Scientific dogmatism: wild red herring or trained attack dog?

-June 02, 2015

Galileo's head was on the block
The crime was looking up the truth

—Amy Ray & Emily Saliers, The Indigo Girls

Galileo Galilei was tortured for violating the Catholic Church's dogmatic decree that earth must stand motionless at the center of the universe. Discovering Jupiter's moons compounded his crimes. Of course, the politics of Galileo’s torment was thicker than that but so go headlines.

Galileo committing heresy (source: Heritage-History.com)

Politics has always infected scientific research. At best, it makes important programs urgent, at worst, it subverts, confounds, purposely misinterprets, and disparages expertise. But within the labs and universities where basic research is performed, does dogmatism still play a role?

No, there is no scientific dogmatism. There is politics and corruption but there is no scientific orthodoxy.

The case against dogmatism is pretty simple. Career advancement in scientific research is predicated on discovery. Confirming the predictions of an existing theory is a form of discovery that’s like collecting stamps. Not to disparage stamp collecting, science needs the details filled in, but the prizes come when you break a theory or provide the evidence necessary to advance a tenuous hypothesis to theory status.

While there are theorists who cling vainly to their treasured ideas, for every one there are dozens of experimentalists happy to shoot them down.

I think the reason that many people miss the mark on how science really works, and the publications from my years in particle physics research lend me some authority, is that scientists are a skeptical lot. They want new discoveries so badly that when something new comes up, they attack it relentlessly, hoping but doubting, that it will hold up to scrutiny. They've been burned too many times to welcome diversion from the status quo without intense scrutiny.

Four years ago the OPERA experiment in Italy's Gran Sasso lab presented results that indicated evidence for a violation of relativity. The web went crazy with people cheering on the destruction of scientific orthodoxy.

In a nutshell, this is what happened: A neutrino beam produced at CERN was directed through earth’s crust to the OPERA detector 454 miles away. We've talked about why neutrino detectors have to be shielded by tons of material. The OPERA experiment—a collaboration of 160 physicists from 13 countries—measured the speed of the neutrinos by synchronizing their detector with the beam at CERN. The neutrinos seemed to arrive at the detector about 60 ns faster than something traveling the speed of light in vacuum could get there. OPERA presented the result with humility, asking for help to understand the anomalous result. You can read the whole story of OPERA's mistaken superluminal neutrinos in an article I wrote for Nautilus Magazine.

Many lay-people reacted with the sort of schadenfreude that would greet a convicted hedge fund trader; some said that scientists wouldn't be allowed to report evidence that contradicts relativity dogma.

Physicists, of course, reacted with both excitement and skepticism, but that skepticism didn't come from the worship of relativity, it came from the pile of evidence that supports relativity. The excitement came from the idea that maybe, just maybe, they were about to experience a deeper level of understanding.

Carl Sagan famously said, "Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence."

Skepticism is the heart of peer review. Even when it becomes cynicism, it pushes scientists to get it right. Not consistent with dogma but right; correct.

OPERA eventually found their mistake. It turned out to be something engineers can relate to: a bad connection caused by a cable not properly torqued into position or, if you prefer, a bad receiver design (when I suggested an avalanche photodiode to the deposed leader, he reacted the way anyone would: a frustrated shrug that conveyed a sense of "now you tell me"). OPERA's leaders resigned, not because they challenged relativity dogma, but because media coverage got so frantic, so sensational, so out of control that the leaders didn't know how to respond. Everything blew out of proportion. It's the one thing you can rely on people to do, even physicists and engineers: we overreact.

Global warming/climate change is a fascinating case of perceived scientific dogmatism. It's dicey, too; its politics, not its science.

Climate change/warming is often called a hoax, though never by people who understand climate science and are not associated with the fossil fuel industry. That is, people who know what they're talking about and have no incentive to perpetrate a hoax. After all, who has greater motivation to perpetrate a hoax, the meteorologists, geophysicists, oceanographers, atmospheric chemists, etc, who study weather patterns or people whose compensation comes directly from the industry that generates greenhouse gases?

What motivation might climate scientists have to perpetrate fraud in the name of science? If you follow the money, it will take you straight to Exxon. If climate scientists were motivated to line their pockets, they could increase their salaries by 40% overnight by taking an industry job. My salary doubled in two years after leaving my position as a tenured professor.

Bear Glacier melt, from left, 1980, 1989, 2011. (source: NASA)

Scientists are trained to qualify their conclusions. In pursuit of accuracy, they quote uncertainties and nuances that don’t yield sound bites. The OPERA leader, Antonio Ereditato, never said they had discovered faster-than-light travel but nearly every newspaper and magazine did. Climate science has never said that warming is an absolute certainty, it says that there is a preponderance of evidence indicating that human activities have increased the greenhouse gas concentration of the atmosphere to the point that the world climate is experiencing radical, perhaps irreversible change.

Even under the weight of politics, climate change lacks dogma. Should an experiment or model yield results that contradict the vast accumulated evidence, the only dogma is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Denying climate change is an extraordinary claim, perhaps more extraordinary than denying relativity.

Also see
Electricity, Energy, and Global Warming By the Numbers, Part 1
Electricity, Energy, and Global Warming By the Numbers, Part 2

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