When Scientists Argue

About a month ago we ran “What If the U.S. Got Rid of All Livestock?” describing the findings of two scientists, Robin White and Mary Beth Hall, who tried to answer that question. Their conclusion was that without livestock, the U.S. would not be able to meet its population’s nutritional requirements and the reduction in green house gas emissions would be nominal – just 2.6% of the total U.S. emissions.

Click to read a summary of the debate over the White and Hall article.

Now scientists are arguing about whether or not White and Hall got it right. And we’re tickled! These kinds of disagreements are normal and a critical part of advancing knowledge. And this current discussion is a good example of how it works:

1. Scientists develop a hypothesis and run an experiment. They get results, and then report those results.
It’s that reporting that makes scientific papers so tedious to read because a good paper includes every assumption the researchers made, a description of how they made measurements, and all the information someone would need to duplicate the experiment.

2. Other scientists check every part of the process. If they have concerns, they write about them.
In this case, some scientists disagree with White’s and Hall’s assumptions and think that maybe the number they used for calories in their simulated diet was too high. They share their concerns in letters to the journal where the paper was published, complete with their own citations and long descriptions. Rebuttals follow, with explanations of why assumptions were made and processes chosen. While each side may have a strong position, each is open to changing. If you can’t change your mind when presented with new data, you’re not a very good scientist.

3. New research is done taking into account all of the above.
The whole idea of sharing knowledge the way scientists do is to help each other advance knowledge in their field. Or as Sir Isaac Newton said in 1676:

“If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

If that feels familiar, it’s because it really is what you’re doing as a part of the On Pasture community.

And when scientists agree?
That’s when you know that the information we have available to us is really strong and we ought to be doing things with it.

That’s just a little insight into the way your On Pasture editors look at information and figure out what to publish. We want to be sure you’re working with the latest and greatest information as you do your work!

Thanks for reading!

Kathy and Rachel

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