The main stream media (“MSM”) frequently treat us to dramatic stories of “scientific controversies” supposedly playing themselves out before our eyes. However, while such stories might make for exciting reading, they are seldom especially informative as regards to scientific inquiry itself.
The reasons for this are not hard to find: any reasoned inquiry requires patience, discipline, depth and commitment, none of which readily express themselves in 15 second sound bytes or breathless “he said/she said” paragraphs that rush ahead of the facts in the name of “balance.”
Real scientific controversies casually require decades to play themselves out, and MSM journalists generally have neither the time nor the training to follow such play with the kind of nuance required to accurately portray them.
Also a word should be offered here about the use of the term “controversy.” Simply because some braying male Equus africanus asinus in a lab smock announces a contrarian position in front of cameras and microphones this does not indicate the logical reality of a controversy regarding either theory or evidence (nor is the situation improved if the lab smock actually has a name embroidered on it!) It involves no significant difficulty of any kind to find someone with an earned Ph.D who will enthusiastically spout the most infantile nonsense imaginable.
And while such frenetic kerygmas are attention grabbers, making for vivid images and commentary on the cable and broadcast channels, they also make for little beyond cognitively vacuous barnyard noise. For a simple rule of thumb is in operation here: the greater the histrionic production, the lower the logical content. Contrariety is not the same thing as controversy, not when we are presuming to operate in some logically robust area of inquiry. And if our area of operation is not logically robust, it scarcely merits the label of “inquiry” at all.
So I propose to offer some quick and dirty rules here for separating real from faux controversies. Afterwards, I will briefly sketch a real controversy that is “raging” in the literature – the real, that is scientific literature – even as I type. That said, permit me to offer the following heuristic rules.
Rule #1: The Media IS just a Circus:
The contemporary MSM (at least) is generally driven by rhetoric and marketing; what gets attended to is that which puts on the best show. But this is not a standard by which any claim, argument, or piece of evidence ought to be evaluated. “Performance art” is not the same as cognitive content. Indeed, the noisier the rhetoric, the likelier it is funded by people who could care less about the facts, as these interfere with their profit margins. This leads to,
Rule #2: Follow the Money:
The simple fact of the matter is, there is seldom any real money in telling the truth. This means that the people who do so must be seriously committed ( http://sj.blacksteel.com/ ) . However, nothing will so frequently overwhelm earnest commitment as a tsunami of “filthy lucre.” Well funded liars will readily garner much more media attention than determined investigators of genuine integrity, particularly in the earliest stages of the process of garnering public attention. So as in any good mystery, one of the best ways of getting the measure of a claimant is to look at such person's funding.
But it is not a simple matter of numbers, it is also a matter of where those numbers are coming from. What kind of agenda is behind that money, and what kind of real power does the scale of that money have to impose an agenda that cannot otherwise be won by honest inquiry? Is profit the motive, or truth? People will lie for power, but how many will dissemble for the facts?
Rule #3: Follow the Publications:
Here, of course, I mean the real publications, the peer-reviewed literature and not the popular dog-and-pony shows. Make no mistake, the peer-review process is far from perfect . Nevertheless, what is notable about such issues is that they do get tend to get weeded out in time, because over time the wrong or fraudulent claims made in the research literature will typically prove to be either false, irreproducible or irrelevant .
One should note in this regard that scientists in general are less motivated by truth than they are by the fame and glory that comes with saying something spectacular and new, and that will stand up to further scrutiny (generally speaking, that only happens when what you have to say is true, or at least truer, than what other people have said.) Scientific journals, on the other hand, feed and filter this desire for glory by their own such desires. But in this case, their (the journals) reputations (the foundation of their desire for glory) is predicated upon their publishing only such materials as can be justified by robust logical means and that can “stand up to further scrutiny.”
Truth, while not irrelevant, is less important than the pragmatics of research. Consequently, if a claim is so vapid and vacuous that it can not pass muster in the peer-reviewed literature, then this is particularly substantive evidence that the claim lacks any real scientific or logical merit. Whining about the profound nature of one's “truth” is meaningless if one cannot support it with real scientific research.
Rule #4: Whimpering about Conspiracies
Conspiracies do occur. However, as soon as the conspiracy becomes more elaborate than the plans for a surprise birthday party (which never really surprises anyone, by the bye) then alarms should be going off. Any conspiracy that involves more than five people will generally fall apart of its own inoperable mass as soon as it is conspired; the idea of one that involves tens of thousands of people acting in unbreakable lock-step is pathetic infantilism.
As a rule, if you simply reject conspiracy theories outright without even listening to the most elementary gloss of their claims, you will be right so many more times than you are wrong for rejecting them that people will think you are some kind of bloody psychic.
So when individuals or groups with significant motivations to manufacture Red Herrings http://www.fallacyfiles.org/redherrf.html (see Rule #2) aggressively and publicly (see Rule #1) pule and whine about massive conspiracies by people with infinitely fewer resources than themselves (see Rule #2) suppressing the glorious “Truth” that just happens to protect their profit margins (see Rules #3 and #2), then this is what we in the industry sometimes refer to as a “clue” that the would-be contrarians lack any real evidence.
Rule #5: Consensus is a Clue
It is only a clue, but it is a clue. Consensus does not make the facts, but for non-experts it is a powerful indicator of what the facts are, wherein they are to be found, and how they are to be interpreted. When substantive consensus has been formed, those who would presume to challenge that consensus are obliged to make their case rather than ostentatiously puling and whining about how unfair it all is.
The consensus can certainly be mistaken; the example given below is arguably an instance of this . But the circumstances of this example in the context of Rules 1 – 4 above make such an argument as least rationally justifiable, even if it is ultimately wrong. Absent such robust evidence – or worse, in the countervailing presence of the above discussed negative indicators – then the consensus is an especially good piece of evidence.
Rule #6: Is the Alternative Even Science?
In some respects, this might be a subheading to Rule #3, since that is one of the most practical tests of genuine research. But the point deserves emphasis independently of the publication issue. Any claim that is genuinely scientific will have some possible notion of falsification, some systematic research program in hand, some viable context of puzzle solving definable by its underlying theoretical claims, and so forth. The above is obviously a gloss on the ideas of Popper, Lakatos, and Kuhn respectively. If I need to cite those, then take yourself out back and have someone you love slap the snot out of you.
All of the above “rules” are heuristics and not absolutes. Nevertheless, they can be usefully applied to real world situations. Such application is always a matter of practical balance rather than demonstrative proof. Nevertheless, the above considerations now bring us to the promised example.
An Example of a Real Controversy:
First, if my personal experience is applicable here, the odds are that few persons reading this article are even aware of this controversy, despite the fact that this is a specifically science oriented site.
The controversy itself is over the Standard Model  of cosmology, and its central theoretical structure of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. There are numerous problems with the Standard Model, including philosophical issues relating to the logic of measurement (see note ). But among the purely scientific issues, the Standard Model requires the introduction of such hopelessly ad hoc and utterly undetectable “features” as Cold-Dark-Matter (“CDM”), “dark energy” (“negative energy” was always a much better term, but it never took hold in the literature) among others.
The Standard Model is unable to address the rather gross failure of the microwave background to conform to the Gaussian predictions. And there are empirically and mathematically viable alternatives to the Standard Model that do not suffer from these problems. Nevertheless, even amongst “initiates” many of these alternatives are not only not taken seriously, but not even known. So there is certainly a failure here of Rule 5 – the consensus runs overwhelmingly against alternatives to the Standard Model.
– Nevertheless, one can readily note that by Rule 1, there is no media interest polluting the issues, this is why you haven't already heard about it.
– By Rule 2 the money largely balances out. While there are certainly vested interests in the Standard Model, the ultimate vestment is in the production of real science, and so neither the numbers nor the sources trigger any sense of suspicion.
– Rule 3 is easily tested by going to the literature. One can enter the following boolean search at arxiv.org: (gravity OR gravitation) AND (bimetric OR mond OR teves)
The first disjunct of the conjunction focuses the search on theories relating to gravity, thus directing the search toward physical cosmology. The second disjunct highlights terms common to alternatives to the Einsteinian base: “bimetric” theories split Einstein's single metric into one for gravity and a second for geometry; “MoND” is an abbreviation for “Modified Newtonian Dynamic” which adjusts Newtonian theory of gravity (often in a bimetric framework); while “TeVeS” stands for “Tensor-Vector-Scalar” which, again, takes an alternative approach to space and gravity from that of Einstein (and is also, often, a more specific form of the broad family of bimetric theories). In addition, one can go to the web page of the Alternative Cosmology group at http://www.cosmology.info/index.html and go back through their news letters for an in depth consideration of the publications supporting their position as disputants to the Standard Model.
– Per Rule 4, there is certainly a great deal of complaint about the systematic disregard by the majority of the evidence and theories presented by the minority, but it does not (other than in vanishingly few exceptions) resort to the kind of childish hand-wringing one gets in conspiracy theories.
– Rule 5 has been mentioned above. Rule 6 is clearly met by the robust research programs and testable (and tested!) theories proposed as alternatives to the Standard Model. One can easily imagine tests beyond those that have already appeared in the literature. The data from Grav Probe B http://einstein.stanford.edu/ s still quite new (consider how long WMAP http://map.gsfc.nasa.gov/ has been in operation, yet just this last May (2009) a paper has been submitted noting fundamental flaws in the interpretation of the data http://arxiv.org/abs/0905.0075 .) Deep space probes that could directly test the relation between gravitational and geometrical metrics could undoubtedly be developed. All that is lacking is the money and will to do so.
Thus, we have here what is quite reasonably recognized as a genuine scientific controversy.
 By which I mean the various incarnations of the “Times,” the “Posts,” the cable and broadcast networks, etc. Specifically scientific organs, even those directed toward a popular audience, will often avoid the kind of problems I'll be discussing here, and present the scientific facts in a manner that does not cave in to the spineless and factfree “he said/she said” drivel the MSM typically presents in the name of “fairness.” Facts, in case you are interested, care nothing about what is “fair.”
 I had been planning on writing this piece for a little while now, when Real Climate posted on a similar topic: http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2009/07/science-at-the-bleeding-edge/
 Male = “jack”, Equus africanus asinus = “ass”.
 Admittedly my sense of humor is not always funny. Actually, the particular form of systematized institutionalization of relevance here is generally known as “Grad School.” But such commitment by itself is still no guarantee of anything; as already noted above, having an earned Ph.D (with or without the lab smock) is not enough to ensure that one is not a fool. And yes, I am aware of the self-reflective nature of those remarks.
 See, for instance, The Great Betrayal: Fraud in Science, Horace Freeland Judson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004. Judson focuses primarily on problems in biomedical research and publication.
 For a fraud to never be found out it would have to be so irrelevant that no one ever looked at it again. Such things do not make for controversies of any kind, since no one even cares enough to notice them padding a CV.
 I actually side with the minority in this instance, albeit for philosophical and logical reasons. For an extended discussion of why, feel free to see my book, Whitehead and the Measurement Problem of Cosmology, Ontos-Verlag, Frankfurt/Lancaster/New Brunswick, Process Thought V, May 2006.
 As twisted as my sense of humor undoubtedly is, I still cannot bring myself to abbreviate this as “SM”.
What Does A Real Scientific Controversy Look Like?