Scientific dissent

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Scientific dissent is dissent from scientific consensus. Disagreements can be useful for finding problems in underlying assumptions, methodologies, and reasoning, as well as for generating and testing new ways of tackling the unknown.[1] In modern times, with the increased role of science on the society and the politicization of science, a new aspect gained prominence: effects of scientific dissent on public policies.[1]

Scientific dissent is distinct from denialism, which is a deliberate rejection of scientific consensus usually for commercial or ideological reasons.[2]

Dissent as part of scientific inquiry[edit]

Miriam Solomon in her book Social Empiricism argues that scientific dissent is the normal state of scientific inquiry, rather than a conflict situation that needs resolution. She argues that disagreements of individual scientists about the proper direction of research are not cause for concern, because scientific rationality must be assessed at the level of the scientific community.[3] As long as all theories being pursued yield some unique empirical successes, Solomon argues that their pursuit is worthwhile and even consistent with the common view that science aims at truth.[4] In Solomon's view, competing scientific theories can even be inconsistent with one another while each containing some degree of truth.[4] Empirical evidence may not be sufficient to distinguish between competing theories, and successful theories often have core assumptions that are incorrect.[4]

Historical scientific dissent[edit]

A number of famous scientists have been sceptical of what were, or came to be, mainstream scientific positions. For example, Ernst Mach famously declared in 1897: "I don't believe that atoms exist!"[5] Wilhelm Ostwald expressed a similar scepticism about atoms, but changed his mind in 1908.[6]

In the early 20th century, peptic ulcers were believed to be caused by stress and dietary factors. The physicians Robin Warren and Barry Marshall showed in 1982 that the bacterium Helicobacter pylori was responsible, but the medical community was slow to make appropriate changes in ulcer treatment.[7]

Suppressed dissent[edit]

Scientific debate is a healthy and necessary part of science, but scientific debate may collide with power dynamics within the academic world.[8] Suppression of legitimate scientific debate can be considered as a breach of academic integrity.[8] Examples of suppression include journal editors rejecting a paper for political reasons prior to peer-review, refusing access to data for research which might draw negative conclusions about the safety of some commercial product, and putting pressure on a university to fire a dissenting researcher.[8]

False scientific dissent[edit]

In modern times proponents of science denialism, pseudoscience, and conspiracy theories often try to disguise their viewpoints as "scientific dissent" to take an advantage of the benefit of doubt. Such cases are typically recognized by lack of crucial elements of scientific approach: insufficient evidence base, lack of rigor and control, etc.[9][citation needed]

Lack of discussion of claims coming from fringe science may be presented as suppression by mainstream science. This was described as "manufacturing dissent" and discussed in the context of neo-creationism.[10]

In the introduction to Creating Scientific Controversies, David Harker summarizes the history of how the tobacco industry worked towards manufacturing a controversy regarding the health effects of tobacco.[11]

In what is sometimes known as the "Galileo gambit", pseudoscientists will sometimes compare themselves to Galileo, arguing that opposition from established scientists is actually a point in favour of their ideas.[12][13] Jean Paul Van Bendegem writes that "No doubt the most famous example of mistaken analogy is the abuse of Galileo Galilei's case resulting in his conviction by the Holy Inquisition. The basic strategy consists of equating Galileo with the poor astrologer or parapsychologist and equating the Inquisition with the scientific establishment."[14]

Effect on modern public policies[edit]

Views which disagree with scientific consensus may have an adverse effect on the perception of science by general public and affect decision making in various policies. When prominently promoted without due proportion, dissenting views can create an impression of uncertainty to laypeople.[1][9] Common examples of such situation include global warming controversy and issues of public health and genetically modified organisms. Therefore, scientists treat scientific dissent as problematic when it may have a significant impact on public and policy-making, and try to mitigate it.[1][15]

Inmaculada de Melo-Martín and Kristen Intemann criticize three major strategies in battling allegedly dangerous scientific dissent: masking the dissent, silencing the dissent, and discrediting the dissenters.[1] Melo-Martin and Intermann argue that these strategies come from a misdiagnosis: the real problem is not dissent, but public scientific illiteracy. Rather than focusing on dissent, scientists must concentrate on educating the general public, so that people could make educated opinions and recognize false claims and invalid arguments. They further argue that silencing dissent rather than promoting literacy incurs the risk of undermining the public trust in science.[1]

Sheila Jasanoff, in the context of climate change, mentions a common argument that public opinion is poorly informed because petroleum industry manufactures uncertainties and the media exaggerate the dissent, but argues that it is insufficient for the understanding of the problem. She writes that studies of scientific controversies show that credibility of science depend not only on strong scientific consensus, but also on the persuasive power of those who speak for science, especially in the situations of controversy.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f de Melo‐Martín, I. and Intemann, K. (2013) "Scientific dissent and public policy". EMBO Reports, 14 (3): 231–235. doi:10.1038/embor.2013.8
  2. ^ Diethelm, Pascal (2009). "Denialism: what is it and how should scientists respond?". The European Journal of Public Health. 19 (1): 2–4. doi:10.1093/eurpub/ckn139. PMID 19158101.
  3. ^ Wylie, Alison (2008). "A More Social Epistemology: Decision Vectors, Epistemic Fairness, and Consensus in Solomon's Social Empiricism". Perspectives on Science. 16 (3): 237–240. doi:10.1162/posc.2008.16.3.237. S2CID 57565947.
  4. ^ a b c Schmaus, W. (2005). "Book Review: What's So Social about Social Knowledge?". Philosophy of the Social Sciences. 35 (1): 98–125. doi:10.1177/0048393104271927. ISSN 0048-3931. S2CID 143968901.
  5. ^ John T. Blackmore, Ernst Mach; His Work, Life, and Influence, University of California Press, 1972, p. 206.
  6. ^ Mary Jo Nye, Molecular Reality: A perspective on the Scientific Work of Jean Perrin, Macdonald, 1972, p. 151.
  7. ^ "History of Ulcer Diagnosis and Treatment". CDC. Retrieved August 22, 2016.
  8. ^ a b c Delborne, J.A. (2016) "Suppression and Dissent in Science". In: Tracey Ann Bretag (Ed) Handbook of Academic Integrity, 64: 943–956. Springer. ISBN 9789812870971.
  9. ^ a b "Keeping Modern Myths And Conspiracy Theories At Bay", April 7, 2014, Asian Scientist Magazine
  10. ^ Matthew J. Brauer, Daniel R. Brumbaugh, "Biology Remystified: The Scientific Claims of the New Creationists," in: Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics: Philosophical, Theological, and Scientific Perspectives, MIT Press, 2001, ISBN 0262661241, pp. 322, 323
  11. ^ David Harker, Creating Scientific Controversies: Uncertainty and Bias in Science and Society, ISBN 1107069610, Cambridge University Press, 2015
  12. ^ Daniel T. Willingham, When Can You Trust the Experts?: How to Tell Good Science from Bad in Education, Wiley, 2012, ISBN 1118233271, Chapter 6.
  13. ^ Michael D. Gordin, The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe, University of Chicago Press, 2012, ISBN 0226304434, Chapter 6.
  14. ^ Jean Paul Van Bendegem, "Argumentation and Pseudoscience The Case for an Ethics of Argumentation," In Massimo Pigliucci & Maarten Boudry (eds.), Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem, University of Chicago Press, 2013, ISBN 022605182X, p. 298.
  15. ^ Aklin, M. and Urpelainen, J. (2014) "Perceptions of scientific dissent undermine public support for environmental policy". Environmental Science & Policy, 38: 173–177. doi:10.1016/j.envsci.2013.10.006
  16. ^ Sheila Jasanoff, "Cosmopolitan Knowledge: Climate Science and Global Civic Epistemology", in: The Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society, 2011, ISBN 0199566607

Further references[edit]