In Science, ‘The Debate Is Over’ Means They are Tired of Doing Science
Because I became involved in a small way once with a controversy over research in same-sex parenting, I occasionally receive research articles on this topic. Such was the case a few weeks ago when this item crossed my path. I took a look at it and saw that the sample size was too small (only 190 participants) to make real progress on the question, and I lost interest in reading the article further.
Then last week this Slate article come out proclaiming that this same piece of research had ended the debate on same-sex parenting. Really? I won’t do an in-depth critique of the article, except to say that generalizations of that sort with such a small sample are unwise. (If you want a thorough and honest examination of the strengths and weaknesses of the study, you can check it out here.) What I am going to examine here instead is the notion that this or any other single piece of research is worthy of proclaiming any scientific debate to be over. In fact, proclamations like that are the opposite of what science is supposed to be about.
Science is supposed to be an open search for the truth. To declare debate to have ended is to say that there is no more need for further science on that subject. Statements of that sort are intended to stop science, not further it.
Yet we hear them all the time. Typically they come from secularists, the ones who supposedly love science. Rarely do you hear them from conservative Christians — we who are often stereotyped as hating science. It seems that a little self-introspection is in order for those who are eager to declare the end of debates.
Are there times when a scientific debate is truly over? Can a case come up where the evidence is so overwhelming that there is no need to investigate? Yes, that can, and does, occur. The debate really is over on whether gravity exists, whether mitosis occurs in biological cells, or whether men on average make more money than women. Interestingly, though, no one stands up and declares, “the debate is over” on scientific facts like these. We just know it, because of the weight of the evidence. When debate is truly over there is no need for political pressure to declare it so. Scientists come to those conclusions on their own.
Take the example of men making more money than women. I know of no social scientist who disagrees with that conclusion. I know of no study where the opposite result has been found. There can (and should) be debates over why men make more money than women, but the fact that they do is beyond dispute.
Yet no one ever published a statement like “The debate on male higher earnings is over.” It was just over. It was over because there was no reasonable evidence to the contrary, so there was nothing to debate. That is how scientific debates are supposed to end: not by declaration, but by evidence so overwhelming that any contrary assertion becomes obviously foolish.
So if that is how scientific debates are supposed to end, why do we get these silly articles proclaiming that debates are over? These statements are driven not by scientific interests but by political purposes. With same-sex parenting, it’s quite clear what the political interests are, and why they want to “end debate” with a study that supports their cause — even a methodologically inadequate one like the one mentioned above. We should accept their assertions for what they are: vested political interest, not any interest in supporting real science.
I have read some of the research on same-sex parenting. My training as a social scientist allows me to make the assessment that this single study does not end this debate. There are research studies (here, here and here) with large probability samples that challenge this particular finding. Still I am not proclaiming a settled conclusion that there are negative outcomes to same-sex parenting. I prefer to take the prudent scientific stance of recognizing that we do not have the answers yet, and we need more honest research to answer the question.
The principle I am stating here applies to other science as well. Other than research on sexuality, the other major area where I hear frequent pronouncements that “the debate is over” is climate change. I freely admit that I am not the right type of scientist to comment on the science of climate change. But I do know that it’s not like the existence of gravity or cell mitosis, for which there is no debate simply because the evidence itself has brought all debate to a natural end. So when I hear declarations that debate on climate change is over, it reminds me of how that phrase is misused in my own field, and it makes me suspicious of what’s going on there, too. If the evidence is so strong, why all this political pressure to end the debate?
Asking this question does not make me a denier or skeptic. It makes me a scientist who believes in engaging in debates rather than ending them.