What’s Happened to Skepticism in Science?

| TBS Staff

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“The scientific enterprise is built on a foundation of trust. Society trusts that scientific research results are an honest and accurate reflection of a researcher's work.”

So begins the preface to On Being a Scientist, a booklet by the National Academies of Science (NAS) that should be required reading by every science major and working scientist. The NAS knows this well, for they provided more than 200,000 copies of the first (1995) and second (2000) editions of the booklet to graduate and post-grad students

The third edition of On Being a Scientist (2009) includes sections on laboratory safety, sharing research results, intellectual property, conflicts of interest, recognizing the contributions of co-workers and other key topics. Case studies are also included.

But missing from the third edition is skepticism, one of the fundamental elements of doing science. The “honest and accurate” science that society expects relies in part on skepticism, the willingness to doubt results and, when possible, to carefully replicate their findings. There is a mention on page 19 of how reporting a researcher's unethical conduct might lead to reprisals by “skeptical colleagues.” There is a note on page 21 about how “skepticism arose” following publication of a fraudulent research paper in a major journal. But that's it. Skepticism is not cited as a core value of science. Nor is it mentioned as what motivates scientists to double and triple check their research for possible flaws and errors.

The earlier second edition of On Being a Scientist stressed the importance of skepticism in science on page 2:

Science has progressed through a uniquely productive marriage of human creativity and hard-nosed skepticism, of openness to new scientific contributions and persistent questioning of those contributions and the existing scientific consensus.

Skepticism was stressed again on page 6:

The fallibility of methods is a valuable reminder of the importance of skepticism in science. Scientific knowledge and scientific methods, whether old or new, must be continually scrutinized for possible errors. Such skepticism can conflict with other important features of science, such as the need for creativity and for conviction in arguing a given position. But organized and searching skepticism as well as an openness to new ideas are essential to guard against the intrusion of dogma or collective bias into scientific results.

Case studies are an important teaching tool, and the second edition relates one that became an embarrassment to hundreds of scientists who neglected to practice the routine skepticism demanded by their profession. The story began in 1966 when a Soviet scientist reported the discovery of polywater, a supposedly unique form of water having very different properties. Only after hundreds of papers about polywater had been published in the scientific literature was it discovered that polywater was ordinary water contaminated with microscopic particulate matter. Polywater papers had finally run out of steam, along with serious fears that an accidental release of polywater from a lab might polymerize all the world's water. This scientific fiasco occurred when traditional skepticism was abandoned in favor of what might best be called “fad science.”

The second edition of On Being a Scientist listed skepticism as second only to honesty in the core values of science (page 20). But a 2016 presentation at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science reported on another demotion for skepticism. Philosopher Robert Pennock presented the results of a study of some 400 scientists who were asked which three of ten values they considered most important when doing science. Honesty ranked first (64%) and curiosity was a close second (60%). Perseverance was third (34%), and skepticism was only seventh place (13%).

Based on the third edition of On Being a Scientist and Pennock's talk, skepticism's role in science is much less significant than it once was. Moreover, scientists in some fields exhibit little or no tolerance for the skeptical views of some of their colleagues. It's time to look back at a time when science was modulated by responsible skepticism and open the pages of the most famous book in the history of biology.

Charles Darwin: The Quintessential Skeptic

Naturalist Charles Darwin knew that publishing his theory of biological evolution by natural selection would cause controversy. Therefore, he anticipated the skeptics by including his personal skepticism about key aspects of his theory in his historic 1856 book, The Origin of Species. Darwin's skepticism was not contrived, and he even devoted chapter VI (“Difficulties On Theory”) to the difficulties facing his theory, which begins:

Long before having arrived at this part of my work, a crowd of difficulties will have occurred to the reader. Some of them are so grave that to this day I can never reflect on them without being staggered; but, to the best of my judgment, the greater number are only apparent, and those that are real are not, I think, fatal to my theory. (Chapter VI, First Edition, 1859.)

Darwin dealt with these difficulties in subsequent chapters, saving the most troubling problem for a full chapter entitled “On the Imperfection of the Geological Record.” The chapter opens with this confession:

“There is another and allied difficulty, which is much graver. I allude to the manner in which numbers of species of the same group, suddenly appear in the lowest known fossiliferous rocks. . .. To the question why we do not find records of these vast primordial periods, I can give no satisfactory answer. . .. The case at present must remain inexplicable; and may be truly urged as a valid argument against the views here entertained.” (Chapter IX, First Edition, 1859.)

Darwin and his advocates were optimistic that the earlier fossils would eventually be found, and they eventually were. But when the earlier fossils of complex animals were found in Canada and China, they, too, suddenly appeared. Thus, Darwin's concern about this key aspect of his theory remains “a valid argument against the views here entertained.” While the theory of evolution by natural selection is widely proclaimed as the foundation of modern biology, a growing number of skeptical scholars are taking a fresh look at Darwin's “valid argument.” In Darwin's Doubt (Harper-Collins, 2013), Stephen C. Meyer digs much deeper than the most ancient fossil beds to explain how the origin of the astonishing complexity of biology at the molecular level is a far greater mystery than missing fossils.

Though Darwin himself exhibited a professional obligation to openly express his doubts about his theory, the traditional role of skepticism in science has been seriously eroded. Today, those who express a skeptical view about evolutionary science risk severe criticism from devoted evolutionists who reject even Darwin's skepticism. School teachers and university professors have lost their positions over this issue, and so have others. When the editor of Scientific American magazine learned that the author he assigned to write the magazine's “The Amateur Scientist” column was a Darwinian evolution skeptic, the magazine ended the assignment after publishing his first three columns. (I was that author, and you can read the details here.)

Skepticism and the Vanishing Ozone Hole

While skepticism is an essential ingredient of doing science, it must be carefully applied, for excessive or misplaced skepticism can lead to unfounded doubts and even missed discoveries. A classic case is the discovery of the infamous Antarctic ozone hole.

In 1957, scientists with the British Antarctic Survey began measuring the ozone layer over Halley Bay on the coast of the icy continent. Nothing unusual was noticed until October 1982, when scientist Joe Farman noticed an unusually sharp decline in the ozone over the Antarctic bay. NASA's ozone satellite had not noticed the drop, so Farman was skeptical of his measurements. He arranged for a new ozone instrument the following October, which showed that nearly half the usual ozone amount had disappeared. Since NASAS's ozone satellite still did not show the huge ozone dip, Farman assumed that the change might be occurring only over Halley Bay. For the October 1984 measurements, Farman's team moved their ozone instrument 1,000 miles away from Halley Bay, where a huge October drop in ozone was again measured.

Though NASA's satellite had not noticed anything unusual, Farman and his team decided that three years of measurements proved they were correct. They then prepared a formal paper to be submitted to Nature, one of the world's leading scientific journals. According to the Independent: “The head of his division had tried to suppress the paper, writing to the Meteorological Office to say: ‘It shouldn't be published because it'd be very embarrassing if their inferences were wrong.'"

After all, NASA's satellite ozone instrument regularly scanned all of Antarctica, and NASA had not reported any anomalies in the ozone layer over the continent.

Yet Farman had full confidence in the half century of research behind his Dobson ozone instrument, and he had found a sharply reduced ozone three Octobers in a row. He prevailed, and the paper was published in Nature in May 1985. Farman quickly became famous as the discoverer of what became known as the ozone hole, an annual occurrence over most or all of Antarctica.

How NASA missed this historic discovery illustrates another side of skepticism. The reason is simple, for NASA had adjusted its data processing software to ignore ozone values lower than those ever observed. While the software knew about the ozone hole all along, it did exactly what the programmers ordered, and NASA didn't notice what Farman and his team had carefully and accurately measured during a sequence of three Octobers. Richard McPeters, NASA's leading satellite ozone scientist, later explained why the high-tech satellite missed what the ancient ground-based instrument found:

In 1984, before publication of the Farman paper, we noticed a sudden increase in low value from October of 1983. We had decided that the values were real and submitted a paper to the conference the following summer when Joe's paper came out, showing the same thing. As the first one in print, he gets full credit for discovery of the ozone hole. It makes a great story to talk about how NASA ‘missed' the ozone hole, but it isn't quite true.

In the end, Farman and his colleagues succeeded when they applied traditional skepticism to test their initial 1982 discovery by repeating their ozone measurements during 1983 and 1984. NASA missed the discovery by transferring the human decision element to their software. Farman's boss was also skeptical, but excessively so. For he allowed his worry about the prospect of negative publicity to nearly overrule publication of three years of careful field work by Farman and his team.

Skepticism and the Climate Change Conundrum

Most of the climate science community is persuaded that human activity is altering climate. Others are not so sure, and they argue that climate has always changed with or without human activity. The response to this negative perspective is often quite harsh. After all, if millions of people will eventually be flooded from their homes, farms, businesses and factories by rising sea levels caused by increasingly warm temperatures, shouldn't we act now? Some even demand that global warming deniers should be placed on trial.

Global warming skeptics respond that those whom they call alarmists are exaggerating concerns raised by computer models that have consistently failed to accurately forecast global temperatures. They point out that the models fail to fully account for the significant effects on global temperature caused by water vapor and aerosols (clouds, smoke, dust and air pollution). They also question the validity of Earth's temperature records, which have been biased upward by the streets and buildings that now surround many formally rural weather stations.

A victory of sorts for the skeptics recently occurred in the pages of The New York Times, a paper noted for its criticism of climate skeptics and its advocacy of political action to combat climate change. The Times hired Bret Stephens, a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorialist at The Wall Street Journal, to add a slice of balance to the newspaper's traditionally left-leaning editorial pages. Stephens' first column for The Times, “Climate of Complete Certainty,” was published on April 28, 2017.

Stephens introduced the column on his Facebook page: “Topic: Clinton campaign, climate change, and what they have in common. Remember folks, if you have an open mind it makes it less likely that your head will explode. How about a reasonable conversation on what to do about our warming planet?”

The column begins with this parable:

When someone is honestly 55 percent right, that's very good and there's no use wrangling. And if someone is 60 percent right, it's wonderful, it's great luck, and let him thank God.

But what's to be said about 75 percent right? Wise people say this is suspicious. Well, and what about 100 percent right? Whoever says he's 100 percent right is a fanatic, a thug, and the worst kind of rascal.
— An old Jew of Galicia

Stephens makes the case that the science behind climate change has descended into scientism, and you can read why here. He closed his piece with this: “Perhaps if there were less certitude about our climate future, more Americans would be interested in having a reasoned conversation about it.”

For those of us who follow the climate change controversy, the response was predictable. The skeptics loved the column; they have long wanted to have the reasoned conversation proposed by Stephens. But the alarmists threw a climate-changing fit. Some even cancelled their subscriptions to The Times, which knew all along that Stephens would sometimes be controversial.

Evidently change is afoot at the venerable newspaper, which has been a reliable outpost for the left side of the political agenda for decades. Editorial page editor James Bennet introduced Stephens as their latest acquisition, praised his work and wrote:

When Adolph Ochs set out the mission for The New York Times at the end of the 19th century, he said he hoped to make its opinion pages a forum for “intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion.” Given how polarizing and partisan this era has become, we think it's important to recommit ourselves to that goal. Taking the goal seriously doesn't mean letting any opinion into the debate. There's no place for bigotry or dishonesty in intelligent discussion. And it also doesn't mean that The Times sees all the points of view it publishes as equally meritorious — that we're in some way indifferent, in the end, to the correct answers. Our unsigned editorials will continue to make clear where the institution stands on the most consequential questions.

But, particularly during this turbulent and searching time in America and around the world, we should have the humility to recognize we may not be right about everything and the courage to test our own assumptions and arguments. In the Opinion pages of The Times, I believe the best way to do that, and to serve you, is to foster collegial debate among brave, honest journalists with very different points of view.

Bret Stephens' move to The Times is an important development for a newspaper that so often advocates only fad or progressive positions and injects opinion into news stories. So, when I read some of the harsh criticism that followed his column, I visited his Facebook page and chimed in with some praise:

Your first column is outstanding and a refreshing upgrade for The Times. I was an IPCC expert reviewer, and I've made near-daily atmospheric measurements since February 1990 (aerosol optical thickness, UV-B, total column water abundance of both ozone and water vapor, etc.). For 25 years, I have calibrated my instruments at Hawaii's Mauna Loa Observatory, where carbon dioxide has been measured since 1958. I am deeply concerned by the intolerance of those who have staked their reputations on models that fail to adequately incorporate the effects of aerosols and water vapor on global temperature. While carbon dioxide continues its relentless increase, none of the models selected by the IPCC manage to track measured temperatures. It's past time for the modelers who have made many dire predictions over the past three decades to leave politics aside, season their findings with some traditional skepticism and earnestly endeavor to correct their models with real world feedbacks.

Back to On Being a Scientist

The missing role of traditional skepticism in the third edition of On Being a Scientist is worrisome. The booklet remains a highly informative guide, but its complete avoidance of the traditional role of skepticism is being passed on to the scientists of tomorrow. When I wrote to the National Academy of Sciences to ask what went wrong, they replied to the effect that they simply ran out of space since they needed to cover new topics. Being a former magazine editor, I grabbed a ruler and soon discovered a total of 10.3 pages of white space (including three entirely blank pages) in the 64-page booklet. They suggested they might be able to include something about skepticism in a fourth edition if it is published online. But will they now that the NAS has taken sides on some controversial doctrines of science whose advocates strongly oppose anyone who is skeptical of their views? I look forward to the fourth edition. Until then, I will remain skeptical that it will adequately cover what was once among the leading tenets of doing science.

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