Education Editors' Vox

Controversy: A Crucial Ingredient for Scientific Progress

Heated debates are inevitable whenever different theories compete to explain the natural world, but scientific publishing facilitates a fast resolution.

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The primary goal of scientists is to understand and interpret the natural world.  Scientists like me thrive on figuring out what is physically going on in any given situation.  We do this in part for the raw satisfaction of solving a mystery and gaining new knowledge.  However, we also do it for a very practical reason: understanding how something works usually implies an ability to forecast what it is going to do next.  For example, predicting hurricanes, solar storms, and other natural hazards is a vital component of Earth and space science.

What happens when scientists are confronted with new observations for which there is currently no explanation?  Usually, two or more competing theories are able to offer explanations that seem equally plausible.  Only one of the theories can be correct, but how to choose which one?  Initially, the available evidence is not sufficient to rule out any of the theories.  At this stage in the discovery process, controversy takes centre stage, and heated debates often occur between scientists who have backed opposing theories.  Eventually, new evidence is collected and the incorrect theories are falsified.  The correct theory then becomes part of our stock of accepted knowledge.  In essence, this is how progress is made in science.

Telling the history of the discovery process is not always how science is taught in schools and universities.  It is easier and faster just to communicate the end result, rather than to dwell on the controversial arguments that took place and the mistakes that were made.  Therefore, the stock of accepted knowledge is often passed on to students as if it had simply been handed down from some great authority in the past.  But to gloss over the history of the discovery process is an oversimplification.  I believe it is vital for all science educators – not just those who specialize in teaching the history of science – to acknowledge that the facts we know today were only uncovered after a great deal of research and debate.

Some of the greatest scientists in history have backed the wrong theory, often in spectacular fashion. Even the great Charles Darwin was not immune.  See the three parallel striations about halfway down the photograph?  They are the Parallel Roads of Glen Roy, a glacial leftover in the Scottish Highlands that once baffled scientists.  In the middle of the nineteenth century, Charles Darwin and Louis Agassiz published competing theories for their origins.  As explored in the short film, Darwin’s theory turned out to be incorrect, to his eventual shame and regret.  But he remained philosophical, writing:

“False facts are highly injurious to the progress of science, for they often endure long; but false views, if supported by some evidence, do little harm, for everyone takes a salutary pleasure in proving their falseness; and when this is done, one path towards error is closed and the road to truth is often at the same time opened.”

A short film exploring the role of controversy in science.  Credit: The Royal Society.

The advent of scientific publishing greatly accelerated the resolution of disagreements like the one between Darwin and Agassiz.  Up until 1665, when the world’s first science journals were launched, scientists could not and did not publish their findings.  When new evidence was collected, it was shared only among small circles of scientists in private letters.  The lack of scrutiny from other scientists – and the public – prolonged the resolution of scientific disagreements.  Fortunately, progress in Earth and space science is much faster today, thanks in part to the journals published by the American Geophysical Union and other societies.

—Paul D. Williams, Editor, Geophysical Research Letters; email: [email protected]

  • davidlaing

    Yes, but there is a lot of money, prestige, and attitude tied up in scientific publication, too. As a synthetic scientist (one who pays more attention to the forest than the trees), I have had many important (I think!) insights into scientific reality, but these have been invariably rejected without comment by the peer-reviewed journals because their content has deviated from orthodox thinking within the scientific community. I regard it as a shame and a detriment that the scientific establishment is so closed-minded about the discussion of new ideas.

    • Paul Williams

      I disagree, David. Papers that deviate from orthodox thinking are welcomed and indeed encouraged by journals — if the evidence supports them. In some of your previous posts, you have claimed that CO2 does not cause global warming. If your papers on this topic get rejected, it is not because they deviate from orthodox thinking, but because they are wrong.

      • davidlaing

        Not necessarily. I don’t claim that my ideas are “right” and others are “wrong.” I simply say that any reasonable idea, including mine, has a right to be heard and impartially evaluated in proper scientific venues. As it is, a very small cadre of peer reviewers decides what is, and what isn’t “real science.” I agree that there should be a provision for the elimination of off-the-wall ideas that make no sense in terms of what is happening in the real world, but I think that it’s wrong for scientists to develop a consensus-based filter on what constitutes good science. Science is not politics, where such manipulation is de rigueur. Science is a process of determining what is fact and what is fiction, and ultimately, only hard evidence from the Earth system can determine that. Unfortunately, we do not have that for the dominant paradigm of greenhouse warming, on which an overpowering consensus has nonetheless developed.

        • Paul Williams

          Okay, let’s talk hard evidence. Do you dispute that two of the three non-degenerate vibrational linear normal modes of the triatomic CO2 molecule have oscillation frequencies that fall in the infra-red portion of the electromagnetic spectrum?

          • davidlaing

            Not at all. This is well documented. What is NOT well documented is that CO2 causes warming. In 1900, Knut Angstrom demonstrated experimentally that it didn’t. No credible experiment on this has been performed since.

            • Paul Williams

              I am afraid you are wrong:

              http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2007/06/a-saturated-gassy-argument-part-ii/

              There are some good books on molecular spectroscopy, in case you are interested in learning more.

              • davidlaing

                No, I am right. There is no doubt that the sources you mention do show absorption of Earth IR by CO2, but they do not show warming. This is still an assumption.

                • Paul Williams

                  Conservation of energy is more than just an assumption. No experiment has ever been performed in which it is violated. Where do you think the absorbed infrared energy is going, if not into warming?

                • davidlaing

                  The first law of thermodynamics is only valid for thermally isolated systems. Neither Earth nor Sun is one such. The second law ensures that an object at a given temperature can not warm itself with its own radiation. If it could, then all objects at temperatures greater than absolute zero would spontaneously heat up and quickly vaporize.

                • Paul Williams

                  Okay, do you accept that the average surface temperature of the Earth would be much cooler (tens of degrees) if the atmosphere were devoid of greenhouse gases? Have you done the back-of-the-envelope calculation that equates the incoming solar radiation to the outgoing infrared radiation, to calculate this temperature if the atmosphere were transparent at all wavelengths?

                • davidlaing

                  This is a bit difficult. In the first place, when A. Einstein weighed in on the photoelectric effect in 1905, he assumed the existence of Lichtquanten (photons), which appeared to be confirmed by Compton a little later on, and the theory(ies) of quantum mechanics followed from that assumption. Einstein’s assumption was a reasonable one, as since time immemorial most people have simply assumed that energy travels with electromagnetic radiation (EMR), but does it? The only way we have of measuring energy flow within EMR (if it in fact happens) is by means of material sensors, and we know that when EMR interacts with matter, it causes resonant vibrations in atomic bonds, thus manifesting energy. The question is: is this energy added to the bonds by the EMR, or is it generated on the spot? EMR could, in other words, be simply a frequency field, transmitting no energy, and all energy could therefore be a manifestation of the interaction of EMR with matter. This would mean, of course, that quantum theory would be simply a very precise description of the fine structure of matter.The facts that EMR has no mass and travels at light speed tend to support this interpretation. This long-winded explanation explains why I’m reluctant to do back-of-the-envelope calculations. If energy is in fact generated and dissipated on site by the interaction of EMR with matter, and no energy is actually transferred with EMR, such calculations would be rendered moot.

                • Paul Williams

                  You’re getting well outside mainstream science now, so I’m going to end the conversation here as I have other demands on my time, but it’s been good talking with you. Best wishes, Paul.

                • davidlaing

                  Bye, Paul. Yes,I am outside mainstream science because, unlike other scientists, I’m not constrained by a reality tunnel that forces me to think like others. I’m not a herd animal. I make my conclusions on the basis of evidence that comes directly from Earth, not from other people’s opinions. Since I started doing that (I’m retired at 76), things have made a lot more sense. I highly recommend it!

  • Paul Williams

    As a postscript, my colleague Brad Marston has mentioned that Josiah Whitney and John Muir had a similar fight over the Sierra glaciers. Harvard-educated Whitney called Muir an “ignoramus” and “meer sheepherder” but Muir turned out to be right!