When scientists disagree: 5 (or 6) steps to understanding scientific controversy

With real scientists, the gloves are off. Credit: Ryan McGuire/StockSnap
by Gaia Cantelli, PhD

US scientists’ research on how to promote healthy eating in schools is deeply flawed, watchdog researchers have found. The original studies gained much media attention, secured millions of dollars in funding and are being implemented in thousands in schools. But independent scientists have found that they are filled with problems, including mathematical impossibilities and duplications. 

If you ever look up scientific theories online, it won’t be long until you encounter at least one story like this. Because science is a living subject and constantly evolving, scientists will inevitably disagree and controversy will arise. Choosing who to believe when you are not a subject expert yourself is tricky and confusing, especially if you are trying to use science to make an important decision. Here are 5 (or maybe 6) steps you might want to consider to make up your mind.

1. Are both sides equally reputable?
While anybody can claim to be a “scientist” online, not everybody comes with the same qualifications. While of course reputable scientists disagree all the time about their theories, it is important to make sure you are not looking at a group of wild-eyed conspiracy theorists arguing with a whole field of PhD scientists. Here on Scienceseeker we have listed a few tricks to work out if the information you are being presented with is trustworthy science. 

2. Are both sides equal in size?
Unfortunately, television and web debates covering hot science topics often present the same number of scientists arguing for each side in the name of fairness, independently of how many researchers actually back each theory. For example, while the overwhelming majority of climate scientists believe in man-made climate change, most debates about global warming will feature one critic and one advocate for it. A more representative debate would include ninety scientists presenting data to support the existence of climate change and a single one arguing against. While of course being in the majority is no guarantee of being right, one would assume that if the vast majority of professionals agree on something, they are probably correct. Those who disagree might be working with flawed experimental models, use inappropriate tools for statistical analysis, or, depressingly, have some sort of political agenda. 

3. Do both sides share common ground?
If you find yourself trying to make sense of a situation where a significant number of qualified scientists disagree, it might be worth asking yourself if they share common ground. While having an opinion of your own based on the raw data might be difficult unless you are an expert in the field, you can always take the points both sides agree on as a take-home message from the debate. A great example from this is evolutionary theory. The overwhelming majority of PhD scientists agree that the current data we have at our disposal supports the idea of evolution. Even those not working in the field of evolutionary biology itself use evolutionary techniques to their advantage as they develop new AIDS cures, work in microbiology, research tumor biology and as tools in many other applications that are of great interest to the general public. However, while 99% of scientists agree that evolution is a real phenomenon, not all of them agree on different aspects of how evolution takes place. For example, some scientists are strong proponents of what is known as the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis, which considers the effect not only of genetic mutation, but of other biological and behavioural factors. The fact that different research groups disagree on the technicalities doesn’t change the fact that they agree on the fundamental idea that evolution did, and continues to, take place. 

4. Has anyone ever discussed the controversy?
If you are trying to form your own opinion in the middle of a technical dispute amongst professional scientists, it would be wise to look for help. Thankfully, researchers love controversy and enjoy writing about it. If the controversy you are interested has been around for a few years, chances are somebody will have summarised it in a retrospective piece. These can be really helpful. A very good example is whether viruses can be considered living organisms. Some scientists think so, because viruses can replicate, transmit information and evolve over time. Others do not, because viruses do not form cellular structures and cannot exist without their host organism. A consensus has not yet been reached and scientists all over the world are ‘enjoying’ the controversy. There are countless pieces both in scientific peer-reviewed journals and in scientific outreach publications outlining the valid points that each side is making and that can help you make up your mind. 

Original pic: JayMantri
5. Do you have a horse in this race?
Evolution, climate change and the effect of fracking on the environment are only some of the scientific debates that have somehow become political issues. While looking at scientific controversy on a topic that has become a political issue, take a minute to ask whether you are really looking for scientific answers or whether you are looking for information to back up your beliefs. No matter what side of the political spectrum you fall on, chances are that subconsciously you are looking to confirm your political, religious or cultural beliefs. This is known in psychology as confirmation bias. Studies have shown that new information almost never changes people’s mind. This is because we tend to see the world with a precise idea of what it should look like, and as human beings we tend to ignore everything that does not fit our pre-conceived ideas. If you believe that all swans in the world are white, when you are presented with a black swan you will either think it is some other kind of bird that looks a lot like a swan or that someone spray-painted a regular swan. 

One thing you can do is dissociate your beliefs from scientific evidence. Say, for instance, that you are strongly pro-life as part of your religious faith. Believing that abortion is wrong is your right. However, if you start looking for evidence that abortion is linked to an increased risk of breast cancer, you will find that the scientific consensus overwhelmingly does not support a correlation between the two. Understand that science only answers the questions we ask. While it can tell us that abortions are not linked to breast cancer, it cannot tell us whether abortion is right or wrong. Your opinion is still valid, even though you are not going to be able to use this particular type of evidence to make your case. 

Optional step 6. Still Confused? Don’t give up, ask someone you can trust!
If at the end of all this you still don’t really know which side of the fence you come down on and you still want to know, ask somebody within the scientific community to explain the controversy for you! There are plenty of both online and in-person opportunities to talk to real-life scientists and ask them questions. Researchers love what they do – and love sharing their thoughts and knowledge. So don’t be shy – ask and you shall receive!

Gaia Cantelli is a postdoctoral associate at Duke University, studying the mechanisms that regulate cancer cell metastasis to the bone and she regularly blogs over at scienceblog.com

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