tactical advantage of orthodoxy

How to attack a scientific theory and get away with it (usually): the attempt to destroy an origin-of-AIDS hypothesis
Brian Martin
Published in Science as Culture, Vol. 19, No. 2, June 2010, pp. 215-239

Abstract Supporters of dominant scientific theories sometimes attack competing, less favoured theories in ways that conflict with expectations of proper scientific behaviour, for example by using double standards. To reduce concern about their actions, supporters can use a variety of techniques: cover up the violation of expectations; devalue the competing theory and its advocates; interpret the process as proper; use expert panels, meetings and other formal processes to give a stamp of approval to the dominant view; and intimidate opponents. These are the same five methods used regularly by perpetrators of actions widely seen as unjust, such as violent attacks on peaceful protesters. When these methods fail, the attack can backfire on the attackers. Orthodox scientists' treatment of the theory that AIDS originated from contaminated polio vaccines used in Africa in the 1950s illustrates how this framework can be applied to science. Opponents of this theory have used all five methods of inhibiting concern about violations of expected scientific behaviour. This analysis shows why supporters of orthodoxy have a tactical advantage over challengers.


"In summary, how can scientists attack a theory and get away with it? There are lots of ways of attacking, such as withholding evidence, blocking publications, demanding an excessive level of proof, making disparaging comments about ideas and individuals, publishing spurious refutations, ignoring evidence, not responding to arguments, denying research grants, threatening careers and taking legal action. The trouble with most of these methods is that they seem to be unfair: they violate common expectations of how science is supposed to work.

So how do scientists get away with attacks? Partly by hiding them, reinterpreting the attacks as normal behaviour, and by using expert forums such as panels, conferences and journal editorials to give the stamp of authority to rejection of the theory. And partly through the effects of the attack itself: disparaging comments lower the credibility of targets and intimidation scares many into silence.
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In many public policy disputes, scientific theories are attacked as part of a wider struggle involving politics, economics and ethics. In such situations, it is naive to assume that scientific theories will be evaluated neutrally and fairly."


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