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Friday, July 28 2017 @ 11:06 MDT

Contrarians

Science!

We all know someone that would be considered a contrarian, someone who goes against the norms of one’s social or work circle or society in general. Normally these people are seen as quirky at best or cantankerous curmudgeons at worst. There is nothing wrong with them, unless their contrarianism swings into the criminal, so why am I writing about them? Well in the field of science there are also contrarians. Again this is usually not an issue as they often provide a devils advocate for ideas and force the mainstream theories to be viewed with the scepticism that all ideas in science need to be seen with. That being said their existence is a problem for the public as one can usually find a contrarian scientist to “prove” whatever pseudo-scientific claptrap one can come up with causing the proponent of the claptrap to claim that the “science isn’t settled”.

To illustrate this I will use an example from cosmology (as an astronomer it is an example that I’m most familiar with). Prior to the 1920’s astronomy was uncertain as to the scale of the universe. There was even a Great Debate between two preeminent astronomers of the day (Harlow Shapley and Herber Curtis) about if there were galaxies outside our own. In the mid 1920’s another astronomer, Edwin Hubble (yes THAT Hubble), measured the distance to what was then known as the Andromeda Nebula. Turns out the Andromeda Nebula was over 2 million light years away and could not be in our galaxy. Thus it came to be understood that the universe was likely infinite.

As a side note, Shapley, who was a proponent of the spiral nebulae like Andromeda just being part of our own galaxy, changed his views once the data was in from Edwin Hubble (reportedly saying when he received Hubble’s letter "Here is the letter that destroyed my universe" . This is the essence of what a good scientist needs to do.

On with our story. At this point the primary idea of how the universe came to be is that it was pretty much always there. This theory came to be known as the "Steady State Theory". Under this theory the universe was infinite in all directions. An infinite number of stars in an infinite number of galaxies floated through this infinite space. As stars died, new ones would be formed from the ashes, ad infinitum. This was a perfectly reasonable theory given the data of the time. The problem came in the 1930's when Hubble (it's hard to understate Hubble's contribution to cosmology) discovered that the universe was expanding.

If the universe was expanding it would logically follow that if you ran the clock backwards, all the matter in the universe would have all massed together at some point in the past. So in other words, it was possible the universe was expanding into infinity from some point in the past when a colossal explosion sent all the matter in the universe flying apart. This provided an alternative theory to the Steady State. This theory would eventually be called the Big Bang, not by those who proposed it, but by a proponent of the Steady State theory, astronomer Fred Hoyle, who used it as a pejorative for the expanding universe theory.

So the debate raged over which theory was correct. The nail was driven in the Steady State theory's coffin when the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) was discovered in 1964. The expanding universe theory (now officially called the Standard Cosmological Model) could explain the CMB and expansion while the Steady State theory could not.

Which brings us to our contrarian. Fred Hoyle would not accept the Big Bang. He clung on to the Steady State theory till his death in 2001. He published papers on the topic well into the late 1990s and in Tier 1 journals. He and a small group of 4 or 5 other astronomers (many of who still publish on the topic) kept hammering away at the Big Bang and pushing some variation of Steady State. However the preponderance of evidence was and still is against them and for the Big Bang.

To my point. To the astronomical community the debate was settled back in the 1960s. One could argue for most people this is also true. That being said, if I were to want to argue against the Big Bang I could point to Hoyle and his colleagues and say "Ha! See the science isn't settled!". I'd be wrong of course, but to the laity who have no background knowledge of the whole debate, I could be just as correct. At this point the layperson would have to either a) do a heck of a lot of research as to the current state of the science of cosmology or b) use their gut instinct and previous knowledge and prejudices to sort it out. Since most people don't have the time or possibly the background knowledge to do a, they'll go with b. This means that those who don't think the Big Bang is the way it happened will glom on to me and my pointing to Hoyle at the least as showing the science isn't settled and more likely to confirm their current point of view.

To be fair to Fred Hoyle at this point much of what we know about element nucleosynthesis in stars is based on his work. It just shows that brilliance in one area doesn't necessarily translate in to brilliance in another.

Now my main point here is that one has to be careful when one starts to buck the mainstream of science. It is possible to find contrarians in all fields of science and these are often used to sow fear, uncertainty and doubt by many on what for the majority of scientists in that field is settled science. Anti-vaxers, creationists, climate change deniers all are guilty of this, often so they can push their particular political agenda. This doesn't necessarily mean they are doing what they are doing out of malice (though that is always a possibility) but mostly from a position of ignorance. Ignorance of how science works and ignorance of their own confirmation bias when selecting sources.

So how to determine if someone is a contrarian. First you need to determine if the field they are working in is well established or new. In my example during the 1950's A Steady State supporter would not have been a contrarian as at the time the science had not actually been settled. On the other hand if there are decades of research showing the contrarian to be out of step with the rest of his field, then the likelihood he's a contrarian increases considerably.

Another way is to check what journals the contrarian publishes in. Not always a good indicator as Fred Hoyle shows since he published in Tier 1 journals, but if the contrarian is publishing in bottom rung journals or journals of questionable review, then one must look with suspicion their ideas. If Fred Hoyle can get a contrarian idea published in prestigious journals, there's nothing stopping others from doing so. Unless their idea is so out of step with the mainstream of science, or their methods are so shoddy that mainstream journals won't touch them.

If the contrarian is published in a reputable journal, what are the follow up publications, both his and others? Generally if a contrarian publishes something way out there, other scientists pointing out the problems will counter it. This is apparent in the whole Andrew Wakefield vaccine/autism paper (which was eventually withdrawn). Though the paper was withdrawn due to the fact that the methods used by Wakefield would charitably be called shoddy and uncharitably called fraudulent, many other scientists hit the labs and countered with volumes of data that showed that Wakefield was flat-out wrong. This of course doesn't stop his supporters with cries of "conspiracy" and "cover up" (another sign the person is a contrarian by the way).

Finally when in doubt use Carl Sagan's Baloney Detection kit the original of which is found in his book The Demon Haunted World. So my advice to you if science isn't your business is to thoroughly check out claims that go counter to the mainstream of scientific thought. Contrarians aren't necessarily wrong, but they are often not right.

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