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    Bad Science Journalism And The Myth Of The Oppressed Underdog
    By Michael White | March 9th 2008 11:43 AM | 34 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Michael

    Welcome to Adaptive Complexity, where I write about genomics, systems biology, evolution, and the connection between science and literature,

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    There is a particular narrative about science that science journalists love to write about, and Americans love to hear. I call it the 'oppressed underdog' narrative, and it would be great except for the fact that it's usually wrong.

    The narrative goes like this:

    1. The famous, brilliant scientist So-and-so hypothesized that X was true.

    2. X, forever after, became dogma among scientists, simply by virtue of the brilliance and fame of Dr. So-and-so.

    3. This dogmatic assent continues unchallenged until an intrepid, underdog scientist comes forward with a dramatic new theory, completely overturning X, in spite of sustained, hostile opposition by the dogmatic scientific establishment.

    We love stories like this; in our culture we love the underdog, who sticks to his or her guns, in spite of heavy opposition. In this narrative, we have heroes, villains, and a famous, brilliant scientist proven wrong.

    I'm sure you could pick out instances in science history where this story is true, but more often it is not. You wouldn't know this from the pages of our major news media though; in fact you'd probably get the impression that the underdog narrative is the way science works. And many journalists may think that too; after all, most of them read (or misread) Thomas Kuhn when they were in college, and Kuhn brought this kind of narrative to a new high. The impression this narrative leaves is that science only progresses by the efforts of brave individuals who are willing to weather the wrath of the scientific establishment.

    Why is this narrative about science wrong? Let me illustrate with the nearest example I have at hand right now: a piece out of the 2007 Best American Science and Nature Writing:"The Effeminate Sheep", by Jonah Lehrer, a piece that was originally published in Seed magazine. The piece is about Joan Roughgarden, a writer here at Scientific Blogging, an accomplished Stanford Biologist, and the transgendered author of the book, Evolution's Rainbow, about the sexual diversity that we find in nature. As we learn in her book, gay sex is quite popular in the animal world - bonobos, fish, giraffes, whales, and big-horn sheep make humans look incredibly prudish.

    This raises a question: being gay has obvious evolutionary fitness consequences - without modern medicine, you have to have heterosexual sex to have offspring. So is homosexuality in nature just a freak occurrence, a case of bad genes; or is it something that is in some way adaptive and therefore under selective pressure? Does this mean that there are problems with our current understanding of sexual selection in evolutionary theory?

    (Important aside: let's make it clear right now that my intention is not to knock Dr. Roughgarden or her research, or her book - I'm talking here about how science is presented to the public. In fact I feel a little school pride in Roughgarden's accomplishments - she and I both spent some of our educational careers at the University of Rochester, though obviously not at the same time.)

    Getting back to our underdog narrative, take a look at how Lehrer sets up the story. After giving a very brief introduction to Darwin's ideas about sexual selection, using the classic example of peacock tails, he writes:

    "Darwin's theory of sex has been biological dogma ever since he postulated why peacocks flirt. His gendered view of life has become a centerpiece of evolution, one of his great scientific legacies."

    There you have the classic start of the narrative: Darwin, our brilliant scientist, came up with a theory about evolutionary sexual selection, which has been dogma among biologists ever since.

    But this story isn't true: Darwin's theories about selection took some time before they were widely accepted (in fact, Darwin's claim that all living species share a common ancestry was accepted before his ideas about selection). And even then, they weren't taken as dogma; researchers have been actively studying the subject for a long time. The theory of sexual selection has undergone heavy scrutiny and extensive modification, including an effort to put it within the mathematical framework of game theory - a development which didn't take place until 100 years after Darwin proposed sexual selection. Biological dogma ever since Darwin? Hardly! (Take a look at this book on the development and status of theories of sexual selection.)

    But Lehrer doesn't bother to tell his readers any of this; it would spoil the underdog narrative. It's time to introduce the underdog scientist ready to overturn it all:

    "Despite this new evidence [of gay sex among animals], sexual selection theory is still stuck in the nineteenth century. The Victorian peacock remains the standard-bearer. But as far as Roughgarden is concerned, that's bad science: 'The time has come to declare that sexual theory is indeed false and stop shoehorning one exception after another into a sexual selection framework ... To do otherwise suggests that sexual selection theory is unfalsifiable, not subject to refutation.'"

    Roughgarden is the underdog against the scientific establishment - an establishment stuck in the nineteenth century, so willing to protect its pet theory that it will go so far as to make it unfalsifiable.

    What is this revolutionary idea that the establishment is hostile towards? Roughgarden believes that homosexual behavior is an adaptive trait, one preserved by natural selection to play an important role in group cohesion, or as Lehrer puts it, "gayness is a necessary side effect of getting along." To support this, Roughgarden marshals examples of unorthodox sexual arrangements in many different species, and explains that these arrangements actually promote evolutionary fitness in complex animal societies. She has presented this evidence in a popular book, Evolution's Rainbow, and in a review article in the journal Science (subscription required).

    Her ideas are unquestionably bold. She and her co-authors set themselves an ambitious task to replace the current theory of sexual selection:

    "We think that the notion of females choosing the genetically best males is mistaken. Studies repeatedly show that females exert choice to increase number, not genetic quality, of offspring and not to express an arbitrary feminine aesthetic. Instead, we suggest that animals cooperate to rear the largest number of offspring possible, because offspring are investments held in common. We therefore propose replacing sexual selection theory with an approach to explaining reproductive social behavior that has its basis in cooperative game theory."

    They go on to present their new mathematical formalism for their ideas. This is how science is supposed to work, incidentally. Roughgarden wrote a popular book, but didn't expect that to be a substitute for genuine scientific papers. She knows she has to convince her scientific peers, and to do that, she wrote a technical paper, spelling out the mathematical basis for her novel ideas. The next step is for the people who understand those mathematical details to check them out, work them over, and see how persuasive they are.

    But that's not how the underdog narrative goes. According to Lehrer, by this point it should have been an open-and-shut case, if it weren't for the hostile scientific establishment:

    "Despite Roughgarden's long list of peer-reviewed articles in prestigious journals, most evolutionary biologists remain skeptical of her conclusions... In the absence of something conclusive, most scientists stick with Darwin and Dawkins."

    In the underdog narrative, it is wrong for the establishment to remain skeptical, which in reality is exactly the opposite of how science is supposed to work. It is not like a courtroom where innocence is the presumption; in science, a novel idea is unfounded until proven otherwise. And Roughgarden's publication record, impressive as it is, is not evidence that her hypothesis is correct. Nor is the fact that her review article was published in Science evidence that her idea is true. It does mean though that she's put something together serious enough to deserve a hearing. (One more nitpicking point - "scientists are sticking with Dawkins"? Dawkins may be the authority on the subject to someone like Lehrer who has probably read only popular books on evolution. Dawkins has done some professional work in this field, but he's not the reigning authority.)

    Our underdog narrative is almost complete: we have a reigning scientific authority, Darwin, whose ideas are entrenched dogma among an establishment that is skeptical of our underdog scientist, whose ideas are so obviously true that they would have been accepted if it weren't for the closed-mindedness of the defenders of orthodoxy.

    And closed-minded they are: Lehrer, instead of summarizing the real critiques that Roughgarden's paper generated (those with access to Science can read them here and here), suggests that biologists are unwilling to abandon their dogma of sexual selection and view homosexuality as anything but "sexual deviants" and "statistical outliers."

    That's not exactly what Roughgarden's critics are saying. The responses to her Science review included two major criticisms: that Roughgarden did not correctly characterize sexual selection as it is currently understood, and that some of her assumptions in her game theory model were wrong. Most writers did think that she had offered something interesting, although not something which completely negates the theory of sexual selection; several writers suggested that current theories could be modified to incorporate Roughgarden's ideas. Lehrer does quote one scientist who basically says just that. He quotes PZ Myers, a University of Minnesota biologist:

    "I think much of what Roughgarden says is very interesting. But I think she discounts many of the modifications that have been made to sexual selection since Darwin originally proposed it. So in that sense, her Darwin is a straw man. You don't have to dismiss the modern version of sexual selection in order to explain sexual selection of homosexuality."

    Our narrative would not be complete without a final look at our persevering underdog:

    "Roughgarden remains defiant," Lehrer writes. And we learn the real source of the establishment's skepticism. "I think many scientists discount me because of who I am," the transgendered Roughgarden says. "The theory is becoming Ptolemaic. It clearly has the trajectory of a hypothesis in trouble."

    We are left with the impression of scientists hanging on to a sinking theoretical ship, unable to move forward in their understanding because they have something personally against the underdog of the narrative.

    It's amazing science makes any advances at all, with such closed-minded people in control of the field! But that's not really how things work. The real story is an example of science operating the way it is supposed operate: a researcher comes up with new and very interesting observations that seem to challenge our current understanding of an important problem. She works to put those observations under some sort of theoretical framework, and presents the results in a paper to her scientific peers. Her fellow scientists think the work is interesting, but remain unconvinced because the evidence or theoretical development is not yet sufficient to support the hypothesis. What should happen next is that our researcher should go out and collect more evidence, correct any mistakes in the analysis or make a persuasive reply to her critics, and try again.

    A major new idea, one which overturns an existing, well-supported theory, does not get established in one paper. There has to be follow up and debate, and if the idea holds up to scrutiny it will be accepted.

    Beware the underdog narrative in science journalism. This narrative severely misrepresents how science really works. It's designed to elicit our sympathy for a not-yet-established theory, maybe one that is socially attractive, and to arouse our indignation against the staid community of eggheaded scientists. This underdog narrative plays on our emotions, it makes for a good read, and helps us feel good about ourselves when we stand up for our convictions.

    What gets lost is the scientific method, the idea that novel proposals need to be thoroughly vetted and tested, no matter how intuitively attractive they are. That vetting process is done by a dynamic community of smart, educated, competitive people, who care passionately about science. It's a community where everyone wants to come up with the next big theory that overturns long-held beliefs. But that's hard to do, especially in fields where all the low-hanging fruit has been picked over by really talented people for decades or centuries. If a new theory is being presented in the media as the centerpiece of an underdog narrative, you can bet the farm that this theory is not yet sufficiently substantiated by the evidence. That doesn't mean it's wrong necessarily, but it does mean that the hypothesis has not yet met the rigorous standards of evidence that have served science well for centuries.

    I said I wasn't writing this to knock Dr. Roughgarden, but I'm going to renege on that promise just a little: based on how she's quoted in the piece, she does seem to be feeding the narrative. She's not giving her colleagues enough credit for giving her ideas a hearing. What non-heterosexual behavior among vertebrates implies about evolution is a fascinating question, one many biologists would be happy to know more about. I think the idea that homosexual behavior could be adaptive is intriguing, and its widespread occurrence in nature is a worthwhile scientific subject. But it's an issue that's only going to be settled by more evidence.

    Comments

    Hank
    Brilliant stuff, as always.

    As a non-biologist there are two additional observations that strike me as odd in some of the things I read on this, and the first one involves fake legitimacy. No one in psychology spends a lot of time referencing or debunking Freud, for example, yet a number of people tend to do it with Darwin. Darwin was right about a lot and provided a terrific foundation for modern biology but pointing out where he was wrong given the tools and data of his day doesn't gain people much ground.

    The other thing this touches on, and others have also noted more strongly, is that science journalism is no different than regular journalism when it comes to political or ideological spin in some of its participants. Lehrer is a fine writer but he was not writing science, he was writing an advocacy piece and curve fitting the data to the cultural topology he wanted to fight on.

    Richard Preston, the editor who picked these, is a terrific writer in his own right but his selections are the kind of thing a PhD in English would pick as the best science writing and not something most scientists would agree are such.

    Disclaimer: Should Preston happen to cut me a check for one of my articles in the 2008 version, however, his brilliant editorial instincts shall be absolved of all tarnish.

    bobbyfiend
    No one in psychology spends a lot of time referencing or debunking Freud
    I know this is not the main point of your comment, but it's worth replying to, anyway. Nobody NOW spends much time debunking Freud, but from approximately the 1920s or so through the 1970s, there was a whole mini-industry, it seemed, of research psychologists empirically debunking Freud (who was not, notably, a psychologist, nor very empirical). Freud was much more easily debunked than Darwin. Freud's theory was based on non-rigorous, low-N observation and lots and lots of personalized interpretation. Darwin's seems to have been based on a much more structured, representative system. Freud's theory is, in many parts, nearly unfalsifiable. Darwin's is eminently falsifiable. In the end, Darwin produced an early version of a solid theory, while Freud did not. So, yes, nobody wastes their time debunking Freud anymore, because his theory was so bad. The constant revisiting of Darwin is because his theory was so good.
    adaptivecomplexity
    Great writing, especially for the public, gets undervalued in science, so it's great to have an editor who cares about skilled writing. But if what's being communicated doesn't accurately convey how science works or what it is, then good writing style is wasted.

    These editorships are a one-shot deal, so Preston won't be doing 2008 - just don't tick off Tim Folger! But I hope we haven't ruined our chances of getting Preston to write here! He is a good science writer.

    Mike
    Hank
    Maybe he wants the press. It's been good for Joan. She has only written two articles here but has had 6 articles by three other scientists here about her - I don't count my mention of her because it was a 2007 retrospective.

    That's a pretty good ratio.

    jselani
    Bad science journalism is a bad thing, obviously, and I think some good points are made here. I also think bad writing and editing are bad things, and this blog could clearly use an editor to get rid of some of the jarring simple English mistakes. For example: " the efforts of brave individuals who are willing to wither the wrath of the scientific establishment." -- I believe the author is confusing "wither" (to become dry or shriveled, or to cause harm to) with "weather" (to come safely through, to survive, as a storm). "fish, giraffes, whales, and big-horn sheep make humans look incredibly prude" -- prude is a noun. The adjective form, which would be correct here, is "prudish".
    adaptivecomplexity
    You're right - I make a lot of English mistakes, because this is a blog where things don't get polished and revised the way they do in a print publication. We don't have a copy editor, and I have a day job.

    UPDATE: sorry to be grouchy - I haven't had coffee today. I agree the wither thing is extremely embarrassing, and I didn't know that prude couldn't be used as an adjective. I fixed it; thanks for helping me out.

    Mike
    logicman
    Ah!  A language maven.  How come there's never a Steven Pinker around when you need one?

    Mistakes?  Free use of poetic licence is only a mistake to one weaned in the wishy-washy word-watching wastelands of pedagogic red ink.

    " the efforts of brave individuals who are willing to wither the wrath of the scientific establishment."

    I attack your 'wrong-word' wrath with withering witticism:

    "weather the wrath"  - use an umbrella.

    "wither the wrath" -
    I'm behind Michael on this one, which is the best place to be when he's using a flame thrower.

    "fish, giraffes, whales, and big-horn sheep make humans look incredibly prude" -- prude is a noun. The adjective form, which would be correct here, is "prudish".
    Sorry, Michael.  I can't help you there.  Even language mavens get it right sometimes.  :)
    bobbyfiend
    Great article. I agree with the premise that science journalism is often more of the latter and less of the former, with journalists stuffing the reality of science into story-shaped containers. However, in making your point, it feels to me like you might have whitewashed the true processes of the scientific community a bit. There's plenty of evidence that conformity, culture, cognitive biases, hegemonies, etc. are an integral part of the way scientific knowledge develops. They're not the whole story, but they are part of it. There are occasionally groups of like-minded dogmatists who control resources for decades, and there are other nonscientific processes, like groupthink and the constant chase to study whatever is currently being funded (funding being determined, often, by distinctly nonscientific forces). Again, these human factors are (hopefully) not dominant, but they exert influence on the process. In pointing out the follies of journalists, I worry about swinging the pendulum too far back, painting the scientific world as more of a well-oiled, egalitarian machine than it actually is.
    adaptivecomplexity
    There's plenty of evidence that conformity, culture, cognitive biases, hegemonies, etc. are an integral part of the way scientific knowledge develops.

    I agree - science is a human endeavor, and has plenty of human failings. But I think the piece in question made some especially egregious claims - such as the idea that sexual selection was just taken as dogma since the 19th century. In the natural sciences at least, it is almost never true that a major theory is just taken as dogma, without any subsequent testing or questioning.

    It is true that a major theory can be wrong, and perhaps more minor ideas are taken for granted without as much testing as they should get.

    Mike
    bobbyfiend
    No argument there. I was a little shocked at the overly-(falsely?)-iconoclastic tone of a couple of Roughgarden's alleged quotes. You have certainly picked a good example of someone trading on a combination of zeitgeist and that underdog myth to promote their science. A slightly different example of the nitty-gritty humanity inherent in the processes of science.(@jselani: sentence fragment and word "quotes" both used consciously)
    Hank
    I'm always surprised when anyone outside science claims that scientists are circling the wagons around some pet theory that would otherwise be proven false. I know a pretty good number of scientists, engineers and mathematicians and the one consistent trait among those many diverse personalities is a love of screwing with each other, especially if the data or methodology is bad.

    In the case of Dr. White, there is also the chance he will use agar and Edgar Renteria in ways of which neither are intended (@jselani - I recognize my grammar is prob'ly bad in this sentence but I are not so good at that english stuff).



    adaptivecomplexity
    there is also the chance he will use agar and Edgar Renteria in ways of which neither are intended

    You make it sound so much worse than it is - I'm not depraved, really I'm not.

    And the only guy who called me Dr. White around here before was John, and I think he ruined the title.

    Mike

    Mike
    parasubvert
    An interesting current "underdog argument" is occurring Gary Taubes' recent book "Good Calories, Bad Calories", about the dogma that public policy debates create in the face of a lack of scientific evidence. It's a weighty tome, but seems to indicate there may be a true case of a body of science -- the underdog being the biology of fat accumulation -- being ignored in studies of obeisty, diet, and nutrition, because it doesn't fit with accepted public policy, regardless of scientific evidence.
    PeterLC
    One more flaw the article should have mentions: the desire of journalists to spot history-defining moments as they happen and then immediately deliver an authoritative account. Authors want to live history, live the dates that will be mentioned in a college class fifty years from now. But identifying the inception of a key scientific idea is not possible on the same time scale as copy deadlines. Too many aspects of an idea are unclear: its veracity, its potential to spur other research, and its effects on other disciplines. We only endow moments with historical significance many years later.
    T Ryan Gregory
    Nicely done. That makes me think about re-posting my anatomy of a bad science story here...
    adaptivecomplexity
    If you post your story here, then science journalists will really hate us here!

    But it is a common complaint among scientists, and a lot of science bloggers have written about it - it's fine to portray people with their human failings in science, but it's easy to confuse criticism and skepticism, which are key elements of science, with personality conflicts. We all get papers rejected and we have people criticize our work - that's the way it's supposed to happen.

    Mike
    Comstock
    Nice post. I'm on board with your argument as far as the science is concerned. But as a writer, I'm hung up on this
    it's great to have an editor who cares about skilled writing...
    What has Jonah Lehrer done that qualifies as skilled writing? Your critique here suggests he is not skilled. If you are familiar with his book "Proust Was A Neuroscientist," you would be further inclined to note the lack of skill.
    adaptivecomplexity
    I meant that as a more general comment about what Richard Preston says he was looking for when he picked selections for the 2007 volume (I know my comment wasn't clear), and I purposely avoided branching out into a critique of the craft of writing itself. I'll admit that I wasn't as impressed with many of the selections in the 2007 volume - volumes from other years have been better.

    I haven't read "Proust Was A Neuroscientist" (I just saw the big review in the NY Times) and I'm less inclined to now. I should add that I don't think this one Seed piece is representative of all science journalism - there are some great science writers out there.

    Mike
    Hank
    I haven't read "Proust Was A Neuroscientist" (I just saw the big review in the NY Times) and I'm less inclined to now.

    That Lehrer guy is having a bad day here. I am betting he doesn't read science sites, so it's okay.

    burkp
    If the article writer is saying that most historical figures in science are rarely underdogs, his view would depend on how one defines "historical figures in science." For instance, of the thousands of individuals who engaged in scientific research throughout recorded history, only a tiny fraction have been persecuted for their work, but that is hardly surprising. They didn't discover anything. In my view, this is not a logical framework from which to argue against Lehrer's approach to characterizing the reception given Roughgarden by her peers, as the jury is still out on both Roughgarden and the vetting process applied to her theories. But, his argument against Roughgarden for overstating the case with regard to Darwin has merit because he was able to cite evidence that Darwin had been publicly questioned over the years by others in his field. What I feel is far more interesting with regard to the idea of scientific suppression is the considerable persecution endured by those whose discoveries did greatly impact or *might* have impacted civilization had their work been respected. In many cases, the magnitude of their theories or deeds seemed directly proportional to the degree of persecution they suffered even if the source of that angst was not a scientific body. It's also worth pointing out that "dogma" is at times a relativistic term, in that a theory subject to challenge might yet be considered the de facto premise from which to argue in favor of a (presumed) needed revision, so the article here may not have argued as effectively against Roughgarden's sentiment after all. [Note: I'm sorry this response addressed you, Michael, as a third party, it was originally posted in "Topix" ABOUT your article before I knew about the blog. I didn't feel like re-working it. Also, I'm clearly playing devil's advocate with you, which is only possible with a well written piece. Thanks.]
    Our primal experience is to feel rather than to think. Our thoughts are ideas about experiences. We use words self referentially to express thoughts and we think in those same words. We mistake a conversation with ourselves for reason. But a conversation
    adaptivecomplexity
    Thanks for reading, and it's perfectly fine to repost comments without reworking them.

    I haven't followed the Topix discussion, so I don't have all of the context for your comment, but I'm not so sure that, at least in the last 150 years of 'professionalized science', that the scientists who made the most earth-shattering discoveries were the ones who faced the most opposition. The physicists who developed relativity, quantum mechanics, nuclear physics, for example, had to work hard to put together enough evidence to overcome the initial skepticism they faced, but, with a few exceptions of individual scientists who were never convinced of these new ideas, Einstein, Heisenberg, Pauli, Born, Bethe, were not treated with unjustified skepticism by a hostile establishment. The same is true of Darwin, the early 20th century geneticists, and the ground-breaking molecular biologists of the 50's and 60's.

    What I'm complaining about in my piece is the frequent media portrayal of scientific skepticism as something arbitrary and negative, as something based not on an evaluation of evidence, but on unthinking acceptance of established ideas. 'Oppressed underdog' news stories take scientific debates and write about them as if they were political debates - which is not really how science works. If scientific debates didn't center on evidence, science wouldn't be the successful effort that it is - we wouldn't be able to build nuclear reactors, make glowing, transgenic pet fish, or image the intricate details inside of your brain.

    Mike

    Mike
    burkp
    I appreciate your follow up. I think part of your discussion shows how difficult it is to treat this subject broadly. For instance, you noted the relative freedom from persecution experienced by scientific innovators during, especially, the last 150 years. It’s an important distinction. What has shaped society’s adaptation to scientific progress, for instance, over the various Middle Ages until the present? It’s clear that church dogma and science were closely intertwined during the pre-modern era. Even today we can see the effects of these tensions at work in legislative and religious bodies. I would make the point that scientists have endured greater risk depending on the period in which their work was made known. You also said that “...physicists who developed relativity, quantum mechanics, nuclear physics, for example, had to work hard to put together enough evidence to overcome the initial skepticism they faced, but, with a few exceptions of individual scientists who were never convinced of these new ideas, Einstein, Heisenberg, Pauli, Born, Bethe, were not treated with unjustified skepticism by a hostile establishment.” True. It’s also the case that these scientists were no longer living in an era of monocratic rule by the Church, while these same insights in the earlier period could have earned them an early death. What I seem to be saying is that I don’t disagree with you but rather see this issue of scientific suppression as being a spectral phenomenon rooted in religious ideology over time. This would, arguably, explain how writers have come to voice more skeptical characterizations of people and events as the human subject of the story itself probably conveyed it. The characterization could indeed be misleading, yet from the point of view of the one written about, entirely accurate. You said the media should be faulted for its “frequent portrayal of scientific skepticism as something arbitrary and negative, as something based not on an evaluation of evidence, but on unthinking acceptance of established ideas..." If such a claim is made without attribution to offending parties, it deserves to be rejected. However, what if a writer is expressing a sentiment arguably true of some characters, but not all? What if he is right half the time but you can’t know which half? Where does interpretation of the facts begin and the facts end? Exceeding the bounds of poetic license is indeed a writer’s least definable hazard -- even the term is prejudicial. What if the facts are well-vetted and readers still find the material designed for histrionics? This is certainly the best argument for reading more than one book on a given subject. The best example of how such influences can move in opposite directions is with regard to the biography, which might avoid a separate narrative about the validity of a character's feelings or make those feelings the core of the work. The approach chosen would depend on several things, including how the writer perceives his human subject, how others who knew the subject conveyed their own perceptions, the degree of importance a writer places on his own investigations, or even the writer’s ability to see through an alternate lens. Most interesting of all (and the reason I chose to respond), was your statement that “’Oppressed underdog’ news stories take scientific debates and write about them as if they were political debates - which is not really how science works. If scientific debates didn't center on evidence, science wouldn't be the successful effort that it is.” There is a lot of evidence, in my view, that both politics and religion play an enormous role in how science moves forward (or doesn’t) regardless of the appropriateness of these factors. FDA whistle-blower David Graham on the Vioxx scandal, Dr. William Marcus’ firing by EPA (and later reinstatement by court order) when he disclosed troublesome data from water fluoridation studies, the affects of legislation on stem cell research due to political and religious ideologies -- all examples of how these have converged to shape our present scientific milieu. Just as you can’t separate the issue of public health from scientific research or political and religious views from overlapping, it’s impossible to argue that science has fallen into a vacuum. These are synergies impossible to be unwound, they are inextricably linked, they are part of who we are. A short article of interest I saw for the first time tonight: http://www.100welshheroes.com/en/biography/professorbrianjosephson. Again, Mike, I enjoyed the discussion. If there is a last word, it’s yours. Peter
    Our primal experience is to feel rather than to think. Our thoughts are ideas about experiences. We use words self referentially to express thoughts and we think in those same words. We mistake a conversation with ourselves for reason. But a conversation
    adaptivecomplexity
    Thanks for the discussion, and please do come back.

    My perspective in writing this article was much more limited than the scope you bring up: I live in the world of professional academic science, in which scientific debates are not what happens in the public arena, but what goes on in journals and in specialized conferences. When I wrote about scientific progress and 'myths' of oppression, all that I had in mind was what goes on in today's professionalized scientific community - which is where I consider most fundamental scientific progress to take place.

    In that setting, although politicized debates do exist, you have a community of professionals who pride themselves on being able to quickly spot a compelling new idea - even if it runs contrary to more established, personally cherished ideas. There is an element of professional detachment, much like a good defense lawyer doing his job no matter how distasteful the client, and this professionalism, which is the norm in pro science, can get lost in media portrayals of scientific debates.

    When you expand this discussion back into history, or into the relationship between government and science, then oppression and political oppression of underdogs is a much more common scenario.

    Mike

    Mike
    "Does this mean that there are problems with our current understanding of sexual selection in evolutionary theory?" Pretty sure, the answer is no

    The history of science is full of underdogs. Why are you, T. Ryan Gregory, and some of your other blogging colleagues so unwilling to honor the struggles that so many men and women have endured?

    adaptivecomplexity
    You've completely missed the point of the article. The history of science is NOT full of underdogs in the sense that it's described here:
    In the underdog narrative, it is wrong for the establishment to remain skeptical, which in reality is exactly the opposite of how science is supposed to work. It is not like a courtroom where innocence is the presumption; in science, a novel idea is unfounded until proven otherwise. And Roughgarden's publication record, impressive as it is, is not evidence that her hypothesis is correct.
    This is how it's supposed to work:
    The real story is an example of science operating the way it is supposed operate: a researcher comes up with new and very interesting observations that seem to challenge our current understanding of an important problem. She works to put those observations under some sort of theoretical framework, and presents the results in a paper to her scientific peers. Her fellow scientists think the work is interesting, but remain unconvinced because the evidence or theoretical development is not yet sufficient to support the hypothesis. What should happen next is that our researcher should go out and collect more evidence, correct any mistakes in the analysis or make a persuasive reply to her critics, and try again. 
    Sometimes the persuasion takes decades of struggle and accumulation of evidence - as it did for natural selection, plate tectonics, the idea that DNA is the genetic material, etc.
    Mike
    logicman
    In the history of science, some of it's most famous names have been "underdogs" outside of science.

    For some reason which I have never been able to fathom, legislators do not like to have nitroglycerine manufactured in their immediate vicinity.  Alfred Nobel persisted in his struggle against such uninformed politicians until he was made welcome in Ardeer, Scotland.  The rest is ...
    Did you intentionally leave out the parallel to climate change science and the emergence of a hardheaded public that has latched on to the underdog narrative to cast doubt on a phenomenon that is well established in the scientific community?

    Hank
    We call that 'skepticism' which is usually a good thing.   In defense of skeptics just this once, there are some really bad numerical models out there in climate science just like there are in every other science.

    In biology, when results are hyped or models are flawed, biologists are the first ones pointing out the flaws - likewise in physics.  In climate science, others only point out flaws when they dislike the result.  Otherwise, they circle the wagons, like the blatant frauds reported a month ago.

    Yes, the science is solid in the notion that pollution is bad but a committee that votes on a result of global warming temperature rise is not 'well established' science, it is politics.
    I agree that "a committee that votes on a result of global warming temperature rise is not 'well established' science, it is politics." But, there is solid science behind global warming, Hank, e.g. from NOAA and the USGS as well as other sources. Unfortunately, that's not the stuff that gets into the media. This has become both a political as well as a media circus. I've been involved in debates over global warming where I finally had to step back and say, "you people are more concerned about whose sources are more credible than you are about the science and the issue at hand!"

    A part of the problem is that climate science is not well defined as is physics and biology. You have people from a multitude of disciplines and there is no central body and no peer review. It's in large part because this is a new science that evolved out of a crisis. The problem is, unlike physics or biology, if someone screws up or doctors data it doesn't have an effect on the global community. In fact most people are oblivious to what goes on in physics or biology. But, when people try to profit from or gain political clout by means of the issue of global warming it puts everyone in jeopardy. I think it should be taken out of the hands of politicians and people like Al Gore who just confuse the issue even more and create divisions in the public perception of the problem, and be put in the hands of an internationally form team of the best scientists from many fields and their research should be subject to peer review just like any other science. This is too serious of a problem to allow short-sighted idiots to be in charge.

    Tell me, how many people know what methane hydrate is? But, that's not the worst of it, by any means. I dare anyone in this forum to tell me what the super greenhouse gases are. Forget about CO2 or methane! I'll bet not one single person in this entire forum even knows even one of the super greenhouse gases!

    Looks like I may have another article in the works! LOL ;-)
    logicman
    I'll bet not one single person in this entire forum even knows even one of the super greenhouse gases!

    HFCs.

    "Didn't hear How much the bet was."
    "Your Life."
    (A few dollars more.)
    That certainly is one of them, Patrick. The irony of it is that hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) were used to replace ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs or freons). But, this is the problem when dealing with new chemical compounds. What they didn't know is that hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) have 14,800 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide! And there are even more potent greenhouse gases than HFCs!

    Congratulations, Patrick! You proved me wrong. Well done!

    P.S.

    The wager is everyone's life! ;-)

    Maybe I won't have to write an article after all. The truth is that I hate to write! LOL
    Gerhard Adam
    Well, just off the top of my head, the only one I can think of is Trifluoromethyl sulfur pentafluoride.  But then it's been a busy week :)
    Mundus vult decipi
    MarshallBarnes
    "If a new theory is being presented in the media as the centerpiece of an underdog narrative, you can bet the farm that this theory is not yet sufficiently substantiated by the evidence."

    That wouldn't be a wise thing to do. It depends on what the underdog narrative is and a few other factors. With over 30 years experience dealing with the media and seeing how it has gotten dumbed down, I can say you never know what in a report is inaccurate because of the subject of the report or the reporter or copy editor being a moron and leaving important facts out. Important facts to scientists but just extraneous details to an editor.

    Also, if the underdog narrative doesn't feature the element of resistance on the part of the scientific community, that would be an indication that the evidence is substantial enough, if not overwhelming. You can have an underdog narrative without the scientific establishment as "bad guy" element.