[Note: This is the second entry in the How Not to Argue series.]
In his 1975 book Thinking About Thinking, philosopher Anthony Flew outlined a form of argument that he dubbed the “No True Scotsman”fallacy:
Argument: “No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”
Reply: “But my uncle Angus likes sugar with his porridge.”
Rebuttal: “Ah yes, but no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”
Although this fallacy can be found in almost any debate, it is particularly prone to be bandied about on matters of politics, science, or–as has become increasingly common–politicized science. In fact, the argument is used so often on issues such as intelligent design, global warming, and stem cell research that we could call it the “No True Scientist” fallacy.
The phrasing of the argument ranges from the bold to the subtle. Critics of intelligent design hypotheses are often quite explicit in their ad hominems and are open about excluding anyone from the fold who disagrees with the party line. A similar hardening of opinion is occurring on climate change.
Recently, while explaining why he didn’t attend a recent Congressional hearing on global warming, Dr. James E. Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, recently told journalists:
I would get out of my sickbed to testify to Congress on global warming, if they were ready to deal responsibly with the matter. But obviously they are still in denial, inviting contrarians to ‘balance’ the science of global warming.
The “contrarian” Hansen refers to is John Christy, professor of Atmospheric Science and Director of the Earth System Science Center at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and one of the lead authors of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Obviously, Christy is a contrarian since “No True Scientist” could dispute the fact of man-made global warming.
Stem cell research is also becoming an area of science that is beyond questioning. In a recent article in Time magazine, Douglas Melton, a co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, said:
There are camps for adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells. But these camps only exist in the political arena. There is no disagreement among scientists over the need to aggressively pursue both in order to solve important medical problems.
The assertion will certainly come as a surprise to James Sherley, an associate professor of biological engineering at MIT. Sherley is likely not alone in his skepticism. But as he points out, the No True Scientist argument can hinder free expression of opinion on the issue:
Many scientists who do not support human embryo research are afraid to speak out because of possible reprisals from powerful scientists who can affect grant success, publication acceptances, tenure promotion, and employment.
Sherley’s MIT colleague, Richard Lindzen, the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Atmospheric Science, finds the same stifling of opinion on global warming:
Scientists who dissent from the alarmism have seen their grant funds disappear, their work derided, and themselves libeled as industry stooges, scientific hacks or worse. Consequently, lies about climate change gain credence even when they fly in the face of the science that supposedly is their basis.
One of the ur-myths of science (recently retold by biologist E.O. Wilson) is that the community of scientists is open to dissenting views and unique perspectives. Galileo would probably disagree, as would Georges LeMaitre (Big Bang theory), Stephen Hawking (black hole evaporation), Theodore Maiman (the laser), and Mitchell J. Feigenbaum (chaos theory). All of these scientists had their ideas rejected because they did not fit into consensus view of the scientific community.
As author Michael Crichton notes, “Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you’re being had.”
Science requires the collection and interpretation of data. Consensus, therefore, requires that there be no significant dispute on either the data (e.g., its relevance) or it interpretation. On readily testable theories such as gravity, consensus is possible. On disputed matters such as whether man is the primary cause of global climate change, consensus is neither possible nor necessarily desirable.
The scientific community is not infallible, which is why disagreements over data and its interpretation should be robust and thoughtfully engaged. While claiming that “No true scientist believes X” or “No true scientist doubts Y” may be the easiest way to dismiss dissenters, it is often counterproductive. The slow-witted and simple minded may be dazzled by academic credentials and institutional affiliations but most thoughtful people are harder to fool. They recognize that No True Scientist should fear honest inquiry and solid arguments — even when their colleagues disagree.