Scientists love to question each other and argue about science all the time! Following the previous examinations of professional scientists arguing with other scientists (see: Part I: “Background to controversies involving scientists” , Part II: “Why is there such a long controversy about global warming and climate change?” , Part III: “Is glyphosate poisoning us all?” , and Part IV: “A closer look at a scientist whose research causes immense controversy!” ), the final essay in this series will briefly summarize my views about what lessons can be learned from this common activity.
What results come from controversies between research scientists?
The result of controversies between scientists basically is either a decision about which position triumphs, or a continuation of the unresolved dispute. Some loud controversies do not yield any settlement for many decades and sometimes never end (e.g., Darwin’s theory about evolution was published over 100 years ago, but still remains controversial). Disputes between scientists often have inputs from outside science (e.g., governments, religions, other cultures, dedicated institutions, businesses, associations, etc.); in such cases, arguments that originally were about science often shift into debates about official national or local policies, public health regulations, cultural and religious restrictions, predicted expansions of business profits, policy alliances, international interests and conflicts, etc. These non-science factors make such disputes much more complex, and easily can prevent any agreements about the science aspects from being reached.
Where a controversy can be kept at the level of science and research, further experimental investigations usually will permit some agreement or a consensus to be reached. In principle, if good experimental data are available, then any controversy between scientists should be settled readily; failure to arrive at a decision for a pure dispute about science can simply indicate that the needed experimental data are not yet available.
What can we learn about disputes between scientists?
In my personal opinion, all the following generalizations about controversies between scientists are valid and worthy of recognition.
(1) Arguments about science occur between scientists all the time, but infrequently reach awareness of the public.
(2) Issues in disputes that strictly involve science often are settled when further or better experimental data are acquired.
(3) Disputes between scientists are normal and good for science; the progress of scientific research always depends upon asking questions about everything.
(4) Many controversies between scientists about research are settled, particularly when further experiments are conducted; however, some other controversies never end.
(5) External factors often enter controversies involving science; this always makes the issues become more complex, since non-science factors inject self-interest, ignorance, and money into the dispute.
(6) Scientists in complex controversies often are being used; giving expert testimony about science commonly is intended to gain support for some non-science position.
(7) When scientists work for a company or a governmental agency, they must only support the views of their employer and so are not really free to objectively seek the truth; thus, expert testimony by doctoral scientists can have aims quite outside science.
(8) In theory, it would be better to initially let expert scientists argue and decide about the science, and only then let outside interests start disputing what should be done (e.g., by authorities, government, industries, lawyers, officials).
(9) Controversies between scientists can be ended outside science (i.e., by external authority, laws, or institutions); although an official decree can stop a dispute, the issues for science might not be settled.
(10) It takes personal courage and strong determination for a professional research scientist to maintain their position when confronted and opposed by traditional beliefs, esteemed authorities, government figures, or large crowds of opponents; those individuals who do continue to argue against such opposition always should be highly respected for their personal integrity and dedication to science.
Types of disputes involving science and scientists.
Based upon the above generalizations, we can identify and characterize several fundamental types of controversies involving science and scientists.
(1) Small disputes (e.g., 2 scientists do not agree about the best interpretation of some research data) vs. large disputes (e.g., many scientists and many in the public disagree about what should be done about humans intentionally altering the weather).
(2) Disputes within science (e.g., scientists in a discipline of science disagree about whether some new technology is truly a part of their research focus) vs. disputes with outsiders (e.g., scientists working in a laboratory facility disagree with local officials about whether their research activities pose any hazard to local residents).
(3) Simple disputes (e.g., some scientists disagree with others about whether the use of satellite data to measure surface temperatures of Earth is truly accurate) vs. complex disputes (e.g., debates by scientists, governments, and industries about global warming and climate change; see Part II: “Why is there such a long controversy about global warming and climate change?” ).
Controversies between scientists are a prominent feature of science and research. These disputes are wonderful since they halp ensure that scientists are succeeding in seeking and actually finding the truth. When interests outside science enter disputes between scientists, the arguments become much more complex and more difficult to settle. The input of scientists into large and complex disputes is most meaningful when made for issues involving science and research, versus those issues involving the entire public (including scientists as citizens).
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