The aim of this paper is to address the neglected but important problem of differentiating between epistemically beneficial and epistemically detrimental dissent. By “dissent,” we refer to the act of objecting to a particular conclusion, especially one that is widely held. While dissent in science can clearly be beneficial, there might be some instances of dissent that not only fail to contribute to scientific progress, but actually impede it. Potential examples of this include the tobacco industry’s funding of studies that questioned the link between smoking and lung cancer, and the attempt by the petroleum industry and other groups to cast doubt upon the conclusion that human consumption of fossil fuels contributes to global climate change. The problem of distinguishing between good and bad dissent is important because of the growing tendency of some stakeholders to attempt to delay political action by ’manufacturing doubt’ (Oreskes & Conway 2010). Our discussion in this paper focuses on climate science. This field, in our view, is rife with instances of bad dissent. On the basis of our discussion of climate science, we articulate a set of sufficient conditions for epistemically problematic dissent in general, which we call “the inductive risk account of epistemically detrimental dissent.”
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By referring to “climate skeptics” we do not mean “skeptical climate scientists” who merely “hold a skeptical view of the validity and utility of [climate …] models”; in Myanna Lahsen's and Riley E. Dunlap's terminology we are discussing the case of “dissident” or “contrarian scientists” who “strongly criticize climate science and in many cases participate in the denial machine” (Dunlap 2013, p. 693; cf. also Lahsen 2008).
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There is no evidence, as far as we are aware, that the dissenting scientists are directly responsible for threats to personal well being or death threats. However, the dissent – and particularly the ways in which that dissent is used by some politicians and media outlets – helps to create the conditions for such threats.
The terminology of ‘producer risks’ and ‘public risks’ is a variant on that of ‘producer’ and ‘consumer’ risks. Producer risks are risks of wrongly accepting hypotheses, when doing so would primarily harm producers; consumer risks are risks of wrongly rejecting hypotheses, when doing so would primarily harm consumers. The phrases ‘producer’ and ‘consumer risks’ are typically used in the context of technology assessment and policy-relevant science. We use the phrase ‘public risks’ instead of ‘consumer risks,’ because there are consequences that fall primarily on the public, even if they do not result from consuming any particular product.
Particularly Kuhn (1977, p. 332) pointed out that the choice of methodological standards in science is influenced by contextual, non-epistemic preferences of scientists. Note that this does not mean that these standards are arbitrary. It merely means that the choice of methodological standards is empirically underdetermined and hence influenced to some degree by non-epistemic values. Longino (2002), pp. 130–131) also stresses that criticism in science can only be fruitful when it fulfills conventional (“public”) standards.
Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for encouraging us to elaborate on this.
We are grateful to Torsten Wilholt for discussion on this point.
Traditionally, philosophers of science have not viewed dissemination as being epistemically significant; on this view, confirmation and testing are matters for epistemology, while dissemination is a matter for sociology. We have argued, however, that the way in which dissent is disseminated can have a significant impact upon the progress of science.
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Each author is responsible for the paper in its entirety, and both authors contributed equally to the final product. Earlier drafts of this paper were presented at Bielefeld University, Tilburg University, Georgia Institute of Technology, and the GAP.8 conference at the University of Konstanz. We would particularly like to thank Paul Baer, Gregor Betz, Sebastian Cacean, Martin Carrier, Matt Cox, Michael Hoffmann, Paul Hoyningen-Huene, Philip Kitcher, Frederike Neuber, Bryan Norton, Naomi Oreskes, Juha Saatsi, Christian Voigt, John Walsh, Torsten Wilholt, and Eric Winsberg for their valuable comments. Thanks also to the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study for support.
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Biddle, J.B., Leuschner, A. Climate skepticism and the manufacture of doubt: can dissent in science be epistemically detrimental?. Euro Jnl Phil Sci 5, 261–278 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13194-014-0101-x