Scientific controversies?

Kevin_Cannon_web-blogThe main stream media (MSM) often promote the idea of scientific controversies where none really exist. That is, the controversy may be within the media itself. Or within religion or politics. But it’s not within the scientific community. The creationism/evolution and global warming/climate change denial are two examples of such controversies.

On he other hand there are scientific controversies/debates raging within the scientific community which the public may be oblivious to. Evolutionary science is a lively dynamic area so of course their are scientific debates going on – there just not about creationism. Similarly, climate scientists will vigorously debate the meaning and significance of new evidence and the reliability of computer models – but those debates are not what the climate change deniers are talking about.

So how can the public check out these “controversies?” How can they assess if they are real debates within the scientific community or fictions of the main stream media? Or perhaps that the real debate is political or religious rather than scientific?

Gary Herstein, over at Science Blogging Philosophy & Ethics has a great article on the nature of scientific controversy (see What Does A Real Scientific Controversy Look Like?). He provides some rules people should use in judging claims of scientific controversy. Its well worth reading – but here are a few brief extracts:

Rule #1: The Media IS just a Circus:

“The contemporary MSM (at least) is generally driven by rhetoric and marketing; what gets attended to is that which puts on the best show. But this is not a standard by which any claim, argument, or piece of evidence ought to be evaluated. “Performance art” is not the same as cognitive content. Indeed, the noisier the rhetoric, the likelier it is funded by people who could care less about the facts, as these interfere with their profit margins. This leads to,”

Rule #2: Follow the Money:”

“There is seldom any real money in telling the truth. . . .However, nothing will so frequently overwhelm earnest commitment as a tsunami of “filthy lucre.” Well funded liars will readily garner much more media attention than determined investigators of genuine integrity, particularly in the earliest stages of the process of garnering public attention. So as in any good mystery, one of the best ways of getting the measure of a claimant is to look at such person’s funding.” Also “what kind of agenda is behind the money. . . .People will lie for power, but how many will dissemble for the facts?”

Rule #3: Follow the Publications:

“Here, of course, I mean the real publications, the peer-reviewed literature and not the popular dog-and-pony shows. . . .If a claim is so vapid and vacuous that it can not pass muster in the peer-reviewed literature, then this is particularly substantive evidence that the claim lacks any real scientific or logical merit. Whining about the profound nature of one’s “truth” is meaningless if one cannot support it with real scientific research.”

Rule #4: Whimpering about Conspiracies

“Any conspiracy that involves more than five people will generally fall apart of its own inoperable mass as soon as it is conspired; the idea of one that involves tens of thousands of people acting in unbreakable lock-step is pathetic infantilism.”

Rule #5: Consensus is a Clue

“It is only a clue, but it is a clue. Consensus does not make the facts, but for non-experts it is a powerful indicator of what the facts are, wherein they are to be found, and how they are to be interpreted. When substantive consensus has been formed, those who would presume to challenge that consensus are obliged to make their case rather than ostentatiously puling and whining about how unfair it all is.”

Rule #6: Is the Alternative Even Science?

“Any claim that is genuinely scientific will have some possible notion of falsification, some systematic research program in hand, some viable context of puzzle solving definable by its underlying theoretical claims, and so forth.”

An Example of a Real Controversy:

Herstein then goes on to discuss a real scientific controversy – over the Standard Model of cosmology. He shows how bis rules can be applied here. These show that it is perfectlyr easonable to accept this as a genuine scientific controversy.

(* Cartoon – Kevin Cannon , from Union of Concerned Scientists, Scientific Integrity, Cartoon Competition).


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4 responses to “Scientific controversies?

  1. Ken, thanks for putting up this article. I am always on the look-out for ways to sort out legitimate science from pseudo-science and crack-pottery.
    I was one of those people that fell asleep in science class , I admit it.
    However , I don’t remember any of my teachers touching on this kind of thing.
    Nowadays, I am genuinely interested.
    It’s become a very absorbing hobby.

    I’d like to see an article that clearly spelled out for the layman, how scientists enter the scientific arena and the process of peer-review.
    Something that grab the attention of an undecided lurker long enough to sway them to the “dark side”.

    Science deniers routinely don’t understand the significance of peer-review and this can be hugely frustrating in an argument.
    Even when you get them talking about peer-review, there is still a long road ahead.

    The main tactics seem to be…
    1) Bring up a paper that looks peer-reviewed but isn’t.
    2) Mis-read (hi-jack) a legitimate paper.
    3) Focus on one isolated paper to the exclusion of all the thousands of others as if it’s a kind of a slam-dunk trump card.
    4) Point to flawed, bogus papers that evaded the peer-review process to discredit the whole peer-review process.

    If you come across such an article or video that does an excellent job of this, please put it up.

    There’s a series of videos on global warming done by a rural science teacher that is creating a buzz at the moment. I don’t know if you are familiar with him already but his approach is…rather novel.



  2. I would agree with rules one and two but no farther. The remaining rules are just a way of saying that we should place our blind faith in the establishment; shame on you.

    Science moves forward through revolutionary ideas that challenge and overturn the establishment; think of Galileo presenting the evidence showing that the Earth revolves around the Sun and Darwin gathering the evidence in support of his Theory of Evolution.

    If you want to know if something is real science then focus on the evidence.

    For example if we are wondering if there are nine, twenty six, or whatever number of dimensions of reality that the string theorists claim then we look for evidence. But instead of evidence they tell us that they have degrees and they are the authorities, two things that give us a grand total of zero in regards to real science. Bottom line, without evidence, string theory is junk science.

    By defining science we are able to distinguish the good science from the bad. Science is unbiased effort to understand reality based on physical evidence.


  3. I don’t know what your problem is David. This article (What Does A Real Scientific Controversy Look Like?) was aimed at helping lay people identify common tactics used by those who would like to confuse them on scientific issues.

    In no way is it arguing that science should not be based on evidence or that new ideas are necessarily wrong. Far from it.

    By the way – I disagree that string theory is necessarily “junk science” because we don’t have the evidence” (as yet). David Gross admits it is wrong to call it a theory – it is really an hypothesis. It’s not supported by evidence largely because the energies required to get the evidence have not yet been achieved.

    In such a situation it is wrong to call the ideas “junk.” They may well be (probably are) wrong, (most ideas in science are) but not junk. That assessment could only come when the ideas are tested and found wrong. At that stage they will probably be altered, modified, rather than being thrown away completely. That’s the normal way science proceeds.


  4. David wrote: Science moves forward through revolutionary ideas that challenge and overturn the establishment; think of Galileo presenting the evidence showing that the Earth revolves around the Sun and Darwin gathering the evidence in support of his Theory of Evolution.

    This position follows from Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. While widely known, I feel it’s oversold.

    In my experience, science rarely does this and when it happens it gets a (deserved) fuss. (Hence why people outside science seem to think this what happens?) Science more often is spending months (years) filling in myriad details and refining (making small corrections and additions to) existing models. Most big advances I’ve seen were in addition to, or encapsulating, existing knowledge, not replacing it.

    If you only look at “grand theories”, over long periods of time, I’d agree there is truth in this position, but in reality only a small number of people directly work on these and the revolutions occur rarely. In particular, it leaves out the more mundane “controversies” kind of that Ken was referring to.

    It’s a bit of a sideline I know, but this perception of science is seen as a nuisance by some of us!

    You’re right that evidence is important, but I suspect this list was devised to provide pointers for those that are unable to follow the original research and in particular those whose only source of information is the media itself.


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