The Value of Dissenting Views

By Michael Edmonds 14/06/2011 15

One of the things I like about sciblogs is that the bloggers here allow dissenting comments to be posted on their blogs. I think there are some very good reasons for allowing all but the most obnoxious or incoherent comments.

First, dissenting views can provide me with new information, which I can compare to what I already know about a topic. Usually a little research shows that the new information is erroneous or cannot be substantiated, however, occasionally something useful and or interesting can be found. A tiny bit of wheat amongst the chaff, which may be worth investigating further.

Second, dissenting views allow me to examine how easily science can be misunderstood. In my experience many problems come from the cherry picking of data, accepting the word of dubious “experts”, belief in scientific conspiracies, accepting the emotive over the rational and a general misunderstanding of what science is all about.

Over at Grant’s recent post on  “should children be sent home from school if they aren’t vaccinated“, one rather zealous antivaxxer has bombarded the site with various dubious arguments against vaccination. As well as demonstrating all of the problems I describe above, this persistant antivaxxer also engages in what is sometimes referred to as the Gish Gallop – a technique that involves bombarding one’s opponent with a torrent of half-truths, unsubstantiated beliefs and strawman arguments. When another poster effectively counters one of his arguments he seldom replies other than to shift his argument from one point to another (commonly referred to as “shifting the goalposts”).

Third, only by exposing and countering erroneous and anti-scientific ideas can we help to provide the public with a better understanding of science. Ignoring or suppressing them only allows them to fester. Many anti-scientific posters cannot maintain their arguments for long in the glare of scientific questioning, and may devolve into insults, further giving the reader a true measure of their position (or lack thereof).

Compared to the majority of scientific sites many anti-scientific sites will block dissenting views, allowing their members to wallow in intellectual stagnancy and to indoctrinate new members into their cult of ignorance. Yet, these are the same sites that complain about their ideas being suppressed. How ironic.

15 Responses to “The Value of Dissenting Views”

  • I don’t agree with that. 🙂

    It’s true though, we should resist the temptation to create our own self-contained echo chamber. That way madness lies.

  • looks like I might have to ban you, Darcy! 🙂

    The other thing I should have mentioned, which I think a lot of people don’t understand is that dissent is important in science, but it has to be informed dissent, not contrarianism.
    When an scientists makes a discovery that disagrees with current scientific theories he or she must dissent, BUT they must provide evidence to support their hypothesis or theory.

    I fear the average lay person, hears so much about scientific consensus these days that they do not understand (informed) dissent is a key part of science

  • mmm, I think the fact that media reports tend to ignore the tentative nature of a lot of scientific finds/rulings/statements does us a grave disservice.

  • Alison,

    That’s part of what my post inspired by reading the XMRV story,* suggesting that media report on ‘the state of play’ was aimed at. Rather than say ‘so-and-so says’, try learn or ask people what the state of play is.

    * Back then. The state of play is a whole lot clearer now.

  • I’m sure there’s a name for a habit like that.

    That echo-chamber thing is true though. Look at the story on Pharyngula, where it turns out that blog posts supposedly made by a young (Syrian?) woman, detailing the ongoing unrest there, were actually made by a European male. Yes, he got dumped on, & rightly so, but there’s also the question of why it took so long for reality to surface. Did people simply accept the story at face value because it reflected things that they wanted to hear, or felt ‘must’ be like that? It’s a salutary reminder, I think, that we all have our blind spots.

  • Hypergraphia sub footnote? ‘A variation of hypergrapia resulting in unrestrained urge to insert footnotes.’ (I’m kidding. For those that are curious: hypergraphia is a named condition – a compulsive urge to write. There’s also hyperlexia – compulsive reading. I meant ages ago to review The Midnight Disease, which describes some of these things. I’d better stop or I’ll write a post in the comments – Alison knows something about that. [It’s got a bit to do with how I started blogging…])

    Seriously though, I know what you mean about blind spots. Science does come with an element of accepting the raw data. It‘s the conclusions that are doubted, the interpretations of the data. (Another one of my posts touched on an aspect of that from a remark that Lawrence Krauss made, words to the effect that you can’t change the data, the data are the data. In a sense it leaves you vulnerable if the raw data is fabricated.

  • Hi all… Censorship is alive and well in sciblogdom…

    Grant recently posted on


    However well-tempered your latest comment is I have to be consistent – you get to start over in a new thread. It’s a pity in some ways as the objections you raise are worth bringing up so that they might be corrected for other reader’s benefit, but ‘them’s the breaks’ as the saying goes.

    His objections aside, Ron wishes to express that he doesn’t agree with much of what Erwin has presented here.”

    Here’s the post that Grant censored…

    “Rosalind said:
    “BTW, Erwin, whatever your views of the rights or wrongs of vaccination, do you think a school does the right thing to send a child home rather than risk having them exposed to a highly infectious disease to which they have no immunity? If not, why not?”

    Rosalind, I am not answering on Edwin’s behalf, and wish to go on record that not only do I not agree with much of what Edwin has said, but I also disagree with much of it…

    With respect it was not the school that made the decision… it was the Medical Officer of Health who instructed the school.

    Secondly, I recall you said yesterday that no one knows whether they have immunity or not unless they get tested. You even said that applied to people vaccinated. So therefore, no one knows whether these unvaccinated children are immune or not. What we do know from many studies, however, is that a single injection of the MMR vaccine induces measles haemagglutination-inhibition (HI) antibodies in 95 percent of cases. This means that on average there would be 20 or more students at the school vaccinated, but with no vaccine induced antibodies.

    A question I have is this… if a child is not immune, whether vaccinated or not, what is the risk of any harm if they become infected in a controlled way so that they can be monitored and treated for infection as required. I also ask the question, wouldn’t any existing immunity be enhanced by coming into contact with wild virus on occasion? We know that vaccine induced immunity wears off… so a few wild infections may well act as an immune booster to the already immune. So could it be argued that the few non-immune folk do society a favour by ensuring that immune systems remain topped up.”

  • I was in two minds as to whether I should allow the previous posting by Ron on my blog, given it is not really related to this topic.
    However, given I am only inclined to block posts that are obnoxious or incoherent, I chose to allow it.
    Ron’s comments were blocked from one of Grant Jacobs posts after repeated warnings that his comments were not acceptable.

    Each blogger has the right to block posters who they feel are not contributing appropriately to the conversation. I’ve read many of Grant’s postings and know that this is a step he very rarely takes and only after giving the person repeated warnings.

    With regards to your comments Ron, a couple of your questions leave me confused.

    When you state
    “So therefore, no one knows whether these unvaccinated children are immune or not.” I would have thought that unless the child had experienced the symptoms of the corresponding disease then it would be reasonable to assume that they would not be immune. Immunity only comes from infection/immunisation does it not?

    Also your comment about:
    “what is the risk of any harm if they become infected in a controlled way so that they can be monitored and treated for infection as required.”
    I’m not quite sure what you mean by “infected in a controlled way”? It would be impossible to anticipate an individuals reaction to any virus, which is why immunization – the use of inactive virus – is considered much safer.

  • One really good approach to a variety of views on a topic is to refine the views to, say, 3 or 5 or more groups. When I was involved in a District Council this is how the bureaucrats ordered submissions on bylaws. So for Dogs on Beaches the 5 might be:
    A Dogs should be permitted on all beaches all of the time running freely
    B Dogs should be permitted on all beaches some of the time running freely
    C Dogs should be permitted on some beaches some of the time running freely
    D Dogs should be permitted on some beaches some of the time but strictly on a leash
    E Dogs should not be permitted on any beaches at any time
    (No topic stirs local ratepayers like dogs on beaches)

    So there are no dissenters in each of the group’s view. Input can be positive in support of that group view rather than just knocking other views. Contributors can preface their comments with I’m in group X and then proceed.
    This was done for views on proposed District Plan (Town planning) Changes as well.

  • Censorship is alive and well in sciblogdom…

    Trust Ron to lie about me. Sigh

    This misrepresents what happened. I did not censor Ron. It seems he prefers to lie about me rather than look at his own actions.

    Ron knows how it works, I’ve explained it to him several times: if he repeatedly slurs or abuses others, writes childish taunts, persists in being argumentative, etc., etc., after I’ve asked him to lift his standards – he gets to sit out the rest of that comment thread. I even reiterated that to him earlier in the thread in question, but he persisted! He can’t complain, really.

    To make it simple, I offer him three strikes: on the third he’s out.

    Ron had already struck out before he sent in the comment above and he knows that – he harassed me about it. (I’ve since added a filter to junk anything from him.)

    Hence my reference to being consistent in my comment – rules aren’t meaningful or fair if they’re not applied consistently.

    Ron has a long-standing “thing” (whatever you want to call it) against me from many years ago. As for me – I just can’t be bothered. I’m flattered that he considers me such a threat, but my blog is my forum. I’m entitled to hold my blog to a higher standard of discussion.

    It’s a nuisance, naturally. I do give Ron opportunity to write on my blog despite my personal opinion of him, so clearly I don’t censor. I give him more than a fair chance – he just has to raise his game, that’s all. But he keeps failing: there’s the rub…

  • Colin MacGillivray,

    That’s an interesting idea, I can see the politicians game there 😉 Not saying it’s wrong-headed, but that there is a game afoot!

    Perhaps it’s not that unlike when someone asks a dissenter on a science topic what evidence would make them shift their view. They’re not directly opposing the person’s view, but asking what the person would want to move their position.

  • Grant
    Your reference to politics reminded me of the saying by a pollie- “We know what to do, but don’t know how to do it and get re-elected” That’s the trouble with democracy!
    There’s an Australian story today about the health effects of wind turbines. The committee can’t decide which way to go.
    A No turbines
    B Turbines only at sea
    C Turbines must be more than 10kms from a dwelling
    D Turbines but only if there are no adverse environmental effects (the NZ RMA!)
    D Turbines anywhere
    Dissenting views again-aren’t they a pain?