“You must remember, my dear lady, the most important rule of any successful illusion: First, the people must want to believe in it.” -Libba Bray

There are many times throughout history that science — and scientists — have gotten it wrong. And there are many topics today that are quite polarized, from the Big Bang and evolution to vaccines, fluoridation, chemtrails and climate change. There are many public debates that play out, sometimes in nasty ways, surrounding all of these topics.

A Nigerian health worker tries to immunise a child during vaccination campaign against polio. The synchronised vaccination campaign, one of the largest of its kind ever implemented in Africa, is part of urgent measures to permanently stop polio on the continent. Image credit: PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images.

A Nigerian health worker tries to immunise a child during vaccination campaign against polio. The synchronised vaccination campaign, one of the largest of its kind ever implemented in Africa, is part of urgent measures to permanently stop polio on the continent. Image credit: PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images.

Yet today marks the 97th anniversary of the most famous debate in the history of science, and there are important lessons from that momentum 1920 event that we seem to have forgotten today. If your goal is to convince other people that you’re right, don’t bother reading this. But if your goal is to arrive at a scientifically robust conclusion, and to make sense of the Universe based on that, read on.

The star in the great Andromeda Nebula that changed our view of the Universe forever, as imaged first by Edwin Hubble in 1923 and then by the Hubble Space Telescope nearly 90 years later. Note, also, that the galaxy has not rotated at all in that time. Image credit: NASA, ESA and Z. Levay (STScI) (for the illustration); NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) (for the image).

The star in the great Andromeda Nebula that changed our view of the Universe forever, as imaged first by Edwin Hubble in 1923 and then by the Hubble Space Telescope nearly 90 years later. Note, also, that the galaxy has not rotated at all in that time. Image credit: NASA, ESA and Z. Levay (STScI) (for the illustration); NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) (for the image).

The most important rule in debating science is to identify what it would take to convince us that our position is wrong. Come and find out what that’s all about!

Comments

  1. #1 Denier
    United States
    April 26, 2017

    @Ethan wrote:

    The point of a debate is to lay out your case, to successfully interpret facts and contentions that both sides are aware of (even if you don’t agree with their validity), and to identify which observations, measurements, and experiments could decide the issue in either direction. Harlow Shapley, who argued for the proto-star explanation in the 1920 debate, may have been declared the victor by the onlookers…

    I took away a very different point that we’ve lost sight on. I also think there was a much more famous scientific debate and interestingly, it also has the identical lost point.

    The scientific debate I’d give the #1 spot for ‘most famous’ is Clarence Darrow versus William Jennings Bryan during the Scopes Monkey Trial. Similar to Harlow Shapley, the wrong side won.

    My takeaway is the debate doesn’t matter. You and I were on different sides when you said that doing science wasn’t enough and scientists needed to become activists. I disagreed. The debate, the activism, the consensus; it doesn’t matter. Continued scientific progress will sort everything out. Pulling the attention of scientists away from science so they can also engage in useless activism is counterproductive.

    At the end of the day, more and better science will win. If you want to win a scientific debate then forget the debate and focus on doing more and better science.

    One of my favorite philosophical tenets is that people will agree with you only if they already agree with you. You do not change people’s minds.

    -Frank Zappa

  2. #2 dean
    April 26, 2017

    “At the end of the day, more and better science will win. ”

    No, as you demonstrate. The evidence for climate change is immensely strong and increasing, and folks like you, for personal reasons only,
    — make no attempt to understand the science
    — lie about what has been said
    — utter foolish complaints about “sample size of 1” and “there are still error bars”

    In other words — there will always be people like you who pretend to be open minded but have no intention of ever considering the data or an honest argument.

    The debate material is relevant for dealing with people who have integrity and a willingness to learn, not folks like you.

  3. #3 Patrice Ayme
    Berkeley
    April 26, 2017

    Before precise propositions, there is guesswork. In science, or out of science. Even poetry is a proposition.

    Nearly all present established scientific theories, all the way to the most recent gene modifying cephalopods, were preceded by extremely educated guesswork. Actually all of science is somewhat more or less verified guesswork.

    That some nebulae were “island universes” was proposed and debated in the eighteenth century, including by Laplace. Laplace proposed an angular momentum theory of formation of both galaxies and solar systems. On the latter, he was viewed as wrong (although PM Winston Churchill agreed with Laplace, against consensus, in 1939!)… Until he was proven right in the last 70 years.

    Philosopher Immanuel Kant realized that the Milky Way is not the only galaxy. He wrote:

    It is far more natural and conceivable to regard them [“nebulous stars” ] as being not such enormous single stars but systems of many stars, whose distance presents them in such a narrow space that the light which is individually imperceptible from each of them, reaches us, on account of their immense multitude, in a uniform pale glimmer. Their analogy with the stellar system in which we find ourselves, their shape, which is just what it ought to be according to our theory, the feebleness of their light which demands a pre-supposed infinite distance: all this is in perfect harmony with the view that these elliptical figures are just universes and, so to speak, Milky Ways . . . .

    Kant cited as a source for some of these views Mr. Wright of Durham, an Englishman. Kant thanked David Hume to extract him from “dogmatic slumber”.

    There are all degrees of scientific knowledge, from the first guess, all the way to complete certainty. From one to another, provisional dogmas help, because they are provocations challenging us to test them. For example the various dogmas in biology of the 1960s: they were absolute, provocative, and now have been proven to be right sometimes and very wrong in other circumstances.

    The first guesses on the biological evolution, atomic theory and “Brownian” Motion, and on the Heliocentric theory, or Non Euclidean geometry, are more than 23 centuries old. Without the guesswork, first, no science would have appeared, ever. Some of those were more than guesses: Aristotle quotes six theorems in Non-Euclidean geometry (but then proceeded with his stupid physics, which ignored inertia, something introduced, in most modern fashion, by Buridan circa 1350 CE…)

    It’s important to get the fact science is the product of an evolution… sometimes over millions of years, one could even say, and ought to say.

  4. #4 Mentifex (Arthur T. Murray)
    The Stars Are The Limit
    April 26, 2017

    lim –> ***

  5. #5 Ragtag Media
    United States
    April 26, 2017

    Former Obama Official: Climate Data Purposely Manipulated to Influence Public Opinion and Policy
    http://www.thegatewaypundit.com/2017/04/former-obama-official-climate-data-purposely-manipulated-influence-public-opinion-policy/

  6. #6 dean
    April 26, 2017

    rt, stop posting fiction.

  7. #7 Ragtag Media
    United States
    April 26, 2017

    Umm, Mr dean it right out of the mans mouth, see his interview at the Wall Street Journal:
    Opinion Journal: How Government Twists Climate Statistics
    4/21/2017 8:39AM
    Former Energy Department Undersecretary Steven Koonin on how bureaucrats spin scientific data
    http://www.wsj.com/video/opinion-journal-how-government-twists-climate-statistics/80027CBC-2C36-4930-AB0B-9C3344B6E199.html?mod=trending_now_video_3

  8. #8 CFT
    April 26, 2017

    @Ragtag Media,
    Climategate proved that beyond a shadow of doubt. Even in academia, politics overrules science. Michael Mann made it very clear that his climate activist ’cause’ was more important than following the scientific method when he concealed overt data manipulation (“hide the decline”), and far more important than the law when he refused to release his data (under FOIA) which he was using to produce his infamous ‘hockey stick’ graph. Mann also believed using political pressure on colleagues to influence peer review in order to block the publication of anything that went against his claims and positions was acceptable practice…once again, to support the ’cause’.
    .

  9. #9 CFT
    April 26, 2017

    @dean #2,
    Just NO.
    “In other words — there will always be people like you who pretend to be open minded but have no intention of ever considering the data or an honest argument.

    The debate material is relevant for dealing with people who have integrity and a willingness to learn, not folks like you.”
    .
    ….excuse me?
    ‘People like you’? ‘Folks like you’?? Um, that would be anyone who disagrees with you then? Like me for instance? So unless someone agrees with your position, beliefs, or interpretation of data, or position they are blocked from the debate? seriously?
    As Lana from Archer would say “NOooooPE”.
    .
    My dear little dean, the wet dream of being unopposed because you know THE ‘truth’ is the diatribe of a dictator or a religious zealot, a true believer, or an elitist snob… not a scientist.
    .
    This isn’t communist China, or UC Berkeley, sweetie.
    You do not get to decide who gets to be a part of the debate, who is allowed to question, or what they are allowed to say, thank goodness. If you feel otherwise, might I suggest moving somewhere where you can only hear yourself rant so there will be no one to disagree with you.
    .
    Your understanding of what debate is and what it entails needs some work, child.

  10. #10 Jackie
    April 26, 2017

    Did you ever read Isaiah 20:22..”It is He that sitteth upon the circle of the earth…”? And, don’t forget verse 23.

  11. #11 Ragtag Media
    United States
    April 26, 2017

    @CFT
    And this article by Ethan AGAIN proves a sort of stockholm syndrome from folks in the science community.
    Ethan says this:
    ” If you believe that something is rotten in a scientific field, or that a scientific conclusion is wrong, such as:
    *or you think that climate change and global warming are not happening or caused by humans,

    Then “you should ask yourself two big questions.”
    “One is to ask, critically, what pieces of evidence are the key ones that led you to your current position. ”

    OK my evidence is that a Steve Koonin was a Professor Of Theoretical Physics at Caltech, Was an Under Secretary of Science at the dept of Energy, and is the Director at NYU center for science and urban progress.
    Says press releases put out by the govt was about climate data and climate analysis was “MISLEADING and sometimes just WRONG”
    FACT,FACT,FACT
    Then you get Professor dean who says “rt, stop posting fiction”
    So I think a lot of folks in the science community are stricken with Stockholm Syndrome..

  12. #12 CFT
    April 26, 2017

    @dean #6,
    Ok, I think I figured your particular reasoning logic.
    A fact is whatever you believe to be true.
    A Lie is whatever someone else believes to be true that you disagree with (even if you don’t know what it is) because it makes you look bad.

    .
    Calling someone a liar, after failing to do your own homework is not the hallmark of intelligence. Please school yourself on examining a link or evidence provided before making a statement.
    .
    If you had actually looked at the interview before posting (I know you think you know everything already, but you quite evidently don’t) you would probably have said something different.

  13. #13 CFT
    April 26, 2017

    @Ethan,
    The one thing that really separates science from politics is that science is supposed to be politically impartial, above the fray. This is what lends credibility to scientific claims.
    .
    If you are going to politicize science, Please become familiar with the very recognized reciprocal properties of politics. Expect your position and authority to become politicized as well, which means you better get ready to debate a whole bunch of the great unwashed outside your little protected bubble of left wing academic ‘consensus’. Nothing is free, especially in politics.
    If you wish to take money and the power of authority from the state, the state is going to want something in return. Maybe you should check out Ragtag Media’s s link for just a hint of how it really works.

  14. #14 CFT
    April 26, 2017

    Also @ Ethan,
    beautiful choice to you use ‘Bill Nye the science guy’ in your talk on debate in science. He was just in a lovely little video called ‘My Sex Junk’ on his Netflix program ‘Bill Nye Saves the World’.
    Just imagine coming home from school one day, plopping down in front of the telly, turning on Bill Nye (because he wears a white lab coat don’tcha-know) and seeing this:
    .
    http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/news/billy-nye-saves-the-world-netflix-tv-show-my-sex-junk-skit-video-a7703236.html
    .
    Don’t you feel smarter now?
    My goodness. That was sooooo scientific. Who knew? Thank heavens we have such luminaries trying to tell us how ignorant we little peons are, we just learn to shut up and believe what we’re told by our educated betters, (people who wear while lab coats and say they do ‘science’).

  15. #15 dean
    April 27, 2017

    cft, as usual, you have no substance in your post and don’t deserve an answer, but: unlike you, I’m capable of reading and understanding the issues and the results, and basing statements on facts. You should try reality some time — it seems to be alien to you now, but you might enjoy it, even though it takes work.

    rt, that “story” has been told about the study for several years. The original version was quickly debunked, the results of the study in question were supported by later ones.

    There is no story there.

  16. #16 lloyd
    April 27, 2017

    Regarding denier, CFT and ragtag media: can we have Wow back now please?

  17. #17 Russell
    April 27, 2017

    The last thing Bill wants to see is H.L. Mencken in the audience taking notes.

    Al Gore learned the hammy art of debate dodging in divinity school

  18. #18 Russell
    April 27, 2017

    The last thing Bill wants to see is H.L. Mencken in the audience taking notes.

    Al Gore learned the dark art of debate dodging in divinity school

  19. #19 CFT
    April 27, 2017

    @lloyd, Maybe you could actually come up with something to say yourself instead of lurking like a vulture behind someone else’s abusive comments.
    .
    @dean,

    dean, you and your pals are upset because someone has challenged you. You must not be used to actually having to defend your arguments (not insults) against someone not impressed by your arrogance.
    .
    If by story you were referring to Ragtag Medias story being debunked, how would you know, you didn’t even look at the link before you put your foot in your mouth.
    .
    If by story you were referring to Climategate being debunked, I suppose since you consider anything outside of your political affiliations as a lie, that might be your interpretation. A very similar view was held by ‘highly educated’ Hillary Clinton supporters who swore up and down there was no story…and look at how that turned out? It turned out that ‘no story there’ was actually quite a big story.
    .
    For people who actually read the emails instead of doing as they were told and ignoring them (‘don’t pay any attention to that man behind the curtain’) a more informed view is generally held of the Dr. Mann and his bogus temperature proxies and butchery of the climatic record.
    .
    While you obviously can read, you would appear to be too lazy to bother, and/or too biased to do so. Even if you disagree with someone, it is still a good idea to know their arguments and their evidence, if only to learn how to debate them and evaluate the strength of your own arguments. You most definitely don’t do that, it would take effort, and you usually just double down with a little snarky comment and hide behind Wow.

  20. #20 Denier
    United States
    April 27, 2017

    @lloyd wrote:

    Regarding denier, CFT and ragtag media: can we have Wow back now please?

    Wow isn’t banned. As far as I know he was suspended for one week and that week is done. Wow is just butthurt over it and has decided to take his incessant personal attacks elsewhere.

  21. #21 Denier
    United States
    April 27, 2017

    @Ragtag Media

    Former Obama Official: Climate Data Purposely Manipulated…

    While true, it really speaks to a different issue. I’m convinced the Earth is warming. It has been for ~22,000 years. While the amount of warming is up for debate, all temperature records, be it satellite, balloon/radiosonde, or ground based show increasing temperatures. Humans have certainly contributed to that rise. Every time a person strikes a match, the fire releases joules of heat that weren’t otherwise going to happen. The heat from that tiny fire may be trivial but it isn’t nonexistent so technically the event and therefor humans have contributed to warming the planet.

    The manipulation of data is an issue because it boosts support for Federal spending. Currently there is $12 BILLION dollars being doled out yearly by the Federal Government for climate research according to the US Government Accountability Office. That figure doesn’t even include the overhead at the 40 separate Federal agencies who have budgets allocated to climate change, and that is just at the Federal level.

    For instance, on just the Preparedness and Resilience aspect of Climate Change there is money being allocated internally for study by the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), National Security Council (NSC), Office of Management and Budget (OMB), State Dept, Dept of the Treasury, Dept of Interior (DOI), Dept of Agriculture (USDA), Dept of Commerce (DOC), Dept of Justice (DOJ), Dept of Labor (DOL), Dept of Veterans Affairs (DVA), Health and Human Services (HHS), Dept of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Dept of Transportation (DOT), Dept of Energy (DOE), Dept of Education (DoEd), Dept of Homeland Security (DHS), US Agency for International Development (USAID), US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), General Services Administration (GSA), Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), Small Business Administration (SBA), Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), US Trade Representative (USTR), NASA, Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), US Postal Service (USPS), Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP), Council of Economic Advisors (CEA), National Economic Council (NEC), Domestic Policy Council (DPC), and the White House Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs (OPE). Redundancy much?!?!?

    I have no problem with Trump’s attempt to cut the relevant department of NASA. The instruments they collect data from are all assets of other departments, their dataset is redundant many times over with other datasets compiled from the same instruments, and they occasionally advise on satellite design in a way that NOAA has shown they can handle in-house. In this issue NASA is redundant and a total waste of money. Cutting them cuts nothing, but oh the howls of outrage about hating science and ignoring climate in the effort to keep the money rolling in.

    Everybody wants to get paid, wants to defend their budget. Creating a boogey man makes that a lot easier and that is what the embellishment is about. It doesn’t matter if it is Saddam’s WMD or Climate Change or detergent for cleaner clothes. It is just salesmanship. The vast majority of the electorate doesn’t take the time to ever think problems through. Think of it this way; if you believe the science is so strong then join in the effort to shut the spending down. We don’t need to be spending money on what we already know. If you don’t think we should cut the funding of research on climate change then admit that more study is needed. Stop talking out both sides of your face.

    Unlike debates about whose science is the better science, debates on spending are worth having and if you aren’t willing to do the work of understanding the economics then at least be honest with yourself about the value of your or lack thereof of your opinion. If demonizing the other side and talking up a tangentially related scientific topic is all you bring to a discussion about money, don’t be shocked when all you get is polite lip service while the actions taken betray that you’re being largely ignored. When money is the topic it is time for the grown-ups. The climate screechers can run along to their safe spaces.

  22. #22 Lloyd
    April 29, 2017

    CFT wrote: “Maybe you could actually come up with something to say yourself instead of lurking like a vulture behind someone else’s abusive comments.”

    Ha! Who has the stomach for that, apart from a curmudgeon like Wow. You people are impossible, there is literally nothing that can punch through your self-satisfied version of things. The only point in posting anything in response to you from time to time is to signal to the remaining sane, quiet readers that they are not alone in recognising your dishonesty. Wow accomplished that (though he also lashed out at more innocent posters).

  23. #23 dean
    April 29, 2017

    “While true,”

    No, it is not, despite all of the mouth breathers at the denial sites and folks like rt who spread the news because they are incapable of basic understanding.

  24. #24 Ragtag Media
    United States
    April 30, 2017

    @ dean the hater, Haters gona hate. try being nice. It goes a long ways.

    @ Denier

  25. #25 Ragtag Media
    April 30, 2017

    @ dean the hater #29 “folks like rt who spread the news because they are incapable of basic understanding.”

    Understanding What? That there was once higher CO2 levels on the planet than there are now and life goes on?

    OR That there was once MILLIONS of Bison roaming the North American plains farting methane into the atmosphere BUT life has gone on.

    OR massive Forest Fire’s
    OR The fact that The Devonian geologic period helped suck the co2 out of the atmosphere BUT put’s more Oxygen in it and that starts the Fire cycle.
    https://www.forbes.com/sites/trevornace/2015/11/19/the-age-of-fire-when-ancient-forests-burned/#4a36c8925f02

    So many Variables and you Al Gore worshipers think we should put the planets faith into the hands of Hollywood Liberals like Dicaprio and Charlatans like Gore.. Nope, Not Buying it..

  26. #26 John
    Baltimore
    April 30, 2017

    I think the purpose of Science is to describe – ideally to explain – the physical world. The purpose of Science is not to win debates. Science “wins” debates by providing a correct description or explanation of an event or process. Leave oratorical sleights of hand to others.

  27. #27 Ragtag Media
    United States
    April 30, 2017

    Human nature get’s in the way of Science like everything else.
    Let’s review (again) President Eisenhower’s farewell address.
    “Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.

    The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present

    and is gravely to be regarded.
    Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientifictechnological elite.”

    READ that And RE-READ IT…

  28. #28 SteveP
    April 30, 2017

    Was there a point in your blowy rants, RT Media? What is your payoff? Why can’t you lay out a cogent point? This is a science blog. Where is your science? Why is your stuff so congruent with the tinfoil hat crowd? You seem to have similar information sources to them. .

  29. #29 Ragtag Media
    United States
    April 30, 2017

    @SteveP
    “Was there a point in your blowy rants, RT Media? What is your payoff? Why can’t you lay out a cogent point? ”

    My Payoff is the TRUTH for all mankind to see. That’s all.

    “Why can’t you lay out a cogent point?”

    Why cant you YOU COMPRENDE Wisdom?

  30. #30 Ragtag Media
    United States
    April 30, 2017

    @ SteveP
    Oh And your references to my” blowy rants ” Do they include the historical remarks of a previous President of the United states that served in a WORLD WAR???
    And his Exit Speech as a Sitting PRESIDENT?

    Think Before You SPEAK Steve P but perhaps you can’t BECAUSE you lack WISDOM.

    You May Be Smart, BUT, that don’t make you WISE…

  31. #31 SteveP
    May 1, 2017

    RT Media’s science free blow dries are a really refreshing respite from the reality of a world which has based its energy economy on a family of suicidally stupid fossil fuels. But don’t worry. Be happy! It is future generations that will have to deal with the consequences of the choices being made today. It is their problem, Not ours! Coral free seas, shell free shell fish, swamped coasts, and re-arranged weather patterns are all insignificant side effects when compared to the all important free dumb to drive the biggest Hummer you can afford down the block to get your slushees at the handy mart. Or more importantly, sustaining the Russian economy which, were it not for fossil fuels and fossil fuel supported hackers and trolls, would have no choice but to overthrow the authoritarian mobsters and pinheads who make Russian life so, how shall we say, stunted? Bon Appétit  y’all. Enjoy your kopeks, RT.

  32. #32 eric
    May 1, 2017

    @27: it is a good speech. That’s the one where he warns about the military-industrial complex. But maybe you should have paid more attention to this part of it:

    Another factor in maintaining balance involves the element of time. As we peer into society’s future, we — you and I, and our government — must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage.

  33. #33 dean
    May 1, 2017

    My Payoff is the TRUTH for all mankind to see.

    Hardly, whether we look at your racist comments about Neal DeGrasse Tyson, the performance of blacks in general in education or in any other endeavor, your bigotry against people of other religions — you wouldn’t know how to spell truth if you weren’t copying it from someone else’s posts.

  34. #34 Ragtag Media
    May 1, 2017

    Dean, If I can contribute to a fund for your daughter/daughters that would support them in traveling to Iraq or Afghanistan to build a bridge with other cultures. Count me in for a donation.

  35. #35 dean
    May 2, 2017

    rt, am I surprised you can’t (or won’t) understand the point?

    Not at all. You’ve never made an intelligent comment in the past and there is no sign you’re going to start now.