Scientific dogma: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Reading a nice paper on human Y chromosomes (Poznik et al 2013), I was struck by the use of the word dogma at the end of the paper:

Dogma has held that the common ancestor of human patrilineal lineages, popularly referred to as the Y-chromosome “Adam,” lived considerably more recently than the common ancestor of female lineages, the so-called mitochondrial “Eve.”

But the word dogma means:

a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true (Wikipedia)

I do not know that we have any such principles in science. That were laid down by an authority and must be accepted, i.e., cannot be discussed or doubted?

Interestingly, there is some discussion on the use of « dogma » in scientific discourse on the Wikipedia Talk page, and there is nothing conclusive, apart from the well documented erroneous usage by Crick for the « central dogma of molecular biology ». Indeed, sequence information could be transferred from protein to DNA or RNA, in principle, without leading to any excommunication from molecular biology.

We have empirical generalities, theories, models, predictions, and well established facts. All are until proven otherwise, and none is dogma. Indeed, Poznik et al have not left nor been expelled from any dogmatic community of human population genetics as price of their observations, as far as I know.

And yet, like « paradigm shift« , « dogma » is over used in the literature. I find 9006 occurences in EuroPMC full text search, and 251 occurences in PubMed titles. I think that this title wins a prize:

Renal-dose dopamine: from hypothesis to paradigm to dogma to myth and, finally, superstition? (Jones & Bellomo 2005)

It seems that in science we like to feel revolutionary, and what better way to make a place in history than to overturn dogmas and paradigms? Maybe we should be more modest, and accept that this what we are doing:

From The illustrated guide to a Ph.D (click on picture)


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2 réponses à Scientific dogma: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

  1. Jrobinss dit :

    It seems to me the word that should be used is « paradigm ».

    OTOH, the extract provided (« …to paradigm to dogma… ») shows that a paradigm may become an « argument of authority », meaning that casting doubt upon it invalidates your speech to a lot of people. For example, gravity may prove a dogma if, when you submit a paper questioning its very existence, most reviewers will simply laugh it off (when in fact they should simply be looking for « extraordinary proof » for an « extraordinary claim » 🙂 ).

    So talking about a dogma is just a description, not of the theory, but of the reactions of the community around it. Whereas a paradigm is about the theory, and how much it is global and has much implications (relativity comes to mind 🙂 )

    Interestingly, the word « dogma » was much debated when it gave its name to a movie production movement, and when afterwards its initiator, Lars Von Trier, stopped respecting it. I remember critics arguing that if it was optional, then it should not have been called dogma in the first place.
    What can you expect from artists? 🙂

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