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A pair of philosophers offer a new perspective on problematic dissent in science

The Fight Against Doubt: How to Bridge the Gap Between Scientists and the Public

Inmaculada de Melo-Martín and Kristen Intemann
Oxford University Press
2018
232 pp.
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Within Inmaculada de Melo-Martín and Kristen Intemann’s The Fight Against Doubt is a vital observation: “As important as science is for sound public policy…a focus on the science can take us only so far.” I wholeheartedly agree. Since changing careers from science and public policy-making to philosophy, I’ve been on a quest to answer the question at the center of this book: How should we go about limiting the damage that can be done by problematic scientific dissent?

Scientific dissent—the act of challenging a widely held scientific position—often facilitates scientific and social progress. Recall, for example, that only decades ago the medical consensus was that homosexuality was a disorder. Without dissenting voices, homosexuality may never have been removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. But dissent can also be problematic, as Robert Proctor, Naomi Oreskes, and others have masterfully demonstrated (1, 2).

Many scientists and scholars take the very presence and circulation of misinformation to be a substantial part of the problem. However, philosophers de Melo-Martín and Intemann think that too much attention has been given to the proliferation of erroneous claims and not enough to the conditions within which dissent arises and takes hold.

In The Fight Against Doubt, the authors argue that problematic dissent is likely to be more damaging when public trust in scientists falters and when we fail to recognize the limits of scientific evidence in policy debates. They advocate moving the debate away from dissenting speech and addressing the ways in which research institutions and practices provide the public with good reasons to question the trustworthiness of scientists.

In the first half of the book, de Melo-Martín and Intemann survey and reject the criteria established by other scholars for problematic dissent, arguing, rightly, that identifying it is not as straightforward as some would like to believe. Here, they also maintain that some responses to dissent are not only ineffective but can backfire, lending more credibility, rather than less, to dissenters’ views—another observation with which I agree. However, I remain unconvinced that this is generally the case. As I argued earlier this year, there are many examples in which problematic scientific dissent has been accurately identified and when choices about how to deal with it have been both effective and ethically justifiable (3). Think about the restrictions many jurisdictions impose on the claims of the tobacco industry in advertising its products, for example.

Moreover, finite resources demand that scientists, editors, journalists, and other communicators make judgments about which speech to prioritize. Where such decisions are inescapable, or shouldn’t be avoided because of professional and moral obligations, the authors’ suggestion that we shift away from a focus on dissenting speech acts and communicative ethics is not appropriate.

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Taking advantage of an opportunity to engage with the public, climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe participates on a panel with Barack Obama.

The second half of the book contains de Melo-Martín and Intemann’s alternative proposal for limiting the negative consequences of problematic scientific dissent, which largely centers on building trust between scientists and the public. The authors’ attention to scientific practice, and to the social and institutional factors that affect the conduct of science, such as its increasing commercialization, are the book’s greatest strengths. But the reader might rightly be skeptical of the authors’ claim that public doubt about the trustworthiness of scientists is often fair.

How many trust-building opportunities do most scientists have with the general public, especially when other actors mediate their testimony? Intermediaries, such as the news media, have profound control over how scientific communities are perceived. When gatekeepers don’t communicate evidence of a scientific community’s trustworthiness, or represent it with integrity, scientists’ initiatives won’t be effective. The key weakness of this book is that it doesn’t fully account for such power dynamics or take into consideration the responsibilities of other actors at important nodes within public knowledge systems.

De Melo-Martín and Intemann’s other main proposal to combat problematic dissent is to shift the focus of policy discussions from debating the truth of scientific claims to discussing the values that are at stake. This is good advice, but it’s worth keeping in mind that some conversations will inevitably loop back to factual questions. As is true about the limits of science, values can only take us so far.

That de Melo-Martín and Intemann share the values and concerns of many of those engaged in this debate but disagree over the best way to mitigate problematic scientific dissent is an important reason to engage with The Fight Against Doubt. Its focus on a different aspect of the mechanisms at work—the qualities of the “soil,” rather than the mere existence of “seeds of doubt”—makes this a valuable book.

References

  1. R. N. Proctor, L. Schiebinger, Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance (Stanford Univ. Press, 2008).

  2. N. Oreskes, E. M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues From Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2011).

  3. E. J. Nash, Persp. Sci. 26, 325 (2018).

About the author

The reviewer is at the Practical Justice Initiative, Department of Philosophy, University of New South Wales, Sydney, NSW 2052, Australia and the Centre for Humanities Engaging Science & Society, Department of Philosophy, Durham University, Durham DH1, UK.