Why some scientists diverge from the mainstream

A while ago, a friend sent me a link to an article by Richard Lindzen as an example of a respectable scientist who sits on the “skeptical” side of the fence in the global warming debate. At the time, I noted that Lindzen was also known as a skeptic of the link between smoking and lung cancer, but aside from thinking it was an interesting coincidence that he fell twice into the skeptical camp on such emotional topics, didn’t ponder it much more.

However,  recently I listened to a lecture by Naomi Oreskes (presumably connected with her recent book) where she provided a possible explanation of the link between the two views that also can explain why a respectable scientist is willing to diverge so far from the mainstream position.

We don’t hear debates about whether the sun-goes-around-the-earth or the earth-goes-around-the-sun any more. There isn’t disagreement on whether driving a car is dangerous, or whether excessive sun-baking increases the chance of skin cancer.

But when it comes to climate science, there is a very visible debate. If there was a clear split in the climate science community, that would be one explanation. Although, all major national science academies fall in the climate change believer camp, and in an essay in Science, Oreskes found that of 928 randomly selected abstracts on climate change, exactly none argued against the idea of human-influenced global warming. (Other similar studies can be found listed here.)

I’m not interested in discussing here who is right or wrong, but noting that the respectable scientists who are arguing a skeptical position regarding climate change are a small group indeed. It’s not a bad thing for science that they exist, as educated debate improves our body of knowledge, and such a debate needs people on both sides. However, it must be a tough job for the individuals involved. It’s natural to wonder why they would do it.

Due to the politicisation of the field, and the implications for certain industries depending on resulting policies, I’m not surprised that scientists who argue against climate change are effectively given a megaphone. On the other hand, I would be surprised if this was a sufficient reason for respectable scientists to adopt positions that they didn’t believe.

Oreskes proposes that the reason is: many scientists in the skeptical camp are fierce believers of capitalism and the free market. Hence they will naturally assume that any argument leading to a conclusion of greater industry regulation must be wrong, and will look very hard for the flaws in it.

An example of such a scientist, according to Oreskes, is Fred Singer.  Not only is he a climate change skeptic today, but in the past has been skeptical of the link between (second hand) cigarette smoke and cancer.  In the case of second hand smoking, he was arguing against the US EPA‘s desire to regulate smoking.

So, perhaps this applies to Lindzen as well. In that case, his skeptical views on both the dangers of smoking and climate change are not co-incidental at all.

Of course, if scientists all agreed on everything, then we wouldn’t need scientists. But I find it interesting to understand what might motivate scientists to disagree when it must seem like the whole scientific community is in agreement against them.

13 thoughts on “Why some scientists diverge from the mainstream”

  1. There might be some influence of cognitive dissonance involved too.

    The point is, it’s uncomfortable to believe that we are living unsustainably. There’s plenty of research that shows we will adjust our beliefs considerably in order to resolve moral discomfort.

    1. Cognitive dissonance is not necessarily a bad thing. It may be the force at work, where there’s something in a scientist’s mental model of the world that clashes with the conclusions they are seeing from others’ research, and encourages them to find out why. There are just two mechanisms for fixing it: improving the mental model, and improving the body of research.

  2. One alternative theory put forward over on Facebook was that there are just people quietly doing their research and whose findings happen not to be in alignment with the headline conclusions being published all round the place. Then when they are made out to be kooks, they get vocal about their disagreement in order to defend themselves.

    I accept that this may be the case, but it doesn’t gel with my mental model of the world. I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of that, and so I propose the “genius dissident” theory.

    This is that scientific consensus is almost always overturned by genius-level scientists. Darwin, Kepler, Newton, Einstein, et al were up in the genius league, not ordinary researchers. I would expect scientific ability to be evenly spread around (and in fact, more scientists to be of ordinary ability than genius-level), so if successful opposition to the consensus view came from the discovery that conventional research was at odds with someone’s own research, where someone was quietly beavering away at their work, checking others’ published research and finding the glaring mistake that overturns everything, then many of these events would be linked to average scientists. However, this doesn’t seem to be the case.

    I am beginning to think what makes the genius-level scientist good at their job is that they have a finely tuned mental model of the world, and hence have a good sense of when research conclusions come out that don’t seem right. They are then motivated to find out what is wrong – their mental model or the research.

    1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Story_of_Science

      Have you been watching this documentary on ABC? Very interesting take on why it took so long to upend the belief that the Earth was the centre of the universe. He argues that it was not one genius, that ended the belief, upended a thousand years of dogma, but the reformation, questioning of god’s role in everything. That led to new centres of learning and men like Kepler and Tycho Brahe to totally destroy the belief system.

  3. Well… I’ll give you this much: I think it’s a better theory than “Lindzen is just a right wing capitalist stooge.”!!

    1. Thanks. I don’t think Lindzen or Singer are stooges. (We’d need one more before it was funny, anyway.) I think they are most likely running their own agendas.

      1. Another thought… are you sure it isn’t that people like Darwin, Newton et al. are remembered as “geniuses” precisely _because_ they succeeded in creating a paradigm shift? I think it was Einstein who is popularly credited with saying that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Perhaps what we perceive as genius has a lot to with being in the right place at the right time.

      2. Well, I can’t be sure, but I did think about that, and from what I know about them, it’s pretty clear that they are geniuses in their own right, and not just people who got a lucky break.

  4. So having thought about this overnight, my question this morning is: Are you proposing that genius is a driver of skepticism, or that skepticism is a driver of genius? If the latter, imagine how much we could improve the world by changing our education system to produce people more inclined toward critical thinking!

  5. What about that old chestnut – they don’t like bowing to peer group pressure? There are some who think they are right (whether it’s climate change or the cause of Parkinson’s disease) & it’s very hard to convince them otherwise. Are Lindzen & Singer known to be particularly stubborn?

  6. It came as no surprise to me to learn that Lindzen was a skeptic on the “smoking causes cancer” issue in line with fellow skeptic,nay denier, Fred Singer. Does anyone know of any other issues of scientific inquiry like eg acid rain and ozone depletion on which Lindzen had contrary views? Has he had peer reviewed articles published that give weight to his views that get published in very non-scientific media such as the Wall Street Journal?

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