On the Myth of Debatable Science

I wrote this in 2017. It is still depressingly relevant. And ever more urgent.

Science is not a debate. It is not a conversation between opposing points of view. It is not a balanced discussion of belief systems. Science is the refinement of factual knowledge through the application of reproducible observation and experimentation. Opinion and faith play no role in science. Interpretation does, but the influence of any one individual interpretation is usually rather small. By design.

Science plays to the averages. This is not to say that it is gamed or nudged in any desired direction. But science, as it is done today and for much of its history, is a process that diminishes if not eliminates the role of the exceptional or the individual. If a thing only happens once or if only one person observes it, then it can be said to have not happened at all. It’s much more extreme than the proverbial tree falling in the woods. Many kinds of trees have to fall in many kinds of woods and weather conditions, and many kinds of scientists have to hear the sounds and record their auditory observations and explain those observations with applicable quantification, and then many more scientists have to pick apart those observations and quantifications (and often the reputations of every researching entity) to expose every possible bias and error before it is finally decided by painful consensus that a falling tree does, indeed, make a sound. And then that fact must go through the publishing process to let a wider audience know that trees make noise when they fall which may or may not reveal further inconsistencies in the body of data and by which point the original researchers and reviewers will have completely lost interest in the fact that falling trees do make noise and will be busily engaged in investigating the muffled sound of snowfall. 

That illustration might be a bit imprecise, but it’s not terribly inaccurate.

You will notice however that this is not a very debate-like process. A debate happens when there are at least two unique and usually incompatible interpretations of the same idea or phenomenon. The object of a debate is not to prove the factuality of one view or the other, even when factuality can be established (which, often in debate, it can’t). The debater’s aim to build a supportive audience for their ideas using mostly words and logic. Sometimes physical evidence is presented, but it is very rarely a large body of evidence from a wide body of experimentation — or it really wouldn’t be much of a debate, would it? The debater with the more solid case — the view that is most firmly weighted by factual, observable, repeatable evidence — will win the most support every time.

Except, of course, when it doesn’t. These days science is being treated in this very way by outsiders, by those not involved in the scientific process. These outsiders are claiming that science is a debate and that verifiable evidence is not terribly important to determining the truth. (Whatever that means.) Or that truth is in the eye of the beholder. (Which is just disturbing on every level.) Or that opinion not only influences factual evidence, but it can itself be taken as fact. (Which is just not true at all.)

Very often the path to science starts down the path of many different coexistent views on the same idea. But even in this age of Uncertainty and Relativity (both of which have precise applications that have nothing to do with debate), science will converge on one interpretation of data by eliminating all those interpretations that do not fit the reproducible observation and experimentation. Eventually truth will out. Then, and only then, do scientists actually tell the public what they’ve been up to. And scientists don’t much care if public opinion supports their conclusions or not because — as they see it and indeed as it should be seen — science is reality, never debated ideology. Science is independent of debate.

Scientific knowledge is a tiny bit of inspiration that gets supported by tons of tedious verification. First, someone gets an idea and decides to test that idea. Some ideas can be tested in real-world application. Most can’t. So we use models called experiments. Experiments are designed to match the real world as closely as possible. However, experiments never achieve a perfect one-to-one match. What would be the point in experimenting if you can test an idea using the real world itself? So there are always some variables in experimentation that are ignored — but always for good reason.

For example, say I wanted to test the idea that bean plants needed sunshine to grow. I would design my experiment so that some plants were grown in sunlight and some were not. (If I had a sufficient research budget I would probably grow several groups of beans in differing amounts of sunlight, but I digress.) I would control for important variables by planting viable seeds of the same variety (preferably of the same age and kept in the same storage conditions before planting). I would use the same potting soil in sterile pots. I would give all the plants the same water — varying neither source nor amount between the groups. I would keep the ambient temperature and humidity constant in both groups. I would keep pests away from both groups. Then I would wait for the plants in both groups — the sunlight and not-sunlight groups — to grow, and I would observe and record the results.

I will have controlled for most of the variables that could cause observable differential growth in plants. But I have not controlled for, say, the position of the sun, moon and planets when I planted each bean because these variables do not have recordable effects on growth. Similarly, while I would try to ensure that the level of abundant and important soil nutrients like nitrogen and iron were broadly the same in every pot, I would not be able to make absolutely sure that each pot had exactly the same composition. Furthermore, I would probably not test each pot for strontium content at all because that element would be present in very small amounts at most and does not have an effect on plant growth that is noticeably different from the much more abundant calcium. However, the astrological position at planting and the concentration of strontium are real-world variables. All real-world variables can and do have some effect. This leads to small amounts of uncertainty in the results. However, the effects of these disregarded variables are so small relative to the amount of sunlight a plant receives that they can be ignored in the experiment. 

Still, there are uncertainties in every experiment. It is the scientist’s job to recognize, record and minimize them. It is not practical or even possible to eliminate them. So it is also the scientist’s job to prioritize which variables are controlled for and which are ignored. Scientists take this very seriously and repeat experiments under many conditions, aiming to control for all variables that have tangible effects on the result. This seems very basic science stuff, I am sure, but the people who are claiming that debatable opinions are intrinsic to the scientific method are quite often pointing fingers at these very small uncertainties and saying that no result is completely accurate. In a way (in a very small way that would take highly specialized equipment to measure) they are right. No experimental result is ever 100% certain. But it is 99.999% accurate when done correctly.

These days experiments are far more complex than my bean plant example. For that reason alone, experiments are conducted by more than one individual. But as part of the control process, it is normal to have the same experiment set conducted simultaneously in different research centers by several different teams of people. This is done to ensure that the test holds up to one of the core requirements for all scientific results — results must be reproducible. If every team in every lab finds the same results, then the results of the experiment are reproducible. It’s not a one-time event; it’s one step closer to factual evidence. If one team sees different results, then all the teams look for reasons why this happened and then try to come up with a more reproducible experiment. If all of them achieve different results, then the idea the experiment is designed to test may not be factual. Or it may be that our level of technology and knowledge are insufficient to test the idea at present. At any rate, if the results aren’t reproducible, then much more testing must be done on the idea to either prove or disprove it. 

After the teams come up with a large amount of experimental results — lots of recorded observation, lots of repeated experiments with the same results — reproducibility is then further put to the test. The experimenters write about their findings and send their papers off for peer review. “Peers” are other scientists. Not friends. Not even colleagues. Sometimes they aren’t even specialists in the same field as the researchers. They are, however, experts at picking out errors in the scientific method. They are objective observers, and their job is to read through all the information gathered by the researchers and study the experimental methods used, searching for inconsistency and inaccuracy. In some cases they may even repeat the experiments. Then they look at the results of the experiment — Was the idea proven or disproven by the experiment? Was a causal relationship established? — and try to find logical errors in the conclusions. 

Scientists are not united behind any idea other than to follow the scientific method to the best of their ability. (The snarky personal comments reviewers can make on scientific papers definitely proves that.) Overall, scientists do not make a very cohesive group with unified goals or beliefs. On the contrary, they are often a factious and cautious bunch with all the unique personalities, petty jealousies and sporadic arguments you would expect to find in a group of passionate and intelligent people who love what they do and take a fierce pride in it. However, they are all agreed upon the scientific method and take it very seriously. (There is usually more discussion about the rigor of the scientific method in a given research project than there is regarding its results.) Without reproducible and unbiased experimentation, there is no fact — there is no science. It would all break down to the chaos of subjective opinion.

Scientists are understandably excited by and proud of the work they do, and sometimes, rarely, those emotions can cloud data. Peer review is absolutely necessary to the scientific method because it checks and double checks for accuracy and because it scrubs bias from experimental results. Peers are not close to the work they review and do not have emotional attachment to the results. When they find an error, they will flag it. Sometimes an entire experimental process that has been gathering results for years will be brought down in peer review. And it is almost never the case that a scientific paper gets through peer review without some changes. 

These changes are necessary to refine the idea and the experimental results. These changes are also ubiquitous, being the necessary result of review. However, those people who claim that science is a debate like to highlight the changes made in peer review to support their claims that results are malleable or inaccurate. Quite to the contrary, peer review bolsters the accuracy of results by eliminating errors and makes it all the more unlikely that results can be massaged to reflect one researcher’s fancy. 

After a scientific paper passes through peer review and is changed accordingly, the paper is submitted for publishing in a specialty scientific journal — which is, itself, another step in the review process. Editors do generally try to publish all peer reviewed science, but if they are convinced that the scientific method has not been followed with sufficient rigor they will not print the paper. Publishing in the scientific press is sharing information with the scientific community. Even then sometimes, a reader might find errors in the paper that the reviewers and the journal editors missed, and the whole process must be repeated. But more often, once the paper published, the researchers move on to the next question. Because every question answered creates dozens more to ask — and research. Science is infinite. We will never have all the answers. Some neuroscientists and philosophers have shown that we are not even capable of knowing everything. But even if we were, unless the universe is bounded in every direction, there will always be new directions to go in seeking out new ideas. 

Once again, this built-in uncertainty in science — the very fact that we don’t and likely can’t know everything beyond all doubt — this is exploited by the debaters. But they paint this incomplete knowledge not as an invitation to explore more ideas, but as support for their claims that all scientific knowledge is inherently unstable. Debatable. They would throw out all our current science (or at least that which they don’t like) on the basis that what we don’t know is (likely) going to change the state of future knowledge.

Those scientific debaters sometimes say that scientists have a hidden (or not so hidden) agenda. That they all want us to think as scientists do. This maybe isn’t too far from the truth, but not the “truth” that the debaters are referencing. Scientists would love it if all the world began to think like scientists. For one thing, there would be more science happening, and that would be extremely cool. But more importantly, there would be a definite decline in abrupt and subjective decision-making as more people would strive to work together to tease out fact from chaos. There would certainly be much less stupid going around. Even so, scientists are not trying to force this rosy world view on the world. Scientists aren’t even typically interested in public opinion. But there are some scientific results that have implications far beyond the lab, and in these cases scientists definitely want to inform the public.

In these cases publishing in the scientific press is not sufficient. Scientists have several popular media outlets that they can turn to if they think that the public needs to be informed — magazines like Scientific American or National Geographic, popular science books, and science television like Nature and Cosmos. Scientists can form advisory panels and send the information directly to policy makers. And they can always write op-ed pieces in mass distribution newspapers like the New York Times

But increasingly, science is butting up against popular culture and public policy. Humans are ironically proving very good at acting in ways that are very bad for our long-term survival. “Ironic” in that we have out-competed all species for dominance on this planet, have peered into the bellies of subatomic particles, and even begun to escape the confines of gravity. Now, when we can begin to claim mastery, we are doing ourselves in — at great cost to the rest of the planet.

Scientists are not whimsical people; they are highly deliberate and studiously cautious about saying too much. They haven’t got much of a tendency to cry wolf — unless there is, in actuality, a verifiable wolf present. (Which at the present is true, allegorically speaking.) But the people who don’t like science are claiming that scientists are alarmists who are trying to take away our rights. Sometimes these people say scientists are lying outright to promote their subversive, redistributive agenda. But I think you can see from the above discussion that lies are impossible to disseminate in the scientific process — or at least it’s highly improbable that lies or even errors would get far. Science is fact, verified by many objective observers. It is not opinion. It is not faith. It is not debate. 

So how, you ask, did the debate element work its way into the popular image of science? Well, it’s complicated. First of all, the Federal Communications Commission played an inadvertent role. When television stations were allocated signal space, the FCC decided that because the number of stations in any geographical region was limited by the very slim band of the electromagnetic spectrum available in that area, each station awarded the rights to use that sliver would have to adhere to something the FCC called the Fairness Doctrine. All sides in a given news story were to be given balanced coverage. Print news decided that sounded like a great idea (partly because it increased advertising pools), and “Fairness” began creeping into the printed press as well. (As long as it suited them.) Furthermore, many news departments went beyond fair and equated “balanced” with “equal”, even when some views on an issue were highly marginal, to say nothing of accurate or well-reasoned.

So OK, we get to hear all the opinions of the fringe wackos with our news. Fine. Sort of. The problem with science reporting, however, is compounded when news from the scientific community has serious implications for public policy which can potentially influence big business in negative ways. And nobody messes with Big Business.

It began in earnest with cigarettes. As early as the 1950s there was a well-documented connection between cigarette smoke and lung cancer. Lung cancer is generally regarded as a bad thing. Most scientists therefore agreed that the public should be made aware of this connection — you smoke cigarettes, you will die young and painfully. You are free to make such decisions for yourself, but, scientists reasoned, you should have all the information available to make that decision. So scientists took their findings to various government agencies in order to disperse the message in labeling and public health warnings. Some news departments got wind of this and ran scary stories, all but telling their readers to cut the habit. Then the über-popular Reader’s Digest picked up the story and ran with it, calling their report “Cancer by the Carton”.

Mind you, at this time, a lot of people smoked. In 1951, as much as 5% of total income was being spent on tobacco products in many countries around the globe in an era when tobacco was not that expensive even adjusted for inflation (a pack of cigarettes in 1950 sold for about 25¢, or as little as one sixth of what is paid in excise taxes alone on that same pack today). American cigarette consumption was 10 cigarettes per capita per day. Eliminating the non-smokers, that’s over a pack a day for American smokers. Who were legion — news editors, scientists, politicians, doctors, soldiers, mothers, children. Cigarettes were Big Business! And Reader’s Digest had in effect told America to tear down the tobacco industry or face death by lung tumor. Of course, Big Business had to respond.

First they tried to go the research route themselves. They funded scientists at universities across the country both to review the literature on the cancer link and to bolster the available research data on alternative explanations for the sudden increase in lung cancer diagnoses. There was some very good science done on the tobacco research budget. But none of it countered the original research. Even those scientists and doctors hired directly by tobacco industry to review the literature could not disprove the evidence or even fudge it enough to make cigarette smoking appear anything less than deadly. In fact, many of the early researchers on the tobacco payroll quit smoking. 

So then Big Business decided to lie. Or, rather, misdirect attention. They hired more researchers and many non-experts to blast the public with information. For instance they told their experts to say that there are many ways people get cancer. (Which is totally true. You can get skin cancer from exposure to radiation. You can get digestive tract cancers from auto-immune disorders. You can get lung cancer from breathing coal dust. All of which facts don’t have any bearing on the fact that when you inhale cigarette smoke, you put yourself at a much higher risk of getting lung cancer than if you don’t smoke.) They told their experts to stress that the research to date was not entirely conclusive. (Also totally true. But as we discussed above, no science is “entirely conclusive” — there are always inherent uncertainties, always more questions that, when answered, will refine the information. That is how science works, and they were all well aware of that.) They had their paid experts focus on the millions of people who smoked and did not have cancer. (Again, verifiable fact. Except that first, not everyone gets cancer from any given carcinogen. People are different, and some are just resistant for unknown reasons. But they also ignored the fact that cancer takes a long time to develop, and for many people in mid-century America, smoking was a habit picked up recently. Women, for example, had not been smoking as a group for more than a decade, and many men began smoking as soldiers. Millions of those new smokers did, indeed, develop lung cancer down the road.) In other words the tobacco industry paid these scientists to lie to the public. And, much to the eternal shame of the scientific world, a few scientists did just that. And then, cynically manipulating the Fairness Doctrine, the tobacco industry insisted that the media tell “their side” of the cancer story — these lies and half truths that made smoking appear to be not too terribly harmful in a world of harmful things. And news departments did that, too. Apparently with relish.

By the 1970s enough doubt was sown that most people truly did not know how to tease out the applicable truth. (Many still don’t.) They had to choose to believe either the scientists who were saying that smoking causes cancer or the “scientists” who were saying that smoking may cause cancer but many things cause cancer and even if smoking does cause cancer not everybody who smokes will get lung cancer and so on and on and on. (Notice that they never did lie outright and say that smoking does not cause lung cancer. Outright denial of fact was a sales tactic for a future generation.) Most people did not know that some “scientists” were being paid to obfuscate. Why would they? We are supposed to be able to trust our experts, right? So to most people, suddenly science seemed to be a matter of belief. Thus the myth of scientific debate was born. However, this was not debate; this was a well-distributed marketing campaign full of misinformation.

Everybody wants you to keep buying what they sell. And more and more and more of it. Big Business has refined their techniques and expanded upon that early repertoire of nasty tricks. Religion has taken up the cause and added their own cloud of misinformation. Now, it seems that there are multiple ways to interpret every little physical data point in the universe. Which is another way of saying that there are no true ways to do so. So how do you recognize when science or, rather, false science is being used to sell a product or ideology?

First of all, look for things like consensus. That peer review is very important to factual science. Real science — the uncovering and sifting of fact — does not happen without substantial input from many, many scientists. As information spreads, it will be accepted or it will be modified. Or it may be disproven and rejected. (At which point it usually stops spreading.) But if most scientists accept an idea, then the odds are that it is fact. It has at least survived many attempts to prove that it is untrue. So when 97% of scientists say that our climate is changing, that Earth’s atmosphere is getting warmer, and that human activity is the cause, you can bet that that is, indeed, the situation. (And you should bet on that if you want to survive.)

Next, look at publication history. The people who are selling misinformation will distort numbers to make it seem like there is scientific consensus, and they have the money to buy substantial media hype. However, misinformation is very hard to buy in scientific literature, and at any rate, information in scientific journals does not generally reach the mass market. Doubt is much more effectively spread through the mainstream media so that’s where Big Business focuses its effort. Thus chances are, if you can only find information expressed in an editorial piece written by one guy and printed in the Wall Street Journal, it’s probably not science. (OK. So I am a scientist by nature and do not work well with absolutes, but maybe this is one case where an absolute is true. In this age of easy access to all kinds of information, if you can’t find corroboration for a “scientific fact” somewhere in the scientific press, then it is not a fact.)

Next, look at who the experts actually are. Most scientists do accept money from sources that are not entirely free from graft or the taint of public harm. Most scientists, however, are not the type of people who will bury facts or lie outright for money. It is not in their interest. If they are caught lying, they lose their research grants and posts. They lose their respect and credibility, most often irreparably. In fact, everything they have done up until they are caught falsifying information for money becomes suspect as well. They lose their ability to do science. And don’t discount that! Most scientists are not in the research business for the paycheck — which is, on average, pathetic. They do science because they love it. They need it. Because they don’t want to or can’t do anything else and stay happy. 

Big Business and other interest groups therefore are often not hiring the experts. In the case of climate research, for example, the “scientists” that are denying climate change are more often bureaucrats than researchers. They may be very high level, including the heads of national science advisory boards and colleges, but they are not actively engaged in research. Many never were. I do not know of any climate change deniers that are or ever were climate scientists. Most have deep ties to the fossil fuels industry and its dependent military-industrial complex. Most of them seem to be rather bitter about their past experience as scientists. And there are VERY FEW OF THEM. The same  few names appear on every misinformation report. In fact, the same names have repeatedly shown up in most misinformation campaigns from the past 50 years. From cigarette smoking to ozone depletion to carbon emissions, Big Business keeps pushing the same tired old guys into the media limelight to spew their lies and spread doubt. (On the plus side, they are old now, so maybe we’ll start to see a denier die-off here soon.) And perhaps in part because journalism has now degenerated to “media” with little respect for sourcing or fact-checking, reporters just keep regurgitating the same tired stories. It’s rather sad actually.

But at any rate, those are some things that you can do to wade through the smog. Better yet, you can also rely on your own observations and common sense. For example, I’m probably not wrong in guessing that most of the people you know who have smoked for a long time now have some form of lung disease. That is an observable fact of smoking cigarettes no matter what the tobacco industry tries to sell you.

Similarly, most people in the Northeast could see the increased effects of acid rain on stonework in the 1970s after Midwestern polluters began (in attempting to cheaply comply with the Clean Air Act) to install taller smokestacks to blow their pollution away from their own cities. You can still go to New England graveyards and see the results for yourself.

Similarly, you can simply pay attention to the weather. Yes, there is snow still, but when every other month sets a new record high for the globe, that is, by definition, indicating that it is getting warmer, folks. Plus, you just can’t ignore facts as blatant as Hurricane Katrina or Super-storm Sandy. These enormous types of storms used to happen maybe once a century. Now it’s at least once a decade and trending toward once a year.

Here I will step onto my soap-box: It is morally detestable to make no attempt to slow the pace of global warming, to actively denounce and defame the few people who are trying to do so, and to brazenly deny that climate is changing at all in the face of such devastating — and damning — evidence. Even if it were the case that human activity has nothing to do with global warming — which is not very likely given the scientific consensus and the vast body of supporting data — but even if that were true, it is unacceptable to not do everything in our power to avoid further destruction. And it certainly is in our power to eliminate a known major contributor to climate change — carbon emissions. 

That is undebatable.

©Elizabeth Anker 2021