The role of controversy in scientific discourse

Returning from a scientific meeting reminded me again of the current bias against controversy in scientific discussions. Maybe as a result of the hazing-like practices in some circles (math, statistics, old Sovietic academic institutions), many now appear to abhor public disagreement on scientific matters. This is sad, as there is a long historic tradition of scientific controversy involving giants of both the distant and the recent past. Newton was involved in heated discussions on the nature of space and time with Descartes. Herbert Simon had a wonderfully heated exchange with Benoit Mandelbrot about the origin of the rank-size law.

I think that heated scientific disputes have an important role in clarifying to the scientific community at large the degree of certainty on a given matter. But like anything in life, one must be aware of the right way to do something. Older, more established scientists must not attack younger less experienced colleagues at meetings. Moreover, one must be driven by a desire to uncover the best answer, regardless of the fact that the best answer may not be the one one was exposing.

—Luis Amaral