Unthinkable: How can scientists disagree on basic ‘facts’?

An astrophysicist and a philosopher have teamed up to examine how experts disagree

Academic spats make great spectator sport. Take the evolutionarily sparring contest between Richard Dawkins and EO Wilson, which centres on how natural selection works.

A few years ago, Dawkins trashed Wilson's book The Social Conquest of the Earth, saying in a memorable review, "this is not a book to be tossed lightly aside. It should be thrown with great force." Wilson later dismissed his Oxford counterpart as a "journalist". Unlike the author of The God Delusion, Wilson said, he had "actually been with scientists doing research". Meow.

Entertaining as this is, it highlights deeper issues around disagreement in academia. Who should you trust when experts disagree? Are some ways of critiquing better than others? And what are the implications of peer disagreement for policymakers or external observers?

Can creationists, for example, cite the Dawkins-Wilson row as evidence that evolution is “just a theory”?


These questions are being explored by a new interdisciplinary research project, When Experts Disagree, headed by Prof Luke Drury of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies and UCD philosopher Prof Maria Baghramian.

The project, supported by the Irish Research Council, is holding its first event this week, exploring how disagreement unfolds in astrophysics at a three-day conference (April 12th-14th) in Dublin.

Prof Drury notes it is the first time he has collaborated with a philosopher on research, although he says his youth was "haunted" by Ludwig Wittgenstein, given the close friendship his father Dr Maurice O'Connor "Con" Drury had with the Austrian logician.

He points out “disagreement is a core part of the scientific process” and should not be construed a weakness. Thus, Drury provides today’s idea: “Absolute certainty is confined to mathematical proof, and even there it is a bit dodgy.”

What are you hoping to achieve with this project?

“The ultimate aim is to understand better why there is disagreement in science, how experts can disagree on the same basic observational facts, but more importantly what implications this has for the public understanding of science and the feeding of science into policy.

“We can see in the climate-change debate how this can be misused. You need just one dissenting voice and then people pick up on this and say, ‘Oh, the scientists don’t really know’. Well maybe 99.9 per cent of them know and one person refuses to accept, but is that really disagreement?

“There are two issues here. One is communicating science, which can be complicated because a lot of it depends on quite sophisticated mathematical arguments.

“The more serious issue we are addressing is that people misunderstand the nature of truth, and that is a cultural issue. If you talk to a lawyer, truth is what can be established in a court of law. For a theologian, it is what is revealed and interpreted through reason, and that is not what scientific truth is.

“It’s a much more elusive concept and it certainly isn’t absolute, but it’s the best we have. I’m speaking as a scientist; a philosopher might disagree with that.”

Is there a role for diplomacy in academic disputes?

“That’s a tricky one. If you genuinely believe someone has made a mistake, you have a moral duty to point it out. Now you can do that nicely or you can do that in a rather aggressive way, but you still have to point out that you think they’re wrong.

“If you have cogent arguments, then they should be listened to, and the best scientists will quite happily accept criticism from a graduate student if it’s justified. Mediocre scientists will react will predictable aggression.”

To what extent do external forces – such as the market economy or research funding – influence debates?

“This is part of the design of the study [to find out]. We said we would start by looking at disagreement in my own area, astrophysics, which is relatively immune from the market . . . and then go and look at the ‘dirty world’ and see how things are different in environmental science, for example, or health science, where you are very much exposed to political and market forces.”

How is knowledge built: in small, incremental steps or big leaps forward?

“It’s mostly small, incremental improvements. Very rarely do you get significant and sudden shifts, although I can think of one. Up to about 20 years ago, everyone believed gamma ray bursts were relatively nearby, and then it became clear they were actually at cosmological distances, and we had to completely change our models.

It turned out we didn’t understand them at all, and we still don’t really.”

That touches on something perhaps unique to science. In many areas, including politics and journalism, practitioners are reluctant to say they don’t have the answer

“It is true humans like simple answers and, unfortunately, the answers are often not simple, and there is a great temptation to take the easy way out and say: well I don’t have to think for myself, somebody else has done it for me, and here’s the answer and it’s true. We have to resist that.

We should be a little bit humble and recognise we are fallible.”

  • The UCD Philosophy Society is celebrating its 50th anniversary this month, and is eager to reconnect with philosophy graduates and former members. On April 13th, Alexander Nehamas of Princeton University will speak on the theme of friendship in Theatre N of the Newman Building at 6pm. On April 18th, journalist and author Robert Fisk will give a lecture, Life after Isis. For further details email philosophy.society@ucd.ie