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scientific dissent

May 19, 2008

It is amazing the ability of the scientific community and the scientific mind to ignore dissenting opinions. Not just ignore, but mock, degrade, and silence often in rather underhand manners.
Out to lunch last week I had a discussion with a friend who was flabbergasted to find out that there were scientists in our program who don’t believe in global warming. He felt that only a fool wouldn’t accept this idea, and fools don’t go to grad school. I sat there, thinking of two friends, friends who’s opinions I respect highly, who don’t believe that global warming is real. They are sensible people, who are perhaps somewhat forceful in their opinions, but that I think is an automatic defense against the trouble they find everywhere in their academic and professional lives for daring to be different, for having the gall to stick to their conservative upbringings and what it is they feel in their hearts.
We say that we’re open to ideas and dissent, that science is without agenda and seeks only the truth, but we’re lying. Science is inherently as flawed as the people who perform it. We would like to be unbiased, but we all still hate to be proven wrong. We have ideas as to how the world ought to be, and we succumb to the same pressure as everyone else in wanting to be popular. On some level, no one ever leaves high school; we just pretend to, while desperately searching out our own popular group.
Think about it. If I’m honest here, and say that the complexity of biological systems makes me wonder about an intelligent designer, and that I do believe the evidence for global warming gets overstated to scare people into action then I can guess at a couple of the reactions you’ve had. Some of you may think I’m a moron for having such uneducated opinions, or a traitor to the scientific community, though you’d never use those words. Others may be glad to see some sense among scientists, and is perhaps glad that I’ve finally become disillusioned with the corrupt system that is science in the west.
Of course, I said none of those things that you may perhaps be thinking. Thing is, moderate opinions don’t get you much except by turns ignored or ridiculed by both extremes. We all want to be attacked by the evil others, and to shout to the world how we are defending the virtuous truth. We want to be right, because somehow that validates us, and we want to overcome adversity because an easy win gets less respect, and less attention. We need an extreme opinion, because it’s hard to fight a war with “maybe” and “perhaps”.
These ideas are true of all people, and no less true of scientists. How does it even make sense that a physical (not atmospheric) chemist would be an expert in global warming? We don’t study that, but when arguing with non-scientists we act as if we do, when really the only advantage we have is in a more intimate knowledge of the scientific system. The same is true of evolution. Yes, I know the basics of how genetics works, and have slept through classes which touch on the broad ideas of selection pressures, but I can hardly claim to be an expert by dint of having lived with a paleontologist. What I ought to remember to bring to such debates is not the overwhelming superiority of my intellect (lets face it, we all do it) but rather my trust in the system, my trust that people smarter than I have figured this out and that I understand enough to get the simple ideas out to others. Trust that the system contains enough checks and peer reviews that bad science does not spread. Anything more is lying, and lies told for simply for the purpose of stroking my own ego, because it certainly does not help further truth.

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