Tag Archives: what is the evidence?

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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HOW DO WE KNOW WHAT IS TRUE ?

How do many persons decide what is true?
           How do people decide what is really true ?      (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

       Most of us believe that something is true because we are taught such at home, in school, or by some expert authority.  For science, the truth is judged mostly by evaluating the experimental evidence; the more evidence supporting an accepted viewpoint or theory, the greater is the certainty that it really is true.  Thus, scientists work to test and establish what we can regard as being true.  A truth that is bonafide will be consistent with other observations and experimental data, and enables valid predictions to be made; an apparent truth that really is false does not have these two cardinal characteristics. 

 

            History is full of examples where some very widely accepted truth, idea, or dogma was later proven to be false, either in whole or in part.  Testing hypotheses and re-examining accepted conclusions or established theories is a large part of the ongoing job of scientists.  Research scientists openly question all truths, theories, and dogmas.  Thomas Edison, the very famous inventor (see my recent post on “Inventors and Scientists”), is quoted as having often said, “I accept almost nothing dealing with electricity without thoroughly testing it first” [1].  Nevertheless, research scientists, just like all other people, must accept many provisional truths in order to be able to move forward with daily life both at home and in the laboratory; this general acceptance that yesterday continues into today and then on into tomorrow is a very strong practical necessity. 

 

There are plenty of controversies in both classical and modern science.  In biomedicine, there are long-debated opposing theories about what actually is the essential nature of cancer (i.e., neoplasia).  In chemistry, there are still-ongoing disputes about the detailed structure of water.  In physics, there are large disagreements about the existence, genesis, and properties of certain fundamental subatomic particles and forces.  These major controversies are both very important and very difficult targets for modern researchers.  There also are numerous smaller disputes and arguments being generated all the time.  Having all these controversies and disagreements in science is very good because they force research scientists to continue to explore, to think analytically about alternative explanations, to doubt and wonder “what if ?”, and, to be able to ask unconventional questions. 

 

For ordinary people (i.e., non-scientists), daily life usually goes on without encountering many changes in the accepted truths.  Nevertheless, it must be understood that what is regarded as being true today can change tomorrow as a result of new research results.  Scientists and other scholars (e.g., archeologists, economists, historians, museum directors, paleontologists, statisticians, etc.) as professional questioners of the truth, will advise us about some perceived need to modify our current beliefs as a result of new research findings.  To be certain, any new proposals, unexpected research results, and unconventional interpretations always remain doubted and debated until more extensive evidence can be piled up.  Changes in what we have long regarded as being true should not be feared, since these will increase our grasp of reality; it is ignorance and dogmas that should be feared.  The discovery of new truths by scientific research can create new concepts, new assumptions, and new insights, thereby causing progress in the extent of our knowledge and understanding.   

 

[1]   Beals, G., 1999.  The biography of Thomas Edison.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.thomasedison.com/biography.html .  

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