To those who would prove us wrong – a guide to scientific dialogue

There is nothing wrong with being wrong in science. Anyone who understands the fundamentals of how science is supposed to, even has to, work will understand that falsification of hypotheses is key to the scientific method. Personally I don’t think anyone *likes* being proved wrong, but it is a mainstay of how science works. To miss out on that is to miss a huge and fundamental part of it.

Secondly, science accumulates evidence. Lots of evidence, often on both sides of a given argument, but no matter how clear something is (like atomic theory, or evolution by natural selection) more and more evidence will accumulate to support it, often from new and unusual sources of data. Some ideas are very well supported, and some are equivocal but well discussed. Others have fallen by the wayside under the crushing weight of logical deduction or counter-evidence.

All this brings me onto the crux of this post, those who come to us (by which I mean scientists) with their pet ideas that absolutely-categorically-are-right and we are absolutely-categorically-wrong and they are going to prove it. Either that or they continue to support ideas long since disregarded, though the tone is often identical. Well, I have a few things to say to them…

Todays post was inspired in part by Darren Naish’s recent comment on some, err, ‘discussions’ he has had with someone championing the idea that birds are not dinosaurs for various spurious reasons. I have been troubled only occasionally on here (or elsewhere) by kooks and cranks and over-enthusiastic supporters of fringe ideas, but they do get under my skin and they do turn up, and hence I decided to write this. The points I am making also apply often to those who don’t necessarily have an axe to grind but happily pop up with questions / challenges / ideas to the scientists’ credibility or their concepts (the “actually I think you’ll find…” brigade) who often fall into the same traps. Both the ravers and the polite enquirers often make the same errors, though they are generally compounded far more on the former side by a general unreasonableness and mistaken fixation on thier ideas and accuracy.

It will therefore I hope be a lesson to at least a few who might stumble across this, and for others I hope will serve as something they can point to when confronted with people going down this route. When challenged, point them here and make them read this first before they start, or before you reply. Ultimately this is really just a guide for scientific dialogue, though with rather a lot of emphasis on how many ways people can be a) wrong and b)  not appreciate how and why they are wrong. As such, I suspect it will be of use to all kinds of students and interested parties more than the theoretical target audience (or just targets if you prefer) even if I have written is more as a railing against the nutters who plague palaeontology.

I am not suggesting (as hopefully will be clear) that this is a case of wanting to suppress enquiry and investigation from non-experts, or even other experts! Think, read, ask questions, challenge ideas! These are ALL good things, just be attentive to how you do them. The people who just want to rant at us, will always do so and this probably won’t persuade them otherwise, though it may well serve as a guide to those who want to engage but don’t know how.

1. Treat us with decency and respect. We are people too and frankly, our position requires a minimal acknowledgement of our expertise. Let’s face it, you have come to us since we *are* acknowledged as experts in the field and you want to argue or debate with us, so you inherently imply some form of recognition of our education. Even if you think we are wrong about something, we have read papers, published papers, got degrees and doctorates – we are not fools or ignorant about scientific methods or data. Starting an e-mail or blog comment with insults or “you are wrong because…” is not going to get you in anyone’s good books. We are professionals, but we are also human – if you want and expect courtesy and consideration start off by showing some yourself. Write “Dear Dr X, I have been wondering about subject Y and I am puzzled. I cannot help but think that point A / evidence B / my idea C is important and has been overlooked or ignored that would seem to contradict ‘Y’…” and not “hey moron, my work proves you are all wrong about Y because I found this thing that shows it”. I have had e-mails like that. I do reply with courtesy, but I am (naturally) far less interested in guiding and informing and communicating than I would be if the same points were raised in a letter in the former style. Some researchers are, inevitably, jerks, so don’t take it to heart if you get no reply or a short shrift, but don’t be pushy or unpleasant. Rise above it and continue to be polite, and then ask someone else.

2. Before you even start, find out about the person at the other end. Don’t send an e-mail about dinosaurs to someone who works on frogs. Don’t send an e-mail to someone who actually has the same opinion as you and tell them they are wrong while providing a list of arguments as to how scientists are wrong when they themselves have published those same ideas. People have argued about papers I wrote without even reading them first and suggested that I had said things I had not. They have also assumed they know far more than me about specific subjects when they were things I am a specialist in (I once got a “what do *you* know about pterosaur origins eh?” message, and it’s very hard not to look arrogant when you reply “my PhD was on pterosaur origins and I’ve published several papers on them”).

3. Try and read at least some of the literature. Nowadays a great deal is available free online, so read it. It’s too hard / complex / takes too long is not an excuse. If you want a seat at the table of scientific discussion then you have to attend to the house rules. That means doing the work where you can and making sure you at least have a grasp on basic concepts and the field. Try to learn, and if you are struggling to adapt to the difficulties, then ask for help, it will be given if you want to learn, it will likely not if you just rant. If you launch into a screed about why sauropods have to be aquatic you will be ignored. It has been disproved through multiple lines of evidence many times over and will mark you out as someone willfully ignorant.

4. Present your ideas appropriately. Don’t just make a couple of vague points about a specimen or theory, or provide a huge rambling list of ideas. Set things out so they can be understood and appreciated. What taxa are you talking about? What hypothesis or aspect of their biology are you interested in? What do you think the current consensus of this is? What is your idea? How do you think it conflicts with the current hypothesis? What evidence do you have that supports your contention? How do you think this could be assessed? If you can state all of these things clearly it avoids confusion, and allows someone to assess your ideas clearly and concisely and if there is a major gap in your idea it will make it easier to spot and by extension to explain it back to you. This will help get you drawn in and not ignored.

5. Understand that we know a lot more than you might think, or might know, or might have conceived of, and that you might know much less than you think you do. OK, so you have read a few papers and looked in books and still think you are right. OK, good, but we have read dozens of books, read hundreds of papers, seen thousands of specimens in some cases and spoken to dozens of researchers about our work. So you have read a paper that categorically says ‘X’, great. But bear in mind that we might have read 50 that says ‘X is wrong’. Realise this. I once had someone argue with me about the shape of a particular bone in a specimen. He admitted he had only seen a single photo of said specimen and I had the specimen on my desk at the time. It is not your fault that you have not read everything or seen the key specimens or whatever, but accept that you have not and others have superior knowledge. It is their job after all and one assumes that at least is in part why you contacted them in the first place. Don’t blame them for being right.

6. Evidence for one thing is not necessarily evidence against another. You really might have evidence that shows that tyrannosaurs could swim well, but that does not make them aquatic, or mean that they did not live on land. It supports the idea that they could swim well and perhaps spent more time in water than otherwise though, but it neither disproves nor even challenges the idea that they were fundamentally terrestrial animals.

7. Realise that there are multiple lines of evidence for most theories and hypotheses, not one. Just because you can challenge say the idea that sauropods could not inflate their lungs if underwater, this does not mean that they were aquatic and the terrestrial hypothesis was wrong. It only means (if you are right) that one line of evidence is faulty. The others are perfectly robust and must also be knocked down first. Similarly, one ‘killer’ argument does not outweigh all the evidence. Let’s say you have found a feature that is only shared by modern birds and therizinosaurs, this doesn’t absolutely establish that the two are linked with the former coming from the latter – you have to evaluate and consider the other evidence that still ties birds to more derived theropods.

8. Negative of one is not positive of another. Just because you can demonstrate a hypothesis incorrect, it does not follow that your alternative is right. This is subtly different to point 6, but a common theme of these kinds of ideas is that “since I have shown X to be wrong, my idea of Y is right”. Even if you have shown that X is wrong, you need positive evidence for Y as well.

9. Attacking the method does not make your alternative right. Similarly to 8 people seem to think that they can challenge a scientific method as being incorrect and use that to bolster their pet idea. Learn to separate the method from the evidence – even if you think (or can even demonstrate) that cladistics is flawed, this does not unsettle the bird-dinosaur link – both still share feathers, numerous features of bony anatomy, inferred behaviours, stratigraphic links etc. etc. etc.

10. Learn to accept that you might be wrong. Science has considered a great deal of evidence and a great deal of hypotheses over the centuries. We have assessed and examined and dismissed many of them with good reason. Occasionally some get revived if new evidence supports them (such as a four-winged origin for bird flight revived after a century) and based on my previous experience there is a far better then even chance that your idea has already cropped up long ago and was dismissed. Again, this is part of science – it’s easy to think you have a killer argument / idea / evidence and then be defaulted horribly to discover a weakness you had not spotted. It happens constantly to us all. It’s not fun, but it is science. Don’t get angry or dismissive. Don’t blame them. Accept that you have missed something and were not right this time. It will be infinitely more productive if you come back with another idea than if you keep trying to prove right something that is obviously false, that is not how science works.

The short version of all of this is science has ‘rules’ of operation. There are set ways that you can research ideas, and gather and assess the evidence, and they are there for a good reason. We absolutely welcome good contributions from anyone. I do get good questions on here and AAB, or points raised that are of real interest or value. Most often they are things that already exist in the scientific literature, but they do demonstrate that anyone can get good ideas (so good they have been published already) from reading a little or making deductions based on what they have been told.

If you think you have a good idea, give it some real thought. Try and find a couple of papers or a book to read around the field to see what has been said before. Find someone suitable to present your ideas to and make them clear and concise and be polite. Ask for feedback and help. Don’t be upset if they are rejected. Do all of that and you can make a real contribution, do not do it and you potentially make yourself out as a crank. If you really want to make a contribution then you will try and do these things and ask for help, not demand acceptance and arrogantly dismiss those who disagree. I have found the vast majority of amateurs, interested readers and generally curious people are polite, restrained, genuinely interested and attentive. They want to know what science think, and why science thinks it, and what it means. They are generally (and understandably) disappointed to be told they are wrong, but also pleased to have gained genuine knowledge and a better understanding of the world. These are the vast majority, the small minority are not like this, and while I doubt any of those will ever read this (and if they do I doubt the either recognise themselves in it, or change their ways even if they do) a little change from them would make our lives easier and less stressful, and they would gain the knowledge and perhaps respect of a field of research that they actively want to be involved in. They can make it happen, it’s up to them.

13 Responses to “To those who would prove us wrong – a guide to scientific dialogue”

  1. 1 Mike Taylor 29/05/2009 at 7:32 pm

    Thanks for this Dave, it’s hopefully going to be useful to a lot of people. I’d only add one more thing, which is: don’t let this long list put you off! Most scientists are actively pleased to hear from genuinely interested amateurs, so please don’t look at that long list of do’s and don’ts and throw up your hands in despair!

  2. 2 David Hone 29/05/2009 at 9:07 pm

    A great point Mike, we can and want to engage, but both sides will get a lot more out of it if you make an effort – it’s tough, but with potentially big rewards. It’s a funny post – half “how to chat to us and get soemthing out of it” and half “please stop buggin us withot doing the work”. I’m glad it came out OK as it had such an odd generation.

  3. 3 Manabu Sakamoto 01/06/2009 at 4:40 pm

    I think we should clear up here that Dave’s “please stop bugging us without doing the work” doesn’t mean “read all the papers yourself before you ask a question”, but “please be aware of what the scientific consensus is before making strong arguments against an expert opinion”.

    “read all the papers yourself before you ask a question” – This can be exemplified by the sorts of comments you get on software help forums, e.g. “read the manual before you post”; but the manuals aren’t readable and that’s why we ask people who understand the intricacies of the software for help… The same can be said for scientific questions and curiosities; there is nothing wrong with asking a scientist something that you think they may know. So you’d have to ask a question relevant to that scientist’s expertise, e.g. don’t expect much help on quantum mechanics from a biologist. (If you want to ask a question regarding iTunes then you’d go to the iTunes help forum, but you won’t go to a forum on Microsoft Office.)

    “please be aware of what the scientific consensus is before making strong arguments against an expert opinion” – you can have a strong opinion about something, but you can’t attack an expert and call him a fool for not reading so-and-so’s theory, because you’d look silly for not knowing that so-and-so’s theory is not widely accepted at all in that field. We can just call this kind of behaviour “trolling” and just ignore it, but where’s the fun in that? 😉

  4. 4 David Hone 01/06/2009 at 7:01 pm

    Thanks Mambo, that is largely what I was trying to convey. These things also vary depedning on experience / level of the questioner – as you know (but others may not) a lot of AAB stuff is very baseline level – lots of simple questions or odd things based on clear misunderstandings of basic principles. We can answer and guide and help if soemone doesn’t understand natural selection or basic taxonomy or whatever. However if soemone whats to expound the idea that natural selection is false say, they need not have read *every* paper on the subject, but acually having read the ‘Origin’ and agood few dozen papers and a basic book or two is essential to make sure that they know what they are getting into and where the evidence lies.

  5. 5 Nima 20/06/2009 at 12:09 pm

    GREAT post Dave. I’ll point every creationist/BANDist/PAList (Pterosaurs Are Lacertiformes) that I come across to this page. It’s very useful to clear up the clutter of the “cranks”. While I’m not a PhD, I certainly understand the annoyance one feels after studying piles of scientific papers only to be ridiculed and scorned by some arrogant and self-admiring evidence-bigot who dismisses solid research as “satanic liberal anti-Biblical conspiracy” or some such nonsensical label.

    I look forward to lots more informative Archosaur Musings. Bravo!

  6. 6 David Hone 23/06/2009 at 7:41 am

    Thanks very much, glad to be of service / interest.

  7. 9 Berislav Krzic 25/02/2014 at 5:51 pm

    Dave, I like your blog. One can find a lot of high quality information. Please, do continue with your blog.Your guide to scientific dialogue has some good points, indeed.

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