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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