Introduction

11. Scientific Dissidents

Another technique for attacking science is to argue that it has no right to self-regulation. A common argument is to say that there are "dissidents" within the scientific community who dispute the "establishment view", and who are "silenced" by the defenders of the "status quo". This language is obviously designed to evoke comparisons to fascist dictatorships. But there are several obvious problems with the argument: first and foremost, disputes are actually encouraged in science, because (as pointed out earlier), science is based on a competition model. Where some people go wrong is when they refuse to engage in scientific debate. The typical self-styled "dissident" reacts to scientific criticism not by publishing more papers and doing more research to substantiate his theories, but by simply quitting the scientific forum and taking his argument directly to the public. A good example is Dr. Stephen E. Jones at Brigham Young University. He was put on "paid leave" by the faculty after:

  1. Representing himself as an expert in civil engineering even though his specialization was actually in astronomy.
  2. Publishing claims about the World Trade Centre building collapse despite serious scientific flaws in his work which were identified by his colleagues.
  3. Refusing to address his colleagues' criticisms.

Inevitably, his supporters painted these events as an example of a "dissident" being silenced by "the establishment". But ask yourself a question: how would you know the difference between a man who is disciplined for unprofessional conduct and incompetence, and a man who is being "silenced" by a powerful conspiracy? The answer is that you probably wouldn't, so you should go to panels of qualified experts to see what they think. And sure enough, any engineering expert can attest to the fact that his claims were nonsense. I myself happen to be a licensed mechanical engineer, and his claims about the immense heat content in the rubble being proof of the use of thermite were simply preposterous (there was plenty of gravitational potential energy in the building's collapse to account for this energy, and thermite is not used in building demolition anyway because you need high explosives to cut girders with precise timing).

Dr. Stephen E. Jones is not a fraud, in the sense that he has a legitimate doctorate. He is a real scientist, not a man with a fake degree from a diploma mill. And yet, he has made utterly nonsensical claims. He is a classic example of what many modern anti-science speakers term a "scientific dissident", of the sort that is often used to prove that there must be a conspiracy of silence. That, then, is the first lesson about the "scientific dissident" argument: there are tens of thousands of scientists practising out there, and if you look hard enough, you will find one who supports just about anything. It doesn't prove the idea has merit, especially if the person acts like a typical "dissident" and prefers the political forum to the scientific one.

Many supporters of the "scientific dissident" argument cite historical examples of "dissidents" being proven correct. But if you actually look at the history, you will find that these "dissidents" were not censured in that way. Their colleagues may have initially disagreed with them, but they worked within the system until their ideas were victorious. Einstein was never censured for defying Newtonian kinematics. Heisenberg was never censured for defying classical physics itself. Shoemaker was never censured for defying gradualism as an impact crater explanation. All of these men, held up as examples of successful "dissidents", were able to succeed without taking the petulant step of quitting the scientific forum and taking their argument directly to the general public. It is a pure myth that what we refer to as a scientific "dissident" is in any way comparable to them. As an aside, it's also a myth that they destroyed preceding theories rather than finding exceptions to rules which are still employed. Classical Newtonian kinematics is still employed for almost all engineering calculations, and gradualism is still the only workable explanation for most geological features.

We don't call it "fascism" when a medical doctor or a lawyer is stripped of his license for professional incompetence even if the average person doesn't understand what he did wrong. Why should the standard be any different for scientists? Do you believe that science would be improved if it had no mechanism whatsoever for identifying incompetents? Do you believe there is no such thing as an incompetent scientist, and hence no need for any such mechanism? Such a belief would be considered laughably naive in any other field, yet people seem to honestly believe it is reasonable for science, judging by the way they react when a scientific association informs one of its members that he has been found incompetent or in breach of professional conduct.

In conclusion, the only real difference between a visionary scientist and a "dissident" is that the visionary scientist reacts to the initial criticism by debating his colleagues in the scientific forum. The "dissident" reacts to peer criticism by quitting the scientific forum, taking his claims directly to the public, and loudly crying that he is being persecuted by a grand conspiracy. Ask yourself why you should take such a performance seriously, or why such an individual's association would not be perfectly justified in ejecting him.


Continue to 12. Let the Students Decide

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