Where are all the scientific debates? They’re disturbingly hard to find

Scientific theories are alive. They are debated and actively questioned. Scientists have differing views, strong and informed ones. However, the system of science tends to mask the debate. In the scientific literature, differences are aired, but rarely in a way that most people would recognize as a debate.

‘Debate’ evokes a vision of two parties concisely articulating their positions, disputing points, and rebutting each other. In the courtroom, in politics, and in school debating societies, one side will say or write something, and shortly after the other side will directly address the points raised. In science, this is not at all the norm. Occasionally something like a conventional debate does happen. A journal, after publishing an article attacking one group’s theory, will sometimes publish a reply from the advocates of the attacked theory. I relish such exchanges because in the usual course of things, it’s hard to make out the debate.

Typically, when one scientist publishes an article advocating a particular theory, those who read it and disagree won’t publish anything on the topic for six months or more. That’s just how the system works- to publish an article usually requires a massive effort involving work conducted over many months, if not years. Anything one does over that timescale is unlikely to be a focused rejoinder to another’s article. In any lab, there are many fish to fry, ordinarily something else was already on the boil, and the easiest meals are made by going after different fish than your peers. Most scientists are happy to skate by each other, perhaps after pausing for a potshot. The full debate is dodged.

Even when the two scientists’ work directly clashes, the debate is sometimes stamped out, and frequently heavily massaged, as it passes through the research-and-publish pipelines. Debating somebody through scientific journal articles is like having an exchange with someone on another continent using 17th-century bureaucratic dispatches. When and if you hear back a year later, your target may have moved on to something else, or twisted your words, or showily pulverized a man of straw who looks a bit like you. You’re further burdened by niggling editors, meddling reviewers, irksome word limits, and the more pressing business of communicating your latest data.

The scientific literature obscures and bores with its stately rhetoric and authors writing at cross purposes. I’d like to see unadulterated points and counterpoints. With evidencecharts, we’re enabling this with a format adapted from intelligence analysis at the CIA. Most scientists won’t reshape what they do until academic institutional incentives and attitudes change. However, having good formats available to wrangle in should encourage some more debating around the edges.

If you’re a scientist ready to debate, and you think you might be able to talk a worthy opponent into joining you, send me a note! An upcoming iteration of our free evidencechart.com website will support mano a mano adversarial evidencecharts.


8 thoughts on “Where are all the scientific debates? They’re disturbingly hard to find

  1. You know I am unsure what to think if this. You are of course right in that scientific progress flourishes through constructive debate. There should be more of that.

    But on the other hand, the scientific debates one *does* see these days are often filled with dogmatic struggles that should have no place in science either.

  2. Hi Sam, which debates are you seeing that you find filled with dogma?
    Evidence charting does not lend itself very well to dogmatic debates (fortunately I suppose, if you are seeing too much of that) because fundamental disagreements about the nature of the theories are not represented well by an evidencechart. The emphasis is on the whether various evidence supports or undermines each theory. If some people think one theory is not internally consistent, or violates some fundamental theory-laden principle, then there isn’t much point in discussing evidence. Unless by ‘dogmatic struggles’ you are thinking of something else?

  3. One that come to my mind is the discussion about modular processing in the visual system. I also recently witnessed another case but I will keep that one off the official record… :P.
    The infamous voodoo correlation incident also fits the bill in my mind (although this is admittedly not quite the same, as it’s about the approach rather than about hypotheses).

    I feel that the way these discussions often seem to go is both sides of the argument defending their position at all costs. But our models of the world are inevitably going to be incomplete. So in light of inconsistent evidence I believe one should reevaluate the model, not the evidence.

    Obviously, it is fine to make your case and present all arguments in its favour – that’s what debate is. And the evidence must be validated whether it really challenges the current theories. Of course, this is what everybody believes they are doing, but in truth I think it would serve the advancement of knowledge much better if scientists could openly admit when they are wrong. I don’t think the current climate encourages this.

    Sorry, this comment got a bit long šŸ˜›

  4. I liked the voodoo correlations incident. There was a bit of an actual debate where some of those criticized wrote a direct reply. When I read their reply I was able to decide they didn’t have much of a leg to stand on; I knew their reply must contain their best counter-arguments and I thought they were weak. Whereas more typically when something is criticized in a paper, those criticized don’t fully address it in their next paper, rather they tend to skate by while maybe firing a few potshots at it. So normally I can’t be sure I’ve fully appreciated the criticized’s view of the criticism.

  5. I’m not sure about this. It was certainly exciting, but I got the feeling it became exciting mostly because people felt like their were personally assaulted rather than criticised constructively. I think you are right in that some of the arguments made in response to that paper were weak, but it wasn’t as clear cut as it may look, if taken at face value. For instance, it looked like the meta-analysis in the original paper was actually double-dipping thus inflating the perceived size of the problem.

    But I think the main issue is that I don’t think this debate has really contributed anything to scientific practise. A major cause of the problem has been that reviewers ask for circular inferences to be included. While this debate may have dampened this problem for a time, I don’t think it is going to change anything drastic, because it treated a symptom rather than the cause of the problem.

    Anyway, I’d say that Niko’s paper did the same thing far better, precisely because it was not confrontational. We should continue chatting about this but I’ll be away for three weeks. So after that šŸ˜‰

  6. Hiya,

    I suspect such debates are often hidden on email discussion lists (primarily created to resolve ongoing minor issues)? Certainly the handful I’ve been aware of have resided in such places. One recent one between realists, empiricists and don’t-knows relating to a particular ontology ran for a couple of weeks. Was good telly at points šŸ™‚

  7. Chris: sadly, that sort of email discussion list doesn’t exist in the areas I’m involved in. Uh, wait, unless they’ve deliberately kept them secret from the likes of me..? šŸ˜‰

  8. […] interested in this because I rue the lack of debates in modern science. Perhaps it’s only an accident of history that real debates aren’t […]

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