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Why Scientific Polarization? A Case Study

David Klinghoffer | @d_klinghoffer

polarization

Here’s a scientific war that’s rending the fabric of polite disagreement. Scientists are divided against themselves, choosing sides in a highly polarized environment, charging each other’s “lobby” with denying or distorting evidence.

As the European Journal for Philosophy of Science summarizes, “The two sides of the controversy have never seen eye to eye, but over the past decade, the accusations and counter accusations have become increasingly belligerent and entrenched.” It’s not merely a scientific but a “legal and political battleground.”

Yes, it’s the bitter scientific dispute over…evolution? Nope. Climate change? No, silly, over Lyme disease! 

Debate and Death Threats

The specific issue is the existence and treatment of “chronic Lyme disease.” Our friend Alex Berezow at the American Council on Science and Health notes, “The man who discovered Lyme disease, Allen Steere, was skeptical of the chronic Lyme diagnosis as well as long-term antibiotic therapy. So, he started receiving death threats from patients who were convinced he was wrong.” The aforementioned journal article takes this debate, previously unknown to me, as a model of how disagreement arises even among scientists — you know, those models of cool, rational deliberation — and tends increasingly toward irrational polarization. Berezow writes:

The authors employ a mathematical model to show that, even when scientists are acting in good faith over the correct interpretation of evidence, polarization is still a likely outcome. How so?

Suppose a scientist believes that Hypothesis X is more likely to be correct than Hypothesis Y. He may perhaps come to believe that other scientists who also accept Hypothesis X are slightly more reliable than scientists who accept Hypothesis Y. Over time, this slight initial bias against data provided by scientists who believe Hypothesis Y can morph into outright distrust. Once that happens, a stable state of polarization develops, in which neither side can “win” the debate, even if the facts clearly support one hypothesis over the other.

The authors reach a rather disturbing conclusion:

“We do not need to suppose that anyone is a bad researcher (in our models all agents are identical), or that they are bought by industry, or even that they engage in something like confirmation bias or other forms of motivated reasoning to see communities with stable scientific polarization emerge. All it takes is some mistrust in the data of those who hold different beliefs to get scientific polarization.”

In other words, everybody acting in good faith can result in a society in which we cannot agree on a common set of facts.

Berezow cites the parallel of our contemporary political scene where Left and Right often appear not just to hold different opinions but to live in alternative universes. You can compare these, dizzyingly, by switching rapidly back and forth between Fox News and CNN.

Strengths and Weaknesses

I would add that the evolution debate presents another illustration, equally stark. Berezow again: “Over time, this slight initial bias against data provided by scientists who believe Hypothesis Y can morph into outright distrust. Once that happens, a stable state of polarization develops, in which neither side can ‘win’ the debate, even if the facts clearly support one hypothesis over the other.”

I honestly don’t think that most advocates of intelligent design are unable to recognize merits in the other side’s case. If we were unable, we wouldn’t speak of the alternative neo-Darwinian theory’s “strengths and weaknesses.” Yes, it has strengths. In explaining the emergence of biological novelties, the choice between Darwin and design is not a no-brainer.

This most sound unfair if you know little about the evolution debate. However, from long experience, I do believe that many evolution proponents are so committed to their view with its unacknowledged philosophical underpinnings, so mistrustful of other interpretations, that arguing with them is likely a waste of time. 

A friend explained recently that this appears to be so, not least, with theistic evolutionists of a certain profile. See “No Escape from Theistic Evolution?” When we do argue with these people, the purpose is not to convince them, which is probably hopeless, but to persuade the unpersuaded who, we know, are listening or reading.

Photo credit: Brian Stansberry [CC BY 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons.