The title of this post is, among other things, a play on Kuhn’s classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The purpose of this post is to set out a collection of “quick and dirty” rules of thumb for non-specialists to be able to determine when a putative “controversy” (as reported in the press) is a genuine scientific controversy. Quick and dirty rules of thumb are the best that anyone can ever hope to achieve on this matter, because the determination of genuine versus specious controversy is inherently qualitative and deeply sensitive to context. Nevertheless, a very solid set of evaluative tools can be quickly assembled and mastered with relative ease by anyone prepared to apply logic to facts. This post is something of a “part 2” to my earlier, What is Science?
This topic is related to what is known as the “demarcation problem of science”: namely, how does one demarcate REAL science from mere pseudo-science? The two most important attempts to answer this question came from a mostly logical perspective, on the one hand, and an almost exclusively sociological perspective on the other. The formal/logical approach is due to the philosopher Karl Popper. It was Popper’s argument that what made a scientific claim genuinely scientific was that the claim could be tested, and that it was logically possible that the claim might be shown to be false, a criterion known as “falsifiability.” What this means is that scientific theories are never really shown to be “true;” rather they are shown to be robust because they’ve survived multiple serious attempts to falsify them. When the attempt to prove a theory false fails, that does not show the theory to be true, only to be strong enough to stand up to all the tests that have so far been thrown at it. What makes this a logical rule is that it corresponds to the rule in formal logic of modus tollendo tollens. What this rule says is that, when presented with a generic argument (which one takes to be true) of the form, “If P then Q,” and it is shown that the conclusion “Q” is false, then one has also demonstrated (again, assuming the overall implication is true) that the premise “P” must also be false. So if one has a scientific theory “P” that says “Q” must follow from “P,” yet one can test and see that “Q” simply isn’t there, then the original scientific theory “P” has been falsified.
Popper’s argument runs into serious difficulties with both the history of scientific practice, and the contemporary (and largely universal) use of statistical methods. Per this latter, Popper’s falsifiability criterion is an “all or nothing” standard, but statistical methods deal with clouds of “more or less” where strict falsifiability does not work, and “unstrict” falsifiability is not clearly defined. With regard to the history and practice of science, Popper’s “all or nothing” approach again fails rather completely. Many times in the history of science, ideas that initially failed (often rather catastrophically) Popper’s criterion eventually were developed into the kind of robust scientific theory that could not only stand up to attempts at falsification, they did so in a manner that was significantly better than those theories that had previously been the dominant paradigms. This is the point of Kuhn’s above mentioned book. Such newly found, and gradually developed, success can lead to the kind of tectonic shift in scientific thinking that Kuhn called a “scientific revolution.” However, it is not the presence or absence of “paradigm shifts” (another Kuhnian term) or “revolutions” that makes a practice scientific, according to Kuhn. Rather, it is what he referred to as “normal science,” a process of meticulous and very detail oriented “puzzle solving” that comprises the daily practice of science. It is only after this puzzle solving routine runs up against a “Popperian wall” (my term) of repeatedly falsified expectations – puzzles that ought to be solvable, but cannot be with the available “standard” approaches – that a crisis can emerge which might lead to a scientific revolution, a change in the basic approach to puzzle solving required by the failure of the previously held model or paradigm.
Kuhn’s thesis suffered from its own drawbacks, not least of which was that, in its original formulation, it seemed to deny the existence of an objective world. Kuhn himself spent the remainder of his career scrambling to back away from this claim. But this is sufficient to give us our first two rough-and-ready clues:
While we must not ever lose sight of the history and sociology of science, we must also remain cognizant of the necessity of falsifiability of theories, in both the large vision and small details. This latter is an imperfectly realized ideal, but it must be an ideal that we attempt to realize.
What are some other rules of thumb we can bring to bear? Well, probably the most important one is this: If you, as a non-expert in the field, have heard of the “controversy,” then it almost certainly is NOT any sort of controversy at all. Real scientific controversies are fought out in the peer-reviewed literature, and such fights never rise to the level of popular consciousness. This latter is because the technical expertise needed to grasp even the superficial details of such arguments is significant, and well beyond that which one will find in popular understandings. So when a supposedly “scientific” controversy comes to be fought in the popular presses, this is because one group (invariably, a vanishingly small minority) altogether lacks the logic, principles, evidence, and facts needed to argue the issue out amongst the scientific community. When the supposed controversy is brought to the public eye, it is only because ideologues with an agenda want to force a conclusion, through “popular” misconceptions, that cannot be supported by reason. Reality is not a democracy, you do not get to vote on the facts; meanwhile, exhortations to “teach the controversy” are red herring distractions to pretend that ignorant opinions have the same standing as informed conclusions.
But while reality is not a democracy, there are substantial reasons to attend to the consensus of experts. These people are very few in number, but will be the ones who’ve invested such a great deal of time and effort into the subject at hand that they have earned the right to have their voices attended to. This is part of the sociological aspect of science that Kuhn drew our attention to. This circle of expertise is not closed against the world in the way that, say, religious belief can be, because the Popperian standard of falsifiability must be allowed to wiggle its way in. So while, like all the other rules, this one is “-of-thumb” only (which is to say that, yes, the scientific consensus can be wrong at various times), for any but those with established expertise in a subject, that consensus is pretty nearly a knock-down argument against any counter-claims one might come across, most especially if those counter-claims appear anywhere in the popular press.
With these ideas under our belts, we can see right away that Global Warming denialism and “Intelligent” Design/Creationism is the sort of pseudo-scientific twaddle that can be legitimately dismissed out of hand. The same is true of anti-vaccination obscenities, and numerous other fatuous claims to be found in the popular media. This trash is, as noted, hyped in the popular media, while the real science has conclusively rejected it. Such pseudo-scientific nonsense abandons any pretense of falsifiability, has been roundly rejected by the actual practice of science, has nothing to offer in the way of the ongoing puzzle-solving work of normal science, and has thus abandoned science altogether in order to man the barricades of a whipped-up popular outrage that has no clue what it is singing songs about. (Cue Les Miserables here.)
In the not too distant future, I hope to share an example of what may, in fact, be a legitimate scientific controversy.