Controversy notes

04Oct10

Over the past few days, I’ve been doing a lot of research into dark energy and how controversy has played into the dark energy story; from its initial, purely conceptual days as a possible ‘fix’ to make the universe ‘flat’, to the unexpected revelation of the universe’s expansion accelerating in 1998, to the different interpretations of dark energy and the controversies associated with them, and to the horror of some astrophysicists that the importance placed on dark energy is taking over the field. 

But, in the absence of anything particularly structured, I wanted to note a couple of additional definitions of scientific controversy I’ve come across, as I’m continually questioning the validity of dark energy as a controversy.

In Helge Kragh’s Cosmology and Controversy: the historical development of two theories of the universe (1996, Princeton University Press, Princeton), which documents the controversy between the Big Bang and Steady-State theories in the 50s and 60s (emphasis mine):

Generally speaking, if two groups of scientists disagree, the disagreement may be, or may become, a controversy. This is a minimum condition, but of course not any disagreement qualifies as a controversy. It should be of some duration, be expressed in public, and take place by means of arguments and counterarguments. That is, it should contain elements of a social and methodological nature. Moreover, a controversy is more than just a debate or a dispute: the parties must be committed to one of the opposing views, hold it important enough to defend, and attack the rival view.

And (emphasis mine):

A controversy can arise if a standard view or paradigmatic belief is questioned by a new theory, experimental claim, or general point of view. The new theory may cause the controversy by disturbing the peace and security of the paradigmatic belief system. But the new idea only becomes controversial—threatening to the standard view—if it receives enough support to make it impossible for the scientific community to ignore it.

A blog post on Science 2.0 by Gary Herstein entitled What Does A Real Scientific Controversy Look Like? also has some interesting ‘rules’ for a ‘real’ scientific controversy, as opposed to something the media has sensationalised (quoted and paraphrased): 

  1. The media is a circus, driven by rhetoric and marketing; what gets attended to is that which puts on the best show.
  2. Follow the money; there is seldom any real money in telling the truth.
  3. Follow the real, peer-reviewed publications.
  4. Whimpering about conspiracies; as a rule, if you simply reject conspiracy theories outright without even listening to the most elementary gloss of their claims, you will be right so many more times than you are wrong for rejecting them that people will think you are some kind of bloody psychic.
  5. Concensus is a clue; consensus does not make the facts, but for non-experts it is a powerful indicator of what the facts are, wherein they are to be found, and how they are to be interpreted.
  6. Is the alternative even science? Any claim that is genuinely scientific will have some possible notion of falsification, some systematic research program in hand, some viable context of puzzle solving definable by its underlying theoretical claims, and so forth. (Popper! Kuhn!)

Herstein then uses this framework to demonstrate that problems surrounding the Standard Model of cosmology (I assume he’s talking about Lambda-CDM) do indeed constitute a real scientific controversy. (Although, a quick Google search shows that Herstein, a non-physicist, is quite vocal regarding this particular topic.) Certainly, I’ll have to get my story together to answer those questions properly for the case of dark energy, but for #1 and #3, those are precisely what I’ve been looking at!

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