Tuesday, May 05, 2009


Last week I clicked on a science news headline that suggested that

Maybe an Asteroid Didn't Kill the Dinosaurs.

I followed the link (to 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.


Anonymous said...

good post. It is something that is even more important in the medical / health field. In my area (Autism) a single dissenter claiming that vaccination causes autism has had a major health impact because his voice has been amplified by journalists who want to provide 'balance' and a dramatic story. This is despite the overwhelming scientific evidence that vaccines do not cause autism.

DrDoyenne said...

All the more reason for mainstream scientists to make an effort to explain their science to the public and not rely on the media to do a balanced job of it.

Part of the problem perhaps is that scientists don't always do a good job of explaining their work--when they are interviewed (they ramble, go into too much detail, use technical jargon). So it's no wonder that much (or even all) of their statement ends up on the cutting room floor.

The dissenters often make much more interesting and colorful statements (as opposed to the dry, complicated explanation given by the typical scientist). Dissenters may also benefit from the average person's inclination to root for the "underdog" (and the media know this).

Greg said...

[satire] Oh Please! Everyone knows that dinosaurs were not destroyed by a comet. Otherwise all of the people living with them would have perished too. Next you'll be telling me that global warming is real and caused by humankind's activities. [/satire]

Anonymous said...

This just reminded me of Walter against LHC: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2009/05/01/daily-show-explains-the-lhc/

Jenn, PhD said...

Reminds me of the series of media reports about impending doom that surfaced when the CERN/LHC was about to be activated last year... the problem is that the media often doesn't convey the 10,000,000 people believing one thing against 1 believing something different very well, and presents the "debate" as more even-sided (a 50:50 picture).

Anonymous said...

I find this kind of thing pretty fascinating, too. In geodynamical circles, there is a small group of dissenters on the subject of mantle plumes, i.e. whether or not they exist and cause things like Hawaii. Some of their arguments are definitely thought provoking and intriguing; others are really pseudo-scientific and crackpotty. But they get REALLY worked up about it. It's kind of amazing.

bsci said...

I think one of the more recent areas of controversy was the end of the world due to the LHC. It was a minority opinion, but got significant news coverage from many prominent news sources. I heard about the lawsuits and new it was a minority opinion, but I didn't realize how weak the position was until the Daily Show just covered it.

Why do we need to look to the daily show for quality science journalism? (There's also a the brief lewd/sexist comment in the middle flowed by them saying they probably shouldn't have said that)

John Vidale said...

An important topic. Dealing with journalists can be a challenge, and presenting findings in an interesting yet accurate way is also difficult.

My impression, although it is not my field, is that this issue (dinosaurs vs Deccan traps) is hard to nail down. The two were very close in time, perhaps related. So perhaps her point of view is not ridiculous. She seems to have the credentials to speak on the subject.

On the other hand, the linked press release cites no one's but the advocate and the NSF Director (!?), and hence gives too great credibility to the iconoclastic ideas. These are meant to spur real journalists to write their own articles, but are often quoted verbatim on wire services, and so should try harder for objectivity. The release's real purpose is advertisement for results of NSF funding.

davidjhemmer said...

The most obvious example of this is global warming. The "dissenters" number in the thousands of well-respected scientists including many Nobel Laureates. As new data has come in over the last ten years, the number of these dissenters is growing. This is far from "settled" science, and probably never will be due to the complexity of the problems. However the alarmists among us try to shut this healthy debate down by labelling those on one side of it "deniers," akin to Holocaust deniers. Fortunately the American people aren't falling for it, listing global warming last of their concerns in a recent poll.

Andrew Maynard said...

Thought-provoking post - thanks. What is missing in most comparisons of views is a weight of evidence approach. Rather, all views are given equal weight, whether they are fringe or mainstream.

Trouble is, I'm not sure how you go about redressing the balance. I suspect that individual stories with catchy headlines, based on minority views, aren't that harmful in themselves. But the net effect is to erode the difference between the possible and the probable in readers' minds.

The end result - sadly - is a readership who are disempowered from engaging on science and it's relevance within society.

Anonymous said...

The only formal science education that many journalists get may be our university Science 101 classes. All the more reason to ditch the flashcards and busy work and make these classes more about the process of science, with all its uncertainty and weight of evidence, more about the how do we know.

Patchi said...

What gets me upset is that most journalists can't seem to distinguish between a hypothesis and a theory. These should not be presented with the same credibility associated to them...

Ms.PhD said...

I think the most important point is this one: that the media portrays science as continuing an open dialogue.

Even about matters that might otherwise be considered "settled".

Even when within the field there is enormous pressure to make all data fit with the prevailing model (and squash anything that doesn't fit).

This is one of the major disconnects between what people think of science and what science actually has become.

I agree about the autism example. The spread of anti-vaccination-ism is a really dangerous side-effect of a dissenter who recruited a certain loudmouthed blonde to be a fairy trumpeter.

But the dinosaurs? Really? And this is timely for this particular dissenter, and for TIME magazine... how?

Paul said...

Well said.

Full disclosure: I am the NSF Program Officer for the Program funding Gerta.

We have a Public Affairs Office here at NSF, and we science officers have the same issues with them as you do. The articles are not usually written by scientists, and they have their own agenda (correctly identified as "promote NSF"). However, I am glad that the media does provide a filter, because as scientists we are usually pretty pathetic about communicating intelligibly.

Individual reporters have to struggle against editors who insist on 'controversy to sell copy,' and dedicating the same number of column-inches to contrarians as supporters.

What is needed is a more support for producing a science-literate public, rather then the technophobic 'regular person' and the 'socially retarded scientist' that pervade the popular media.

If you are a scientist, get off your duff and talk about what you do, and how you do it. Talk to schools, talk to organizations. Get out of the lab. Seriously. Stop typing that proposal.

BTW, the person quoted was the other Program Director, and not the Director of NSF; "He" only deals with ethereally important issues, and not extinction events.

John Vidale said...

The cited issue looks nasty. The iconoclasts put this in a recent reply to comments:

"But they made their case by repeatedly resorting to factual misrepresentations, misinterpretations, out of context quotes, selective use of references, ignoring critical studies and bogus arguments. Amazingly, this was done in the most strident tone and accusations of misuse of biostratigraphy, geochemistry, mineralogy and sequence stratigraphy." doi:10.1016/j.epsl.2007.11.066

in reply to a comment, which, while in disagreement, do not contain such personal attacks.

"the data and interpretations presented to warrant the staggering conclusions of this paper are insufficient, contradictory, and in part erroneous" doi:10.1016/j.epsl.2007.11.066

Frankly, if the scientists are going to go nuclear in their published exchanges, who can expect better behavior from journalists?

If an NSF panel funds the work, and an NSF Program Director (thanks for the correction, Paul, this person is closer to the field than I thought) speaks on its behalf, the press should treat it as viable, no matter what people who "know better" think.

Comrade Physioprof said...

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.While there are good science journalists, the vast majority suck total fucking ass. They succumb to editorial pressure to sensationalize and dichotomize everyfuckingthing, and this is to the great detriment of both science and society.

John Vidale said...

The reading public creates the state of the media. The news outlets would commission good science reporting more if many people cared. It costs more than what we have now, and is of less interest.

As didacts, we'd like to tell the public what they should know, but news is competing with gossip, sports, sitcoms, movies, and soap operas. It is entertainment at heart, and much of our important work is not entertaining.

Our best approach is to offer accurate press releases, mention to reporters their worst gaffs, and add comment to local stories that miss the target.

John Vidale said...

I hope I didn't kill discussion with my opinionated posts.

It's worth discussing further.

The prime example in my field of repeated, known sensationalist and unfounded statements are the "It's been 101 years since the last earthquake, and the recurrence interval is only 100 years." I read this every few months, and we've known for decades that earthquake do not recur like clockwork.

Female Science Professor said...

It would be interesting to compile a list of examples. So far in the comments we have: dinosaur extinction, autism, large hadron collider, mantle plumes, global warming, earthquake recurrence .. maybe evolution.

Isabel said...

Your colleague's summation of the situation surprises me. I've never heard of this research, but it doesn't seem particularly controversial. I've heard the asteroid theory questioned in paleontological circles, for example based on evidence that the dinosaurs were already going extinct. I just looked at the Time article - way sensationalist!

The NSF press release does make a good point that no other meteor-mass extinction correlations are known.

My friend's uncle, who may on the other hand fall into the category you've described, is an astronomer who found evidence that he interpreted as calling into question the conventional big bang theory, and he claims he's lost his telescope time as a result and is unable to continue his research.

Katie said...

From a reader's point of view it is also much more interesting to hear of a completely unexpected discovery from a scientist laboring away along (think: in a patent office). People working together to make small, incremental progress towards understanding is much less interesting!

Anonymous said...

another example, i believe, is human migration into the Americas. a while ago, a show on discovery or something discussed the model by which humans departed from north of France and traveled along an ice shelf, thus immigrating to the east coast of North America first. evidence was the types of arrows dug up and other stuff.

i asked an archeology PhD about this issue, and apparently it is a case of dissent publicity. at any rate, the depiction of early humans in america having arisen from european migrants pre-Clovis is unlikely.

C W Magee said...

Explaining the difference between crackpotism and scientific controversy requires taking the pretty stories off of our research, and explaining to the public exactly how all the gears and levers of science actually interact with each other. Making the mechanics more interesting than the grand sweeping statements is the challenge.