Eli5: Why is there such a negative response to controversial topics in science, wasn’t the existence of “atoms” extremely controversial back in the days as well?


Shouldn’t people research and discuss topics in a calm and rational manner instead of some sort of “you vs me” type of mentality?

In: 1

Basically because people tend to resist new ideas and concepts that are outside of their personal experience. We tend to be stupid and opinionated and if history is any judge, have always been so. It’s an important trait to resist, but idiots will always be with us. Science is not the new bible, it’s just a way of searching for and finding truth in the physical world…..sometimes we learn more and our understanding of the truth changes. A good remedy for stupidity is science.

Topics *are* discussed in a calm and rational manner between the vast majority of actual researchers. The worst I’ve seen is people at a conference complaining that a speaker didn’t show convincing enough data/proper methodology to make particularly big claims. Do you have reason to believe otherwise?

It can go both ways. Special relativity was accepted pretty early on, in part because it fixed the “need” for luminiferous æther in our understanding of light, which was already on shaky ground after repeated attempts to identify its qualities failed. SR wasn’t without some controversy: in replacing its predecessor Galilean relativity it also broke Newton’s law of universal gravitation, though Einstein ended up replacing that with his General theory of relativity.

Sometimes new ideas fit neatly into holes left by surrounding ideas, and sometimes they require scientists to throw out some of those surrounding ideas. Nobody likes having to do the same job twice, and while scientists usually try to keep an open mind they may also hesitate to accept a new idea that undermines work they’ve already done. The Platonic ideal of “pure science” compares very poorly to the way science works in the real world, with competing agendas and personal allegiances.

People, in general, like stories and narratives. This is more or less how we learn stuff. People, in general, fear or dislike the unknown. So we tend to create stories and myths to explain the unknown (the narrative) and the unknown becomes less frightening because we now have an “explanation”. Over time people get very attached to these narratives and the traditions that come from these narratives.

Imagine being told that sprinkling water, dancing and singing around a sick person doesn’t actually cure diseases. Instead the disease are caused by microbes that cannot be seen. Well you’re now replacing a narrative (that explains and reduces fear) with a new narrative (cannot be seen and goes against tradition).

People don’t like that – we prefer things to fit within our mythology and things that go against that mythology are sometimes rejected with a lot of passion because it introduces fear of the unknown into our lives.

What do you think is a controversial topic in science? I ask because most of the topics that people might consider controversial aren’t actually controversial *in science.* Often the controversy is between the scientific consensus and those whose beliefs or interests don’t align with that consensus. The safety and efficacy of vaccines, for example, is well-established in science, but sadly controversial in the public at large.