Soren Holm

How can journal editors fight bias in polarized scientific communities?

By Brian D. Earp

In a recent issue of the Journal of Medical EthicsThomas Ploug and Søren Holm point out that scientific communities can sometimes get pretty polarized. This happens when two different groups of researchers consistently argue for (more or less) opposite positions on some hot-button empirical issue.

The examples they give are: debates over the merits of breast cancer screening and the advisability of prescribing statins to people at low risk of heart disease. Other examples come easily to mind. The one that pops into my head is the debate over the health benefits vs. risks of male circumcision—which I’ve covered in some detail herehereherehere, and here.

When I first starting writing about this issue, I was pretty “polarized” myself. But I’ve tried to step back over the years to look for middle ground. Once you realize that your arguments are getting too one-sided, it’s hard to go on producing them without making some adjustments. At least, it is without losing credibility — and no small measure of self-respect.

This point will become important later on.

Nota bene! According to Ploug and Holm, disagreement is not the same as polarization. Instead, polarization only happens when researchers:

(1) Begin to self-identify as proponents of a particular position that needs to be strongly defended beyond what is supported by the data, and

(2) Begin to discount arguments and data that would normally be taken as important in a scientific debate.

But wait a minute. Isn’t there something peculiar about point number (1)?

On the one hand, it’s framed in terms of self-identification, so: “I see myself as a proponent of a particular position that needs to be strongly defended.” Ok, that much makes sense. But then it makes it sound like this position-defending has to go “beyond what is supported by the data.”

But who would self-identify as someone who makes inadequately supported arguments?

We might chalk this up to ambiguous phrasing. Maybe the authors mean that (in order for polarization to be diagnosed) researchers have to self-identify as “proponents of a particular position,” while the part about “beyond the data” is what an objective third-party would say about the researchers (even if that’s not what they would say about themselves). It’s hard to know for sure.

But the issue of self-identification is going to come up again in a minute, because I think it poses a big problem for Ploug and Holm’s ultimate proposal for how to combat polarization. To see why, though, I have to say a little bit more about what their overall suggestion is in the first place.

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