Home » Intelligent Design, Science » Should professional societies issue position statements at all?

Should professional societies issue position statements at all?

Take a look at Ross McKitrick’s recent remarks on the subject of position statements from professional societies:

http://climatesci.atmos.colostate.edu/2006/11/23/should-scientific-societies-issue-position-statements-by-ross-mckitrick

He argues against the practice of societies issuing position statements. This has direct application to the ID debate and the public statements issued by the AAAS, NAS, AAS, etc. Here are two particularly insightful paragraphs from McKitrick’s post:

Official statements celebrate group think and conformity. They effectively demote members who disagree with some or all of the statement to second-class status within their profession, regardless of the quality of their own individual work or their reasons for disagreement. And they create divisions and alienation within the profession. Having issued a party line, it cannot be a surprise that partisanship emerges, with all its potential for polarization and resentment.

Official statements also legitimate the appeal to authority as a form of argumentation. By issuing a position statement, they encourage outside commentators to buttress their position by appeal to the “Expert Statement”, rather than by appeal to evidence. The official statement thereby supplies a fallacious rhetorical device to one side in a political debate.

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19 Responses to Should professional societies issue position statements at all?

  1. I have a lot of respect for Ross, but he is wrong about this. Many, perhaps most, scientific controversies require too much expertise for a layman or even a scientist in another discipline to understand. We depend on legitimacy through authority for society to function at all.

    Of course, that authority can be challenged by strong arguments backed up by evidence and if the arguments and evidence are good enough they will eventually prevail. But you must have some way of recognising who is truly expert.

  2. The comments posted under this opinion piece seem to indicate that Ross McKitrick has a barrow to push on the climate change issue.

    In Wiki references to ID proponents it is not infrequent to see references to some ID proponents skepticism of the viral cause of aids and climate change to show that we support anything that is opposed to current scientific opinion.

    Ecomimics is not a precise science and I can understand that position statements in economics may be even more problematic than in science.

    The problem I see with position statements is when they do not admit that there are other ways to interpret evidence that would support other positions, and where they mix the raw evidence with conclusions that are drawn from that evidence.

    To quote Steven Wineberg from 7th November 2006 Beyond Belief “There is opposition to specific (scientific) ideas within Western Christianity, there is not really an opposition to the idea of science itself, only to some of its conclusions.”

  3. Many, perhaps most, scientific controversies require too much expertise for a layman or even a scientist in another discipline to understand

    This does not include evolution since, according to Dawkins, only the “ignorant, stupid or insane” disbelieve in it.
    Secondly, every major evolutionary scientist wrote to the general public, thus showing that the theory is perfectly graspable by the layman in the streets.

  4. I don’t see a problem with declaring that “as a group or organization this is the position we take and here is the reasons and evidence”. I just don’t like to see statements that attempt to persuade anyone not to research other avenues.

  5. I would suggest that societies, such as the “American Meteorological Society” have a responsibility to communicate the understanding of the data. I think that a great way to do this is to issue a position statement.

    I would caution scientific societies, however, to make statements that do not stifel future scientific investigation. If the society were to make a statement such as, “The current scientific data strongly suggests that …” this is much different than stating, “It has been determined that global warming is taking place and that human activity is, to a significant extent, responsible…” Though some would surely look at the former statement and say, “well, they aren’t all that sure, are they”, the latter statement does not allow for future evidence to cause a change of position without a lot of egg being left on the face of the society.

    I belive that many the scientific societies involved in the evolutionary sciences, where they have made position statements, have made statements in the latter class, not allowing for an easy change of position if new data is brought forward.

  6. Patrick said (comment #4) –

    I don’t see a problem with declaring that “as a group or organization this is the position we take and here is the reasons and evidence”. I just don’t like to see statements that attempt to persuade anyone not to research other avenues.

    bFast said (comment #5) –

    I would suggest that societies, such as the “American Meteorological Society” have a responsibility to communicate the understanding of the data. I think that a great way to do this is to issue a position statement.

    I would caution scientific societies, however, to make statements that do not stifel future scientific investigation.

    This idea that it is OK for a professional society to issue position statements so long as they are the best kind of position statements reminds me of the March Hare at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party in Alice in Wonderland, who thought that it was OK to put butter in a watch so long as it was the best butter —

    The Hatter was the first to break the silence. `What day of the month is it?’ he said, turning to Alice: he had taken his watch out of his pocket, and was looking at it uneasily, shaking it every now and then, and holding it to his ear.

    Alice considered a little, and then said `The fourth.’

    `Two days wrong!’ sighed the Hatter. `I told you butter wouldn’t suit the works!’ he added looking angrily at the March Hare.

    `It was the best butter,’ the March Hare meekly replied.

    `Yes, but some crumbs must have got in as well,’ the Hatter grumbled: `you shouldn’t have put it in with the bread-knife.’

    The March Hare took the watch and looked at it gloomily: then he dipped it into his cup of tea, and looked at it again: but he could think of nothing better to say than his first remark, `It was the best butter, you know.’

    In other words, the best way for a professional society to avoid possible problems with position statements — including the possibility of getting some crumbs mixed in — is to just not make position statements.

  7. [OFF TOPIC]
    The Richard Dawkins Foudation is planning in going in missionary work…….for atheism.

    According to journalist Steven Swinford, writing in the Sunday Times, the Richard Dawkins Foundation is planning to raise money to send anti-religious books and pamphlets to state schools in the UK. This plan has already angered such groups as the Church of England and Christian Aid.”

  8. Larry Fafarman, “This idea that it is OK for a professional society to issue position statements so long as they are the best kind of position statements…” The first thing that separates Patrick and my position from your metaphore is that there is a decisive definition of “best”, which is a position statement that does not draw a hard and fast conclusion about scientific findings, but only states the current scientific consensus.

    “In other words, the best way for a professional society to avoid possible problems with position statements — including the possibility of getting some crumbs mixed in — is to just not make position statements.”

    This also is not true. No position statement, in itself, presents a problem with position statements. If, for instance, global warming becomes a crisis, and the meteorological society has not gone on record to warn society about this ahead of time, they would very likely, and appropriately be held to account. You do know that weather forecasters have been sued because they have not adequately warned people about pending bad weather do you not? By the same token, it seems reasonable to me that the meteorological society that says nothing could well be sued if a crisis arises, for sure the individuals making up that society will feel like s@@@ for not speaking out.

  9. I think the societies are just like individuals. The author of a statement will not be harshly judged if the statement is honest and made with due diligence even if found wrong later.

    OTOH, If the statement is inconsistant with stated values and has whiffs of dishonesty and/or hypocrisy, the author will soon lose all credibility.

    The problem with societies is that those who run them are insulated from personal accountability so they can make statements they themselves would be reluctant to sign their names to while using authority and influence gained by past boards to score political points.

    Of course, a society with a dishonest board does not deserve credibility regardless of how honorable its history.

  10. Mats, “This does not include evolution since, according to Dawkins, only the “ignorant, stupid or insane””

    And don’t forget, “wicked.”

  11. …although since Dawkins rejects spirituality, and thus any absolutely morals, I guess “wickedness” would necessarily be limited to a definitely of something that he just happens to dislike. If that’s what it means to be wicked, color me guilty.

    Mike the Wicked

  12. Yeech. I didnt proof that last one. Please clean it up.

  13. This is off topic, but I thought it should get a post:

    This is from a Yahoo article (AP writer) on global warming:

    “”If we compare the debate over the theory of evolution with the debate over the theory of global warming — global warming’s a whole lot more certain at the moment,” said Jim Drummond, a University of Toronto physics professor and chief investigator for the Canadian Network for the Detection of Atmospheric Change.

    “By and large,” he said, “we are not now arguing about whether global warming is going to happen; the argument has turned to: How big is it going to be?””

    Wow, you mean, there’s a “debate” over evolution? I thought there were just a bunch of fringe religious lunatics challenging concrete, experimentally verifiable scientific evidence – and mountains of it at that.

  14. As a professional meteorologist and member of the AMS, I like the idea of “The current scientific data strongly suggests that …” statement, rather than an “It has been determined that…” statement. I’m still not fully convinced of the “global warming” issue, mainly because of the reliance on projections of atmospheric models, of which I am highly skeptical. It has been my experience that atmospheric models are generally “clueless” 7 days out, much less decades.

  15. Sorry for being off topic, but I figure sharing this will encourage others to challenge the representation of ID in the media. An article on the BBC website this morning about teaching ID in schools, equated ID and Creationism as the BBC always seem to do. I (and others maybe) complained and it has been changed.

    http://jahkid.blogspot.com/200.....ently.html

  16. 16

    bFast said (Comment #8) —

    The first thing that separates Patrick and my position from your metaphore is that there is a decisive definition of “best”, which is a position statement that does not draw a hard and fast conclusion about scientific findings, but only states the current scientific consensus.

    That is one of the problems with position statements — position statements present or pretend to present consensus views.

    If, for instance, global warming becomes a crisis, and the meteorological society has not gone on record to warn society about this ahead of time, they would very likely, and appropriately be held to account.

    There is no disagreement that global warming is occurring — polar ice caps and glaciers are shrinking and atmospheric and ocean temperatures are rising. The disagreement is over what is causing it — in particular, the importance of human-generated greenhouse gases as a factor.

  17. Larry Fafarman, “position statements present or pretend to present consensus views”

    Dictionary.com’s definition of “consensus”

    1. majority of opinion: The consensus of the group was that they should meet twice a month.

    Larry Fafarman, consensus does not require absolute agreement by all. Even if there is some dissent, there still can be true consensus. I strongly suggest that the lion’s share of the professional members of the American Meteorological Society hold the view that human activity is a major contributer to global warming. If so, even if they are in error, that is the consensus view of the society. I seen no issue in them declaring it as such.

  18. Off topic: There’s an ongoing email debate between atheist ID opponent Sam Harris and Jewish author/commentator/radio host Dennis Prager posted at http://jewcy.com/dialogue/mond.....sam_harris

    The topic is “Why are Atheists So Angry”

  19. bFast said (comment #17) –

    Larry Fafarman, consensus does not require absolute agreement by all. Even if there is some dissent, there still can be true consensus. I strongly suggest that the lion’s share of the professional members of the American Meteorological Society hold the view that human activity is a major contributer to global warming. If so, even if they are in error, that is the consensus view of the society. I seen no issue in them declaring it as such.

    That is the same kind of Alice-in-Wonderland “best butter” argument that Darwinists use in defense of professional societies’ position statements that condemn criticisms of Darwinism.

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