The Power Law of Scientific Dismissiveness

In my experience, scientists are much too dismissive, in the sense that most of them have a hard time fully appreciating other people’s work. This dismissiveness follows a kind of power law: a few of them spend a large amount of time being dismissive (e.g., David Freedman); a large number spend a small amount of time being dismissive. The really common form of dismissiveness goes like this (from a JAMA abstract):

In this second article, we enumerate the major issues in judging the validity of these studies, framed as critical appraisal questions. Was the disease phenotype properly defined and accurately recorded by someone blind to the genetic information? Have any potential differences between disease and non-disease groups, particularly ethnicity, been properly addressed?  . . . Was measurement of the genetic variants unbiased and accurate? [bold added]

This is the dismissiveness of dichotomization: division of studies into valid and invalid, proper and improper, unbiased and biased, accurate and inaccurate. As if it were that simple. Such dichotomization throws away a lot of information. It leads to such absurdities as a meta-analysis of 2000 studies that decided that only 16 were worth inclusion. As if the rest contained no information of value. In the case of the term accurate the problem is easy to see. To draw a sharp line between accurate and inaccurate makes little sense and ignores the harder and more valuable question how accurate?

The average scientist is religious in many ways, and this is one of them. It is part of what might be called religious method: the dichotomization of persons into good and bad. An example is saying you are either going to heaven or to hell — nothing between.

10 Responses to “The Power Law of Scientific Dismissiveness”

  1. Andrew Gelman Says:

    I don’t think religious belief is necessarily about dividing people into good and bad. Certain beliefs–for example, the idea that we are all sinners and should learn to accept this–are highly consistent with good scientific practice, I believe.

  2. son1 Says:

    Is it not also true, that some of this is dependent on what your (mental) model for capital-S Science is?

    That is to say, there might be some practices which, while bad on a paper-by-paper basis, are still good when considered for the culture of science as a whole.

    For example, being excessively dismissive of the results of others might lead me to reject papers which (actually) have value or worth. But if my opinion about science is that “it’s vitally important not be wrong” (whatever that means), accompanied by a belief that most experiments will be performed over and over again, then an individual attitude of being excessively dismissive might not matter very much.

  3. Nathan Myers Says:

    Scientists are, generally, extremely dismissive of one another’s work, when they’re not actively hostile. It’s a badge of honor. A scientist seen to accept more than one hypothesis as a likely candidate is seen as soft-headed, and soon ignored. It would seem distinctly unfair to respect the contribution of any non-scientist, or of anyone from outside their own field, while treating their close colleagues so shabbily.

    They are right to fear being seen as soft-headed by others in their field. Having others habitually ignore your work is career death in science. It’s no wonder scientists have internalized these rules. Elder scientists try to atone, a bit, by awarding Nobels to scientists who persevere extraordinarily and prevail, but for every Nobelist there are a dozen (that we know of) equally deserving, and a thousand driven out of the field and their evidence buried.

    Despite all that, science does make slow, fitful progress. Some fields get tied in knots for a generation, or two; particle physics is in that state now. It’s hard to see how it will find a way out of it.

  4. dante lover Says:

    Dante Alleghiere might have a little quibble with your metaphor

  5. seth Says:

    son1, there’s a difference between being cautious and being dismissive. You can be cautious without being dismissive. I’m not saying scientists are “excessively dismissive”; I’m saying they shouldn’t be dismissive at all. To be dismissive is to draw a line. I’m not saying scientists draw a line in the wrong place, I’m saying it’s a mistake to draw any line, that is, dichotomize. Also called black-and-white thinking.

  6. Patrik Says:

    Good post. Couple things though. Modern science as we know it today, is anything but…science. Most of this so-called science is a religion and most of the so-called ‘scientists’ are nothing more than high priests toiling away at scripture. I think Taubes proved this conclusively when it comes to the ‘science’ of nutrition.

    This has been true since (and before) the days of Semmelweis.

    The average scientist is religious in many ways, and this is one of them. It is part of what might be called religious method: the dichotomization of persons into good and bad. An example is saying you are either going to heaven or to hell — nothing between.

    Seth, for accuracy’s sake, religions DO have something in between: purgatory.

  7. bennetta Says:

    When you consider the historical background that the scientific method grew out of, I think it’s easy to see why scientists can often be so overzealous with the chopping block of dismissiveness. Once you consider one externally verifiable truth, however small it may seem, you have to consider other externally unverifiable ideas, like God.

    I don’t think that science arose out of a hatred for religion, but I do think Protestantism and the scientific method were born in the same time period for a reason. There was a great need to, for lack of better words, just have someone cut the crap and tell the people what is, so they can get by.

    Of course, the question remains as to whether this is still needed. Is overzealous dismissiveness a vestigial organ that should be done away with? That’s a question for another discussion.

  8. NE1 Says:

    You have focused in the past on the importance of idea generation, and I think we continue to (ahem) disagree there. For dismissing studies and concerning the meta-analysis, what do you think Tyler would say? I expect he would ask, “What is the relevant scarcity here?” and of course it is time not ideas. A blue ribbon panel of scientists doesn’t have time to go through every single study ever published with a fine-toothed comb. They have justified to themselves and to readers their interest in several studies they think might be important or likely to be in error; now they can move forward and give them their full attention.

    Today’s skeptic-blogs often remark that our brains are association-making machines, having evolved to problem-solve and form superstitions at the smallest darting shadow. Being a scientist requires wise application of this machine after winnowing the field with your analytical brain. That is what is happening here.

  9. milieu Says:

    I agree a lot with this argument. I have observed the same change in behavior in me as I go ‘deeper’ into the scientific method of being extremely critical bordering on dismissive of other people’s viewpoint while i started with what you called as the appreciative mindset.
    However, one thing I think the dismissive mindset might help is in allowing you to focus on the stream of ideas that you are interested in. There are so many questions to answer and everyone has a limited cognitive capacity. So by being dismissive, i may just be preventing myself from wasting my time in ideas where i might contribute little and can work with peace on what i am interested in.

  10. Killing Zombies in my Unconscious Mind with Cutting-Edge Military Doctrine as a Guide « Mike Kenny Says:

    [...] The Power Law of Scientific Dismissiveness by Seth Roberts [...]