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).
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).
The much disputed controversy about global warming features scientists, politicians, business leaders, and ordinary people arguing for or against it. Questions about global warming have shifted into a general debate about climate change. Clearly, this ongoing dispute is not yet even close to being resolved. This essay examines how and why this prolonged controversy is so very difficult to resolve despite the input of many professional scientists; the previous article in this series provided a general background for controversies involving scientists (see Part I at: http://dr-monsrs.net/2015/04/18/what-happens-when-scientists-disagree-part-i-background-to-controversies-involving-scientists/ ).
What is global warming?
In a nutshell, global warming is a worldwide increase in ambient temperature. This environmental parameter has been measured directly for recent periods or estimated indirectly from analysis of antarctic ice cores for hundreds and thousands of previous years. Global temperature has increased since the industrial revolution began (ca. 1870) and has risen more rapidly since 1970. It is known that elevating the amount of certain gases in the atmosphere (e.g., water, carbon dioxide, and methane) causes increased retention of heat; this is known as the “greenhouse effect”. It is postulated that the global temperature is rising largely due to increased levels of carbon dioxide coming from burning of the fossil fuels, coal and oil. Since further warming will cause melting of glaciers, increased ocean heights, changes in weather patterns, and other disruptive effects, the use of coal and oil must be decreased globally to stop any further rises in temperture. Climate change includes global warming, as well as global cooling and other large environmental changes in the modern world.
The standard very official concept about global warming.
The standardized viewpoint about global warming accepts that the temperature worldwide is indeed rising. The primary cause of this temperature increase is human activities; people cause global warming by burning coal and oil to produce increased amounts of greenhouse gases, and also by paving and urbanization, generating carbon black microparticulates, deforestation, etc. Much emphasis in the standard concept of global warming is given to the production increased carbon dioxide. If no intervention is taken, this concept predicts more warming that will cause very alarming changes in ocean levels, weather patterns, and life as we know it.
What are the main issues in the global warming and climate change controversy?
Global warming and climate change involve several different assumptions, all of which are being questioned. (1) Is there really an increase in global temperature? (2) What are the main causes of this rise in global temperature? (3) Is there actually a recent large increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide? (4) What causes the increased carbon dioxide? For all these queries, the chief question that must be asked is, “What is the evidence?”
Starting at the very beginning, one must first ask what is the evidence that there really is any global warming? (i.e., are measured global temperatures actually increased in recent times. A positive answer leads to several other related questions. (1) How much warmer is this average figure? (2) How was surface temperature of the entire planet measured or estimated? (3) Are all countries and regions warmer, or are some simultaneously cooler? (4) Have similar variations in global temperature ever been observed previously? These questions involve science, and should be answered and debated by expert scientists (e.g., climatologists, meteorologists, oceanographers, atmospheric physicists, etc.).
Anyone seeking answers to questions about global warming must inquire what is the primary cause of such climate change? A big controversy involves the hypothesis that human activities cause this environmental change. There are several other possible causes, including natural weather cycles, large shifts in solar energy discharges, changes in Earth’s orientation and distance from the Sun, large increases in the global number of humans and animals producing atmospheric carbon dioxide through their normal respiration, etc. Good science demands that alternative explanations must be examined.
The controversy about climate change engages all the foregoing plus corresponding questions about global cooling. From our knowledge about forming and melting glaciers in the ice ages, we know that there have been very prominent changes in temperature during the distant past. The causes of these well-known changes still are not clear. Today, some portions of the globe have very increased temperatures and severe droughts. Shorter term increases or decreases in temperatures occur in response to natural changes in the environment, including activity of the Sun, humidity levels, patterns of ocean currents, rain cycles, seasonal effects, etc.
What have scientists said and done in this ongoing controversy?
In additional to gathering and analyzing data, scientists debate what conclusions are valid and ask lots of questions. In 1988, the United Nations convened a panel of expert climatologists to assess global warming and advise about what new policies are needed. That group, the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change (UNIPCC) constructed the official standard concept of global warming described above. An independent non-governmental panel of expert climatologists has been established more recently; this group, the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC), has issued reports with conclusions about global warming that are very different from those of the UNIPCC. Many other scientists have been involved from the beginning, and continue to dispute almost everything. A survey of the literature by climate scientists (1991-2011) revealed that around 97% endorsed the consensus position that humans cause global warming (see J. Cook et al. 2013 Environmental Research Letters8:024024 at: http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/8/2/024024 ). However, that figure directly contradicts the assertion that 31,000 other scientists, including many not working in climatology, do not see any conclusive evidence that the standard concept is valid ( http://ossfoundation.us/projects/environment/global-warming/myths/31000-scientists-say-no-convincing-evidence ). Clearly, in 2015 many scientists disagree about the official standard concept of global warming and climate change!
What is the present status of this ongoing dispute?
Almost everything in the controversial official version of global warming now is being questioned and debated vigorously. Expert scientists are arguing against other expert scientists. Many science organizations accept and support the official concept about global warming as being due to human activities producing increased levels of carbon dioxide. All government agencies monolithically endorse the official viewpoint and promote activating strong intervention by the government. Groups of environmentalists also support the official viewpoint.
On the other hand, some former supporters of the standard position now strongly deny the validity of global warming. These dissenters even include some members of the original expert panel (UNIPCC) that constructed the standard concept for global warming! Many individual scientists and science groups now are contrasting predictions made from the official viewpoint with recent measurements showing cooler temperatures and enlarging sizes of polar icecaps; thus, the recent data support global cooling, rather than global warming! Predictions from the official coincept do not match the reality.
Debates about this controversy involve politics, finances, emotions, and egos, as well as science. Questions and dissenting views by scientists are increasing despite documented efforts to suppress dissent against the standard concept [e.g., 1-5]. It is most disconcerting that this and other unethical behavior has been uncovered for some of the scientists strongly involved in this controversy [e.g., 1-5]; that distracts attention from the actual scientific issues being debated, and reduces trust by the public in all scientists.
Why is global warming and climate change so hard to establish or deny conclusively?
Several distinct reasons can be identified why expert scientists have not been able to resolve this ongoing controversy. First, the standard official concept of global warming increasingly seems to be invalid. It’s predictions about rising temperatures, melting of polar icecaps, and alarming changes in weather patterns do not match reality. It cannot explain large environmental changes that currently are observed. Solid evidence for a recent rise in temperatures is questionable or missing. One commentator recently has even dared to ask, “Is global warming a hoax?” . Second, the complexity of this controversy is enormous. In addition to science, it involves finances, politics, industries, and governments. Arguments involve much more than scientific facts and figures; egos, emotions, careers, repression of questions, and, predictions of alarming disasters are prominent. Third, the use of “global” in the questions being addressed is questionable because there are very many quite different regions and different human activities involved; many so-called global datapoints actually are averages or extrapolations. How exactly can the temperature in Nepal be meaningfully averaged with that of Greenland, New York City, Tunis, and Tahiti? Similarly, how can the different human activities within these 5 parts of our planet be averaged in a meaningful way? Fourth, this long dispute has been made more difficult for science to resolve by the uncovering of data manipulations and repressions of dissent [e.g., 1-5].
From the materials given above and all the pro/con data now available, I must conclude that this controversy is a quagmire, and that it is unlikely to be resolved. Both sides in this long dispute have developed very hard positions, and both are supported by some scientists, some research findings, and some group organizations; those conditions can only lead to a stalemate. Additionally, politics and commercial interests now have strong involvement in this dispute, and often overwhelm the input of science. Scientific research can produce new facts, figures, concepts, and ideas, but it cannot readily deal with a quagmire that is a jumble of emotionally and financially charged positions.
The fact that new laws and regulations already are being proposed in advance of any consensus agreement by scientists and the public suggests that some unannounced agenda is at work here. The primary purpose of trying to reduce carbon emissions and establish a global carbon tax appears to be installing greater regulation of industries, economies, and nations; reduction of carbon dioxide levels is only a phoney excuse for establishing increased governmental controls over everything and everyone.
Controversy is good generally because it encourages discussion, questioning, debates, and testing of ideas. For science, controversy is completely essential as part of the search to find what is true. Both in the classical times and in modern years, some controversies between scientists take a very long time to be resolved. Disputes involving science today mostly feature scientists disagreeing with: (1) other scientists, (2) local administrators, (3) government officials and granting agencies, (4) regulatory bodies, and, (5) commercial companies. Disputes in conditions 2-5 often follow different rules than in class 1, and commonly aim for other goals than just finding the truth.
Controversies involving scientists are important for everyone because they often are the basis for making new laws and regulations. This series of articles examines different types of controversies involving professional scientists. Part I provides essential backround for the entire series. Later, we will take a look at certain specific disputes and some courageous scientists.
Controversies between individual scientists.
After research results are collected and analyzed, doctoral scientists in universities or industries typically interpret their data and then reach conclusions about what these show and mean. Forming interpretations and reaching conclusions often lead to disputes between scientists; that is completely normal and good. For controversies between scientists, the most essential question in all of science is at the forefront: “What is the evdence?”. When forced to discuss the opposing arguments, each side claims to have more expertise, and both point to features supporting their position or weakening the opponent’s position. In most cases, the opposing scientists will then conduct further research studies to try to find more definitive support for their positions. Soon, other researchers can begin participating in that debate about the truth.
This kind of controversy can be settled when the total evidence for one side becomes overwhelming, the number of other scientists agreeing with one position rises to a level sufficient to silence the opposition, or, the stalemated controversy withers and disappears after becoming seen to have little practical importance for science or society. Although this type of common dispute can become nasty and personal, most level-headed professional research scientists will abide by whatever conclusions are supported by reliable experimental results.
Controversies between scientists and local officials.
Controversies between scientists and local officials are quite different from those involving only other scientists. When scientists are confronted by local officials claiming that some rule or restriction is being violated, they typically try to make some changes aimed at either satisfying their accuser, or at least bringing their violation beneath the level of immediate concern. Some examples of typical responses by scientists are: (1) “I’m so very sorry … I forgot about that” (e.g., turn in some periodic inventory of a toxic chemical), (2) “I asked my technician to do that, but she was out with a bad cold last week” (e.g., bring some regulated waste from the lab over to a shipping dock), or, (3) “I’m going to a meeting next week, so I’ll have that ready for you in about 2-3 weeks” (e.g., clean up some mess in the lab). All such responses by a scientist cannot win against official authorities, but they do gain more time for the busy scientist to take corrective action.
Controversies between scientists and government.
Just like ordinary people, scientists can disagree with some policies, priorities, or pronouncements of government officials. The yearly crop of new governmental regulations for conducting research experiments often is disputed and resented by many scientists. Any controversy with the government is inherently risky for scientists, because they can come to influence the hoped for continuation of their research grant support. Particularly galling for scientists are any type of negative judgments by the agencies handling competitions for research grants. Scientists receiving only partial funding for a successful grant application usually become depressed and angry that they now cannot conduct the full range of their planned research experiments. However, any scientist serving on a panel reviewing research grant applications soon comes to realize that evaluations of proposals and judgments of funding priority are decisions which are inherently complex, difficult, and filled with divergent viewpoints. Since authority always can override opposition, there is little point in trying to win by open dispute; it is nuch better to win by channeling efforts into composing a better stronger proposal.
Controversies involving scientists and commercial businesses.
When disputes about some commercial product arise (e.g., activities, capabilities, performance, precision, sturdiness, etc.), the manufacturer often releases facts and figures obtained from research by their own in-house scientists and engineers. The opposing side also will have some scientists providing data that support its position. Both sides here will claim to have more authority and better data. This type of controversy is not part of the usual disputes between research scientists as described earlier, becuase investigators working for a commercial company almost always are not just seeking the truth, but have a bias in favor of their employer; they simply cannot stop trying to support their employer’s position no matter what research results they find and which data are brought forth by their opponents. This type of lengthy controversy between scientists and industry easily can become stalemated.
For a good example of this kind of controversy, we can think back several decades to times when smoking of tobacco was very popular and manufacturers of tobacco products brought forth research results that seemed to deny the validity of new scientific data showing that smoking of tobacco causes cancer and other major health problems [1-3]. This dispute lasted many years before more and more research results showing carcinogenisis accumulated; finally, laws were passed and information programs started in order to decrease smoking. Today, smoking still is not completely banned, but many fewer people now smoke; this decrease has resulted in considerably reducing the incidence of smoking-induced cancers and other pathologies [1-3]. This controversy exemplifies that science and research can take much time to have social impacts.
Controversies involving scientists and society.
We must examine 2 different kinds of controversies between science and society. The first is when a non-scientist in the public starts sincerely questioning why in the world would any scientist undertake some very esoteric research study, and why is it being funded by money from taxpayers? Even when the value for science is fully explained, there remains little chance that the questioners will change their mind; this type of dispute strongly involves psychology, rather than just science and reason.
The second is where members of the public, acting either from reason or emotions, hold some viewpoint very dearly. They regard scientists bringing forth research results which disprove their opinion as being outright enemies or demons rather than objective seekers of the truth. This kind of dispute involves a quite different set of rules (i.e., the number of scientists on each side, rather than their research results, can determine victory). Although both sides theoretically could come to agreement, this rarely happens no matter how much new evidence is gathered by each side; the easiest solution for such controversies is for some authority or politician to take action.
A very good recent example of this second type of dispute between scientists and society is the concept of global warming [e.g., 4-7]. Quite a few scientists have entered this ongoing debate and many have brought forth research results denying that global temperatures even have increased, let alone that such was caused by human activities. Both sides of the global warming controversy are strongly committed and neither will give up; this lengthy dispute now is continuing on its merry way as a shifted question about climate change. Teachers should take special note that both sides of this controversy are being supported by doctoral scientists and their research results . This ongoing dispute has much public importance because various new federal regulations are being sought even though no conclusions have been agreed upon by scientists, politicians, or the public.
Science and scientists are involved in many different types of controversies. When these are based upon the results of research experiments, the disputes usually are valuable for science. When these are based upon emotions, politics, or ignorance, these disputes usually are not able to be resolved and often are a waste of scientists’ precious time.
In forthcoming articles we will take a closer look at specific examples of controversies involving science, and at some scientists who are trying to win a dispute.