Is Science Close-Minded?
by Josh DeWald
July 11, 2014
I've been frequently labelled "close-minded." Usually the speaker (or writer) isn't really targeting me. What they seem to mean is that "scientists are closed minded, and so are you people that worship them," to only slightly paraphrase such sentiments. As you can imagine, this is after I or a friend has said that psychics or acupuncture or homeopathy or bigfoot or ghosts have what you might quantify as a dearth of evidence in support. But science is not close-minded. Far from it.
Perhaps individual scientists are close-minded. They are human. But science is as open-minded as it gets. The only barrier to entry: evidence. So, sure, new ideas come along and they might be called "crazy." The presenter might be laughed at in the "halls" (wherever they are). But, given a minimum threshold of evidence, other scientists will realize "Hmm, that sort of explains this odd data I was seeing," or "That's actually compatible with my evidence, and is simpler." Over time, these "crazy" ideas become mainstream. And then a funny thing happens: the people who hold those ideas start getting labelled as "close-minded," as part of the "Old Boys' Club of science," as part of some hoax to keep these ideas in the fore.
Take, for example, Mendelian inheritance (the only game in town now with respect to genetic inheritance). Whatever your views might be on the origins of life and the development of species, you likely accept the notion of Mendelian inheritance: we get our traits from alternative forms of genes known as alleles, some of which are dominant and others are recessive. Pretty non-controversial, right?
Of course. But that's not how it always was. One of the big early promoters of it (40 years after Mendel proposed the idea in 1865), William Bateson went head-to-head with Walter Weldon and other "biometricians." Biometricians argued that inherited traits fell on a gradual continuum rather than being discrete units. Bateson and Weldon had previously been best friends, but Mendelian inheritance pulled them apart. Weldon died in 1906 of a sudden illness, with much of his last days and months spent trying to discredit the ideas of Mendel and Bateson, as he instead supported the statistical notions of Francis Galton and Karl Pearson. I could have an entire article devoted to the debates and battles that were fought over this, but suffice to say that Mendelian inheritance was seen as "cumbrous and undemonstrable." Weldon showed his closed position to the idea of Mendelian inheritance, but science was ultimately open to the persuasive evidence provided by Mendel, Bateson, their peers, and the researchers who have followed them.
Sometimes ideas will appear to be well-supported, or will seem plausible enough after only a few studies. They may be accepted prematurely. Alas (or luckily), science is self-correcting and those ideas will get weeded out—eventually. But likely there will be scientists sounding alarms well before we lay folks see the news story saying the idea has been "debunked" or "rejected."
Take, as our second example, fish oil supplementation. For years, doctors (including my own) have been recommending fish oil to reduce the chance of heart attack related to cholesterol. This was based on the evidence available at the time, which turned out to not be very good. Newer systematic reviews have found no association between consumption of Omega-3 fatty acids and mortality or heart attacks (note that this is from 2012, but I have just now started seeing discussion of this percolating to the media and laypeople such as myself). It is actually possible that through more refinement science will determine that for some people fish oil supplementation is effective, in certain circumstances. Or maybe its use will be discredited completely. Only time, and data, will tell.
One final illustration is an intriguing, revolutionary idea that wasn't "proven" until 1859, despite having been proposed in 1745: the notion that living creatures do not simply spontaneously generate. It seems absurd now, but for thousands of years (remember this is before an understanding of microbes) observational evidence pointed to the "fact" that maggots and even mice would simply appear on favored materials, or that "vegetable matter" simply came out of the "element" of water (referring to algae growths).
But in 1859 Louis Pasteur demonstrated (as part of a contest) that sterilized meat broth would not "grow" flies if their parents (or their spores) could not physically get to them. So it took more than 100 years after it was proposed to prove that living things do not spontaneously generate.
But it's a fallacy to suggest that because your new idea is rejected that "more studies" are all that's needed to prove it. Those studies may instead show the idea is not right. But that's OK. That's science. Radical ideas are never accepted or rejected because they're radical, but because evidence bears them out. And more evidence. And more evidence. With some ideas, that never happens. But we have to be OK with that. It's our open-mindedness that's really at the heart of such accusations. We have to accept that most new ideas are wrong. Science loves new ideas. They're what push us forward. New ideas are how we progress. Throwing away ideas, new and old, is how we get ever closer to finding the truth of our world.
1. Pearson was no slouch. His statistical ideas were foundational. The chi-squared test is still used today, partially based on Weldon literally rolling 12 dice more than 25 thousand times!
2. My doctor actually prefaced the recommendation for fish oil with something along the lines of "There is some weak evidence that this works," (emphasis added).
by Josh DeWald
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