Dissent in science

Published in Brent S. Steel (editor), Science and Politics: An A-to-Z Guide to Issues and Controversies (Los Angeles: Sage, 2014), pp. 145-149

Brian Martin

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Dissent is questioning or challenging an established idea, practice or policy. It occurs in all sorts of areas. For example, people can dissent against wars, school rules or evolutionary theory. Dissent is usually expressed in words, for example in blogs, articles and speeches, but can also be expressed in actions, such as a protest rally.

Dissent in science can refer to challenges to dominant scientific theories and also questioning of priorities or practices within science, for example questioning whether a person should have received the Nobel Prize or whether Nobel prizes are a good idea at all. Dissent can have political ramifications, especially in controversial issues such as climate change and genetic modification.

The Value of Dissent

Dissent about scientific ideas lies at the foundation of the scientific enterprise. For scientific ideas to be accepted as knowledge, they need to be rigorously tested. Scientists subject their own data and conclusions to careful assessment, but on other occasions they are not so critical, because they have so much to gain, in terms of career and reputation, by having their work published and recognized.

The role of the dissenter - the scientist who questions standard ideas - is to keep scientists honest, namely to make them justify every assumption, bit of data and conclusion. Dissent thus is vital to ensuring that the foundations of scientific evidence and theory are as sound as possible.

Dissenters have a variety of motivations. Some only want to improve scientific knowledge. Some seek personal recognition for their ideas (as do most scientists). Some are pursuing personal agendas. However, for science to benefit, it is the challenge posed by dissenters that matters, not their motivations.

Many scientists say they support dissent, at least in principle, but this does not always happen in practice. Most scientists build their research on established theories and bodies of data, so they have a stake in supporting standard ideas and evidence. If a critic throws these foundations into doubt, this is threatening to many scientists.

The theories of evolution, relativity and quantum mechanics are well established and are the basis for huge amounts of scientific research. Yet there are some qualified scientists who question aspects of these theories and propose alternatives. Most of these dissidents are ignored; some have difficulties in their careers. Although dissent is officially lauded, in practice it is often opposed or ridiculed.

Some of today's most respected theories were, at their inception, bitterly opposed. The theory of evolution, as proposed by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace in the 1850s, was denounced by supporters of the then prevailing view of creation. Ulcers were previously thought to be caused by stress. When two scientists proposed a different cause, namely bacterial infection, they were ignored or rejected for many years - but eventually vindicated, receiving the Nobel Prize.

The message from these and other stories in the history of science is that dissent is vital to the development of scientific knowledge, but often it is ignored, opposed or attacked.

Historian-of-science Thomas Kuhn proposed that most research proceeds on the basis of a standard set of assumptions, ideas and methods, called a scientific paradigm. Most researchers work within the paradigm, not questioning it - they innovate without challenging the foundations of the paradigm. Very occasionally, paradigms are challenged and overthrown, as when creationism was replaced by evolutionism in biology.

The idea of a paradigm, loosely applied, helps to explain the response of scientists to dissent. Questioning within the standard assumptions in a field is accepted far more readily than questioning the foundations of the field itself.

Policy Disputes

Some scientific disputes are internal matters, only involving researchers in the field. But many disputes involve non-scientists and have implications for belief, behavior and policy. The theory of evolution has long been challenged by some religious figures. Also questioned by some religious authorities are stem cell research and the abortion drug RU-486. However, religious belief is only one possible basis for dissent in science and technology. Many new technologies - such as pesticides, nuclear power, genetically modified organisms and nanotechnology - have been criticized and opposed by some scientists and by many members of the public.

In many public disputes over science and technology, there are powerful groups with a strong stake in one position. For example, manufacturers of pesticides benefit from continuing and increased sales of their products, and therefore have a strong stake - in other words, a vested interest - in the view that the most effective way to deal with crop pests is by using pesticides, a view that can be called the pesticide paradigm. The manufacturers can provide large amounts of money to fund scientific research, which leads many scientists to support the pesticide paradigm. As a result, those few scientists who question the paradigm become dissenters.

Sometimes vested interests are on the side of scientific dissent, as in the climate change debate. The mainstream scientific position is that global warming is occurring due to human activity, especially burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas. However, a small minority of scientists questions the orthodoxy - and these critics are supported by the powerful fossil fuel industry, which has a vested interest in maintaining current patterns of energy use.

In most public disputes involving science and technology, disagreements over the science are mixed together with disagreements about ethics and policy. For example, nearly all doctors and health departments support vaccination. Against this orthodoxy, a small number of doctors and others question the standard view about the benefits and risks of some or all vaccines. However, the vaccination debate is not just a matter of science: differences in values are involved. Supporters of vaccination point to the public health benefits of widespread vaccination against infectious diseases, whereas critics refer to the risk to individuals of adverse reactions. The debate thus involves differences concerning public benefits versus individual risk.

In this context, scientific dissent - on vaccination, climate change, AIDS or any other contentious public issue - can also be considered to be a political act, in the sense that it has a power dimension. Scientific dissent can serve as a tool for campaigners on controversial public issues. Because scientists have authority as creators and interpreters of knowledge about the world, their views about issues are often seen as more credible than those of others. Scientists thus are key players in any controversial issue involving science and technology. Furthermore, when most scientists support one position - scientific orthodoxy - dissent is especially important, because it turns a unanimous position into a contested one. In this sort of situation, dissident scientists can become targets for reprisals.

Suppression of Dissent

When a scientist is treated unfairly because of their dissenting research, teaching or public statements, this can be called suppression of dissent. The most common scenario is that a scientist does something threatening to a powerful group, such as making a public statement or producing a research finding, and is attacked in some way. Methods of attack include ostracism, harassment, censorship, denial of jobs or research grants, reprimands, involuntary transfer, denial of tenure, demotion, dismissal, deregistration and blacklisting.

The methods used to suppress scientists are sometimes the same methods used when a scientist's performance is inadequate, so it not always easy to distinguish suppression from the normal operation of science. There are several ways to test whether suppression is involved.

First, adverse actions are often initiated soon after a scientist speaks out. For example, a scientist's career might have been smooth until publishing a result challenging orthodoxy, and then allegations are made, research opportunities restricted and critical comments made.

Second, the performance of the targeted scientist - the scientist subject to adverse action - can be compared to the performance of peers, namely other scientists with similar experience and performance. If the performance of the targeted scientist is equal or better than that of peers, this suggests unfair treatment. Making this sort of comparison is called the double standard test. When there is a double standard, it means the treatment of the targeted scientist is different from the treatment of peers: a different standard or expectation is applied.

Double standards are sometimes found when adverse actions involve formal procedures, such as misconduct hearings or dismissal. The procedures used against dissidents may display greater biases and irregularities than when applied to others.

Third, in many fields there is a pattern of attacks on dissidents. If just one or two individuals have apparently been treated unfairly, this might be attributed to chance, personalities or peculiar circumstances. When there is evidence that larger numbers of dissidents have been adversely treated, systematic discrimination becomes a more plausible explanation. For example, many scientists and engineers critical of nuclear power, fluoridation, pesticides and genetic engineering have suffered in their careers, suggesting that suppression of dissent is responsible.

Impacts of Suppression

If dissent is what maintains a vigorous culture of questioning and free discussion, then suppression of dissent serves the opposite purpose, squelching contrary views and inhibiting discussion. Scientists who suffer reprisals for their dissent can be severely affected. Some of them lose opportunities to do research; some have their credibility destroyed; some lose their jobs; some are forced out of their careers in the field. This can be called the primary effect of suppression.

Reprisals against dissidents also can have a powerful effect on other scientists, who see what might happen if they step out of line and become afraid the same might happen to them. The result can be a greater reluctance to undertake research in controversial areas and a fear of speaking critically about vested interests. This is a type of self-censorship, which can be called a secondary effect of suppression. Because it is more pervasive but unrecognized, it is possibly more significant than the primary effect.

The effect of suppression is especially potent in areas where there is a near-monopoly of scientific credibility, for example in an area such as fluoridation or vaccination in which nearly all scientists, doctors and dentists support a measure. In such situations, dissidents threaten to turn a monopoly of expert opinion into a debate. Attacking dissidents thus serves to protect the monopoly by discrediting critics and warning others not to break ranks.

On the other hand, sometimes suppression of dissent backfires, giving the dissident greater visibility and support, either in the short or long term. Galileo, who was suppressed by the Catholic Church for his science-based heresy, has become a symbol of freedom of inquiry. In the 1960s, after US consumer advocate Ralph Nader questioned the safety of automobiles, the company General Motors put him under surveillance; when this was exposed, General Motors' credibility greatly suffered.


Generally speaking, whistleblowing means speaking out in the public interest. Typically, a whistleblower is an employee who reports on a problem within the organization, most commonly corruption, abuse or hazards to the public. Whistleblowers can be from any sector of the workforce, including schools, police, hospitals, corporations, churches, and government departments. For example, a teacher might report harassment by the principal, a police officer might report frame-ups, a corporate auditor might report shady dealings, and a church member might report sexual abuse by clergy.

Scientists can be whistleblowers. One way is by reporting problems in the workplace such as financial fraud, hazardous laboratory practices, bias in appointments, sexual harassment or bullying. These problems are similar in a range of workplaces, whether or not they involve scientists. Bias in appointments, for example, is found in just about every type of work.

A few whistleblowing issues are special to science. One is scientific fraud, which is normally taken to involve altering or manufacturing data, or claiming credit for other scientists' work. Another special problem is conflict of interest, for example when a researcher obtains funding to study a drug from the manufacturer of the drug, but does not declare this. Biases occur when scientists use inappropriate research methods, misrepresent their findings, or do not publish findings unwelcome to their funders. When scientists speak out about such problems, they may be subject to reprisals. For example, there are cases in which scientists have exposed cheating by other scientists, and then themselves come under attack.

There is an overlap between whistleblowing and dissenting. Whistleblowing typically involves exposing a problem in the workplace whereas dissenting typically involves a challenge to dominant ideas; some types of dissent also count as whistleblowing.

In quite a few countries, laws have been passed to protect whistleblowers. These make it unlawful for an employer to take reprisals against an employee who reports wrongdoing; whistleblowers are usually expected to follow a series of procedures such as reporting first to internal authorities. However, it is unclear whether whistleblower laws, in practice, provide much protection to scientists.

These laws have many shortcomings. Only some scientists are protected. Those employed by industry are seldom covered by legislation. Only some sorts of reports are protected. Dissent against a dominant point of view - a paradigm - does not count as whistleblowing and is not protected by any law. Another shortcoming is that some sorts of adverse actions, such as denial of appointments or research grants, are almost impossible to prove are reprisals, because there are other reasons, seemingly legitimate, for making appointments and awarding grants.

When scientists lose their jobs, they can fight their employer in court using whistleblowing or other legislation, but they are at a serious disadvantage, having little income. Their opponent in court, their former employer, usually has unlimited money and time to pursue the case. Court decisions often hinge on technicalities and fail to address the substantive injustice involved. Even when the whistleblower wins in court, the employer can appeal. The whole process often takes years, interrupting or ending the scientist's research career. Because of these numerous shortcomings, it might be said that whistleblower laws give only an illusion of protection. Scientists who believe they can speak out in safety are often disillusioned.

Defending Dissent

When scientists are subject to threats or sanctions, many are intimidated and acquiesce, for example by doing what they are told, keeping quiet about their findings, or changing their research directions to something less threatening to vested interests. Some make formal complaints to professional bodies or government agencies, but there is little evidence that this leads to favorable outcomes very often.

A different approach is an activist response based on exposing attacks to wider audiences, showing they are unfair, and refusing to give in to intimidation. However, few scientists are comfortable publicly criticizing their employer. One example of this response involved Jeff Schmidt, a physicist who worked as an editor at Physics Today for 19 years. In 2000, immediately after he published a book titled Disciplined Minds, a radical analysis of the training and subordination of scientists and other professionals, he was fired from his job. He responded by mobilizing support within and outside of the physics community; the campaign on his behalf included a petition signed by hundreds of physicists, an amazing display of support for Schmidt against the physicists' own professional body. This public campaign attracted assistance from pro bono lawyers, and Schmidt won compensation, symbolic reinstatement and even the right to boast about the settlement; he insisted on throwing out the usual confidentiality clause.

Dissident scientists can gain support from social movements. For example, when climate change scientists working for government come under attack - for example by not being allowed to speak to the media or comment on policy - their situation is sometimes publicized by climate activists, with publicity in social and mass media. The possibility of media coverage discourages attacks on dissent.

Far better than trying to counter attacks on dissent is to prevent them in the first place. Attacks are less likely when there is a culture of openness to controversial ideas, with respectful debate. This is indeed the stated ideal of scientific inquiry but, due to the influence of vested interests and paradigm commitments, it is realized only part of the time.


Juan Miguel Campanario, Robert Kuehn and Jeff Schmidt offered valuable comments on a draft of this text.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Alford, C. Fred. Whistleblowers: Broken Lives and Organizational Failure. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001.

Calland, Richard, and Guy Dehn, eds. Whistleblowing around the World: Law, Culture and Practice. Cape Town: Open Democracy Advice Centre; London: Public Concern at Work, 2004.

Campanario, Juan Miguel, and Brian Martin. "Challenging Dominant Physics Paradigms." Journal of Scientific Exploration 18, no. 3 (Fall 2004): 421-438.

De Maria, William. Deadly Disclosures: Whistleblowing and the Ethical Meltdown of Australia. Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 1999.

Devine, Tom, and Tarek F. Maassarani. The Corporate Whistleblower's Survival Guide. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2011.

Deyo, Richard A. and others, "The Messenger under Attack: Intimidation of Researchers by Special-interest Groups." New England Journal of Medicine 366 (16 April 1997): 1176-1180.

Glazer, Myron Peretz, and Penina Migdal Glazer. The Whistleblowers: Exposing Corruption in Government and Industry. New York: Basic Books, 1989.

Johnson, Roberta Ann. Whistleblowing: When It Works - and Why. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2003.

Kassing, Jeffrey W. Dissent in Organizations. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2011.

Kuehn, Robert R. "Suppression of Environmental Science." American Journal of Law and Medicine 30 (2004): 333-369.

Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Martin, Brian. "Suppression of Dissent in Science." Research in Social Problems and Public Policy 7 (1999): 105-135.

Martin, Brian. Whistleblowing: A Practical Guide. Sparsnäs, Sweden: Irene Publishing, 2013.

Miceli, Marcia P., Janet P. Near and Terry Morehead Dworkin. Whistle-blowing in Organizations. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Miethe, Terance D. Whistleblowing at Work: Tough Choices in Exposing Fraud, Waste, and Abuse on the Job. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1999.

Moran, Gordon. Silencing Scientists and Scholars in Other Fields: Power, Paradigm Controls, Peer Review, and Scholarly Communication. Greenwich, CT: Ablex, 1998.

Schmidt, Jeff. Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-Battering System that Shapes their Lives. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000.

Sommer, Toby J. "Suppression of Scientific Research: Bahramdipity and Nulltiple Scientific Discoveries." Science and Engineering Ethics 7, no. 1 (2001): 77-104.

Wilkinson, Todd. Science under Siege: The Politicians' War on Nature and Truth. Boulder, CO: Johnson Books, 1998.