Intelligent Design

Portraits of Dissent

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Conspiracies to suppress, manipulate and distort information undoubtedly occur. Society needs to be vigilant to guard against deception. An increasing number of alleged conspiracies are being covered by the media, all reflecting in some way on the integrity of politicians, or business leaders or the scientific enterprise. Conspiracy theorists are skilled in appealing to emotion, phrasing allegations in a provocative way, and promoting their own reconstructions of events so as to capture the imagination of the public. Ted Goertzel’s essay on this theme sounded some alarm bells when it provided four recent examples:

“Conspiracy theorists – some of them scientifically trained – have claimed that the HIV virus is not the cause of AIDS, that global warming is a manipulative hoax and that vaccines and genetically modified foods are unsafe.”

The problem I have with this is that these cases are all examples of dissent within science, whatever else may be said about associated conspiracy theories. My purpose here is not to align myself with all these dissenters (although in two of the cases I find myself at variance with the apparent consensus), but to defend the legitimacy of dissent within science. It is vital for the health of science that dissenters have the opportunity to probe, to question and to challenge the theoretical framework of the science relevant to their case, and to test all theories by reference to empirical data. The danger I see in Goertzel’s analysis is that legitimate dissent is marginalised and treated as the product of conspiracy theory. The consequence is that science is damaged because reasoned arguments of dissenters are re-categorised as “emotional appeals, unsupported allegations and unverified speculations”.
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6 Replies to “Portraits of Dissent

  1. 1
    johnnyb says:

    This seems to me much like the situation that the Catholic Church was in at the time of the reformation. The problem they are having is *not* with scientists voicing dissent – there are many instances of dissent which are perfectly well-tolerated.

    The problem is that this dissent affects the public sphere, and citizens are utilizing the dissent in personal and public policy decisions. *That* is what is considered intolerable. It’s one thing for a credentialed scientist to dissent, it’s another thing for them to have a voice in public. These are considered “conspiracy theories” because they involve the public sphere.

    The problem, however, is that the legitimacy of the scientific society is *dependent* on its being open to scrutiny from both professionals *and* the public. While one might argue that hierarchical command-and-control of information might be in line with Catholic theology, it is most certainly at variance with the philosophies of science which give it public value. (Of course, there are other philosophies of science which could be considered command-and-control, but those also remove any automatic public value that such theories might otherwise have).

    Dissent – from both professionals and the public – is critical for the credibility and usefulness of science in the public arena.

  2. 2
    second opinion says:

    I think you need to consider that there are economic constraints on science, time and money. Scientist don’t have time to discuss the same idea over and over again. Likewise the funding public demands results in a finite amount of time. Thus at some point you need to settle an issue.

    On a further note not all “dissidents” are the same and deserve to be treated the same.

  3. 3
    Phaedros says:

    Im not sure where you get that Catholic theology is in line with command and control of information as Christian values informed and shaped American democracy and culture fromthe beginning. It also helped shape the pursuit of science as we know it. Of course Greek and Roman traditions played their part, but Christianity helped weed out some of the bad like slavery.

  4. 4
    johnnyb says:

    second opinion –

    There are several things to consider:

    1) Dissent needn’t imply anything else. You seem to think that I mean that it indicates a need for someone to invest money in ideas they believe to be wrong. That is not the case. What is happening here is that someone is investing time and money to *suppress dissent* by calling names and making innuendos. It would be different if Goertzel was arguing that we shouldn’t spend money on something. Instead, he’s arguing that those that disagree with him are conspiracy theorists, and therefore are not legitimate dissent.

    One of Goertzel’s main complaints is the media time that the “other side” gets. If he was making a detailed case on why a particular side on a particular issue shouldn’t be granted an equal “other side”, he should make the case. However, his essay is problematic because he apparently thinks that *he* is the only person who should be in charge of what issues have legitimate other sides, and which ones don’t. The fact is, there are a variety of perspectives on anything – scientific and not – and scientists sometimes forget that the issues are larger than the science.

    Even if the technical questions were beyond question (which they rarely are), the relationship between the technical questions and the public policy questions are tenuous.

    For instance, Goertzel brings up the issue of teaching ID and Evolution, and how GW thought that both sides should be taught. However, the question on whether or not ID or evolution should be taught goes way beyond the question of whether or not they are true. For instance, from an informational standpoint, I find that the Darwinian theory of evolution is completely bankrupt. However, from a public policy perspective, I think that it needs to be taught in public schools because that is the intellectual background of much of modern life.

    In the case of climate change, the technical questions of what the temperature is, what caused the temperature to be that way, and what the likely future temperature is, are all small questions compared to the public policy questions. It is the scientists themselves who often equate their findings with the public policy questions, so it is their own fault that when someone finds fault with their public policy ideas that their science is likewise called into question.

    Goertzel’s goal is not about technical issues within science – it is about the interaction of science and public policy. However, a much better essay on the interaction of science and public policy is Crichton’s Aliens Cause Global Warming.

    Speaking of technical problems, one of the biggest technical problems with Goertzel’s essay is the conflation of conspiracy theory (i.e. “everyone’s out to get me”) with cultural (and subcultural) biases. In the early days of medicine, the idea that you should wash your hands was met with scorn, despite detailed studies proving its effectiveness. Mendel’s laws went unnoticed for decades because Aristotelian views of heredity had gone out-of-style. These are not conspiracy theories, despite the uniform opposition of the scientific community to hard data. These are simply pervasive cultural biases. Which, interestingly, simply don’t show up in Goertzel’s paper. This idea of science being immune to cultural biases is, interestingly enough, a common cultural bias itself.

    Interesting is this admission, which undercuts the entire rest of the article:

    Climate science is heavily dependent on complex statistical models based on limited data, so it is not surprising that models based on different assumptions give differing results (Schmidt & Amman, 2005). In presenting their data, some scientists were apparently too quick to smooth trends into a ‘hockey stick’ model that fitted with their advocacy concerns. Several different groups of well-qualified specialists have now been over the data carefully, and the result is a less linear ‘hockey stick’ with a rise in temperature during a ‘medieval warm period’ and a drop during a ‘little ice age’. But the sharp increase in warming in the twentieth century, which is the main point of the analysis, is still there.

    The real problem for Goertzel seems to be that the public reaction to science isn’t what he wants. But, if he limits himself to science, that’s irrelevant. If he doesn’t limit himself to science, then he’s not speaking as a scientist, or with any authority of science.

  5. 5
    David Tyler says:

    johnnyb @ 4
    “This idea of science being immune to cultural biases is, interestingly enough, a common cultural bias itself.”

    It is one of the greatest weaknesses of positivism, which portrays the scientific method as value-free and culturally independent. This is what makes these controversies relevant to origins – evolutionists apparently cannot see the cultural biases embedded in their thinking. They are quick to reject design hypotheses as an intrusion of religious ideology into science, but fail to see that their own thinking is loaded with theological baggage.

  6. 6
    kairosfocus says:

    DT:

    One of the changes secondary education needs all across our civilisation is that we need to understand worldviews, presuppositions and their influence. Also, the art of comparative difficulties analysis across factual adequacy, coherence and explanatory power.

    My 101 on that is here. Maybe we could start from something like that?

    GEM of TKI

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