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21.4.07

Science Is Neither Stiflingly Conformist Nor A Wide-Open Free-For-All

It irritates me when people make poor arguments for bad causes. Often these poor arguments are overreactions to arguments by the other side. A good example comes when debates over science (such as evolution or climate change) turn to the question of the treatment of dissent in the scientific community. Devilstower* succinctly puts the standard pro-science argument:

When science enters the public space, it's often presented as if scientists are slaves to existing theory -- guardians of the status quo, unwilling to admit that any current thought could possibly be wrong. Nothing gives a better sense of the divorce between scientific academia and popular journalism than the ease with which this hoary chestnut is passed along. Academia -- and especially scientific academia -- is a pool of sharks. It's a collection of people who not only think they're smarter than everyone else, but must prove it to advance in their careers. The scientist who goes through life dotting i's and crossing t's on someone else's theory is the scientist who is doomed to have "associate" forever hanging from the front of her title.


The anti-science side is wrong to simply dismiss the views of the scientific establishment as being the result of some form of doctrinaire ideological conformity. Nevertheless, pro-science partisans like Devilstower go too far in extolling the disclipinary virtues of the academic invisible hand. Such paeans tend to assume a dubious libertarian model of the scientific world. There are a variety of factors pushing scientific thinking in the direction of conservatism and conformity, and it does the pro-science side no favors to paper over them. Following is a non-exhaustive list of ways that an existing theory or paradigm might, independent of its truth, persist and infect new research.

I'll jump in the deep end and begin by pointing to funding as a source of conformity in science. It irritates me the way many people will point to funding as invalidating climate change skeptics' research, yet assert that climate change believers' research is entirely unaffected by funding considerations. As a grad student, I have been told repeatedly to shape my research in directions that are more "fundable." Nevertheless, it is important to be clear on how funding affects science. It is exceedingly rare for academic science to encounter the kind of tobacco-industry-style quid-pro-quos that pop to mind when thinking about funding shaping science. What is much more common is the fact that in order to get funding, one has to sell one's proposal -- an outline of a hypothesis that is necessarily lacking in evidence to support it -- to a funding agency's reviewers. These reviewers are other scientists, with their own preexisting views about the best explanations for your topic and useful larger frameworks in which to investigate it (and their own egos to stroke). Even if they're openminded enough to be won over to an alternate theory when presented with the finished evidence, they may quite reasonably be reluctant ex ante to fund your wild goose chase. Further, the influence is not just a question of choosing one of two or more competing theoretical frameworks. It's just as often a question of which areas (out of the infinitely many things that could be investigated) are gone over with a fine-toothed comb versus which other areas are largely neglected. For example, I would not be surprised to find that the research coming out of my own department's grad students has skewed toward the kind of answers one can get using satellite imagery due to the existence of an attractive grant program from NASA.

The funding issue leads to a larger issue, which is that science is a social project. It's naive to imagine that the mere truth of a theory will be sufficient to win over the scientific community. Promoting one's theory takes a certain degree of salesmanship and alliance-building (with editors, conference hosts, other researchers who will expand upon and thereby promote your work), which in turn require conciliatory consensus-building rather than righteous iconoclasm. Your advisors and colleagues are more likely to write you good letters of recommendation (allowing you to get or keep your research post) if your work supports their views. Such influences operate even before you have your revolutionary theory in hand, since research (especially in the hard sciences) often requires teamwork rather than a lone genius locked away in his personal lab.

Another problem is specialization. Few scientists have the luxury of sitting back to survey the entire scope of their field, taking in all of the work that's affected by some basic proposition (such as evolution). But in focusing on a narrower, more tractable problem, you inevitably have to take other researchers in bordering topical areas at their word. For example, my research on discourses about fire management has to just accept the mainstream status quo conclusions of fire ecologists and social psychologists working on other environmental risks in order to make headway on the issues I'm focused on. But that means that that taken-as-given research exerts a conformist pull on my own research. And then in a few years some researcher working on, say, earthquake risks will take my work as a given boundary to his or hers.

The larger problem here is the lack of time and resources to construct new theory. Ideally, a new theory will explain all of the data explained by the old theory as well as at least one new piece. In practice, that's extremely difficult to achieve, and only gets harder as more data relating to the old theory piles up. Major revolutionary theories, particularly ones that overturn past conceptions (e.g. evolution) rather than ones that reconcile or fill in important gaps between existing theories (e.g. the synthesis of evolution and genetics) require a large investment of time

Just as science is a social activity, scientists are people. People's actions are strongly driven by questions of personal identity -- you act in order to demonstrate to yourself and others that you are a certain type of person in a certain social location. Personal identity gets strongly tied up in being a proponent of a certain theory, and status can be gained by hooking up with a powerful school of thought. New theories, whatever their truth, are a threat to the identities of those who have committed to alternatives. On the other hand, some people are congenitally contrarian, with their identity tied up not in any particular theory, but in the practice of disagreeing with the status quo, whatever it might be.

Being people, not every scientist has the entrepreneurial iconoclastic personality assumed by the invisible hand argument Devilstower makes. Many scientists simply want the cushy** job of a university professor, or are more interested in teaching than research. Such personalities lack the motivation or the stomach for the kind of difficult battles that are required to push a new theory against the status quo.

Also, you have to ask where the revolutionary theory comes from. Scientists can rarely go into the lab and chug away until they find an answer. You have to have some reason to ask a certain question and look in a certain place for an answer. So unconscious or taken-for-granted biases can shut off whole avenues of inquiry. Feminists have shown, for example, how certain alternative ways of looking at issues in biology simply hadn't occurred to biologists for a long time because there was little in the experiences of the mostly-male academy to suggest certain alternatives. The feminism example also shows how conformity biases can be managed, since increasing the number of female biologists helped to generate new theories because women's experiences and culturally-created outlook suggested new possibilities to them. But of course the scientific world is still not nearly representative of all of humanity's diversity (not to mention the insights that non-humans might come up with).

All of this is emphatically not to say that science is as doctrinally conformist as creationists and climate change skeptics often claim. There are strong pressures, including those Darktower identifies, pushing in the other direction -- and evidence does ultimately matter. And the conformity pressures will operate in any intellectual environment (including, e.g., creationist circles). Nevertheless, there is conformity in science, and it's worth recognizing its sources.

*Yes, I admit that I browse DailyKos. It's one of my shameful vices.

**Before any academics whine about how time-consuming and stressful academia is, just ask yourself if you'd rather be a hotel maid or a migrant tomato-picker.

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