Last week I clicked on a science news headline that suggested that
Time Magazine) and read about the recent research of someone who disagrees with the prevailing ideas about dinosaurian demise. I asked an old (paleo) friend of mine about this and he explained that the scientist who wrote the paper profiled in the article is one of very few scientists who has long held a contrary view about this issue.
I can't assess this particular case, but I am interested in the general situation of Scientific Dissenters. In fact, in this particular case even NSF seems to think that this contrary view is worthy of publicity, so maybe it's not the best example of my topic today. This will not, however, stop me from my general discussion of the role of Dissent in scientific discourse and discovery, specifically in the context of how dissent is conveyed to the public.
Journalists like to (and should) present different sides of a story, but in the case of Science this may involve digging up the last remaining person who refuses to release their grasp from a discredited hypothesis -- perhaps someone who makes it their mission in life to be the lone voice in the wilderness for a hypothesis that no one believes any more. The motivation for this dissent can be noble (the person truly believes that everyone else is wrong) or a way to get attention (some people might like it when Time Magazine calls). Dissenters obviously can't all be lumped in one category.
When the topic is of interest to the general public, the journalistic practice of seeking and highlighting controversy can give the impression that scholarly debate continues about something that is no longer in serious doubt. Perhaps a love of dissent stems from a desire to shake things up, overturn dogma, and prove wrong those complacent brainiacs who think they know how things work. Not all of those are bad, necessarily, but it is a slippery slope to fostering doubt about things that are well known (e.g. the "It's just a theory" type of argument).
I think that it is important to have dissenters whose arguments push others to make sure their reasoning and evidence are as solid as possible. Dissenters have the useful purpose of making it not so easy for everyone to jump on the scholarly bandwagon du jour. And journalists do have a responsibility to examine various sides of issues.
At the same time, it is too bad that non-expert readers of media reports of scientific issues may get an unrealistic view of the state of the science. It may be difficult to distinguish a dissenter with a valid and significant point from an attention-mongering crackpot, especially if the latter is a professor at a distinguished university. I also realize that it is much zippier to write a headline like the one above, and the news that "Scientists understand This and That and are now trying to figure out These Other Things" is perhaps not going to grab anyone's attention.
Even so, scientists do make discoveries and may reach consensus on important issues, not because we are all sheep who mindlessly believe the prevailing view on a topic but because we make progress in understanding how things work. It is disheartening if the general public is given the impression, via sensational headlines and articles relying on the opinions of lonely dissenters, that in fact we really don't understand some fundamental aspects of the world.
I admire science journalists for the excellent work they do translating sciencese to the general public and highlighting what is interesting and important about scientific discoveries. I do think, however, that the practice of seeking contrary views should be done carefully, and choices made based on a broad and objective view of the relevant scientific field. That's a difficult task, but an important one.
6 months ago