One vocal dissenter does not make something wrong or controversial

There are lessons to be taken from even the most rant-y or misguided efforts of pseudo-science and un-science and general misrepresentations of science provided you know where to find them. One aspect of the near congenital media screw-up of science is the idea that one vocal dissenter to a well recognised hypothesis or theory makes this either controversial or uncertain. In fact I recently found a great quote by a science journalist on this very issue: “Journalism, which relies on “balance”, has never dealt with science, which relies on consensus”. (Sharon Weinberger).

The truth of the ‘groundbreaking hypothesis’ is of course the opposite. There are, sadly, professional researchers with proper (and typically relevant) qualifications who are still staunch opponents to even the most basic and well supported theories of science. Frankly if you scour the world well enough you can probably find someone with a PhD in the right field who is confident that evolution doesn’t happen, amniotes are polyphyletic, birds evolved from lizards, HIV doesn’t cause AIDS, fish are secondarily aquatic and who knows what else (most of these are actual examples, yes, really). They can provide plausible sounding reasons for why they are right and the consensus is wrong which will be believable to anyone who does not know the literature or the details of the arguments and evidence.

The media loves these guys as nothing sells a story like controversy. People arguing in words on or screen is far more dramatic and involving that scientists dryly explaining some bit of evidence (or so they seem to think, no matter how exciting the evidence is and David Attenborough or Carl Sagan never needed people top argue with to explain great science). It makes for good entertainment and helps parse out the information and explanations that will bore and audience. I can see the appeal. Some ideas and researchers are of course more credible than others and genuinely do turn out to be right, or half-right but let the scientists worry about that, not advertise something as right that is almost certainly wrong.

However, this approach can give a very misleading view of the consensus of science as a whole. The whole ‘equal time’ ideal is also understandable, but given the limitations of TV, news articles or whatever, it tends to be a to-and-fro debate over one small subset of the evidence that is being pushed by the minority. Almost by definition you do not get to see that a) probably 99% of the other researchers think this is wrong and b) that probably 99% of the evidence suggests this is wrong, which is where a comes from in the first place. Even those that go as far as to point out that one of these is very much a minority view, you can bet that they will be pushed as the plucky underdogs fighting against the establishment who are holding back their ideas and ignoring their research. This may well be true, but only because it is clearly irrelevant / overstated / wrong, not because we are trying to keep out new ideas or good research.

Just because someone disagrees (and don’t forget than minority dissenters are always the loudest – no one stands on street corners saying the sun *will* come up tomorrow) does not make them right, or even part right. Pretty much every aspect of science still has bits that are uncertain or apparently contradictory or odd, or even inexplicable (so far). It is easy to highlight these at the expense of all the other data and provide a platform for dissent or contradiction. Don’t be fooled.

I can see the media attraction for controversy, but conflating one person’s misguided ideas or minor piece of evidence with a major flaw in a theory or a rift in scientific consensus is misleading. You are essentially providing a false representation of the scientific community and that is unfair and inappropriate. I do appreciate that it can be hard to engage an audience on difficult subjects and to keep science reporting both interesting and informative. However, if you are going to try and make a science program / article / whatever, surely you are by definition trying to inform and educate. Therefore by stirring up a fake hornet’s nest or pushing incredible ideas as credible and fringe ideas as mainstream (or simply repressed by ‘the man’) you are not informing or educating, but misinforming and (for want of a better word) ‘miseducating’. If you are going to bother, do it right and don’t make out there to be fire when there is just a wisp of smoke, if that.

It’s easy for me to say “don’t be taken in by false controversies” and to avoid the cranks, and kooks, and so on. To do so you rather have to be au fait with the issues at hand and the past of the individuals concerned. If anything that is why it is so inappropriate for the media to misrepresent these things since we have to rely on them to fill us in on things in which we are not and expert and to provide an accurate view (note that balanced is NOT the same as ‘consensus’ as noted above). However its generally a fair indication that if only one or a few people support a position, it’s probably wrong, if they are actually from a field well outside what they are criticising (like engineers looking at evolution) then they are probably wrong. There is general debate and controversy in science – lots of it, and it’s interesting to see how the evidence can be interpreted, how new evidence and ideas change the views and consensus and you don’t need to manufacture false dichotomies to provide the drama.

Ultimately, I guess I can sum this up in one line as: there is a reason that of all the dozens or hundreds or even thousands of experts in this field think this guy is wrong, and that’s because he’s wrong.

14 Responses to “One vocal dissenter does not make something wrong or controversial”

  1. 1 Will Baird 28/05/2009 at 10:34 pm

    *Hallelujah Chorus*

    May i swipe the intro paragraph as a lead in to link here with? This is something that needs to be said several times over.

  2. 2 Franco 28/05/2009 at 11:10 pm

    I agree but am I allowed to ask what the story behind this post is?

  3. 4 Matt Martyniuk 29/05/2009 at 1:49 am

    Ok I’ll bite… who’s the nutbar supporting secondarily aquatic fish? I’ve got to read that paper 😉

  4. 5 Zach Miller 29/05/2009 at 3:57 am

    Great post, Dave. Something I’ve been wanting to scream for a long time but have never gotten the wording right. My rants tend to come out as scathing and condescendingly sarcastic, so the point is sometimes lost. I may have to refer my readers (all seven of them) over here for some edu-ma-cation.

  5. 6 David Hone 29/05/2009 at 9:24 am

    Will: swipe away sir.

    Franco: no story as such (that spawned this post) just a general irritation.

    Matt: that is one that I am less sure about (I said they were *mostly* real examples) though I daresay there is someone out there, and I do seem to remember something about someone claiming lungfish to be secondarily aquatic, but don’t quote me on that.

    Zach & Mike: thanks for the praise. Though the next one will be quite rant-y despite my efforts to avoid it.

    • 7 Neil 29/05/2009 at 2:22 pm

      Nice Post Dave, you raise several thought-provoking points. Not to play devil’s advocate perse, but as you mention there are interesting lessons to be drawn from these cases:

      1. The history of “balance/neutrality” in journalism. I would argue that this is actually a more recent development than many realize, partially associated with the corporatization of media. In the States at least the persistence (at least until recently) of newspapers with names like Daily Democrat speaks in part to the fact that political partisanship was taken as a given for many media outlets. This remains true today I suppose, but the “gold standard” in contemporary journalism seems to dissolve down to: “some experts say there are weapons of mass destruction, others disagree” with often too little journalistic work demonstrated to get to the truth of the matter. The bitter irony is (again at least here in the states) that this brand of relativistic reporting gets labeled as “liberal media” and the neo-partisans take up the mantle of “fair and balanced.” I know this reads as a bizarrely tangential political diatribe but actually I think it has something important to do with the way in which scientific “debates” are portrayed in the media.

      2. The Gospels, Galileo, Bruno, Darwin, Wegner and Kuhn. Something to be said here about a the appeal of iconoclastic narratives in popular histories, even when they don’t totally fit the facts. Just makes for a great story, and ultimately journalism is often more about the story than the facts. I was going to develop this into several paragraphs, but I think I’d rather go to bed.

  6. 8 Lars Dietz 29/05/2009 at 8:54 pm

    “Ok I’ll bite… who’s the nutbar supporting secondarily aquatic fish?”
    This guy:
    thinks that all vertebrates evolved from aquatic proto-humans, and fish are secondarily aquatic while whales are primarily aquatic. Darren Naish blogged about this “theory” here:
    Otto Jaekel proposed the idea that fish are secondarily aquatic in the early 20th century, but I think no other serious scientist has since defended it, and it has nothing to do with “Initial Bipedalism” and de Sarre’s other ideas.

  7. 9 David Hone 29/05/2009 at 9:19 pm

    Lars: I was referring more to properly qualified academics, and I am not sure that falls into this category.

    Neil: I’d agree largely with point 1. At least part of the problem is the way balance is presente (where approptiate). You can say “but soem people disagree” but you can say that if 1% disagrees, or 99% disagrees with the point at hand. Which, and why. And are they qualified to opine on that? And what alterior motives / bais / past do they have? Things we might take for granted to wonder, but which won’t appear in most reports.

    Point 2. Sure, there are miorities who get it right and have to fight to be heard. But as I said (very briefly) the media needs to let us worry about who’s right or wrong by doing the science – the truth will out eventually. And these cases are themseleves in the minority, so trupeting each and every one as another big issue is still incorrect. Sure they might be right on occasion, but in general for every 100 or even 1000 they promote, only 1 will likely get any mainstream acceptance becuase it was right. Those are not good odds. I’m trying to be balance myself in this, but the truth is the opposite.
    In any case with soemone like Gallileo, it’s hard to imagine a situation like that arising again. It’s hard to get another person who is so far ahead of his time (and peers), fighting a dogma set in science and faith, and alos not being in a position to have others check his work. Even the most brilliant indiviudals today have true peers who can assess their work and ideas and have access to the body of knowledge and equipment to assess things quickly and accurately. Even in Eistein’s day people were quick to check his ideas and test them and review and argue about them. As mentioned on here before, I’m not sure people realise just how much effort goes into the basic ‘check and test and retest’ of science and how we reach conclusions and consensus.

  8. 10 Neil 29/05/2009 at 10:44 pm

    No arguments there, my point in raising these cases wasn’t to suggest that modern cranks are likely to wind up the next Galileo. Only that it is easy to see why these stories appeal to readers and writers. Part of the problem is that (at least in the states) we are taught this “heroic” version of science in school–that most scientific discovery is the work of lone geniuses enduring ridicule and worse as they toil to overturn establishment thinking and bring the truth to light. I think it would be much better if we played up the collaborative, incremental side more when we teach science. The media tends to reflect (and reinforce) public impressions of science as much as it actually shapes them.

  9. 11 David Hone 30/05/2009 at 8:16 am

    Neil, yes I realised it was not a direct argument, however I did want to make the point that these ‘out there’ concepts are increasingly less likely to ever become mainstream, and while learning lessons of history is good, things also change. If was an addition rather than a conflict. I do take your point of the heroic underdog reaching the top, that is certainly often the appeal of these stories, but like film that promise the same thing, this are a) very rare, and b) far more common in fiction than reality. Now, *we* might know that, but clearly not everyone does. What frustrates me (as ever if you read this blog much) is not so much the failure of media reporting (it happens, science is a tricky thing to handle really) but that even dedicated science reporters with degrees and access to the actual scientists still seem to sink into the mire of journalistic cliches and as a result distort or misrepresent (or just get things wrong) when really they have no excuse.

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  2. 2 The silent majority in science « Dave Hone’s Archosaur Musings Trackback on 23/07/2009 at 8:17 pm
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