True Science Demands Dissent

Lately we’ve been deluged with proclamations that the science of climate change, vaccines, greenhouse gases, the viability of nuclear power, the effectiveness of coal-generated power, the practicality of solar power, you name it, is settled and the answers trumpeted in the press and other public venues is the one true answer to any problems within these areas. I call shenanigans and bullshit.

The scientific method demands that the results or outcome of every experiment be questioned. Yes. Every single outcome should be questioned. If you are going to announce that your science experiment has found “the answer” to whatever question you are investigating, you must turn over your data to others, explain exactly what you did, and allow them to attempt to replicate your results. And that remains true even if you ran your own experiment 47 billion times.

Ethical scientists in every field collect data using methods that ensure the data is as clean as possible. They do their best to gather random samples (if that’s what they’re doing), and then share their methods and data with others.

What ethical scientists most assuredly don’t do is hide their data, fabricate their data, refuse to share their methodology and data with others. Nor do they hide results that don’t support their working hypothesis. They do welcome critiques of all of the above. They welcome other explanations for the “good” results. They welcome others using the same data but perhaps with different assumptions to start. They welcome all sorts of questions and challenges to their data collection, experiment methodology, results, and results interpretation/explanation.

Why do they do all that? Because ethical scientists are actually searching for accurate answers to research questions, not politically or monetarily expedient answers.

Of course there are research/academic scientists who pad their data and results to get the answers their financial supporters are looking for… that is not ethical behavior.

With the increase of money from pharmaceutical companies flowing into academia, a source of objective scientists has dried up. This is, and has been for a while, a big problem. When you add in the political connections of the pharmaceutical companies (via lobbying for favorable monopoly conditions or expedited federal approval, etc.) you get an even bigger problem.

In the end, though, what I said at the beginning still stands… true science demands dissent. It demands that all results and interpretations of those results are challenged, questioned, and reworked.

The science is never settled. Never.

In the hard sciences there are very few laws (theories which have been challenged innumerable times and which have overcome all those challenges). Gravity, thermodynamics… those sorts of things. (And bear in mind – those laws have not been tested on another planet. When that happens, those laws may be found to only hold here on Earth. Nobody knows.) Everything else is a theory or hypothesis and those are tested and retested constantly.

One of the best things I learned in college was to always ask “why?” Why is that the method? Why is that the accepted answer? Why don’t you do that any other way? Why not?

When someone tells you “the science is settled!” the first thing you should do is ask “Why?” Why is it settled? Who said so? I don’t care if 99% of scientists agree, why do the other 1% disagree? Four out of five dentists recommend… what does the fifth dentist have to say? Why is nobody talking to him/her?

Copernicus was harassed, hounded, and persecuted for stating that the earth revolved around the sun when science had already settled the question, and everybody “knew” that the sun revolved around the earth.

Galileo was tried by the Inquisition for heresy supporting Copernicus’ ideas because the science had been settled and, again, everybody knew that the sun revolved around the earth. Galileo spent the remainder of his life under house arrest because the science was settled. They were wrong, he was right. But the science was settled.

Nowhere is the idea that science is unsettled clearer than in any field involving human behavior. I spent my entire academic career in the social sciences and I can tell you that ideas, theories, and conclusions are constantly changing. Even those that deal with people and countries on a broader scale (e.g. international behavior by nation-states, or individuals as part of a crowd) where results tend to come out similar. But as I used to tell my students, the social sciences use a lot of what I call weasel terms “more likely”, “appears to”, “strongly suggest”. Because while we would love to have the definitive answer, the “science” is never settled.

The social sciences (politics/government, sociology, anthropology, psychology, criminal justice, communications) decided to identify as fields of “science” because we all do our damnedest to formulate hypotheses, collect data, and run analyses to determine the validity of our hypotheses. But we’re dealing with human beings and human behavior. Both of which are notoriously squirrely and random. Despite what any of my former colleagues might tell you, there is definitely no such thing as settled science in the social sciences. Humans are downright ornery and uncooperative and tend to refuse to follow theoretical rules generated by other humans when it comes to behavior and thoughts. Humans get especially squirrely when they see that the rules they’ve been asked to follow are inherently antithetical to their success and well-being.

Don’t fall for settled science. Dissent. Argue. Ask why. Go back to that 60’s mantra and question authority. Question all authority. Do not let “experts” bully you out of your common sense. No, you may not have the degrees that they do, but you can research and read and ask questions.

When my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s I started digging into the research. I looked up the drugs and their side-effects, their effectiveness, everything about them. I researched symptoms and effects of Alzheimer’s. I asked friends in the medical fields what they knew and asked them to point me in the direction of other research. No, I don’t have a medical degree, but I sure as hell know a lot about the ins and outs of Alzheimer’s and the research that’s being done on it and the drugs that are prescribed for it. And in the ten years that my mother fought that disgusting disease, guess what? The answers and results in that field changed more than once.

You may not have an understanding about a particular field, but you can teach yourself about it. No, a superficial Google search won’t get your answers, but it can point you in the right direction. If you’re not certain about the reliability of something (journal, researcher, etc.) ask. You can email the faculty of your local college or university and ask them. Faculty, for the most part (shockingly there are assholes in academia… I know, I know), are happy to answer questions and point to resources. Your library has access to those journals and articles that are behind paywalls or are proprietary to the journal.

If a subject is that important to you, then you owe it to yourself to do your own research, become your own scientific dissent.

True science requires dissent, and you can be that dissent.

One Reply to “True Science Demands Dissent”

  1. Young’s Double-Slit Experiment, the Photoelectric Effect, the Michelson-Morley Experiment, the Rutherford Gold Foil Experiment, …

    All the experiments in the above list produced results that completely contradicted what the scientists of the time universally or nearly-universally considered to be scientific fact.

    The Photoelectric Effect, on the other hand, was discovered by experimentation, and its existence did likewise – as was demonstrated by Einstein when he explained it (for which he was awarded his Nobel Prize).

    Many of the great advances in science have been a result of scientists generating experimental results incompatible with current theories, and having to come up with an alternative explanation. These alternative explanations were then subjected to the same experimental verification as the previous set.

    If I may state the obvious, in the realm of science an explanation is initially a hypothesis. Then after it has been subjected to sufficient testing by experimentation, and passed, it is relabelled a theory. (Hence an explanation that has not been subjected to experimental verification should never be called a theory.) If at any point an experiment produces results that demonstrate the explanation is false, then the explanation has been disproven (irrespective of the weight of previous experimental evidence in its favour). At no point is the scientific proof absolute – and the Photoelectric Effect is one example where scientifically-proven explanations have turned out to be false.

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