Leading Horses to Water
Ancient Greeks began the way of
thinking originally known as natural philosophy but which we now call
science. Science emerged as we know it during the Renaissance, in
an age dominated by fear, superstition, injustice, and brutality.
In other words, pretty much like the present. These musings are
aimed at explaining how science works, and how science can serve even
nonscientists in their efforts to make sense of the world. I can
try to explain things but it’s up to you to decide whether or not you
wish to drink from these waters.
#16 - The role of disagreement in science
American Heathen: aired: 07 July 2012
Previously, I’ve talked about the apparent controversy surrounding the
science of global climate. The media have put out so much
misinformation regarding this topic, it’s hard to imagine how the
communication between the scientists and the general public can ever
One of the most egregious pieces of misinformation being put forth in
the media is that there is much controversy within the science
regarding the main issue: that the global average temperature is
increasing, and that the human contribution (the so-called anthropogenic
part) through the emission of greenhouse gases is a major causative
factor in that temperature increase. This alleged controversy is
being used to support the notion that the consensus science somehow is
bad science. The level of scientific agreement about these basic
ideas is nearly unanimous. But of course, what most people don’t
know, and what the media seem incapable of grasping and thereby
conveying to the consumers of their rubbish, is that disagreement is an essential and never-ending component of any science!
Disagreement continues within the science, even among those who agree
about the consensus findings regarding anthropogenic global warming
Any rational argument must come out of a basis of agreement.
Without that, all one has is people talking past one another. The
basis of agreement in science can be referred to as the scientific
consensus. It establishes certain principles and bodies of
evidence as having a special status. Most scientists accept the
In a very real sense, every scientist is a salesman for his/her own
ideas, competing in a “marketplace” of ideas, with the winners being
given credit for improving our understanding of the natural world, and
the losers being left to try to salvage what they can. This is a
perfect example of a rational free market, actually. Ideas
compete not on the public relations image, or a catchy advertising
gimmick, or on pandering to the psychology of investors, but on the
evidence that supports them. If one idea provides a better fit to
the evidence, then it wins a temporary victory. I say temporary
because new evidence can revive old, discarded ideas and push them to
the forefront long after they were first proposed.
Science makes progress precisely because there is disagreement.
Without internal disagreement, a science is cold and dead. Just
because an individual’s idea is discarded in the marketplace of ideas
(from which the so-called “consensus” emerges), this doesn’t mean that
he/she slinks away utterly defeated. A “loser” in the marketplace
can redouble their efforts to uncover more compelling evidence, seek to
devise an experiment that can provide a more stringent test of the
ideas, or try to make a slight modification to their discarded idea to
provide an improved fit to the evidence. Ideas may be defeated
now but can emerge later as new (but still provisional!) winners.
When no clear winner emerges, a host of competing ideas clash in the
marketplace. This is healthy, not some sort of scientific
malaise. Scientists improve their ideas by the criticism of their
peers, and the science advances through that process.
Science establishes no idea on an absolute basis – science is not a
religion, after all. There are no sacred truths, no meaningful
arguments by authority, no ultimate arbiter. Its most respected
ideas are promoted from their original status as hypothesis to theory to law,
but even laws can be superceded. Newton’s Law of Gravity was
supplanted by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, for example.
The AGW deniers, a tiny minority within the global climate science community and most confined to non-participants
in global climate science, have failed to gain much traction in the
traditional media for scientific controversy: peer-reviewed scientific
journals. Thus, they’ve resorted to using the public media,
advancing themselves as the true scientists, being victimized by a vast
conspiracy within the global climate change scientific community.
There are political and economic ramifications to maintaining the
illusion of a scientific
controversy regarding AGW, so there are others seeking to promote the
deniers as persecuted champions of truth, when the fact is the whole
campaign is a tissue of lies and deceit. There is no scientific controversy regarding AGW, per se!
The disagreement you read and hear from demagogues disguised as pundits
in the media is not the wholesome, necessary conflict among those
scientists who are pushing the frontiers of our understanding of the
natural world forward. The disagreement being promoted by the
media springs from those who dislike the reality of AGW for their own
reasons, often pecuniary or political or both. The mere existence
of disagreement in science is not news, nor does it indicate anything
wrong with the science. It’s the natural state of a healthy,
active science. But this public conflict, outside the traditional
place for the marketplace of scientific ideas (in refereed journals and
scientific conferences), is not about the normal scientific
disagreement. It’s about personal agendas, about politics, and
corporate greed advancing its interests above the public good.
Remember the pseudo-scientific conflict about the health effects of
smoking? Perhaps you should ask yourself who gains from the
promotion of claims about non-existent scientific controversy! Is
it the science? Is it the public? I think not.
The public has a right, nay, a need
to know the truth, but people have to work and think to separate truth
from falsehood, science from pseudo-science, real disagreements from
manufactured false controversy. They need to learn how to
recognize the demagogues and reality-distorters from those who are
attempting to help us all make important decisions for the future.
is not a religion but rather a tool for those who wish to think for
themselves about the natural world. Its primary characteristic is
its willingness to entertain questions from those who wish to obtain