Timeless Advice on How to Subvert a Dominant Paradigm

Creating a working scientific theory is hard work. The observations and experiments must support the theory, and new predictions must be made and verified. Once established, more and more is expected of it. On the positive side, the theory might feed technological developments. However, it also might require re-thinking dearly-held philosophical, economic, or political views.

It appears to be much easier to attack a dominant paradigm. One needs to do only two things: to sow doubt about the dominant paradigm, and to establish oneself as the only truthful authority. Here is how it works, ordered in a list of strategies that are increasingly nihilistic:

(1) Amass information that supports one’s view.

Lists of titles of articles and web pages can be constructed to convey a sense that there a wide body of support for one side of the argument. Do not present the data supporting the opposing view in a similar manner; the relative numbers will probably undermine one’s case. However, journal articles and abstracts often contain impenetrable technical jargon or provocative questions. These are particularly useful, because their language will be read to support a hypothesis, even if their results do not.

(2) Search out examples of poor science in support of the dominant paradigm.

Lists of titles and abstracts that support a view can be nicely complemented with catalogs of biased or erroneous articles that were written in support of the opposing view. There should be plenty of these, because poor-quality yet uncontroversial results receive less scrutiny than ones that are obviously wrong. Their existence undermines the other side’s credibility. Finding them also makes it appear that one has conducted an unbiased and exhaustive search of the literature, and found it lacking.

(3) Present all information as equal.

The quality and reliability of the thousands of scientific papers that are published each year varies widely. Many studies are designed poorly, with samples that are too small or experiments that are dominated by noise. They are published anyway, because scientists must publish in order to receive further funding. This can be used to one’s advantage. If data can be separated from its reliability in a presentation, then all results can be portrayed as equivalent, and any conclusion can be molded from it.

(4) Emphasize any doubt in the opposing paradigm.

Scientific researchers always have to equivocate their conclusions with statistical statements about the relative certainty of a result. Scientists also have a tendency to follow a description of a result with truisms about how much is left to be learned. This can be used to one’s advantage. The restrained language of many scientists is rhetorically underwhelming when contrasted with bombastic certitude.

(5) Remind everyone that science is not a democracy.

Sure, science is based on a shared reality, in which experiments and observations must be reproduced by many people. However, scientists will readily admit that if information is faulty or incomplete, significant theories might be found to be wrong. Therefore, one can ignore the observations and experiments that underlie the dominant paradigm, and simply point out
that it is possible even for large numbers of scientists to be wrong.

(6) Appeal to history’s paradigm shifts.

History abounds with stories of dominant paradigms that were overturned, ushering in new eras of understanding. These can be detached from their historical context, and turned into anecdotes that confirm an eccentric viewpoint. Simply avoid any explanation of why the old paradigm was held to be true, how evidence emerged that was contrary to the fading views, and what ideas motivated those who developed the new paradigm. The important thing is that ideas change, so there is no reason to trust our current knowledge.

(7) Demonize the opponent.

Describe those who hold opposing views in terms that will preclude people from listening to them. If ones opponents can be described in emotionally-laden language, many people will be less inclined to think critically about the debate at hand. A slur should be matched to the audience at hand: the religious find materialistic atheists repugnant; conservatives find socialists (or even liberals) threatening; liberals despise the self-interest of corporations, particularly big
chemical and pharmaceutical companies.

(8) Reveal a conspiracy.

This serves two purposes. First, it serves as a counter to information that
does not serve one’s rhetorical goal. Any contrary information can be dismissed
as a product of the conspiracy. By extension, it is only possible to trust the information presented by people who oppose the dominant paradigm. Second, by revealing the knowledge of the conspiracy to one’s followers, one compliments their intelligence, because those in on the secret feel that they are exceptionally perceptive.

With these steps, one can generate a raging controversy that will entrance the media and enliven the Internet. Simple right?

OK, that was just letting off steam. I don’t, in fact, believe that conspiracy theorists and true believers actually check off an eight point list when they wish to engage in debate. I suspect that these strategies emerge on their own, as people search for ways to convince themselves and others of their ideas.

Indeed, some of the above strategies resemble components of a genuine scientific debate. For instance, I implement a form of the first strategy when I use approximations in my work. I do so without compromising my scientific integrity by performing calculations that show that the things I left out won’t change my conclusions, at least to the accuracy that is required for the problem at hand. Unfortunately, the process of making approximations (or setting aside information that is not directly relevant) requires careful justification, and can invite controversy.

Therefore, I find the parallels between a scientific debate and someone trying to push a pet theory to be vexing. I wonder, how straightforward is it for someone to tell the relative quality of Ned Wright’s cosmology tutorial and the Iron Sun hypothesis? How does one convince non-experts that the risk from vaccines is tiny compared to their enormous benefit, when a Kennedy lends his pen to the other side? How can a lay person know whether to trust New Scientist or Dr. Roy Spencer on global warming?*

Scientific debate has always been difficult. I wanted to blame the Internet, but then I realized that the good old days weren’t much better. In my freshman year in high school, I tried to use a book I found in the library to write a report on the lost city of Atlantis. The book claimed that Atlantis was once a seat of technology, with radios, flying cars, and nuclear power, and I nearly ran with that. Fortunately, Mr. Winters guided me to more sane literature describing the eruption of Mt. Santorini, and I got to learn something useful about vulcanism and the early demise of the Minoan civilization.

So what is there to do? I hope that teachers, scientists who write for the public, publications that cover diverse scientific issues, and scholarly organizations will win the debate… Otherwise, I won’t get much joy if nature resolves things the hard way.

(*If you were wondering, I trust Ned Wright, Wired, and New Scientist on the above issues, respectively.)