Balancing Acts in Science

How do you know when alternative views are real alternatives, and thus should be considered in a “balanced view” vs. when those views are not any longer valid and should be ignored? This sounds like a hard thing to do but it is not as hard as you might think. I suggest two different approaches: “Tipping Points” and “Clues that Something is Wrong Here.”


The Tipping Point approach works like this: As the percentage of qualified scientists that hold a particular view diminishes, when it reaches about 25 percent or so, the view should continue to be references but as a minority view. Many points of view have been around that range in the past and we are glad we did not eliminate them. For instance, the role of Archeopteryx in bird evolution has moved in and out of favor such that what may well be the correct view may have been close to that sort of minority at various times in the past. As plate tectonics started to develop as a theory, it was held at about this level of minority for a while. The idea of particulate inheritance lost favor for decades prior to the New Darwinian Synthesis, and may have been in that range for a while. Minority vies should be maintained, but labeled clearly as such, in science reviews or in policy development.

But when that view goes to single digits, something else happens. We remember that the percentage of people who think that they’ve been abducted by aliens, or that are certain they’ve seen ghosts, or other impossible things, is around there. If 90 percent of scientists in a given field thing that A is likely correct and B is not, then is time to start ignoring B.

The second aproach, “Clues that Something is Wrong Here,” works quite differently. Some people are going to not like this approach because it rings of ad hominem argumentation or argument from authority. And it is. But note that this is the second approach being suggested for a reason, and I think once you see how it works you’ll agree that it is valid.

There are many possible clues, and I suggest only a few here:

  • The main proponents of the minority opinion are not part of the mainstream science.
  • The most vocal proponents of the minority opinion are often politicians who are linked to a party or political movement with a priori reasons to hold this point of view.
  • The main arguments being made at the policy level are non-scientific, and often include accusations of unfairness or bias.
  • The main arguments made at the policy level about the validity of a certain interpretation of the available evidence is that it should be given more consideration because no one believes it any more. In other words, the argument is made that a particular point of view is right because the vast majority of practitioners in the field are certain that it is wrong.
  • The victimization of the minority point of view starts to come into play.
  • The appeal to support the fading minority point of view shifts primarily from the scientific community to easily swayed politically motivated members of the public.
  • The appeal to support the fading minority point of view shifts primarily to those calling for investigative agencies to intervene on behalf of the view that is widely seen as wrong.
  • And finally, the primary argument against the fading, by now fully discredited point of view is reference to the idea that there must be a conspiracy afoot against it, otherwise why would it appear to be completely wrong. And therefore it must be correct

You can see now why this is not a simple argument from authority or ad hominem. What has happened in the typical case is that those still stumping for the incorrect view are no longer valid experts, but rather, biased political entities or crazy people (or some combination of the two). There isn’t a single zoologist who thinks Bigfoot is real. Today, bigfoot “exerts” are either charlatans or disturbed individuals. There is not a single evovlutionary biologist who things the earth is 6000 years old. Today, each and every Young Earth Creationist is a preacher or a con artist or, again, disturbed. There are almost no climate scientists who think that Global Warming and other related climate change is not a) real and b) human caused in the majority. Those who defy this point of view these days are either in the employ of energy companies or, perhaps, Tea Partiers or biased Senators. It is not an ad hominem argument because the validity of the science is not being questioned on the basis of qualities (or lack thereof) of those supporting the views, but rather, the minority view is being ignored because those still professing it are not qualified to even enter the debate to begin with.

Comments

  1. #1 Artor
    September 25, 2011

    Hear, hear!
    I would only like to add a qualification to your description of the “Tipping Point” methodology. As stated, it sounds like pure argumentum ad populum. “If 90 percent of scientists in a given field thing that A is likely correct and B is not, then is time to start ignoring B.” I’d like to add “until further credible evidence is found.”

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    September 25, 2011

    True. My formulation assumes that scientist are using evidence to place themselves in one or another camp, but it is very much worth adding.

  3. #3 John Emerson
    September 25, 2011

    You should probably define “science”. Trying to apply your principles to economics is a little tricky. Mainstream economics has run into a very rough patch recently, and they had pretty secure domination of their field though I’m not sure it was 10%.

  4. #4 Greg Laden
    September 25, 2011

    I was referring to real sciences, not social sciences or any other thing that uses the word “science” to describe itself (Christian Science, Scientology, etc)

    [duck, run for cover]

  5. #5 Jim Thomerson
    September 25, 2011

    I think we need to keep in mind the comment that no two scientists are in complete agreement on everything. Secondly, the idea that two informed and honest persons may interpret a set of data differently. I think there are a small number of climate change deniers who are both qualified and honest in their opinion. Incidentally, I don’t agree that everyone is entitled to their opinion. The right to an opinion is not an entitlement, but must rather be earned through study of the matter. I think a large number of the people we disagree with have not earned the right to their opinion.

    What do you think of Thomas Kuhn’s thesis that ordinary science progresses because most scientists share the same paradigm?

  6. #6 John Emerson
    September 25, 2011

    I mean, “90%”.

  7. #7 mememine69
    September 25, 2011

    “Catastrophic CO2 Climate Change Crisis” is the worst disaster imaginable, so until we see these scientists in their countless thousands, marching in the streets and ACTING like it’s the emergency they said it was, we will conclude academic exaggeration. We will be thankful and grateful the planet and Humanity have been spared a comet hit of a climate crisis and the ultimate peer review is the voting majority you see before you of “former” climate blame believers. Nobody is going to vote for taxing the air to make the weather colder and hand over the management of the planet’s temperature to carbon trading markets run by politicians and corporations.
    Obama is now a denier as well since he didn’t even mention the “crisis” in his state of the union address after 25 years of CO2 crisis warnings. And where were the thousands of consensus scientists when they were completely snubbed by Obama, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for climate change and as NP stated; his “role in meeting the great climatic challenges”? So follow our leader and get ahead of the curve planet lovers because Obama sees Climate Change Crisis for what it was, another Iraq War of lies and fear mongering. The CO2 mistake has made omen worshipping fools out of all of us for the history books. Meanwhile, the UN had allowed carbon trading stock markets to trump 3rd world fresh water relief, starvation rescue and 3rd world education for just over 25 years of climate CONTROL.
    If you really love the planet and want to get the corruptive influence of politics out of science, do the right thing. Fear is never sustainable so let’s leave that to the neocons shall we?
    Billions of children were falsely condemned to a CO2 death knowingly, so let’s get the charges over with sooner than later:
    U.S. Department of Justice 950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW Washington, DC 20530-0001
    By Phone: Department of Justice Main Switchboard -202-514-2000
    Office of the Attorney General Public Comment Line -202-353-1555

  8. #8 Greg Laden
    September 25, 2011

    I think we need to keep in mind the comment that no two scientists are in complete agreement on everything.

    That may be true, but that is also the sort of thing that is typically misunderstood and willfully misused by science denialists.

    I think there are a small number of climate change deniers who are both qualified and honest in their opinion.

    Not really. Not any more. (Assuming qualified does not mean dillusional). There may be people in various sciences ancillary to climate change sciences who have convinced themselves of something that no serious and honest scientist believes, but no, at this point, if you’re truly qualified and truly honest you KNOW that we are in a strong warming trend that spans “natural variation” and is caused primarily by the release of fossil carbon and damage to carbon reservoirs. Nobody who is qualified and honest doesn’t believe that. Really. It’s over.

    What do you think of Thomas Kuhn’s thesis that ordinary science progresses because most scientists share the same paradigm?

    John: Right. Having 90 percent thinking more or less one thing (though as Jim points out not agreeing on everything) is not necessary for a mainstream position to be the mainstream position. I didn’t actually say that though I can see that I inadvertently implied that. Having only 10% of your peers think a certain thing is likely, when that number has only gone down and nothing new is going on, is strong evidence that you’re wrong. The rest of the field might be 60-30 split on two other competing ideas.

    I think Kuhn’s way of thinking made a lot of sense given how science had changed prior to his writing. Subsequently more and more people saw the nature of science as being different until finally there was enough of a difference in thought about Kuhn that his paradigm was overthrown.

  9. #9 mememine69
    September 25, 2011

    These lab coat consultants of climate blame hysteria have done to academia what abusive priests did for the Catholic Church.

  10. #10 jus boutded
    September 25, 2011

    There is something about this article’s overall thesis that just doesnt pass the bovine excrement sniff test. First of all, an alarm goes off, or should, whenever anyone begins using the dismissive term “impossible things” regarding other peoples ideas, whether they be about ufos or spooks or anything else in this rather large and reliably unpredictable universe.
    When Pasteur began suggesting that there might be tiny nightmarish invisible animals crawling on our skin and causing disease, that was laughably, almost insanely impossible. Some of his concerned colleagues actually did suggest that he be committed.
    When the first European explorers came back from Australia reporting seeing a fur bearing animal with a duck’s beak and laying eggs but then milk nursing its hatched young, they were howled at as frauds presenting a species bending “impossibility”.
    And I can still remember well when a group with Nixon visited China and was shown examples of acupuncture being used in hospitals and surgeries there, and so many medical authorities here in this country standing up to say that this is just a trick photography of some kind, that they knew all about anatomy and this was (again, that word) impossible.
    Im sorry to not list the many more historic examples but I want to post this just after reading the article pretty quick so I am typing very much off the cuff here.
    The point is not about any specific ancient or modern issue or discovery, but about the nature of new (or “alternative”) ideas and their introduction to the accepted consensus in general. Obviously we can see that any new ideas will inevitably at first be held only by a minority. Sometimes a minority of one. Thats why they are new. And that is true whether the new thinking turns out to be completely valid or utterly unusable. And just as this article begins by saying, sometimes they circulate around in the background and resurface to new interpretations and new evidence and even occasionally, ultimate acceptance.
    My concern is that this blogpost could well have had the alternative title “How to decide what ideas we can ignore”. And my strong feeling is that the reply should always be- none.
    Limiting our thinking by poll taking and then defining a consensus by majority is exactly how good thinking stops, not where it begins. In my own work, I actually dont use the concept “impossible”. It simply isnt relevant to processing data, and data is all there is. Ever. Observe, analyse, hypothesize, experiment, theorize. Forever and ever, amen. And to preclude anything, anything at all, from that process is to deny the very nature of its power. If my neighbor rushed in right now and said there was a unicorn on the lawn I would not call around to the “authorities” to see what the majority recommended I believe. I would simply go and look. Consider this… todays headlines are that the researchers at CERN are reporting a faster that light particle. I have no idea how this observation might play out, but I am fairly certain that if you asked a group of prominent physicists even a few months ago if such a controversy was likey, a great many of them of them would have said “no, its not possible.”
    Keep looking. At everything. Even for the unicorns on the lawn. That is the only strategy for truth seeking that works. Consensus is merely something to hide behind, and hiding is really not the kind of fun we want to have. Not in this endlessly expanding universe. Reserve the term “impossible” for when the person across the street with the unkempt appearance and the strange look about them invites you out to lunch. Of course I will just come back another day and ask you all over again, I wont ever be discouraged, but you can always try.
    open.salon.com/blog/jusboutded

  11. #11 Greg Laden
    September 25, 2011

    Jus, this has nothing to do with ideas coming on the scene. It has to do with ideas leaving the scene and when to simply say good bye and when reporters, for instance, should stop feeling the need to refer to them.

    We’re not talking about the Okapi in 1908. We are talking about Bigfoot in 2008. And yes, “How to decide what ideas we can ignore” is a perfectly good alternative title. Sorry, but we really really can ignore Bigfoot.

    Thanks for your concern, though!

  12. #12 tadarius
    September 25, 2011

    Well written post Greg. I just wanted to draw your attention to Kurt Wise a Harvard educated geologist who believes in the young earth ‘theory”.. I’m sure there are other misguided loons out there..

  13. #13 Greg Laden
    September 25, 2011

    Yeah, I know that guy. He falls under the charlatan category. He has openly admitted that he has no interest in evidence and if all the evidence in the world were massed against something the bible said he would not change his mind.

  14. #14 dean
    September 25, 2011

    Isn’t Wise the “scientist” who wrote about going through the Bible, deleting everything that didn’t agree with the science he had learned, then realizing if he was going to continue being a christian he’d have to ignore the science?

  15. #15 Greg Laden
    September 25, 2011

    That’s the guy.

  16. #16 Neil Craig
    September 26, 2011

    So on point one the fact that there is not a single scientist, “climate” or otherwise, in the world who is independent of government funding, except Greg alleges, himself, who supports the catastrophic warming story means it should be rejected.

    The fact that no supporters of the story feel capable of discussing it scientifically and depend on ad homs and obscenity mean they should be rejected with contempt.

    Or was that not what you meant and you are just looking for an excuse to engage in

  17. #17 Raging Bee
    September 26, 2011

    “Catastrophic CO2 Climate Change Crisis” is the worst disaster imaginable, so until we see these scientists in their countless thousands, marching in the streets and ACTING like it’s the emergency they said it was, we will conclude academic exaggeration.

    Um…they are acting like it’s a real emergency: they’re publishing what they know as honestly and credibly as they can. That’s how scientists respond to emergencies when they discover them. If they started marching in the streets, people like you would call them commie agitators and accuse them of exaggerating and behaving irrationally.

    And after that bit of self-serving BS, the rest of your comment can be safely ignored as transparently dishonest crap.

  18. #18 Raging Bee
    September 26, 2011

    Neil, you still haven’t explained exactly why “government funding” (As if there’s only one government at work here) makes a scientist less reliable than he would otherwise be.

    Cops and prosecutors also depend on “government funding.” Does that make their word unreliable? And what about this “government funded” Internet thingie?

  19. #19 Corkscrew
    September 26, 2011

    @Jus:

    And I can still remember well when a group with Nixon visited China and was shown examples of acupuncture being used in hospitals and surgeries there, and so many medical authorities here in this country standing up to say that this is just a trick photography of some kind, that they knew all about anatomy and this was (again, that word) impossible.

    That did actually turn out to be impossible. In addition to the acupuncture, all the patients were doped to the gills on conventional anaesthetics.

    @Greg:

    I think you’ve got some good thoughts here. But beware of Goodhart’s Law. I dread the day being a scientist is perceived to give you some kind of “voting right”, because that’s the day that scientific positions start to be distributed as part of the usual political merry-go-round, rather than on merit.

  20. #20 Terry Trainor
    September 26, 2011

    No zoologists believe in Bigfoot, and no Evolutionary Biologists believe in a young earth.

    Wow.

    How very profound!

    Uh – do you by any chance know what an Evolutionary Biologists IS?? Saying no Evolutionary Biologists believe in a young earth is a lot like saying no Geocentrists believe the Sun is the center of the universe; the two points of view are mutually exclusive! Evolution requires VAST AGES of time!

  21. #21 Greg Laden
    September 26, 2011

    Terry, I don’t get the point you are making, care to take another stab at it? And yes, I do have an idea of what an Evolutionary Biologist is. Being one an all.

  22. #22 Hengist McStone
    September 26, 2011

    I’d like to add another point to “Clues that Something is Wrong Here”. Advocates positioned as skeptics of the majority view lend credence to advocates that deny the majority view.

  23. #23 Raging Bee
    September 26, 2011

    I’ll add another point: an “alternative view” can be ignored when its advocates’ questions or objections have been answered, and the advocates show no sign of addressing those answers, but keep on repeating the same questions or objections with the pretense (spoken or not) that their questions or objections have never been addresed.

  24. #24 itzac
    September 26, 2011

    Greg, Terry is saying you’ve made a category error. “Of course evolutionary biologists don’t believe in a young earth. They are defined as people who don’t believe in a young earth.”

    Of course that argument requires a really naive definition of evolutionary biology.

  25. #25 Greg Laden
    September 26, 2011

    And an incorrect understanding of category.

    There are two categories here. People who do this without meds and don’t think bigfoot is real, and those who, well, are in a different category.

  26. #26 GFW
    September 26, 2011

    “I think Kuhn’s way of thinking made a lot of sense given how science had changed prior to his writing. Subsequently more and more people saw the nature of science as being different until finally there was enough of a difference in thought about Kuhn that his paradigm was overthrown.”

    Beautiful, just beautiful.

  27. #27 Greg Laden
    September 26, 2011

    Thank you, thank you. I’m here Tuesday through Friday nights and in the Lizard Lounge on Saturdays. Thank you very much.

  28. #28 Jim Thomerson
    September 26, 2011

    I was well aware of what was going on when the stable continent paradigm gave way to the plate tectonic paradigm. I think this was a good example of Kuhn’s paradigm shift hypothesis. On the other hand the transition from Mendelian genetics to molecular genetics was a fairly gradual transition quite unlike the stable continent to plate tectonic shift. I suppose the earlier shift from biometricians to Mendelians was a Kunian paradim shift

    Last I heard of Kuhn was a quote in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “We do not know how science progresses.”

  29. #29 Keith
    September 26, 2011

    So, by Greg’s assertion, Nobel Laureate physicist Ivar Giaever is in the employ of Big Oil/Energy or being paid off by them.
    http://www.ibtimes.com/articles/214181/20110915/ivar-giaever-global-warming-climate-change-al-gore-ipcc-hoax-dissent-nobel-prize-winner-physicist-re.htm

    And just what evidence does Greg have to support this claim?

  30. #30 Greg Laden
    September 26, 2011

    Keith, I never made that claim. I would put him in the Deluded category.

  31. #31 Vince Whirlwind
    September 26, 2011

    Isn’t he in the “really, really old” category?

  32. #32 Larry Olson
    July 14, 2013

    I totally loathe religionists who infer that creationism has any merit in science. But this false construct ‘denialism’ is a dangerous path to go down.

    The term itself is kind of a gauntlet ‘denialism’ and pretty much ends the debate. And I don’t think politically-minded folk should be debating this topic without a clear understanding of atmospheric physics. To dismiss out of hand dissenting opinion is a power play and not a call to reasonable debate.

    Many climatologists are talking out their behinds. They know it is a political cash cow (AGW) and so naturally fall in line with the rhetoric.

    If you look at the AMS site you will note that Meteorologists chafe at this notion of the overwhelming majority diatribe. The same callousness was used in persecuting women as witches and I see the attempts to frame dissent as somehow purely unscientific as laughable.

    I come to this site for science but not politics. Carbon credits, IPCC, Kyoto, all have a framework born of the sky is falling mindset.

    Just something to ponder as non-scientists tell scientists what to think. That is not science.