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WHAT HAPPENS WHEN SCIENTISTS DISAGREE? PART I: BACKGROUND TO CONTROVERSIES INVOLVING SCIENTISTS.

 

Controversies Involving Science Affect Everyone!    (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Controversies Involving Science Affect Everyone!   (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

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 [7].  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.   

Concluding remarks. 

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. 

 

[1]  National Cancer Institute, 2011.  Harms of smoking and health benefits of quitting.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/causes-prevention/risk/tobacco/cessation-fact-sheet

[2]  American Cancer Society, 2014.  Tobacco-related cancers fact sheet.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancercauses/tobaccocancer/tobacco-related-cancer-fact-sheet .

[3]  National Heart. Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health, 2015.  How does smoking affect the heart and blood vessels?  Available on the internet at:  https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/smo .

[4]  National Resources Defense Council, 2015.  Global warming.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.nrdc.org/globalwarming/ .

[5]  John Cook, Skeptical Science, 2015.  The 97% consensus on global warming.  Available on the internet at:  https://skepticalscience.com/global-warming-scientific-consensus-basic.htm .

[6]  OSS (Open Source Systems, Science, and Solutions) Foundation, 2015.  31,000 scientists say “no convincing ebidence”.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.ossfoundation.us/projects/environment/global-warming/myths/31000-scientists-say-no-convincing-evidence .

[7]  Climate Change Debate Pros and Cons, 2015.  Is human activity primarily responsible for global climate change?  Available on the internet at:  http://climatechange.procon.org .

 

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