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.