Scientists disagree. You should not be surprised.

Ardipithecus ramidus—the skeletal proto-human also known as Ardi—was discovered almost 18 years ago. The first scientific reporters were published last year. And now, other researchers are coming forward to challenge the way Ardi's discoverers interpreted the evidence about her habitat and place in the human family tree. But here's the kicker—these challenges aren't a scandal. In fact, this is the normal way that science, of all sorts, happens. I point this out, because I think it's a basic fact that the public doesn't really understand, and that we—the science reporters—often forget to clarify. Science works because scientists disagree. They challenge each other's ideas, find better ways to interpreting the data and eventually come to conclusions that bring us closer to truth. (Story via Cort Sims)


  1. Thanks for posting this! It’s a great point that’s not made nearly often enough.

  2. No, No, it’s because science is bogus and we should only look to god (not just any god, but the Judeo-Christian God) for the truth. He’s already given it to us in his Holy Word.

    OK, I’m done, can’t stomach any more. Great Post, and something I don’t think the “Faithful” really understand about science.

    Also, I dub me “Sir Troll.”


    I know this is true because this one time, a scientist disagreed with another scientist and I learned all about the scientific method in grade 2 when we watched baby chickens hatch from an incubator and everyone saw the same chickens hatch and no one disagreed with the teacher and that’s how science works. Also the nice meteorologist on my local Fox affiliate says the climate changes EVERY DAY! and I learned everything I know about science from him. And chickens.

    1. From Saint William Hicks:

      “God put those there to test our faith!”

      “I think god put you here to test my faith dude. I think I got this figured out. You don’t have trouble sleeping at night with that thought rattling around in there? The idea that Gooooodddddd……might be fucking with our heads?”

  4. @s5

    Well played sir or ma’am.

    in other news, the captcha generator on this gave me “Mr immature”, which leads me to believe it has been reading my post.

  5. Maggie, thanks for posting this. Just like you say (misunderstood… journalists… all that).

    Nice to see that BB, as well as sites such as ArsTechnica keep their science hat on.

  6. I agree with #1.

    This system of constantly challenging published ideas, of looking for any flaw, no matter how insignificant, and pointing it out to the world, saying “a-HA! your theory is wrong”, of constantly building better and better understandings of the natural world, and having all of this be the foundation of the discipline is exactly what makes science the best damn thing humans have come up with.
    The greatest rewards are given to those who can prove everyone else was wrong.
    Nothing else can compare.

    This crucial point, sadly, is too often ignored in articles about science, where these debates are framed as being a controversy that discredits, rather than strengthens the field

    Thank you for boinging about it.

  7. It’s why scientists don’t have car accidents. This is a good anecdote. A scientist is driving and passes under a green light, all is well, and is smashed in the side by another driver.
    He(she, whatever) is shaken and looks up at the light to ascertain that it was in fact green when he went through it. He checks to see if the other person is okay. They are, but they claim they had the right of way.
    Instantly the scientist reassesses the situation. She(he, whatever) asks herself if she is in shock, could that be affecting her recall? Could the light be malfunctioning? Could a trick of light cause her perception of color to be in error at the light. The scientist questions reality as a matter of course, in order to find truth(whatever that is).
    So when the cop comes and asks the scientist if he was in error, what does the scientist say? Well, I’m pretty sure the light was green, barring time dilation, brain chemistry and any other bizarre unknown effects at the time… I think, I hope, anyway… man, you got an aspirin?
    In short, scientists don’t have car accidents.

  8. Yep. The scientific method is close to an idealised myth. Science is *savage*. Any unfit theory will be ruthlessly massacred by anyone who can bash holes through it.

    It’s where there are two theories that have similar worth that it gets most savage. And “worth” doesn’t necessarily mean “quality of evidence” – worth can be political. Like global warming, evolution, whether drilling is safe, etc.

    Some ideas become entrenched, and it can take generations for them to be replaced by stronger ideas. Other ideas are known to be canards but are taught in schools anyway (tongue taste map; red/yellow/blue primary pigments; the savannah as the cradle of man; etc, etc).

    1. What about the red/yellow/blue primary pigments is a canard? Last time I looked at a magazine, the red/yellow/blue pigments worked pretty well for me.

      1. Red/yellow/blue are approximations for cyan, yellow and magenta respectively.

        However, in art classes throughout the UK at least, children are still taught “red/yellow/blue are the primary colours and green/orange/purple are the secondary colours, and they go in a circle: the spectrum is a line on the electromagnetic spectrum which has seven colours in, which are ROYGBIV”.

        Which has given us a nation of people with the same confusion you exhibit: they have no clue what the real primary colours are, or why, or why colours are a wheel when the spectrum is a line, or any of that stuff.

        This is all lies-to-children, though: it’s assumed that if you get interested enough, you’ll find how colour really works (probably by looking at the wiki page on ‘color’, contrasting it to the one on ‘primary color’, and becoming even more confused).

        So it’s unfair of me to describe it as a canard, a blatant falsehood taught in schools that isn’t just a simplification, at the same level as, say, the tongue taste map, or coriolis-in-a-bathtub; that scientists thought the world was flat in Columbus’ time; using only 10% of your brain; that the great wall of China is visible from the moon; knuckle-cracking causes arthritis; Napoleon’s short stature; Washington’s wooden teeth; Kennedy’s jelly donut; Ford’s invention of assembly lines; echoless quacks; glass flowing like a liquid; red enraging bulls; hair growth after death; sugar causes hyperactivity; men think about sex every N seconds; genetic determinism; genes for X; or the existence of the scientific method in all fields of science.

  9. Maggie,

    Can I call you Maggie? Anyway, Ms. Koerth-Baker, please tell this to other science writers! In fact, can you pitch this description of science as a feature story on local news?

    Get the word out! Scientists know this, but as you said, other people don’t! Maybe you can even turn this into a regular thing for BoingBoing. Something like, “Science disagreement of the month that’s contributing greatly to science.”


  10. These discussions are a natural part of scientific discourse. However, when scientists start to write public policy, they stop being scientists and start being politicians. And the public expects politicians to be correct, consistent and unequivocal (politicians are none of these, but that’s beside my point).

  11. hey Anon @13, a magazine is CMYK.

    I’m not quite sure what Dewi Morgan was trying to say but neither red-green-blue nor cyan-magenta-yellow-key(black) are pigments.

    Pigments are stable (usually) opaque chemicals that each have their own unique color and properties. Pigments are not an ideal “primary color”. Except for using carbon for black and titanium oxide (or similar) for white primary colors are usually produced by a mix of pigments or dyes.

    Color wheels and color theory are simplifications of a broad reality of things light and human perception are capable of. Additive and subtractive color theory is generally true and great to know but it is a big world with lots of way of generating color that may be more unique and expressive than the limited spectrum of a color wheel.

  12. When scientists believe something, they mean (in principle) that, based on the evidence they have and their understanding of it, that something is their best guess, subject to review in the face of new evidence. Now, obviously, this is a utopian view and human vanity, politics and so on makes things more complicated, but that’s the basic idea.

    When religious people believe something, they mean that they know that it is an unchanging truth of the universe that is not subject to revision.

    The big problem occurs when the scientist says “I believe …” and the religious person hears “I believe …” and they don’t mean the same thing at all.

  13. And this, my friends, is the real reason science is dangerous to the establishment and should be detained.

  14. When scientists disagree, it means the decision has not yet been made. We do not yet know whether the hypothesis is true or not.

    Example 1 (undecided): Higgs boson.

    Example 2 (accepted): The earth is not flat.

    Example 3 (rejected): Luminiferous aether (the medium that carries electromagnetic waves).

    There are many things that has left (1) above, and is headed towards (2) or (3). It usually takes a very long time for something to arrive at (2). Sometimes, all the proponents of the other hypothesis have to die/retire first. Reaching (3) is simpler.

    However we usually do not wait for absolute certainty before acting. If we receive a phone call saying there’s a bomb in the building, we do not immediately form a study group to figure out if there really is a bomb, if it really is capable of exploding, that the maker of the bomb has not made any mistakes in wiring it up, and if it explodes it is capable of causing damage and injury. The sensible reaction is to just ignore the threat, and wait until all this is proven before doing anything. Obviously not!.

    1. I think we should have kept the term ‘Luminiferous aether’. It sounds so much better than ‘dark matter’, and as a substance with physical properties about as likely.

      1. “A gas everywhere that is able to vibrate but otherwise quite rigid and has no mass to speak of” is about as likely than “heavy and dark”?

    2. Did you notice there that your #2 is also a rejection of a false theory? That’s how science works – falsification. Google “Karl Popper.” You will never find *anything* which a scientist worth her salt will say “is most certainly true.”

  15. the mistake here is to think empirical science is the first discipline to grow by questions. Theology grows by questioning also. every single discipline that has survived does. if there is no homogeneity, there can be no opposition. when will everyone understand this?

    1. There is an important distinction between “growing by questions” and “only accepting things provisionally, and only if they can be falsified.” That is the distinction between theology and science.

  16. What I love most of science is when two scientist come with two two different theories for something and each one claim his/her is the right one but in fact both are right.

    That´s what makes my brain tingle and giggle with joy.

  17. one of the main tools of scientists is argument and refutation, it should be more widely understood; religious people monopolize on the fact that science does fail a lot (failure in manyways is a good thing), and scientists disagree a lot. and i am right behind you on making this more clear.
    but i have one criticism, i hope i haven’t blown what might just be a throwaway remark out of proportion
    “conclusions that bring us closer to truth” I have heard many reporter state this same thing, and it is wrong. a scientists role is to explain the experimental data with the best available theory, or if the observable data goes against the theory to come up with new theories that best explains and integrates the new data, it is always serendipitous when we come across observable data, so we can’t say, ever, that the theory that explains the current observable data we have is not just as erroneous as the last(in a different way), based on possible future observance; we go with the best possible explanation(theory) we have because it has not been falsified, it does not mean it is anymore true.

    the_headless_rabbit you are on my list of quotes

    “debates are framed as being a controversy that discredits, rather than strengthens the field”

    best way i heard it said.

  18. I’m amazed at the poor quality of thinking I see in much science journalism. Why do journalists have trouble discerning the difference between opionions expressed by those working in scientific fileds and scientific fact? because they doj;tlearn fundamental logic.My favorite examples of journalistic silliness are the headlines that say,new species,or star discovered, ( like this from discovery”The new and so far unique white dwarf was predicted to exist”) the body of the story continues to speak of the newly discovered object of interest as NEW, as if it hadn’t taken x number of millenia to develop and finally be noticed by certain humans.
    What really dismays me is how often I see tiny studies that are not statistically significant,but do yeild enough data to indicate a worthwhile area for further study,treated as conclusive in some way,and not just by the writers,but by researchers. Why in the world would anyone think you can conclude anything based on what 12 college students being MRIed imagine they would do i a hypothetical situation?

  19. “Scientists disagree”

    One of the biggest understatements I’ve ever read. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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