We shall ask

  • How contingent are the results of modern science?
  • When is contingency harmful?
  • When harmful, how can it be minimised?

Dissent is essential for scientific advance and can help reduce contingency: there are no scientific revolutions without scientific revolutionaries. It can also stall crucial decisions, waste money and misdirect effort.

  • How has dissent helped to reduce contingency?
  • How has it contributed to safeguards in cases where results are insecure?
  • When has dissent merely wasted time and effort?
  • Can we differentiate political exploitation of dissent from legitimate exploration of scientific uncertainties?

We shall look at

  • Epistemological dimensions of dissent. When is dissent intellectually justified and when not? We shall try to develop criteria for distinguishing between a 'crank' and a 'mainstream' dissenter.
  • Political/social/economic dimensions. If a topic is politically charged, there can be political gains from fostering and exploiting dissent. We aim to develop criteria to distinguish between 'legitimate' development of scientific uncertainty versus political or economic exploitation.

A reasonable assumption is that contingency is reduced when results are judged via agreed-upon methods. But -

  • What happens when there is dissent over methods? Consider weak neutral currents where (according to Peter Galison) different experimental groups championed different methods and would not trust results from the alternatives. Physicists came to agree only when different methods produced the same results. The same is true for continental drift and plate tectonics.

Failing convergence of results, what factors do and should resolve disputes? Philosophers are keen on 'empirical evidence' and 'extra-empirical values' (like 'simplicity'). What do these abstract concepts amount to in real cases, how do they generate consensus and why assume the consensus is likely to be correct? We shall investigate three cases here:

High-temperature superconductors

These were created in laboratories in 1986 but theorists still do not agree on how to explain them. The conservative school appeals to an 'extra-empirical virtue', demanding a theory as close as possible to that for conventional superconductors. More revolutionary schools urge a radical break: high-temperature superconductors are something new and should not be explained by minimal modifications of existing theory. We will study how controversy is conducted, what role empirical evidence and extra-empirical values play and what else matters in the dispute.

Climate change

Controversy over global warming might be unexpected, since the case has all the elements conventionally necessary for a scientific demonstration. But the situation is complicated. First, predictions of the severity of the impact of the greenhouse effect rely on complex general-circulation models that are subject to considerable uncertainties. Second, there is deliberate stoking of scientific dissent for political purposes. The self-interests of powerful nations, corporations, and individuals are at stake and opposition has taken the form of attacking the science behind the environmental concern. And an individual who does dissent will find many opportunities to air that dissent in public.

Randomised-controlled-trials (RCTs)

These are generally the only admissible method for judging new medical treatments. For years Bayesians and others dissented, criticising both the logic and morality of RCTs and arguing that they cannot deliver on their promise in many real trials. These arguments had little effect. But cost factors may at last do so. We shall follow this case to compare the effects of dissenting argument with those of economic incentives. We shall also look for positive ways contingencies can be reduced without RCTs.

What happens when established methods give out? Within specific sciences we usually have agreed-upon methods. But these seldom carry us all the way to the conclusion we need. For instance, economics, and increasingly other social sciences, are dominated by game-theory models that use rigorous techniques, often justified by neat theorems. But how do the results rigorously derived in the model relate to the world? There is no extant methodology. Midway through our attempt to arrive at real-life results, we resort to guesswork and judgement.

A second place where contingency sets in is when evidence must be combined. Consider Michael Marmot's hypothesis that stress in low-status people produces ill-health. He defends this with a number of different kinds of studies, each adhering to methods appropriate to it. But each study has a local conclusion - Russian mortality or ape health or health/status correlations among Whitehall civil servants. The general conclusions to be drawn are clearly contingent on how these results are combined - and we have few methods for doing this. Our project will study how evidence can/has been/should be combined with health/status evidence as a test case.

How sure can we be when dissent is missing? Points of possible contingency are easy to detect where there is active dissent but it is much harder when one theory dominates and dissent is practically non-existent.

Consider gauge theory, which has led to important breakthroughs in particle physics. Scientists accept the methodology based on past successes and the similarity of the problems at hand. Dissent is not entirely missing however. Critics note that strange moves had to be made in adopting the methodology to specific problems. How can genuine troublespots be identified? A clue for gauge theories may lie in their relation to theories from which they borrow (like condensed matter physics) and to more fundamental theories (like superstring theory). What can we learn from cases like this about locating points of contingency? For instance, are intertheoretic links a tool for reducing contingency?

We shall concentrate on cases where methods of adjudication are (or should be) in dispute. But it would be a mistake to undertake a study of contingency without consulting the philosophical work done in response to scepticism about scientific results engendered by the dramatic revolutions that many sciences have experienced. We will look in particular at two recent schools that hold out a big promise: they claim to isolate what is likely to prove necessary as our world picture changes from what is merely contingent. But they offer exactly opposite answers. One says that it is the abstract structure of fundamental equations. The other eschews high theory and argues that it is concrete claims about entities and their behaviours that are likely to last. Both claims are too sweeping. We want to reassess the grounds for both, and other emerging alternatives, and try to formulate the conditions under which any plausible alternative is likely to be reliable. (We are in a special position for this since founders of both schools [Cartwright and Worrall] are associated with the project.)