This is one question Naomi Oreskes studies in the history of science (see the NYT story on 6/16/15). She started out as a geologist and moved on to wonder about how science progresses. One of her early studies was about Alfred Wegener, a German meteorologist in the early 20th century (he died on his 4th trip to Greenland researching climate mechanisms) who early on advanced a theory of plate tectonics as he studied how the shape of the continents seemed to fit together like a puzzle, the match between geological formations on both sides of the Atlantic and the corresponding match between fossils. He was viewed as a crank by most geologists, especially in the USA. (By the way American science has repeatedly failed to assimilate European ideas, e.g., our behavioral psychology and Manfred Clynes, even Piaget early on). 30 years later further research proved Wegener’s hypothesis correct so he went from crank to maverick, though decades after his death. Still, an important piece in the history of science.
Dr. Oreskes and a colleague, Erik Conway, more recently looked into the science of climate change. In reviewing the published studies over the past couple of decades, she found that most confirmed rapid climate change due to human activity and that the ones that didn’t were addressing methodological issues, i.e., how better to measure such change, but that none challenged the prevailing consensus. How, then, to understand the doubt so present in the American populace?
Ah, there’s the rub. They found a group of scientists who had extra time on their hands after the end of the Cold War and became the strategic purveyors of doubt and misinformation at the behest of key industries. They challenged the findings on the harmful effects of tobacco and second hand smoke, acid rain, and the ozone shield as well as climate change by publishing spurious news reports. Now I find this distressing, that the same group of ‘scientists’ is doing the non-scientific work of industries to protect their profiting by misdeeds and that by and large the public is ignorant of this state of affairs. I believe this is what I call ‘willful ignorance’ in that people choose to ignore data driven information due to political prejudices.
How to tell a maverick from a crank? Time and diligent research will eventually decide. How to tell a scientist from a corporate shill? Look at the available research and follow the money. After thanking Dr. Oreskes and Dr. Conway, travel on.