Engaging in Scientific Discourse

Due to the reaction and responses to an earlier Rational Catholic analysis of a scientific study, I’ve been concerned about some persistent misconceptions about the nature of scientific discourse. Some Catholics have conflated asking valid scientific questions about a study with personal attack. Scientific discourse is about engaging with the ideas presented in a paper. In this case, no one is criticizing the scientist in question as a Catholic or even as a person. Raising legitimate scientific questions about a study is not “unjust”, “taking shots at [a scientist]”, “taking sides”, or “hateful.” Rather, these inquiries question methodologies problems and factual errors in the paper. These issues are well within the realm of scientific discourse and are in no way personal attacks. Likewise, personal information about a scientist (religious affiliation or political beliefs, for instance), have no bearing on the scientific merits of the work he or she produces. This is the nature of science.

It has been frustrating to find that questions about the substance of a study are side-stepped or given responses that have nothing to do with the legitimate scientific queries about the topic. One common response is that only someone with a PhD in the sciences is qualified to question scientific methodology and conclusions. That is simply not true. Even in introductory science classes, students are trained to engage with scientific literature. Advanced undergraduates and graduate students who do not have the title PhD after their names can evaluate and discuss scientific papers. And those from other fields with a grasp of the science are also free to raise concerns about methods and conclusions, so long as the questions are rooted in sound science. One does not have to be a scientist by trade to raise concerns that stem from fairly basic scientific or statistical issues in a paper.

Similarly, it is disappointing to hear responses along the lines of “Well, [author] has a PhD” as if that is the be-it and end-all of the discussion. Having a PhD does not mean that one’s work should not be scrutinized, nor does it make one’s work immune to valid criticism. A PhD generally means that someone has completed a university’s prescribed course of study, passed various exams (usually written and oral), and produced original academic research in the form of a thesis or dissertation. Possession of a PhD does not place an individual’s scientific practices and conclusions above questioning. If you’ve ever been to an academic conference, you know that academics with PhDs are questioned about issues in their work very frequently.

Another oft-used response meant to quash legitimate scientific inquiry is “It was published in a scientific journal,” as if this, too, makes a study immune to scrutiny. Beside the fact that academic papers ought to be able to stand up to further scrutiny after their publication, it is also relevant to point out whether the study was published in a reputable journal or not. Unfortunately, predatory publishers profit from author fees, and their publications do not have adequate quality control. In these cases, confidence in their self-proclaimed peer-review process is unjustified. Impact factor, a measure of how often a journal is cited (and thus its influence), is a well-recognized metric of quality; a very low or non-existent impact factor does not speak well of a journal. Scientists are competitive and vie to publish in the prestigious journals in their field or subfield (it makes sense–it’s good for their CV and also increases the likelihood that peers in their subdiscipline will read their papers); publication in bottom-tier journal often indicates that the work was not good enough to get into a more prestigious one.

We also hear that it’s “un-Catholic” to question a study from a pro-life Catholic scientist. Pro-life Catholic scientists are (and should be) held to the same standards as all scientists. We ought to be righteously offended by the assertion that Catholic scientists can be held to lower standards merely because they are Catholic. It is not “un-Catholic” or anti-Catholic to raise legitimate scientific concerns about a study put forth by a Catholic scientist. Doing so is simply engaging with the science. Science is science; there is no Catholic science that is in opposition to secular science. Science is not at odds with the Catholic faith; rather it should (and does) illuminate our understanding of God’s creation.

My last area of concern is the pervasive unwillingness to engage with scientific questions, both when it comes to asking or responding to queries. Instead of addressing specific scientific concerns that have been raised, the respondents often entirely avoid the actual science presented in the study. Perhaps they simply don’t understand the science but find the consolation of validation in a hoped-for conclusion. It is baffling to me that people who agree with an article’s conclusion will refuse to address or even acknowledge possible shortcomings; this type of mentality is about as far from scientific discourse as you can get. In order for a study to have merit, it ought to be able to stand up to scrutiny. Avoiding probing questions with diversion to unrelated points is an abuse of the logic and reason at the core of both scientific discourse and our Catholic faith. Furthermore, the absence of academic refutations does not mean a study is valid or accepted by consensus (as some have claimed); it may indicate that researchers have simply not considered that topic worthy of their time and limited research resources.

If a scientific paper is solid, there should be no need to defend it with poorly executed logical or rhetorical games. When a discussion is dominated by issues with no correlation to the substance of the study, it keeps us from seeking the truth. It prevents us from doing what we’re meant to do with published scientific studies: actually discuss the science and analyze how it fits in (or not) with existing scientific knowledge.

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10 thoughts on “Engaging in Scientific Discourse

  1. ***Raising legitimate scientific questions about a study is not “unjust”, “taking shots at [a scientist]“, “taking sides”, or “hateful.” Rather, these inquiries question methodologies problems and factual errors in the paper. ***

    But here’s part of the problem–where are the “questions” in the terms “lie,” “scientific fraud,” and “bad science”??

    It seems that most of the pushback regarding your blog posts had to do with terms like these which are conclusive rather than “questioning”….They can be construed to suggest ill motive rather than mere error….

    Oughtn’t genuine scientific discourse diligently avoid such terminology?

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    • There are certainly standards for science, and scientific studies that don’t meet those standards could certainly be categorized as bad science. This kind of assessment is part of science, and there is no ill motive involved; it is based solely on a paper’s scientific merits or lack thereof. It is not inappropriate to question (on the basis of science) why a study’s proponents can advocate for it when there are numerous problems. It’s up to the proponents to scientifically address these questions and address why they don’t think the study is bad.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Jim – where in either of the posts I have seen on this site were those words used? Can you provide evidence for your claim?

    As a Catholic I’m shocked that some of my fellow Catholics think that it is okay to perpetuate erroneous information as long as the “good guys” are served. We certainly have no problem saying that things are objectively morally true and rejected relativism. Ought we not to say, “These claims of Dr. Deisher’s are objectively untrue” without hedging with, “But she’s trying to do God’s work on vaccines, so we should just let that slide.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, Christina–thanks for the inquiry–below are the two quotes from posts as you request:

      ****This will be a multi-part series (so hold your questions and don’t expect comments to be approved until the end, please) because I want to do justice to just how much scientific fraud exists in this study… ****

      **** However, deeply held beliefs do not make for rigorous scientific inquiry. And pro-life parents seeking to do the best by their children and by their culture deserve better than to have a plausible sounding lie masquerading as truth. ****

      In any case, no one thinks it’s “okay to perpetuate erroneous information.” But you can’t exactly claim Deisher’s conclusions are “objectively untrue” without irrefutable evidence of objective untruth. Such evidence does not exist at this moment–what exists at this moment is a diversity of views as to what the evidence really does point to, and Deisher’s study is part of that spectrum of data interpretation…

      I’m guessing, btw, that you agree with me that the terms “fraud” and “lie” go beyond the pale when engaging in scientific analysis?

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      • Jim,

        I’m concerned about the nature of your replies on this blog and on others touching on the same Deisher study. The bloggers at RatCat are attempting to engage in some very thorough and sincere analysis of the Deisher study and have done extensive work trying to show why it is an invalid study and why it misuses data and science in general. As a side note: many, many other scientists agree with their assessment, so they aren’t make stabs at what anyone in the scientific community considers a legitimate study. They are pulling apart what might seem like good science and a legitimate study to laypeople, but is actually far from it.

        Rather than discuss the science and the evidence, you seem to want to discuss tone and charity and the philosophical nature of truth and whether or not vaccinating is a moral imperative.

        That’s not what this entire discussion is about. I think you’ve missed the point. Do you agree with Deisher’s study and her methods? If so, what evidence do you have that would support your decision?

        If you don’t have any evidence, you might consider bowing out of the comboxes for a bit because it would seem that you are only here to distract and that doesn’t further anyone’s understanding of the science.

        Liked by 2 people

      • I would argue that fraud and lie are perfectly acceptable when they are truthful. And so far, everything I’ve seen has shown beyond a doubt that Deischer’s conclusions are a fraud.

        If as a child, I told a lie to my parents, I wouldn’t have expected them to say “it’s okay, dear child. You only said these words because you wanted them to be true.” No, instead, they would have explained why what I said was a lie and told me that lying was sinful and that I should not lie again.

        It appears to me that this is exactly what RatCat has been doing up to this point. I don’t think any amount of comments from you is going to stop the ladies here from continuing with picking apart Deischer’s paper and showing where the lies and fraud are.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Karen–It seems you and I disagree about the importance of fidelity first to Catholic principles–after all, the blogsite here gives equal treatment to both terms: “rational” *and* “Catholic.”

        Rather than see my concerns as a distraction, I urge you to see my contributions as encouraging the bloggers to be really really faithful to the “Catholic” part of their endeavor.

        If you don’t think this is appropriate, your argument may be with the blog site that is writing under the “rational-Catholic” rubric, rather than with me.

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      • I think that RatCat Catholics are quite true to their faith. I think obfuscating the truth by claiming a moral high ground under the banner of “Catholicism” does not seem like a terribly Catholic thing to do.

        Criticizing people is not anti-Catholic. See St. Paul: “O stupid Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? I want to learn only this from you: did you receive the Spirit from works of the law, or from faith in what you heard? Are you so stupid? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?”

        Liked by 2 people

      • Hi, Karen–let’s let the living magisterium of our Holy Father Pope Francis set the record straight regarding the poor example of St. Paul as recorded in his letter to the Galatians.

        Pope Francis says: “It is ugly! Do you understand? Never insult! To insult is not Christian! Do you understand? To insult is not Christian!”

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  3. What part of our blog is not Catholic enough for you? Because we disagree with Deisher’s erroneous conclusions? Because we aren’t willing to concede to your arrogance? We are rational in that rather than just believe everything placed before us because it’s “Catholic”, we use our brains and our intellect that God gave us to decide if it is truly the right course of action. Apparently, that’s not good enough.

    I personally think you are barking up the wrong tree. There is no intention of any of the bloggers here to change the course of our blog.

    Liked by 1 person

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