Posts Tagged ‘Orthodoxy’

Trial lawyers have an old saying.

“When the facts are on your side, pound the facts. When the facts are not on your side, pound the table.”

In the debate over the link between abortion and breast cancer, there is a fair amount of table-pounding by those who support the status quo.

This is accomplished by attacking the stature of the journal in which the data are published. Older, more established ideas are published in older more established journals. Newer ideas that rock the boat may or may not get published in older, more established journals. Much depends on the nature of the editorial board and reviewers. It’s not uncommon for newer ideas to be published in “lesser” journals.

The identity of the journal does not of itself impeach the credibility of the study being reported; be it the study’s design, execution, data collection, analysis or conclusions. At issue is the prevailing orthodoxy that maintains abortion as relatively safe in the short term, with no long-term sequelae.

A responsible assessment of the scientific literature must first deal with the objections to newer ideas in the literature, objections arising from scientific orthodoxy.

Dr. Bernard Cohen, Professor of History of Science and General Education, Harvard University, wrote the following on Orthodoxy and Scientific Progress. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 96, No.5, October 1952. P505 ff.

“…Yet we are then faced with a paradox, since a canon of ‘orthodoxy’ would seem to imply a certain measure of hostility to major innovations, and we are all familiar with the sentiment that scientists thrive on the replacement of their old and cherished theories or beliefs by new ones.

“I have known intimately a number of creative scientists and I have studied the behavior of a great many more as revealed by the record of history. I have never encountered one of any importance whatever who would welcome with joy and satisfaction the publication of a new theory, explanation, or conceptual scheme that would completely replace and render superfluous his own creation. He may be pleased at a revision that makes his own work more useful, or more widely applicable; and even the news of a new experiment or observation that canot be explained may be greeted warmly, since it constitutes a test or challenge which the scientist hopes-or may be sure- his theory can meet.

“But any suggestion that scientists so dearly love truth that they have not the slightest hesitation in jettisoning their beliefs is a mean perversion of the facts. It is a form of scientific idolatry, supposing that scientists are entirely free from the passions that direct men’s actions, and we should have little patience with it.

“Actually, of course, scientists do give up cherished beliefs-whether of their own creation or others- when the evidence is overwhelming. But before doing so, they are apt to attempt all sorts of intellectual devices or dodges in an attempt to save the accepted doctrine. Modern science has been characterized by a constant succession of often rapid and dramatic changes and in most branches of science a textbook has a short life without revision. We are tempted, therefore, to think of the creative activity of a scientist as consisting in large measure of a rejection of what he has been taught, whereas the scientist actually tries-often in vain- to fit each new discovery or set of discoveries into the traditional theories before he abandons them.

“The mind-even of scientists- clings to conceptions or preconceptions as long as it is humanly possible. Very often, therefore, when scientists have no alternative save to accept a new doctrine, they attempt to show that it was neither so new or so radical as had been generally supposed.”

That’s the down side to orthodoxy in science. Cohen then goes on to tell us the positive function of orthodoxy:

“…we must keep in mind that orthodoxy makes scientific progress more secure, and in fact may be one of the reasons that scientific progress is even possible. Orthodoxy presents a hurdle for every new scientific idea. This means that a scientific theory must have a considerable background of experimental data before it can be given any serious consideration…

“Had scientists no orthodoxy, and if they welcomed with avidity every possible idea that any one might have, the scientific enterprise would be characterized by chaos rather than positive achievement and progress.”

In Part II, we’ll consider the objections voiced by those who oppose the data suggesting a link between breast cancer and abortion. Pounding the facts or pounding the table?

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