Are there limits to scientists’ obligations to seek and engage dissenters?

Abstract

Dissent is thought to play a valuable role in science, so that scientific communities ought to create opportunities for receiving critical feedback and take dissenting views seriously. There is concern, however, that some dissent does more harm than good. Dissent on climate change and evolutionary theory, for example, has confused the public, created doubt about existing consensus, derailed public policy, and forced scientists to devote resources to respond. Are there limits to the extent to which scientific communities have obligations to seek and engage dissenting views? We consider the two main criteria that have been offered for what constitutes “normatively appropriate dissent” or the sort of dissent that ought to have the opportunity to be heard and taken seriously. Many have argued that dissenters must (1) engage in uptake of criticism against their own views and (2) share some standards for theory appraisal. We argue these criteria ultimately are unsuccessful.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Some may contend that here may be important differences between these cases of dissent and thus that scientific communities might approach them differently. For example, one might argue that there is significantly more uncertainty in the cases of climate change science than in the case of evolutionary theory. Perhaps under conditions of uncertainty, we have greater obligations to seek and engage dissenting views because when there is greater uncertainty, there is also presumably more disagreement and less consensus. We agree that such differences might indeed exist and be relevant. However we use these cases to assess obligations to seek and engage dissent because they are the cases that proponents of normatively appropriate dissent take to be cases where consensus exists and where engagement with dissenters is limited by the criteria they offer.

  2. 2.

    Thanks to Boaz Miller for suggesting this distinction.

  3. 3.

    We are not claiming that a scientific consensus actually exists on the safety of GMOs. Indeed, some might argue that the current “consensus” is among molecular biologists and scientists who collaborate with agribusiness corporations mainly in the US and is not sufficiently diverse or representative to be an indicator of knowledge (Miller 2013). Large numbers of ecologists, agricultural scientists, sociologists, and medical practitioners in areas where GMOs are grown in many poor countries would deny that this is genuine consensus. Our point here is thus not to defend the existence of a consensus on the safety of GMOs. Rather, we are interested in determining what conception of shared standards underlies Kitcher’s contention that we have no obligations to seek and engage dissent on GMO safety. We thank a reviewer for forcing us to clarify this point.

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Acknowledgments

We would like to thank Boaz Miller and Sharon Crasnow for providing helpful feedback on earlier drafts of this manuscript. This paper also greatly benefited from the comments and suggestions of three anonymous referees.

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Correspondence to Inmaculada de Melo-Martín.

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Intemann, K., de Melo-Martín, I. Are there limits to scientists’ obligations to seek and engage dissenters?. Synthese 191, 2751–2765 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-014-0414-5

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Keywords

  • Scientific dissent
  • Uptake of criticism
  • Shared standards
  • Diversity