner talked about this claim in his column in Scientific American in 1975, it got to Marjorie Rice, a California housewife with a high school math education, who found four additional families, and Richard James, a computer programmer, who found another. Eventually, Michael Rao proved that there were exactly 15. You can read more about Rice in this article by the same author.
Admittedly, this is an instance of a single professional mathematician making a false claim without giving a proof, which mathematicians consider poor form, and a nonprofessional correcting him, rather than the general mathematics community being wrong.
Take meteorites, for instance. By the end of the XVIIIth century, educated people “knew” that no rock found on Earth could possibly have fallen from the sky, in spite of the evidence (eyewitnesses included) for their existence. As science journalist Kat Eshner wrote, “eighteenth-century rationalists […] thought the stories of rains of iron rocks weren’t real”. This state of affairs lasted until 1803, when Jean-Baptiste Biot established the reality of meteorites.
Just warning not to include pre-1920s medicine (and a lot of medical mantra thru the 20th century), as there was little to no science involved amongst physicians. Just look at how difficult it was for Lister et. al. to convince hospitals, midwives, etc. to wash their hands and sterilize operating theatres.
There are dozens of incorrect anecdotes purporting to show scientists were wrong. The "bumblebee can't fly" is one such. The truth behind the science/engineering theories is rather different.
I'd be tempted to add Gregor Mendel, whose experiments on plants and his analysis demonstrated how genes work, to that list.
It wasn't so much that the 'professional' scientists of the time considered that he was wrong — rather that they didn't even know of his results. In particular, Darwin puzzled over what the mechanism for transfer of traits was and was searching for a reason why traits wouldn't be continually diluted — which was an answer that Mendel had already answered very neatly. (Darwin argued for pangenesis as he was sure from his observations that blending inheritance would have diluted distinct traits.)
I'd argue that Mendel would meet the criteria as being a 'non-professional' as while he did teach physics — he repeatedly failed the teaching exams so he wasn't qualified to teach high school or adults - only young children. A pedant may point out that as presented his experiments in a couple of meetings and published an ignored paper he should be regarded as a 'professional scientist', but since his own boss in the church banned him from studying mice as it was considered wrong to study animal reproduction — I'd safely argue that it was a very non-scientific profession he was in.
The Green Flash was described for the first time (at least in the Western literature) by Jules Verne, a science fiction writer. Many scientists did not believe until photographs were taken and published.
Herbert Wells in 1914 described the use of nuclear energy for both bombs and peaceful applications. (His novel The world Set Free). At approximately the same time many scientists thought this was impossible. (Rutherford is on record for saying this publicly, that nuclear energy will be never used).
Mathematicians have been looking for amicable numbers for millenia. The smallest pair $(220, 284)$ was known to the Pythagoreans, and several larger pairs and a formula for generating them were found by Hindu and Arab mathematicians during the Middle Ages. Fermat, Descartes, and Euler rediscovered some of these and found some more.
But in 1866, a 16-year old schoolboy, Nicolo I. Paganini (no relation to the composer) found the previously unknown pair $(1184, 1210)$, which is actually the second smallest.
The Mpemba effect,
named after a Tanzanian student who discovered that a hot ice cream mix freezes faster than a cold mix in cookery classes in the early 1960s
was initially ridiculed. Quoting the wiki page on this topic:
After [a lecture by Dr. Denis G. Osborne], Erasto Mpemba asked him the question, "If you take two similar containers with equal volumes of water, one at 35 °C (95 °F) and the other at 100 °C (212 °F), and put them into a freezer, the one that started at 100 °C (212 °F) freezes first. Why?", only to be ridiculed by his classmates and teacher. After initial consternation, Osborne experimented on the issue back at his workplace and confirmed Mpemba's finding. They published the results together in 1969.
Rogue/Freak waves. It seems that reports of these were considered myths by science for a long time until they were finally recorded.
(However this is not an exact answer to the question - no non-professional had a theory about these waves, it was more of "ignoring observed facts which don't fit the accepted theory)
The abacists of 16th century Italy correctly identified the rule of signs from multiplication. Typical of their arguments (using modern notation) is:
$64 = (10 - 2) \times (10 - 2) = \dots =100 + (-40) + (-2\times-2) = 60 + (-2\times-2),$
so that "subtract 2 times subtract 2" must equal four. (There was still no concept of a negative number.)
Cardano insisted that the abacists were mistaken, giving a geometric argument that the arithmetic situation here was (using modern algebraic notation):
$64 = (10 - 2) \times (10 - 2) =(10\times10) - (2\times20) + (2\times2),$
where the "$-(2\times20)$" corresponds to removing two rectangles from the larger square and the "$+ (2\times2)"$ adds back the smallest square that has now been removed twice.
Amateur makes fools of the experts, Marcus Chown September 1995, [https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg14719952-200-amateur-makes-fools-of-the-experts/] .
An experiment that for eighty years has been cited by physicists as a confirmation of Einstein’s special theory of relativity is nothing of the sort. This remarkable discovery has been made not by a professional physicist but by an enthusiastic amateur.
Prominent physicists are often pestered by people who claim to have found a flaw in our understanding of the Universe. So Arthur Swift of the University of Massachusetts in Amherst at first ignored the letters he received from Gerald Pellegrini of Worcester, Massachusetts. “He has spent twenty years in the wilderness mulling over fundamental problems,” says Swift.
However, Pellegrini’s insistence that there was something amiss with a classic 1913 experiment eventually persuaded Swift to take a closer look at the theory behind the original experiment. This experiment, reported in the Proceedings of the Royal Society A, was an attempt by the husband-and-wife team Marjorie Wilson and H. A. Wilson of Rice University in Houston to measure the electric field created in a magnetised nonconducting material moving at high speed through a uniform magnetic field. Five years earlier, Einstein had used his special theory of relativity to predict that such an electric field would be stronger than that predicted using the classical theory devised by the Dutch physicist Hendrik Lorentz.
Amateur Scientists Just Proved Einstein Wrong Alfredo Carpineti May 2018 https://www.iflscience.com/physics/one-of-einsteins-major-theories-just-got-disproved-by-a-bunch-of-amateurs/
Proving Albert Einstein wrong is something that only a small number of scientists can claim to have done but now, more than 100,000 gamers can join that exclusive club and enjoy the smugness that comes with it. In 2016, scientists from around the world led by the Institute of Photonic Sciences in Barcelona (ICFO) asked people to play a simple game online, and the results were used to disprove one of Einstein’s claims about quantum mechanics. The results are published in Nature.
One of the things Einstein truly disliked about quantum mechanics is how the experimenter plays a role in the results obtained from an experiment. He believed the universe to be independent of our actions and quantum mechanics to be governed by the principle of local realism.
It Doesn't Take a Rocket Scientist: Great Amateurs of Science John Malone https://archive.org/details/ItDoesntTakeARocketScientist-GreatAmateursInScience/mode/2up .
It Doesn't Take a Rocket Scientist examines the lives and work of ten amateur scientists whose investigations yielded insights and discoveries that eluded their highly educated counterparts.
Amateur Scientists Making Significant Discoveries While Fighting To Receive Recognition And Respect Bruce Bigelow Jun 10, 1996 https://www.the-scientist.com/news/amateur-scientists-making-significant-discoveries-while-fighting-to-receive-recognition-and-respect-57972 .
Discoveries While Fighting To Receive Recognition And Respect In Tucson, Ariz., David Levy is a freelance writer and educator who spends his nights watching the desert sky for comets. STRUGGLE: Forrest Mims III, shown during a trip to the Mauna Loa Observatory, has encountered resistance to his efforts to work at the site. In Miami, Randy McCranie is a postal worker who has conducted extensive investigations as a field biologist in Honduras. And in Seguin, Texas, Forrest M. Mims III is a pro.
The British amateur who debunked the mathematics of happiness Andrew Anthony Jan. 2014 https://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/jan/19/mathematics-of-happiness-debunked-nick-brown . .
The astonishing story of Nick Brown, the British man who began a part-time psychology course in his 50s – and ended up taking on America's academic establishment
Einstein of course.
He had been working in a patent office for three years when he formulated the theory of relativity, gave an explanation of the photo-electric effect and an explanation of Brownian motion.
One shouldn't discount the fact he had been trained as a physicist, nevertheless, he was a non-professional physicist at the time he published his papers.