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Scientific regress: When science goes backward

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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To celebrate the ends of years, decades and other milestones, science publications often churn out "Whither science?" predictions. Just last week, The New York Times Science Times section celebrated its, um, 32nd birthday with a special issue on "What’s next in science". What I found fascinating was the issue’s overall tone of caution rather than the traditional boosterish enthusiasm.

Gina Kolata recalled a job interview 25 years ago with U.S. News and World Report, an editor of which asked her, "What will be important medical news next year?" Kolata replied that "next year gene therapy will be shown to work." Gene therapy, of course, has been a big bust. Kolata goes on to say that the best answer to "Whither science?" is to expect the unexpected. (Fortunately for her, Kolata didn’t get the job with what a mean friend of mine liked to call "U.S. Snooze and World Distort," the print version of which just died after years of terminal illness.)

My favorite answer to the Science Times "What’s next?" query was James Gorman’s list of things that scientists won’t accomplish. They won’t find ET or the ivory-billed woodpecker, clone Neandertals, download our psyches into computers, and so on.

If the Times had asked me to chime in, I would have pointed out areas of science, technology and medicine that are regressing. I don’t mean what the philosopher Imre Lakatos referred to as a "degenerating research program," which produces diminishing returns. That’s merely declining progress. I mean fields of research that actually go backward, as measured by some specific benchmark. Some examples:

*The end of infectious disease: Decades ago antibiotics, vaccines, pesticides, water chlorination and other public health measures were vanquishing diseases such as malaria, yellow fever, polio, whooping cough, tuberculosis and smallpox, particularly in First World nations. In The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World out of Balance (Penguin, 1995), the journalist Laurie Garrett noted that in 1967 U.S. Surgeon General William Stewart said that it was "time to close the books on infectious diseases" (Garrett’s words) and shift resources toward non-infectious killers such as cancer and heart disease. The global eradication of smallpox in 1979 seemed to fulfill Stewart’s vision. Hopes for the end of infectious disease were soon crushed, however, by the emergence of AIDS, mutant flu viruses and antibiotic-resistant forms of old killers such as tuberculosis.

*Space colonization: While I was still in journalism school in 1983 I wrote a story about the L5 Society, a group of space enthusiasts, and their guru, the Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill. O’Neill and his supporters proposed building factories, solar-energy generators and huge, cylindrical, rotating (to create artificial gravity) habitats in the L5 region of space, where the gravity of Earth and the moon cancel each other. The first blow to these space-colonization fantasies occurred in 1986 when the space shuttle Challenger blew up. Then the Cold War ended, and the U.S. and Russia scaled back their space programs, which had always really been more about saber rattling than exploration. Only Trekkies and other sci-fi geeks take space colonization seriously any more.

*Supersonic transport (SST): Fifty years ago, supersonic commercial flight seemed poised for takeoff. The Anglo-French Concorde began regular transatlantic flights in the 1960s. The Soviet Union produced a viable SST called the Tupolev Tu-144 (or as it was dubbed in the West, "Concordski"), and U.S. aerospace firms scrambled to produce SSTs as well. But from the beginning supersonic flight was plagued by problems, especially huge fuel costs, noisy takeoffs and sonic booms. The last commercial SST flight took place in 2003. At the moment, prospects for revival of commercial SSTs are slim to none.

*Commercial fusion power: In 1983 I visited Princeton University to ogle its tokamak machine, an experimental magnetic-confinement fusion reactor the size of a small house, covered in cables, gauges, transformers and other gear. I was awestruck, and when the physicists working on it told us that fusion reactors could be generating electricity within 20 years, naturally I believed them. As George Johnson and I discussed in a recent chat on Bloggingheads.tv the dream of fusion energy has become vanishingly faint.

*The origin of life: In 1953 Harold Urey of the University of Chicago and his graduate student Stanley Miller simulated the "primordial soup" in which life supposedly began on Earth some four billion years ago. They filled a flask with methane, ammonia and hydrogen (representing the primordial atmosphere) and water (the oceans) and zapped it with a spark-discharge device (lightning). The flask was soon coated with a reddish goo containing amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. This famous experiment raised the hopes of many scientists that one of nature’s deepest mysteries—genesis, the origin of life on Earth—would soon be replicated in the laboratory and hence solved. It hasn’t worked out that way. Scientists have failed to show how mere chemicals can become animate, and the origin of life now appears more improbable and mysterious than ever. As Francis Crick once wrote, "the origin of life appears to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have to be satisfied to get it going." Crick, by the way, was an agnostic leaning toward atheism.

I could go on, but I’d rather hear your example of scientific regress.

P.S.: Fans of Scientific American blogger Jesse Bering should check out my recent chat with him on Bloggingheads.tv.

Image of the Concorde courtesy Wiki Commons

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  1. 1. eddiequest 8:01 am 11/16/2010

    The only thing I can think of (albeit, slightly off-key) is the increasing distrust that so many simpler folk have toward science and scientists. With the untrained skepticism and badgering begun by the fossil fuel industry (and anyone else emotionally gullible enough to tag along) I see many of those in power shunning the input of those who do the amazingly difficult work of finding out bits and pieces of how our world works. If that’s not regress, I don’t know what is.

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  2. 2. dbtinc 8:36 am 11/16/2010

    At one time (1930′s) the movie industry highlighted the importance of science with biographies of the great historical scientists such as Pasteur, Behring and others. That does not happen today as the entertainment industry portrays science and engineering as a "geek" paradise. We ridicule these people, make getting MBA’s a worthy goal rather then PhD’s, et al. India and China – admire and support science as they see it as an economic engine. Read Gibson’s Fall of the Roman Empire and weep.

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  3. 3. doug l 8:45 am 11/16/2010

    It sure seems like there’s been a general regression in our scientific achievement when it comes to energy in this country. Even though our president’s selected a Nobel Laureat in nuclear physics for his Sect’y of Energy, the forces that oppose or ignore the advancement of nuclear energy based on their old, outdated, and fear-based misunderstandings of the safety and security, and heck even how the newest and more effective processes in nuclear reactor technology actually work, superstitions, they still seem to dominate the discussion and focus in the main stream media. I guess we should expect that since so many science writers themselves are not really scientists but more than likely are former liberal arts majors who frankly held nuclear technology in suspicion and were not capable mathmatically to actually understand the physics and engineering and instead focused on the fear, which as we know is a great way to sell the news they are involved in creating. Too bad since we continue to stumble and embarrass our selves by fiddling with so called alternative technologies that are so feeble that they cannot pay their way. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to see windmills designed so that they don’t kill thousands of birds and provide clean energy. Same for solar panels and algae, but really it’s just not there yet. So, I sincerely hope that the President will wake up to the promise of nuclear technology to help us maintain our scientific/technological and industrial primacy, and that he will have his Sect’y of Energy, Dr Stephen Chu address the fears and misconceptions on how nuclear energy actually operates and how we can safely manage it in order to get us past the current situation in which we find ourselves held in fealty to the petro-fuel industry. Cheers.

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  4. 4. vagnry 3:22 pm 11/16/2010

    I can only agree with the three earlier comments, science has become suspicious and evil among a vast majority of people, who couldn’t imagine life without their safe cars, microwave ovens, flat screen TV’s, computers etc.

    Medias earlier ideas about "educating" people have been replaced by entertaining the people, as the early romans said "give them bread and circuses" and our western world is gradually loosing ground to South Korea, Singapore, China, Brazil etc.

    The recent G20 meeting showed that very clearly!

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  5. 5. raptordigits 5:35 pm 11/16/2010

    Not really,

    The author is confusing ‘popular’ non-science expections with science. The popular scientific press, like Scienctifi American, is awed by the ‘fringe stuff’. So what if scientist ‘x’ said ‘whatever’ back in 1960 or whenever? What did the other 50 scientists in his field think?

    As a geologist I see this everyday when it comes to alternative fuels, etc. Ask most geologists what the dominant fuel in 2050 or 2070 will be and they will say coal and oil…read the popular press and it will be ‘the flavour of the month’ as mooned over by the latest by Scientific American.

    Science doesn’t ‘regress’. It’s just not about fulfilling the fantasies of those who don’t have a grasp on reality.

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  6. 6. ennui 7:08 pm 11/16/2010

    I foresee Real Space Travel. Cars and homes that are powered like Tesla did for his Pierce Arrow Car in 1931.
    Electric SS Aircraft.
    Tornado and earthquake control.
    Lifting sunken ships from the sea bottom.
    Many of these things would have been already possible if Nasa Propulsion Engineers had not messed up the experiment of Gravity Control and sent Nasa on it’s way do a Has-Been.
    Maybe it is all too advanced for the USA anyway.

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  7. 7. Andira 10:21 pm 11/16/2010

    I am quite certain that teleportation will have become a reality as early as next autumn, that we will live in plastic domes floating on beacons of compressed air, that we will communicate with intelligent insects, and that in general we will have a blast. If there is any problem, it is that kids today do not wish to solve problems, but instead think it is most desirable to become a teen pop or movie idol. It may also be that scientific breakthroughs are becoming increasingly hard, as all the easier ones have been made. We could, however, use much better all the achievements great minds have already produced.

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  8. 8. Andira 10:21 pm 11/16/2010

    Great article by the way.

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  9. 9. reflectogenesis 5:56 am 11/17/2010

    Yes and I don’t think that Homer Simpson is really pulling his weight in promoting the nuclear industry. Can someone tell him to divert some of his attentions to science for a change. Then perhaps we’ll have some real progree.
    Peter Reynolds
    Reflectogenesis@hotmail.co.uk

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  10. 10. modavis 11:44 am 11/17/2010

    "Regress" is tendentious. Most of your examples would be better described as failure to reach goals that were never realistic in the first place.

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  11. 11. DRRICH 7:39 pm 11/17/2010

    There is a lot of regression in medicine. Vaccines were once thought of as life-saving (which they are) but so many people think that they will get a disease from them that we are having significant portions of the population going unvaccinated.
    Our government wants to improve coverage, but they won’t let you deduct premiums or the actual services unless they exceed a certain percentage of income.
    Like in many types of political ideologies in the past, the resources of the many are being channelled to the few on top. For example, the salaries of HMO CEO’s, combined, could probably provide health care for thousands annually.
    Also, education in science is falling. People are putting up museums to try to support ID. In some states its hard to teach evolution. What’s next, can’t say that the earth is round or that the earth orbits the sun, not the other way around? We already did this a few hundred years ago and we seem to headed back that way.

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  12. 12. Dr. Strangelove 8:59 pm 11/17/2010

    Given the present consumption of fossil fuels and the historical 2% annual growth rate, the world reserve will be depleted in 60 yrs. more or less. All good things must come to an end.

    Developing new technologies to find new oil fields may be a "regression." We are merely extending the life of the old and dying carbon economy using new technology. We should be creating a new economy based on new sources of energy: solar, wind, geothermal, nuclear fusion, biofuels. It’s like trying to genetic engineer the horse to produce more horsepower. Why don’t we just get rid of the horse and build a Lamborghini?

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  13. 13. Bill Crofut 9:09 am 11/18/2010

    My first experience with scientific regression (as memory serves) was an admission in print:

    The success of Darwinism was accompanied by a decline in scientific integrity….I do not contest the fact that the advent of the evolutionary idea, due mainly to the Origin, very greatly stimulated biological research. But it appears to me that owing, precisely to the nature of the stimulus, a great deal of this work was directed into unprofitable channels or devoted to the pursuit of will-o’-the-wisps….Darwin himself considered that the idea of evolution is unsatisfactory unless its mechanism can be explained. I agree, but since no one has explained to my satisfaction how evolution could happen I do not feel impelled to say that it has happened. I prefer to say that on this matter our information is inadequate.

    [W. R. Thompson, FRS. 1956. Introduction. In: Charles Darwin. Origin of Species. Everyman Library No. 811. London: J. M. Dent and Sons. Reprinted with permission. Evolution Protest Movement. 1967. NEW CHALLENGING `INTRODUCTION' TO THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES. Selsey, Sussex: Selsey Press Ltd., pp. 17, 16, 12]

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  14. 14. Andrei Kirilyuk 2:13 pm 11/18/2010

    As a long-term adherent to canonical Horganism ideas, I certainly agree with the statement here of today’s dominating scientific regress (so painfully contrasting with yet well remembered and apparently limitless recent progress of the same science!), with the important difference in the underlying origin of the phenomenon: while John Horgan basically considers that modern science already “knows too much” (in things reasonably knowable in principle) to allow for any strong progress, I PROVE (using truly rigorous methods within the same scientific logic) that it actually knows too little (on its artificially limited, deeply deficient level of rigour) and cannot progress any more just because of that (see e.g. http://arxiv.org/abs/0705.4562 for a non-technical description of details and references).

    Of course, further scientific progress cannot discover “another electricity” (and hardly parallel universes, despite the regressing science hype), but it can and does discover “new (realistic) dimensions” of the unreduced, truly complete understanding of only superficially (empirically) “known” reality, with great and badly needed progress in fundamentals and applications ( http://sites.google.com/site/unifiedcomplexity/ ). Just recall supernatural “quantum mysteries” at the very basis of “rigorous” and “objective” doctrine of official, “positivistic” science (used, in particular, in the dominating but obviously futile “quantum computer” hoax). It is just THIS, very special kind of knowledge, so severely limited by construction that it can hardly be called (objective/complete) science, that follows now this correctly indicated tendency of regress (indeed inevitable within its artificially limited/erroneous framework, see the above sources for explanations). When they imply that this is the only or the best kind of science (or the best kind of surrounding democracy) that we may ever have, they may be just slightly exaggerating their own value – or even shamelessly lying. There are other, much better possibilities, leading to ensured scientific and social progress – and we need to start realising them right now.

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  15. 15. Andrei Kirilyuk 2:21 pm 11/18/2010

    Sorry for the "squares" in the above comment: they stand for "inclined" inverted commas often accepted by other comment-processing software.

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  16. 16. Andrei Kirilyuk 2:28 pm 11/18/2010

    One important feature that should be added to the description of the dominating scientific regress (especially because it still remains "unexpected" for many wide-public "science lovers" and science support sources) is that the leading part of modern official science system does NOT want its replacement by any serious progress, despite various formal statements (and public expectations) of the opposite. Moreover, this absolutely dominating system of that quite special kind of "science" – including the totally subordinate "science journalism" (just a propaganda division) – uses all its power to STOP any real knowledge progress (by close to zero probability of support/attention to serious scientific novelties). And because THIS, very special (effectively totalitarian) system of this very special kind of science determines itself its own quality (the supporting and formally "consuming" taxpayers are effectively excluded from any real estimate/decision), this situation cannot change by itself, without initiating a greater knowledge transition by well-defined efforts. It’s the "decadent empire syndrome" when a highly centralised system of "professional rulers" encircles its decision-making and unconditionally luxurious central parts with multiple layers of generously supported and therefore supportive "promoters" and "protectors", resulting in practically unlimited, fatal propagation of defects in its essential, massive dynamics. It seems that there are some similar phenomena today in the Great American Empire (the world) even beyond science, in the formally "democratic" body of active public participation and highly "professional" and "responsible" managers…

    Let me know when you will be practically ready to end this fatal scientific regress and replace it with so badly needed progress just waiting for a minimum support. There can be no other basis for general, social and human progress other than dominating, real progress of knowledge, and behind all official propaganda we know, don’t we, where we are with all of it today, within the dominating tendency? Keep thinking, stop regressing, try changing.

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  17. 17. bucketofsquid 4:45 pm 11/18/2010

    As a tech worker in the energy industry, I actually am required to keep up to date on the viability of various energy sources. Raptordigits nailed it. There is some hope that solar energy may become sustainable eventually as laboratory improvements become commercialized but as of yet, solar cannot compete with oil or coal. Wind turbines are very prone to failure due to weather and cost far more to run. Both solar and wind require gargantuan storage which is a major cost as well as environmental hazard.

    Nuclear waste lasts a very long time and cannot be incinerated or otherwise destroyed. Some of it can be recycled but most of it isn’t actually spent fuel.

    Biofuels are net energy losers as well as very polluting. Not as polluting as the process of making solar cells and certainly not as much as coal or oil, but still polluters. They require larger volumes and encroach upon agricultural resources thus driving food prices up. For example; corn based ethanol drove corn prices very high and devestated the economy in parts of Mexico and Central America.

    No one has ever accurately predicted the future before the future became the past. While there are tons of people that claim to be able to they are frauds who usually release the prediction after the fact or cherry pick 1 out of thousands of predictions.

    I have yet to see any sign of science regressing. The general population may be regressing in scientific understanding but I doubt it. My entire life people have been telling me how much harder life is now. They say that children are worse behaving. They are full of delusions. Life is easier than ever. Lifespans are longer than ever. Children are more educated and nicer than ever. Try to remember that the media is fighting a losing battle with boredom and over dramatizes everything.

    Life is great and things are better than ever.

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  18. 18. Andrei Kirilyuk 7:18 pm 11/18/2010

    Bucketofsquid, life gets easier and THAT’S WHY science (and its public understanding) is regressing. Life is easier due to (a big wave of) technological applications of previous, great science achievements, and even if there is no more of them now (while they are badly needed, e.g. for new energy sources), people feel instantaneously comfortably and say something like "what the hell, why should I worry … when my huge flat TV is so perfect … and my computer, and my beer, and my food …" etc. And (ever worse) professionals in science say the same to themselves, to be sure! And they OPPOSE science progress instead of creating it because they think they can instantaneously have better life without big change in their miserable, actually parasitic activity bringing no progress, while all those "energy problems" (let alone fundamental mysteries) are so easily left for "future achievements" … accompanied by nice salaries right now …

    That ever easier – and now effectively TOO easy, thoughtless – life has transformed all of you, but especially scientists, journalists and decision-making elites, into a society addicted to IMMEDIATE consumption and pleasure, so that even if you may know for sure that tomorrow all of it will stop and you’ll get a horrible existence, you’d still continue without change, "hardly working" only for those immediate pleasures (while true science is always a difficult fight "for the next day"). In this sense it is indeed a truly apocalyptic society, worshiping its today’s sins at the expense of inevitable tomorrow’s punishment, even when the latter is perfectly predictable and already emerging, quite sensibly for many! It’s a general mood but the situation in science is particularly revealing and decisive: it is through science that you may have either huge progress or terrible additional catastrophes.

    You prefer to be sure in a future when it actually comes (because there were too many lies about "our possible futures"). Yes, but if an increasingly probable sad future will irreversibly prevail, nobody will be happy to be sure of it. You’re right, we need a much deeper transformation of knowledge permitting the entire, global society to understand its emerging future, in its general direction and main results. The accumulated technical power and interaction intensity doesn’t allow any non-destructive future without this qualitatively new level of knowledge. We have already crossed the invisible border and cannot step back. It remains to understand it, this initial piece of a new knowledge…

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  19. 19. mgathers 12:06 am 11/19/2010

    Hey Horgan,
    Do you understand the difference between "failed expectations" and "regression"? Based on this article, I’d say, "No."

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  20. 20. Andrei Kirilyuk 8:13 am 11/19/2010

    Indeed, mgathers, it’s a pertinent question. John Horgan cites some examples of "failed expectations" and asks for others, but it would be better to reverse the question and ask rather for examples of (real) progress in modern science. Because the difference between (some) failed expectations and (general) regress is the proportion of failed expectations and successful attempts (even unexpected). The problem of modern official ("recognised") science is the absence of the latter – and hence the dominating regress. What we have is either obviously lying "bullshit science" with its grotesque sci-fi hype that never gives any true progress ("quantum computers", "nanotechnology", "genetic engineering" … let alone "anti-gravitation" and "magic rays" kind of tricks…) or equally tricky math-physical delirium of "parallel universes" and "hidden dimensions" at your door that inevitably end up with mysterious "dark matter" that constitutes, as it finally results from such science "progress", almost all the content of the universe. Is it only a case of some "failed expectations"? What’s the intellectual heritage you leave today for young generations by intense activity of your luxurious science centres (concentrating the entire world’s resources)?

    We’re asking for efficiency in finance and other practical activity sectors. We have today big and growing problems there variously characterised as "crisis" or even "recession" (permanent crisis). But what can be said then about the situation in science? It is comparable to zero (useful) production and huge consumed resources lasting for decades and still changing from bad to worse. It is subjectively "permitted" (in THIS kind of society) because those scientific "products" are (considered as) not vitally needed for immediate consumption. But the same society says something opposite in all its major slogans about science being our single hope for progress and all growing problem solution, the goal of "knowledge-based" society, etc. Is it then a society based on lie? Why are you asking for the top efficiency everywhere except science, "our best hope", where you favour explicit deception and multibillion fraud involving all humanity’s possibilities for progress? All those sophisticated and super-expensive technical "measurements" give nothing without a consistent, proper "scientific" knowledge base (alias "understanding") transforming them into technological and intellectual development. If it goes on like now, we’re at the serious risk of "failed expectations" for the humanity as a whole.

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  21. 21. mgathers 10:19 pm 11/19/2010

    Andrei wrote: Indeed, mgathers, it’s a pertinent question. John Horgan cites some examples of "failed expectations" and asks for others, but it would be better to reverse the question and ask rather for examples of (real) progress in modern science."

    No. A better question would be why he’s writing a blog post on failing to meet lofty, perhaps irrational expectations; and trying to peddle; it as scientific regression. The two aren’t related at all.

    Simply put, this blog post doesn’t hold water. It’s completely misguided, to put it nicely.

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  22. 22. Colorado 2:04 pm 11/21/2010

    Ref medical advances. I wonder how much the growth of the pharmaceutical industry has affected the search for cures. They get paid a lot more for coming up with treatments than they do for actually curing the patient.

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  23. 23. E-boy 7:26 pm 01/2/2011

    Simpler folk? I am hoping the implied insult was unintentional. Ignorance of science is, sadly, widespread. Distrust of science is even more widespread. Neither of these facts should lead one to make assumptions about the relative quality or complexity of individual people. Human beings tend to think emotionally and only a truly ignorant person believes he or she is free of less than rational thought processes. "Human kind is not the rational animal, but the rationalizing one".

    Lastly, intelligence isn’t generated by education, only made more useful. Calling people who don’t share your trust in science (A trust I share, for the record) "Simple" is giving them an ample emotional excuse for ignoring any argument you make. That you’re being a jerk. That would be the common emotional element to human thought coming into play.

    Dismissing someone’s concerns out of hand amounts to hubris. Engaging them in a dialogue in which you provide the evidentiary background for your position without name calling is far more likely to preserve your credibility.

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