Skepticism about science and medicine

In search of disinterested science

The Loch Ness “Monster”: Its real and important significance

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2021/01/29

Because of my writings about Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster [1], I am periodically approached by various media. Last year I had published [2] the suggestion that the Loch Ness creatures are more plausibly related to sea turtles than to the commonly popular notion of plesiosaurs.

A Scottish journalist came across that article, and for one day something about it and me was featured in every yellow-press newspaper in Britain, and several broadcast media asked for interviews.

The episode reminded me of some of the things that are so wrong with modern mass media.

Their overriding concern is simply to attract an audience. There is no intention of offering that audience any genuinely insightful analysis or context or background information. Media attention span approximates that of Twittering. One television network asked for an instant interview, wanted the best phone-contact number, even offered me compensation — and then never followed up.

I did talk to one Russian and one Spanish station or network, and I tried to point to what the real significance is of the Loch Ness animals, namely, that their existence has been denied by official scientific sources for not much less than a century, demonstrating that official science can be wrong, quite wrong; and while that matters little if at all about Loch Ness, I said, it does matter greatly when official science is wrong about such matters of public importance as HIV/AIDS  or climate change,  about which official science does in fact happen to be wrong [3].

So far, however, my bait about those important matters has not been snapped up.

Misunderstandings about science are globally pervasive, especially not realizing that it is fallible. The consequent unwarranted acceptance of wrong beliefs about HIV and about carbon dioxide demonstrate the need for some institution independent of official science, independent of existing scientific organizations and institutions, to provide fact-checking of contemporary scientific consensuses, an impartial, unbiased, strictly evidence-based assessments of official science. In other words, society sorely needs a Science Court [4].

Misconceptions about science can already be seen as a significant reason for flaws in the announced policies of the new Biden administration, as it places high priority on “combating climate change” and engaging in a “moon shot” to cure cancer: having not learned any lessons from the failure of the war on cancer, or from the fact, obvious in great swaths of the geological literature, that carbon dioxide is demonstrably not the prime cause of global warming since there is no correlation between global temperatures and carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere [5], neither over the whole life of the Earth nor over the last couple of centuries.

——————————————————

[1]    The Enigma of Loch Ness: Making Sense of a Mystery, University of Illinois Press, 1986/88; Wipf & Stock reprint, 2012
GENUINE  FACTS about “NESSIE”, THE LOCH NESS “MONSTER”
[2]    “Loch Ness Monsters as Cryptid (Presently Unknown) Sea Turtles”, Journal of Scientific Exploration, 34 (2020) 93-104
[3]    Dogmatism  in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth, McFarland, 2012
The Origin, Persistence and Failings of HIV/AIDS Theory, McFarland, 2007
[4]    Science Is Not What You Think: How It Has Changed, Why We Can’t Trust It, How It Can Be Fixed (McFarland 2017), chapter 12
“The Case for a Science Court”
Science Court: Why and What
[5]    “A politically liberal global-warming skeptic?”
”Climate-change facts: Temperature is not determined by carbon dioxide”

Posted in consensus, fraud in medicine, fraud in science, global warming, media flaws, politics and science, resistance to discovery, science is not truth, science policy, scientific culture, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: , , , , | 16 Comments »

The Banality of Evil — and modern medical practices

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2021/01/22


”The banality of evil” is a phrase famously used by Hannah Arendt in her description of the trial  of Adolf Eichmann. There has been much argument about what exactly she meant. For me, the insight is that evil is so often unintended, that it can result from perfectly well-intentioned actions.

The root of all evil is wrong belief.

If one believes that the most important thing about a human being is the immortal soul, and that the soul will burn in hell for eternity unless it has accepted what the Holy Roman Catholic Church believes, then obviously one should leave nothing undone in the effort to bring that soul to proper belief, even if that amounts to torturing the immortal soul’s body, even to death.

If one believes that one’s country was defeated and devastated by sabotage perpetrated by Jews, communists, homosexuals, gypsies, and the like, then obviously one should do whatever is necessary to rid the country of those perpetraitors.

 And so on

The human tragedy is that we acquire beliefs according to the environment into which we are born and in which we are raised; and once belief has been acquired, it tends to become increasingly entrenched and increasingly difficult to modify.

The problem for society is how best to ensure that collective public actions are based on correct rather than on wrong beliefs.

Nowadays that is taken to mean that public actions should be based on science.

Unfortunately, the nature of scientific activity is widely and thoroughly misunderstood [1], in particular its fallibility, which results inevitably from the fact that science is carried out by fallible human beings.

That fallibility is well illustrated by the history of medicine, where many past practices are now recognized as having been harmful rather than helpful — drawing out blood in sizable amounts, for example. Nowadays, the excellent intention to base medical practices on sound scientific knowledge has sadly gone wrong in several ways, as a result of beliefs that turn out to be wrong.  One pervasive reason is that statistical associations are taken as indicating cause and effect — an error that is warned against in even the most elementary introductions to statistical analysis.

Several pertinent stories are analyzed in Jeremy Greene’s magisterial Prescribing by Numbers [2].

One story has to do with blood pressure. Life insurance companies required physical examinations. Their accumulated data revealed that on average mortality increased with increasing blood pressure. Now, mortality increases with age; and it happens also that every relevant study has shown that blood pressure too increases naturally with age in otherwise healthy people. The association of blood pressure with mortality is an artefact illustrating the common principle in statistics that when two things, A and B, are each correlated with a third factor, C, then A and B will also show a correlation with one another; even though neither causes the other [3].

The misinterpretation of life-insurance statistics has resulted in contemporary medical practice based on a wrong belief, namely, that it is beneficial is to bring everyone’s blood pressure to a level that is normal only for people in their twenties.

This mistake becomes particularly harmful since the means used to lower blood pressure almost invariably involve administering drugs, though lip service is always paid to advising appropriate diet and exercise as the first resort.

That drug companies are permitted to advertise direct to consumers (among developed countries, only in the USA and New Zealand) means that such practices become so taken-for-granted as to be virtually unquestionable.

Another mistaken belief is that high levels of cholesterol in the blood constitute cardiovascular disease and increased risk of stroke and heart-attack. The corollary misguided belief is that bringing cholesterol levels down by administering statin drugs is beneficial; even though statins hinder the body’s production of coenzyme Q10, which is a necessary component of the energy-producing mechanisms of all cells. Inevitably, therefore, statins induce in muscular weakness, which is officially but quite mistakenly described as a “side” effect; it is a direct effect.

Many well documented books and articles have debunked the cholesterol theory (for example, Kendrick (2007) and Ravnskov (2000) in [4]), without effecting any change in standard practice — although many individuals ignore or defy their doctor’s prescribing of statins.

Not only do modern American medical practices rely on misleading, incompetent statistical analyses, they are based fundamentally on the wrong belief that preventive medicine can be successfully practiced by administering of drugs. This becomes increasingly harmful when those drugs continue to be prescribed as people get older and the steadily cumulating danger from drug “side” effects outweigh any possible benefit from “reducing risk” of one or another ailment [5].

Drug-based treatments are particularly well entrenched because the pharmaceutical industry is hugely profitable in large part because of the profligate prescribing of drugs stimulated by pervasive advertising.

The greatest immediate improvement in prescribing practices would result if the Food and Drug Administration and other regulatory authorities would demand statistically competent and honest protocols for clinical trials, including that outcomes not be assessed as “significant at p ≤ 0.05” but in terms of NNT and NNH: numbers of patients needed to be treated for 1 successful outcome compared to numbers of patients needed to be treated to observe 1 undesired adverse event [6].

That would prevent much harm, for example that now perpetrated by HPV vaccines, which are responsible for the greatest number of officially reported averse events as well as many horrifying anecdotes [7]; while there is no actual proof that HPV causes any cancer at all, HPV having been found guilty only because a few strains (out of many dozens) are often statistically associated with some cancers.

Well intentioned physicians are doing harm because of wrong beliefs, even as dozens of books [4] have exposed the misdeeds and their causes.

Is it not an evil,
 to persuade people to ingest things that do harm
 without any compensating good?

————————————————–

[1]    Science Is Not What You Think: How It Has Changed, Why We Can’t Trust It, How It Can Be Fixed, McFarland, 2017
[2]    Jeremy Greene, Prescribing by Numbers, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007
[3]    “Seeking Immortality? Challenging the drug-based medical paradigm”, Journal of Scientific Exploration, 26 (2012) 867-80
[4]    What’s Wrong with Present-Day Medicine
[5]    “When is enough, enough? Stopping medicines in older people”, Best Practices Journal, #27 (April 2010) 6-9; Rushabh J. Dagli & Akanksha Sharma, “Polypharmacy: A global risk factor for elderly people”, Journal of International Oral Health,  6 (#6, 2014) i–ii
[6]    How (not) to measure the efficacy of drugs
[7]    Mary Holland, Kim Mack Rosenberg & Eileen Iorio,  The HPV Vaccine On Trial: Seeking Justice For A Generation Betrayed, Skyhorse, 2018
Documentary: Sacrificial Virgins

Posted in consensus, fraud in medicine, medical practices, prescription drugs, science is not truth, scientific culture, scientists are human, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The HIV/AIDS blunder: Missed opportunities for mainstream research to self-correct

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2021/01/20

Quite a number of specific mis-steps conspired to the acceptance and continuance of HIV/AIDS theory. They illustrate much of what has gone wrong with science: It is subject to interference by commercial, political, and ideological influences; it is comprised of a variety of institutions that do not interact usefully or reliably. Above all:


 Science has no overarching watchdog to ensure
 that theories change appropriately
 as evidence accumulates

  1. 1.The first and crucial mistake was when the Secretary of Health and Human Services (Margaret Heckler) held a press conference at which Robert Gallo claimed to have discovered the probable cause of AIDS. Illustrated by this sad episode is political interference and the pervasive ignorance of how science works:
    →     Gallo had not yet published anything. Insiders regarded him as incompetent and untrustworthy. Investigative journalism later (2002) fully documented that he is an unscrupulous charlatan [1].
    →     Heckler’s background was as a lawyer and a politically active Republican.
    →     Activists had been campaigning vigorously for the Republican administration to do something about AIDS.
     →    This official endorsement of Gallo’s claim acted as a signal that anyone who wanted research support from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) would likely be successful by proposing to work on HIV; virologists in particular were hungry for funding after their failure to discover cancer-causing viruses in the “war on cancer” [2].
  2. 2.An important contributing factor  was statistical incompetence at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC):
    →     Mistakenly taking “gay” rather than drug abuse as the most meaningful association with AIDS [3]. The CDC should also have been aware  that AIDS-like symptoms had been quite common among addicts during the 1960-70s epidemic of so-called recreational drug use [4].
    →     Initiated the misleading “young, previously healthy, gay men” characterization based on 5 cases aged 29-36, average 32.6 [5]. Its Task Force on Kaposi’s Sarcoma had found the average age of AIDS victims to be 35. When Cochrane [6] re-examined the medical records 20 years later, she found that the average age of the first 25 AIDS patients in San Francisco had been 38. This mattered crucially: The greatest risk for sexual infections is among people <30; lifestyle ailments are increasingly likely at older ages, more compatible with a decade or two of what used to be called dissolute living.
    CDC researchers as early as 1987 failed to recognize the significance of their finding that, among Job Corps  members at ages about 17 and younger, females are more likely to test HIV-positive than males [7].
  3. 3.The Army HIV Research Office also failed to recognize the significance of their finding that at ages about 17 and younger, females are more likely to test HIV-positive than males [8].
  4. 4.Duesberg had published comprehensive debunkings of HIV in 1987 [9] and 1989 [10]. The latter  has a footnote promising a rebuttal from Gallo that never eventuated, despite several reminders [11: 233].
  5. 5.As the years went by, more and more conundrums emerged whose significance was missed:
    →     The purple skin-patches of Kaposi’s Sarcoma had been the iconic signature of AIDS,  yet after half-a-dozen years they had become rare among AIDS patients.
    →     The correlation between drug abuse and AIDS became stronger and stronger.
    →     Prostitutes who did not use drugs were not at risk of  becoming HIV-positive.
    →     Drug abusers who used clean needles would more likely to test HIV-positive than those who exchanged needles.
    →     Marriage and pregnancy are risk factors for testing HIV-positive.
    →     Many further instances, with primary sources cited also for the points above, see The Case against HIV

Lessons:

The clearest general lesson is that policymakers and administrators should not take far-reaching actions on matters of science or medicine without advice from individuals who have at least an elementary acquaintance with the history of science and the understanding of present-day scientific activity incorporated in Science and Technology Studies (STS [12]). Anyone with that background would be familiar with the danger of accepting any scientific claim made by an individual researcher or administrator of research before the claim had even been published. The training of most scientists and most doctors neglects that important background.

A fairly general lesson is that competence in statistics may be sorely lacking even in an agency like CDC where gathering and analyzing statistical data is a central task. Much has been written during the last several decades about the pervasive abuse and misuse of statistics in medicine and medical science [13].

It is also not irrelevant that an overwhelming of proportion of those who were carrying out and reporting HIV tests were medical doctors, MDs or DVMs, rather than people trained in research. This is not to discount and the insights of the many MDs who have been able to learn from experience and to transcend some of the mistaken lore they were originally taught [14]. But medical training focuses on applying what is known, not on questioning it. By contrast,  journalists who were covering the HIV/AIDS story [1, 15] had a more holistic mindset and noticed how inadequate the officially accepted view is.

A part of understanding what contemporary scientific or research activity involves is to recognize that the overwhelming proportion of individuals doing what is loosely called “research” or “science”  are not engaged in seeking fundamental truths. Most of the published reports on HIV testing were based on taking for granted that HIV causes AIDS and gathering data for other purposes, say, recruitment into the Armed Forces, or the presumed need of for antiviral drugs in different regions of Africa; so those “researchers” had been blind to  the steady accumulation of data incompatible with the view of HIV as a contagious infection.

Present-day institutions of medical science
are incapable of self-correcting a mistaken “consensus”

That is why society needs a Science Court

***************************************************************************

[1]    John Crewdson, Science Fictions: A scientific mystery, a massive cover-up and the dark legacy of Robert Gallo, Little, Brown, 2002
[2]    Peter Duesberg, Inventing the AIDS Virus, Regnery, 1996; chapter 4
[3]    John Lauritsen, “CDC’s tables obscure AIDS-drug connection”, Philadelphia Gay News, 14 February 1985 (and five other papers); reprinted as chapter I in The AIDS war: propaganda, profiteering and genocide from the medical-industrial complex, ASKLEPIOS, 1993
[4]    Neville Hodgkinson, AIDS: The Failure of Contemporary Science, Fourth Estate, 1996
[5]    Pneumocystis Pneumonia — Los Angeles, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 30 (#21, 5 June 1981.) 250-52
[6]    Michelle Cochrane, When AIDS began: San Francisco and the Making of an Epidemic, Routledge, 2004
[7]    Michael E. St. Louis, George A. Conway, Charles R. Hayman, Carol Miller, Lyle R. Petersen, Timothy J. Dondero,  “Human Immunodeficiency Virus Infection in Disadvantaged Adolescents: Findings From the US Job Corps”, JAMA, 266
(1991): 2387-91;  Fig. 4 [authors’ training: 5 MD, 1 RN]
 [8]   John F. Brundage, Donald S. Burke, Robert Visintine, Michael Peterson, Robert R. Redfield. “HIV Infection among young adults in the New York City area”, New York State Journal of Medicine, May 1988, 232-33; Fig. 3 [authors’ training: 5 MD, 1 DVM]
Donald S. Burke, John F. Brundage, Mary Goldenbaum, Lytt I. Gardner, Michael Peterson, Robert Visintine, Robert R. Redfield, & the Walter Reed Retrovirus Research Group, “Human Immunodeficiency Virus Infections in Teenagers: Seroprevalence Among Applicants for US Military Service”, JAMA, 263 (1990) 2074-77; Table 1 [authors’ training: 4 MD, 1 DVM, 1 MS, 1 PhD]
Burke, D. S., J. F. Brundage, J. R. Herbold, W. Berner,  L. I. Gardner, J. D. Gunzenhauser,  J. Voskovitch, & R. R. Redfield, “Human immunodeficiency virus infections among civilian applicants for United States military service, October 1985 to March 1986”, New England Journal of Medicine, 317 (1987) 131-36; Fig 1 [authors’ training: 5 MD, 1 PhD, 1 DVM]
[9]    Peter H. Duesberg, “Retroviruses as carcinogens and pathogens: expectations and reality”, Cancer Research, 47 (1987) 1199-220
[10]  Peter H. Duesberg, “Human immunodeficiency virus and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome: correlation but not causation”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 86 (1989) 755-64.
[11]  Henry H. Bauer, The Origin, Persistence and Failings of HIV/AIDS Theory, McFarland, 2007
[12]  “STS draws on the full range of disciplines in the social sciences and humanities to examine the ways that science and technology shape, and are shaped by, our society, politics, and culture. We study contemporary controversies, historical transformations, policy dilemmas, and broad philosophical questions” (Department of Science, Technology, and Society at Virginia Tech)
[13]  Illustrated in many of the books cited in What’s Wrong with Present-Day Medicine
but see particularly the cited articles by Altman, Ioannidis, Matthews
[14]  See for example in the books listed in [13] those by Angell, Brody, Goldacre, Gøtzsche, Greene, Kendrick, LeFanu, Ravnskov, Smith
[15]      See books by Farber, Hodgkinson, Leitner, Shenton, in The Case against HIV

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From uncritical about science to skeptical about science, 6: HIV/AIDS is a blunder!

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2021/01/16


Why now so obvious to me while officialdom remains misled?

This series of blog posts aims to help me understand why I and many other individuals came to see the obvious while the mainstream community failed and still fails to recognize the facts. The HIV/AIDS episode also illustrates how wrong is the popular view of science, for example that it is self-correcting.

The obvious evidence that HIV does not cause AIDS is set out in several places:
Ø     A book published in 2007 [1]  incorporating details set out in several earlier articles [2, 3-5]; the first of these [2] is already quite comprehensive.
Ø     Blog posts with further illustrating examples and responses to comments and criticisms [6].
Ø     A book chapter describing how I came to analyze the evidence and become frustratedly crankish as a result [7].
Ø     A website, The Case against HIV, cites >900 chiefly peer-reviewed mainstream publications, organized to make it easy to find detailed answers on specific points about HIV and AIDS. 

How the theory nevertheless became accepted and entrenched is described in Part III of my book [1].

My journey to realizing that HIV does not cause AIDS  was unique:
Ø      Long-standing interest in scientific controversies, always on the lookout for new cases to study.
Ø      Learning by chance in early 1990s that HIV/AIDS had been controversial in the past.
Ø      Learning that HIV had supposedly entered into United States  at the earliest in the late 1970s, among gay men  in large cities: Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco.
Ø      Chancing (around 2003) on an assertion that among potential Army recruits in  the mid-1980s, female and male teenagers all over the country had tested HIV-positive at about the same rate: impossible, according to the previous point.
Ø      Pedantic obsession with fact-checking: determined to check that assertion, whether it was perhaps a mis-citation, led to  collating all available data from HIV tests.
Ø      Familiarity with the history of science as a succession of mistaken consensuses later corrected; any majority consensus can quite often be wrong, especially contemporary or recent ones.
Ø      Familiarity, largely through participation in the Society for Scientific Exploration, with the fact that the majority consensus in science suppresses minority views ruthlessly and indiscriminately.
Ø      Having available the considerable needed time through being retired, but still with easy access to a research library.
Ø      More general background: As a research chemist, taking as axiomatic that there is no satisfactory substitute for perpetually subjecting theories to the test of factual evidence.

No doubt the journeys by which other people had reached the same understanding were also unique. Certainly it was different than mine for those who were there at the beginning of the AIDS era, or for the several investigative journalists who saw at first hand that theory does not match reality (see Crewdson, Farber, Hodgkinson, Shenton in The Case against HIV).

How to enable the rest of society to shed the mistaken view about HIV/AIDS? How to question a matter that has been taken for granted by officialdom around the world for more than two decades and is still supported by the consensus in the medical-scientific community?
Ø      Once a belief has become generally taken for granted, including in medicine and in science, self-correction becomes increasingly unlikely. A following blog post will cite some of the missed opportunities for self-correction over HIV/AIDS.
Ø      Any questioning of the belief is likely to be ignored, or dismissed as crankish, Flat-Earther-ish, by media and pundits as well as the majority consensus.

That’s why something like a Science Court is needed; see “Science Court: Why and What” and chapter 12 in [8].

A Court is necessary because the majority consensus refuses to engage substantively with dissenters. The Court would serve to force public engagement among the disagreeing technical experts. As the consensus and the dissenters are made to present their arguments and their evidence openly, publicly, and to defend them under cross-examination, the points of disagreement would be identified and clarified; in the case of HIV/AIDS, the truth would become obvious.

—————————————————-

[1]    The Origin, Persistence and Failings of HIV/AIDS Theory,
McFarland, 2007
[2]    Is HIV really the cause of AIDS?, The Anomalist, 11 (2003) 19-21
[3]    Demographic Characteristics of HIV: I. How Did HIV Spread?
Journal of Scientific Exploration, 19 (2005) 567–603;
erratum, ibid., 20 (2006) 95
Demographic Characteristics of HIV: II. What Determines the
Frequency of Positive HIV Tests?
Journal of Scientific Exploration, 20 (2006) 69—94
Demographic Characteristics of HIV: III. Why Does HIV
Discriminate by Race?
Journal of Scientific Exploration, 20 (2006) 255–88
 [4]   The mystery of HIV/AIDS, Quadrant, July-August 2006, 61-3.
[5]   Questioning HIV/AIDS: Morally Reprehensible or Scientifically Warranted? Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, 12 (#4, Winter 2007) 116-120
[6]    HIV Skeptic
[7]    Confession of an “AIDS denialist”: How I became a crank because we’re being lied to about HIV/AIDS, pp. 378- 82 in You Are STILL Being Lied To — The REMIXED Disinformation Guide to Media Distortion, Historical Whitewashes and Cultural Myths, ed. Russ Kick (Disinformation Co., NY, 2009)
[8]     Science Is Not What You Think: How It Has Changed, Why We Can’t Trust It, How It Can Be Fixed, McFarland, 2017

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From uncritical about science to skeptical about science: 5

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2021/01/09

Learning from what science ignores — within science as well as outside

The Society for Scientific Exploration (SSE) had been founded at the start of the 1980s by scientists, engineers, and other scholars who believed that there was sufficient substantive evidence, enough sheer facts, to warrant proper scientific investigation of topics ignored by science or dismissed as fictive, existing not in Nature’s reality but only in human imaginations: psychic phenomena; flying saucers or UFOs (Unidentified Flying Objects); cryptozoology — animals unknown to biology, or extinct animals said to be still extant; as well as such heretical views as that the theory of relativity is unsound [1].

Being ignored in the face of apparently good evidence was the shared bond within SSE. Few if any of us shared belief in the reality of all the topics that one or more members favored. I certainly didn’t. In fact, I soon began wondering how it was that so many competent, accomplished, intelligent, highly educated, cosmopolitan people could believe firmly in things that seemed to me highly implausible, at best doubtful.

The next insight followed naturally: My new colleagues surely wondered how I, a successful  chemist and cosmopolitan Dean of Arts and Sciences, could firmly believe in the reality of the Loch Ness Monster.

My fascination over that had begun through random chance, a book picked up and riffled through. No doubt something analogous, some unplanned experience, had set my new colleagues off on their particular interests.

There is an important general point to be made here. Scientists characteristically have an intellectual blind spot — certainly I do: imagining that beliefs are created by factual knowledge, remain held because of factual evidence, and can be changed by new facts. That is simply not the case.
Interest or some other stimulus is crucial. Why does one ever seek facts in some specific direction?
Everyone would likely look for reliable knowledge about something pertinent to health, family matters, earning a living; but it can also happen by chance, by happening upon a book picked up at random. So there is no reason why others should find interest where I happen to.

And it is not sufficient that good and respected friends and colleagues urge one to look at the facts. I have maintained only an observer’s interest in most of the matters that absorb others in the Society. Even though I’d quite like to know enough to warrant having an informed opinion, the problem is the sheer amount of time and effort needed to wade through all the claims and counterclaims before reaching a reasonably firm belief or disbelief. Outside chemistry, I’ve looked in enough detail at only three major controversial topics: Loch Ness Monsters, HIV/AIDS, and global warming (or climate-change).

That there are a great variety of different specialized interests in the Society for Scientific Exploration was not a disturbing factor. We talked (and wrote and published [2]) about our interests and claimed facts and speculations, and benefited from constructive mutual criticism, sometimes quite incisive.  Frustration at the lack of interest from mainstream science was and remains an overwhelmingly strong bond. A corollary is something like shared disdain for the individuals and groups who wage public campaigns about the purported dangers to society of believing in the reality of UFOs, Bigfoot, psychic phenomena and the like [3]. Those activists, who purport to be supporters and defenders of science, typically describe themselves as Skeptics [4], a grossly misleading misnomer since they are dogmatists of the highest order, unwilling to contemplate that official or mainstream science might be wrong in any particular — a stance that ignores the whole history of science.
To my mind, the real danger to society stems from such arrogantly dogmatic groups which insist that everyone share their particular beliefs, as is all too commonly the case with specific religions or, in this case, scientism, the religious faith that science be acknowledged as the sole authoritative source of knowledge and understanding.
These “Skeptics” (Truzzi famously and aptly called them “pseudo-skeptics”) criticize the topics of interest within SSE as pseudo-science, but SSE advocates scientific exploration, seeking the best available facts about Nature and trying to explain and understand them. SSE has quarrels not with “science” but with the too-many career scientists who behave unscientifically in forming opinions without looking at the facts, and then defend those opinions dogmatically.

When I analyzed the Velikovsky Affair [5], what had then most struck me was how incompetently the scientific community had criticized Velikovsky’s pseudo-science, and how little so many scientists seemed to understand what science is really about. Several decades later, having written articles and books about the prevalence of dogmatism in science [6], I can see in retrospect that I had overlooked or not noticed or missed the significance of how insufferably dogmatic the criticisms of Velikovsky had been. Yet that dogmatism was far from a minor part of the Affair; it surely played some part in bringing some social scientists and humanists to rally to Velikovsky’s defense.

The Society for Scientific Exploration also led to my learning about the extent of dogmatism within mainstream science. The society offered a forum not only for topics dismissed as pseudoscience, we also heard at times about  the suppression of unorthodox views within mainstream science. For example, Thomas Gold was widely acknowledged and applauded for his original insights in astrophysics, but mainstream science wanted nothing to do with his ideas about the origin of what are said to be fossil fuels in the Earth  and about life having originated deep in the earth rather than in warm ponds on its surface [7]. Gold also favored the steady-state theory of the cosmos rather than the accepted paradigm of the Big Bang. Halton Arp, an observational astronomer, published data that support the steady-state theory, whereupon mainstream science refused to allow him further access it to the telescopes he needed [8]. A variety of observations indicate that earthquakes may be predictable by electromagnetic or other signals, but mainstream geology will have none of it [9]. “Cold fusion” remains beyond the pale despite intriguing evidence from competent mainstream researchers [10].

I learned that even distinguished mainstream researchers who take a distinctly different view from the prevailing majority consensus are treated no better than are those of us accused of espousing pseudo-science, in fact they often have it worse: their unorthodoxies can damage their career, whereas most members of SSE earn their living by something quite separate from their oddball interests, which are more hobbies, things pursued in amateur fashion, out of sheer fascination and not as a way to earn a living.

So Loch Ness Monsters led me to SSE and SSE led me to recognize how widespread throughout mainstream science is the passionately dogmatic, even vindictive suppression of minority opinion [6] — quite contrary to the popular view of science, the idealistic view that remains my own vision of how science should be carried on.

It seemed natural, then, in my new academic career in STS, to make my special interest the study of scientific controversies and of what exactly distinguishes genuine proper science from what is widely denigrated as fringe, alternative, or pseudo science [1].
My research focus required looking for examples of scientific controversies to study. I don’t recall what first alerted me that there was dissent from the belief that HIV causes AIDS, that there was ever any controversy about it, but I did come across that in the early 1990s.
That is what eventually taught me that what taken-as-authoritative institutions nowadays proclaim in the name of science should never be automatically trusted; it should be fact-checked. The dogmatism, careerism, and institutional as well as personal conflicts of interest that are now rampant in contemporary science have actually brought official public policies and actions that are contrary to the facts of reality, have harmed massive numbers of people, and threaten to cause yet further damage.

—————————————————————————————————–

[1]    Science or Pseudoscience: Magnetic Healing, Psychic Phenomena, and Other Heterodoxies, University of Illinois Press 2001
[2]    The Journal of Scientific Exploration began publication in 1987. It is now freely available on-line
[3]    Examples are discussed and critiqued at p. 200 ff. in [1]
[4]    The iconic organization was CSICOP (Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal), founded in 1976 by predominantly non-scientists (philosophers, psychologists, writers, amateur investigators) but including a few prominent scientists, for example Carl Sagan; it publishes Skeptical Inquirer and includes under matters criticized as “paranormal”, claims of the existence of what would be perfectly natural creatures
[5]    Beyond Velikovsky: The History of a Public Controversy, University of Illinois Press, 1984
[6]    Dogmatism  in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth, McFarland,  2012
[7]    Fuel’s Paradise
[8]    Halton Arp, Quasars, Redshifts and Controversies, Interstellar Media, 1987; Seeing Red: Redshifts, Cosmology and Academic Science, Apeiron, 1998
[9]    On earthquake prediction, but more generally about matters that global tectonics (“continental drift”) does not adequately explain, see the NCGT Journal
[10]  The topic is nowadays thought to be not the fusion originally inferred but the general phenomenon of Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR), nuclear transformations at ordinary temperatures

Posted in conflicts of interest, denialism, global warming, medical practices, science is not truth, science policy, scientific culture, scientism, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

From uncritical about science to skeptical about science: 4

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2021/01/05

Learning about science from beyond the pale

Synopsis for this series of posts:

From post #1:
“Could my opinion be erroneous about a decline in the trustworthiness of science?
If not, why is it that what seems so obvious to me has not been noticed, has been overlooked by the overwhelming majority of practicing researchers, by pundits and by scholars of scientific activity and by science writers and journalists?
That conundrum had me retracing the evolution of my views about science, from my early infatuation with it to my current disillusionment.”

My interest in the Loch Ness Monster led indirectly to learning about other topics that science similarly ignores, dismisses, or denigrates, often by calling them pseudoscience (UFOs, Bigfoot, etc.). Trying to understand how studying such matters differs from doing science automatically meant trying to understand what makes science special; so by learning about pseudo-science one learns as well about science itself. As Rudyard Kipling put it, “And what should they know of England who only England know?” (from poem, The English Flag).

****************************

Continuing the narrative:

 Fortuitously for me, several things happened at about the same time in the mid-1970s: There was a shortage of potential graduate students, because the job market for PhDs had collapsed. My large 5-year grant came to an end, and new grant funds were more and more difficult to come by. There was a widespread infatuation, including at NSF, with the supposed value of interdisciplinary work, and my university was urging faculty to develop interdisciplinary projects as a way of attracting grant money. And some tangible evidence that the Loch Ness Monster is a real animal had been widely publicized: Underwater photographs of large flipper- or paddle-like objects apparently appendages on an indistinct large shape [1].

So I recruited an eminently interdisciplinary team of faculty members — a journalism professor, an historian of science, a philosopher of science, a sociologist — to study how scientific understanding or belief changes as evidence accumulates: Science had long been fairly sure that reports of the Loch Ness Monster were baseless; now that substantive evidence was accumulating, how would the scientific community accommodate it?

Our proposal to NSF was unsuccessful, but one of the reviewers’ comments set me off in a new direction. If we wanted to study how science treats unorthodox claims, a reviewer suggested, why not look into the Velikovsky Affair?

I had never heard of that, and obviously I should have; so I did look into it, and found it very interesting indeed. The psychoanalyst Immanuel Velikovsky had published a popular best seller, Worlds in Collision [2], in which he inferred from legends and myths about heavenly happenings that Jupiter had ejected a comet-like object that had come close to several other planets, producing on Earth effects that included such events reported in the Bible as the parting of the Red Sea and the collapse of the walls of Jericho.

Several things struck me about the Velikovsky Affair.

—> Many a people had found Velikovsky’s scenario plausible or even convincing.
—> That included some quite accomplished historians and social scientists, who had ventured strong criticisms of the scientists who had unceremoniously dismissed Velikovsky’s scenario as utter nonsense.
—> Scientists had indeed been arrogantly dogmatic, making the declaration of nonsense without attempting to address the substantive details in Velikovsky’s book, indeed famously saying that they had not bothered to or needed to read the book. They had behaved unscientifically, in other words.
—> I was struck particularly that everyone was quite wrong in several respects about the nature of science — not only media pundits and humanists but also scientists, including social scientists.

So I resolved to write a book, to be titled Velikovsky and the Loch Ness Monster, setting out the realities about science and illustrated by one example of science getting it right about an unorthodox claim (the Velikovsky Affair) and an example of science getting it wrong (the Loch Ness monster). Altogether, I had found all this so interesting, and the prospects for well-funded scientific research so gloomy, that I decided to make a permanent change of academic career, from chemistry to something like history or philosophy or sociology of science.

It was a very good time for such a move. Historians and philosophers and sociologists of science were teaching interdisciplinary courses together, sometimes establishing joint Centers or Departments, together with some political scientists, engineers, and scientists interested in science policy. The intellectual Zeitgeist was presaging an integration of disciplines that is now the actuality usually named Science & Technology Studies or Science, Technology & Society (the acronym STS works for both; earlier incarnations included “Science Studies”, “Science and Society”, and the like).

These developments in the scholarly world were another sign that the role of science in the wider society was undergoing significant changes following World War II. the Vannevar Bush Report to the President had resulted in dramatic increases in funding of research. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists had been founded in 1945 by some of those who had worked on the Manhattan Project and were very conscious that policy makers needed information and insights from the technical community for sound planning.

 To make my intended change of academic field possible, I needed time to learn at least the basics of the history and philosophy of science. But as member of a Chemistry Department, it was my obligation to garner grants and support and mentor graduate students, too time-consuming to allow for much new learning and thinking. So I applied for administrative jobs, which would be undemanding intellectually and leave ample time for reading and learning subjects new to me. After a couple of dozen failed applications, I lucked into what turned out to be perfect for me: Dean of Arts and Sciences at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (VPI&SU, formerly VPI, but now everywhere known as “Virginia Tech”).

It was easy for me to gather an informal group of people interested in interdisciplinary projects and coursework combining Humanities and Social Sciences with Engineering and Physical and Biological Sciences. The agriculture, engineering, and science departments at Virginia Tech were long-established, with strong research components; and several of the faculty in History and Philosophy in particular had already been teaching some interdisciplinary courses with faculty from technical fields.

Soon we created a Center for the Study of Science in Society (A few years later came interdisciplinary degrees, initially undergraduate but soon graduate as well. More recently the Center was replaced by a full-fledged Department of Science, Technology, and Society.

I learned a great deal about science from the discussions leading to the establishment of that Center, but my belief in the trustworthiness of science, or at least the fundamental potential trustworthiness of science, was not at all shaken. Indeed it may have been enhanced by learning how uncertain, by comparison, is the knowledge commanded by social science [3]. I also learned a great deal about differences between the various subjects professed in a College of Arts and Sciences [4]. But first I want to concentrate on what I learned about science — what can in general be learned about science by looking into matters like the Velikovsky Affair.

My planned volume of Velikovsky and the Loch Ness Monster proved far too ambitious, and eventually emerged as two separate books[5, 6]. I was again extraordinarily fortunate that the Velikovsky manuscript had been sent by the publisher for review by Marcello Truzzi, a sociologist of science long interested in scientific unorthodoxies.

 After World War II, there had come much public interest in topics like Velikovsky — the Yeti of the Himalayas, UFOs (unidentified flying objects, at first “flying saucers”), psychic phenomena, and more [7]. On all of those topics of great public interest but ignored or dismissed or denigrated by authoritative science, there were some quite well-established scientists, engineers, and other scholars who believed that there was sufficient substantive evidence, enough sheer facts, to warrant proper scientific investigation. A group of these mavericks was in the process of founding a Society for Scientific Exploration to exchange experiences and learn from one another. Because Truzzi had read my Velikovsky manuscript, I was invited to join in founding that Society .

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[1]    Reprinted in many places, for example “The Case for the Loch Ness Monster: The Scientific Evidence”, Journal of Scientific Exploration, 16(2002) 225-246
[2]    Immanuel Velikovsky, Worlds in Collision, Macmillan 1950
[3]    P. 128 ff. in Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method, University of Illinois Press, 1992 ; pp. 151-5 in Science Is Not What You Think: How It Has Changed, Why We Can’t Trust It, How It Can Be Fixed, McFarland 2017
[4]    To Rise above Principle: The Memoirs of an Unreconstructed Dean (under the pen-name ‘Josef Martin’), Wipf & Stock, 2012 (1st ed. was University of Illinois Press, 1988)
[5]    Beyond Velikovsky: The History of a Public Controversy, University of Illinois Press 1984
[6]    The Enigma of Loch Ness: Making Sense of a Mystery, University of Illinois Press 1986 [7]    The Literature of Fringe Science, Skeptical Inquirer, 11 (#2, Winter 1986-87) 205-10

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From uncritical about science to skeptical about science: 3

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2021/01/03

From more than ample funding to stifling competition

In the middle 1960s in the United States, I observed more of the consequences of the enormous infusion of federal resources into scientific activity that I had glimpsed as a postdoctoral researcher in the late 1950s.

Moving  from Australia, I was appointed Associate Professor at the University of Kentucky in 1966, just when the university was spreading its wings towards gaining recognition for research excellence. I was expected to help that along, given that I already had several dozen publications to my name.

Kentucky was far from alone in its ambition. The flood of federal money designed to stimulate scientific research and the training of future scientists had brought a major transformation in American academe. Four-year Liberal-Arts Colleges made themselves over into Research Universities; Teachers Colleges morphed into universities. In 1944, there had been 107 doctorate-granting institutions in the U.S.; then 142 by 1950-54, 208 by 1960-64, 307 by 1970-74 [1]. In chemistry, there had been 98 doctoral programs in 1955; by 1967 there were 165, and 192 by 1979 [2].

A presumably unforeseen consequence of pushing production of would-be researchers and wannabe research universities was that by the 1970s, demand for grant funds was exceeding the supply. At Kentucky, about half of the Chemistry Department’s proposals to the National Science Foundation (NSF) had been funded in the mid-to-late 1960s; but by 1978, our success rate had fallen to only 1 grant for every 10 applications. That sort of decline has continued into the 21st century: at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the main source of funds for biological and medical research, the national success rate for grant applicants fell from 31% in 1997 to 20% by 2014 [3]; the average age was 42 at which an individual first obtained a grant from NIH as Principal Investigator in 2011 [4].

By the 1970s, there were more PhD mathematicians and physicists graduating than there were academic research jobs available. Some pundits speculated that the 2008 economic crash owed quite a lot to ingenious stock-trading software programs and bad-mortgage-bundling-and-valuing “securities” designed by PhD mathematicians and physicists who were working on Wall Street because they could not find positions in academe.

When I had prepared at my first research grant application to the National Science Foundation in 1966, the newly-appointed Director of the University’s Research Division rewrote my budget without consulting me, to make it twice as long in duration and four times as costly in total. When the grant was refused, and I asked the NSF manager why, he pointed out that it requested about twice as much as their usual grants. Faced with this news, our Research Director expressed surprise, claiming that one of the purposes of these federal funds was to support universities in general.

Federal grants for scientific research brought with them many perks.

My particular specialty enabled me to observe how grants for analytical chemistry made it possible to enjoy summer-time fishing and scuba diving in the Caribbean, as a necessary part of research that involved analyzing sea-water.

Some groups of grant-getters would meet before or after professional meetings at desirable locations for fun and games. In those socially boisterous 1960s-70s, traveling at will on funds from research grants made it easy, for example, to sample the topless bars in San Francisco and perhaps a performance of the norm-breaking, counter-cultural musical Hair on the way to the highly regarded Gordon Research Conferences in Santa Barbara. And why not? What could be wrong with using small amounts of our grant funds for personal recreation, just as people in business or industry might use their travel expenses.

Such a point of view was certainly not hindered by the fact that grants for scientific research routinely brought, for academics, an additional 25-33% of personal salary. Almost all academics are  routinely paid on a so-called “9-month basis”, with no teaching or other responsibilities during the three months of summer. Since scientific research would be carried on year-round, including during the summer, it seemed quite appropriate that researchers would receive a salary during that time as part of their research grants.

That practice no doubt had an undesirable side-effect, arousing or enhancing jealousy among non-science academics, and perhaps increasing the determination, among social scientists in particular, to be treated like the physicists and chemists and biologists: after all, psychologists and sociologists are scientists too, are they not? Lobbying eventually — in 1957, seven years after NSF had been established — led to the Social Science Research Program at NSF, for support of anthropology, economics, sociology, and history and philosophy of science.

Federal grants for scientific research brought with them many benefits for institutions as well as for the researchers: universities siphoned off from grants the so-called “indirect costs”, the self-justifying, much-preferred term for “overhead”. Increased scientific research placed greater obligations on the university’s libraries and physical facilities and administrative tasks, so it seemed quite proper to add to the costs of actual research, and the researcher’s summer salary, and the wages and tuition fees of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, a certain percentage that the University Administration could use to defray those added burdens. That certain percentage can be as high as 50%, or even more in the case of private, non-state-funded, universities [5].

The more the money flowed, the more necessary it became for researchers to obtain grant funds. Costs increased all the time. Scientific journals had traditionally been published by scientific societies, underwritten by membership fees and edited by society members, often without remuneration. As printing and postage costs increased, journals began to levy so-called “page charges” that soon increased to many tens of dollars per published page, particularly as an increasing number of scientific periodicals were taken over or newly founded by commercial publishers, who naturally paid professional staff including editors. Page charges were of course legitimate charges on grant funds. Academics without access to grant funds could still be published in society journals, but their second-class status was displayed for all to see as their publications carried the header or footer, “Publication costs borne by the Society”.

Increasing competition, with the stakes continually increasing, would naturally encourage corner-cutting, unscrupulous behavior, even outright cheating and faking. At least by hindsight it is clear enough that scientists and universities had been corrupted by money — willingly,  greedily; but Science itself seemed not visibly affected, could still be trusted. Dishonest behavior began to be troubling, noticeably, only by the 1980s.

The 1960s were still pleasantly high-flying years for scientific researchers. Things went well for me personally, and at the tail end of those great years I even collared my best grant yet, a five-year (1969-74) million-dollar project for fundamental work relevant to fuel cells, whose promise was something of a fad at the time.

But in the early 1970s,  the American economy turned down. The  job market for PhD scientists collapsed. Our graduate program in chemistry could not attract enough students, and, as already mentioned, we were not doing well with grant funds from NSF.

That is when my recreational interest in the Loch Ness Monster began to pay off, in entirely unforeseeable ways: leading to new insights into science and how it was changing; as well as bringing a career change.

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[1]    A Century of Doctorates: Data Analyses of Growth and Change, National Academy of Sciences, 1978
[2]    Henry H. Bauer, Fatal Attractions: The Troubles with Science,
Paraview Press, 2001, p. 166
[3]    NIH Data Book: Research Grants, 15 June 2015
[4]    W. A. Shaffer “Age Distribution – AAMC Medical School Faculty and NIH R01 Principal Investigators” (2012), cited in Michael Levitt & Jonathan M. Levitt, “Future of fundamental discovery in US biomedical research”,
Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, USA, 114 (#25, 2017): 6498-6503
[5]        Jocelyn Kaiser, “The base rate for NIH grants averages about 52%; NIH plan to reduce overhead payments draws fire”

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From uncritical about science to skeptical about science: 2

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2021/01/02

How nice it is when Science is well funded

I was fortunate enough to experience two years (1956-58) of postdoctoral research in the United States, at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), with a wonderful mentor in Philip J. Elving.

At once I was impressed with the clear benefits to science from being amply funded. In Australia, research was done with what might be called a frugal adequacy of resources, whereas by the 1950s in the United States there was an intoxicating sense of affluence in the scientific research community: The National Science Foundation had been established in 1950, and the budget of the National Institutes of Health was increasing dramatically, following recommendations in Vannevar Bush’s Report to the President.

The differences at that time between the Australian environment and the American one gave me a glimpse of how the circumstances of science changed following World War II. After some wonderfully heady years of research support just waiting to be asked for, coming to everyone who asked, demand soon grew faster than supply, bringing eventually the present-day hot-house, cutthroat environment of incessant unbridled competition.

In Ann Arbor I appreciated also the change from a geographical backwater, as Australia then was. Supplies and equipment and library resources were all available without stint in Ann Arbor, or would arrive in short order if not already at hand. By contrast, in those years, journals and equipment reached Australia only by ship, in journeys taking a matter of months.

A few things however, pointed to some dark lining on the silver clouds of money, though their significance becomes obvious only in retrospect. They stuck in my memory because strange enough, different from my previous experience and expectations; but they were irrelevant at that time to my own doings and ambitions.

One strange thing concerned careers in research. I was taken aback when a doctoral student told me, in around 1957, that he intended to seek a job in industry in order to avoid the rat-race of academe. This was the very opposite of the view in my cohort of Australian students: for us, industry was the rat-race, whereas scientific research in academe seemed like an unhurried way to earn a living while doing something interesting and useful.

A second thing new to me occurred in a meeting of a research group that I was able to participate in. The discussion was about drafting a request for renewal of a research grant, and I was surprised when the group’s leader emphasized, more than once, that everything should be kept completely confidential so that rival competing research groups could not hear of it.

Only in recalling those times now do I recognize another indication of the way in which the force-feeding of scientific research had begun to alter judgments of value. The prestige of faculty members in Ann Arbor was closely tied to their productivity in research. Those who were not active in gathering grant funds were tolerated rather than appreciated, and they had few if any graduate students to mentor. A department chairman at the time, who had little if any research in his own background, was tolerated perhaps a bit more gratefully for doing the unpleasant administrative work that allowed others time for research.

Again it is only in retrospect that I can appreciate the significance of Department Chair by contrast to Department Head. It was then still the traditional practice in Australia for every academic Department to be governed autocratically by the only faculty member with the title of (Full) Professor. Consequences flowed from the fact that these appointments remained effective until retirement; there was no formal mechanism for replacing an unsatisfactory Department Head.

That there came universally, at least in the English-speaking world, a change from permanent Department Heads to Chairmanships with limited terms may be related to much wider changes, outside as well as inside academe. There has been a progressive disinclination to rely on individuals to make judgments and exert authority. Instead, there are supposedly objective protocols for decision-making, or at least “democratic” and thereby supposedly “fairer” ones. So in academe, initially in the sciences but by now everywhere, judgments are based on numbers rather than on qualitative assessments made by informed individuals. As to research, numbers of publications, of citations, of amounts of research funds awarded; as to teaching, numbers averaged from anonymous student responses.

After my postdoctoral stint, not much happened to change my views about science for half-a-dozen years or so, as I enjoyed the seeming fulfillment of my ambition. I returned to Australia in 1958 as a lecturer (= assistant professor, but already with tenure) in the Department headed by my PhD mentor, Bruno Breyer [1]. He had invented a novel technique in analytical chemistry [2], and there were unlimited numbers of things to try. Together with a few graduate students we were exploring the frontiers of science (or at least of aspects of electrochemistry), publishing quite prolifically, and I was teaching chemistry — giving a few lectures a week as well as supervising laboratory sessions.

It was my recreational reading that planted seeds of doubt, at the time unrecognized, about science as the ultimate resource for knowledge about the world.

I was a voracious reader, and had picked up at the library quite by chance a book titled Loch Ness Monster [3]. Of course I knew, as everyone did, that this was a hoax or a tourist trap; but riffling through the pages I saw photographs claimed to be from a 16 mm film taken by the book’s author. So I read the book and was intrigued by the possibility that what was universally dismissed as mistaken or fakery might in fact be a real animal as yet identified. Trying to learn more, I could find very little: mere paragraphs in encyclopedias, absolutely nothing in the scientific literature, just two books for a general audience. Why, I wondered, had science not investigated something of such wide public interest, even as a book [4] had been written by Rupert Gould, a respected commentator on the BBC and author of the recognized authoritative work on the marine chronometer [5], and a more recent book [6] had been published by a doctor living near Loch Ness.

So I experienced surprise and dissatisfaction over a surprising gap in scientific knowledge; but trust in what science does know remained intact.

About how drastically science was changing, in post-World-War-II growth and affluence, I began to learn only after moving from Australia to the USA. Breyer had retired, his replacement was intolerable, and I could find no suitable job in Australia. With tangible support from Elving in Ann Arbor, I was able to continue my career in chemistry at the University of Kentucky, beginning in 1966.

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[1] “Bruno Breyer 1900-1967”, Journal of Electroanalytical Chemistry, 21 (1969) 1-3
[2] B. Breyer & H. H. Bauer, Alternating Current Polarography and Tensammetry, vol. 13
of Chemical Analysis, ed. P. J. Elving & I. M. Kolthoff, Interscience, 1963
[3] Tim Dinsdale, Loch Ness Monster, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961
(many later editions, 4th in 1982)
[4] Rupert T. Gould, The Loch Ness Monster and Others, Geoffrey Bles, 1934;
University Books, 1969
[5] Rupert T. Gould, The Marine Chronometer: Its History and Development,
J. D. Potter, 1923
[6] Constance Whyte, More Than a Legend, Hamish Hamilton, 1957; rev. ed. 1961

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From uncritical about science to skeptical about science

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2020/12/31

Science has been so successful at unlocking Nature’s secrets, especially since about the 16th century, that by the early decades of the 20th century, science had become almost universally accepted as the trustworthy touchstone of knowledge about and insight into the material world. In many ways and in many places, science has superceded religion as the ultimate source of truth.
Yet in the 21st century, an increasing number and variety of voices are proclaiming that science is not — or no longer — to be trusted.
Such disillusion is far from unanimous, but I certainly share it [1], as do many others [2, 3], including such well-placed insiders as editors of scientific periodicals.
How drastically different 21st– century science is from the earlier modern science that won such status and prestige seems to me quite obvious; yet the popular view seems oblivious to this difference. Official statements from scientific authorities and institutions are still largely accepted automatically, unquestioningly, by the mass media and, crucially, by policy-makers and governments, including international collaborations.
Could my opinion be erroneous about a decline in the trustworthiness of science?
If not, why is it that what seems so obvious to me has not been noticed, has been overlooked by the overwhelming majority of practicing researchers, by pundits and by scholars of scientific activity and by science writers and journalists?

That conundrum had me retracing the evolution of my views about science, from my early infatuation with it to my current disillusionment.
Almost immediately I realized that I had happened to be in some of the right places at some of the right times [4] with some of the right curiosity to be forced to notice the changes taking place; changes that came piecemeal over the course of decades.
That slow progression will also have helped me to modify my belief, bit by bit, quite slowly. After all, beliefs are not easily changed. From trusting science to doubting science is quite a jump; for that to occur quickly would be like suddenly acquiring a religious belief, Saul struck on the road to Damascus, or perhaps the opposite, losing a faith like the individuals who escape from cults, say Scientology — it happens quite rarely.
So it is natural but worth noting that my views changed slowly just as the circumstances of research were also changing, not all at once but gradually.
Of course I didn’t recognize at the time the cumulating significance of what I was noticing. That comes more easily in hindsight. Certainly I could not have begun to suspect that a book borrowed for light recreational reading would lead a couple of decades later to major changes of professional career.

Beginnings: Science, chemistry, unquestioning trust in science

I had become enraptured by science, and more specifically by chemistry, through an enthusiastic teacher at my high school in Sydney, Australia, in the late 1940s. My ambition was to become a chemist, researching and teaching, and I could imagine nothing more interesting or socially useful.
Being uncritically admiring of science came naturally to my cohort of would-be or potential scientists. It was soon after the end of the second World War; and that science really understands the inner workings of Nature had been put beyond any reasonable doubt by the awesome manner in which the war ended, with the revelation of atomic bombs. I had seen the newspaper headlines, “Atom bomb used over Japan”, as I was on a street-car going home from high-school, and I remember thinking, arrogantly, “Gullible journalism, swallowing propaganda; there’s no such thing as an atomic bomb”.

Learning how it was a thing made science seem yet more wonderful.

The successful ending of that war was also of considerable and quite personal significance for me. By doing it, “science” had brought a feeling of security and relief after years of high personal anxiety, even fear. When I was a 7-year-old school-boy, my family had escaped from Austria, in the nick of time, just before the war had started; and then in Australia, we had experienced the considerable fear of a pending Japanese invasion, a fear is made very real by periodic news of Japanese atrocities in China, for instance civilians being buried alive, as illustrated in photographs.
Trusting science was not only the Zeitgeist of that time and place, it was personally welcome, emotionally appealing.

The way sciences were taught only confirmed that science could be safely equated with truth. For that matter, all subjects were taught quite dogmatically. We just did not question what our teachers said; time and place, again. In elementary school we had sat with arms folded behind our backs until the teacher entered, when we stood up in silent respect. Transgressions of any sort were rewarded by a stroke of a cane on an outstretched hand.
(Fifty years later, in another country if not another world, a university student in one of my classes complained about getting a “B” and not an “A”.)

I think chemistry also conduces to trusting that science gets it right. Many experiments are easy to do, making it seem obvious that what we’ve learned is absolutely true.
After much rote learning of properties of elements and compounds, the Periodic Table came as a wonderful revelation: never would I have to do all that memorizing again, everything can be predicted just from that Table.
Laboratory exercises, in high school and later at university, worked just as expected; failures came only from not being adept or careful enough. The textbooks were right.

Almost nothing at school or university, in graduate as well as undergraduate years, aroused any concerns that science might not get things right. A year of undergraduate research and half-a-dozen years in graduate study brought no reason to doubt that science could learn Nature’s truths. Individuals could make mistakes, of course; I was taken aback when a standard reference resource, Chemical Abstracts, sent me erroneously to an article about NaI instead of NOI — human error, obviously, in transcribing spoken words.

Of course there was still much to learn, but no reason to question that science could eventually come to really understand all the workings of the material world.

Honesty in doing science was taken for granted. We heard the horror story of someone who had cheated in some way; his studying of science was immediately canceled and he had to take a job somewhere as a junior administrator. Something I had written was plagiarized — the historical introduction in my PhD thesis — and the miscreant was roundly condemned, even as he claimed a misunderstanding. Individuals could of course go wrong, but that threw no doubt on the trustworthiness of Science itself.

In many ways, scientific research in Australia in the 1940s and 1950s enjoyed conditions not so different from the founding centuries of modern science when the sole driving aim was to learn how the world works. In the universities, scientific research was very much part of the training of graduate students for properly doing good science. The modest needed resources were provided by the University. No time and effort had to be spent seeking necessary support from outside sources, no need to locate and kowtow to potential patrons, individuals or managers at foundations or government agencies.
Research of a more applied sort was carried out by the government-funded Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, CSIR (which later became a standard government agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, CSIRO). There the atmosphere was quite like that in academe: people more or less happily working at a self-chosen vocation. The aims of research were sometimes quite practical, typically how better to exploit Australia’s natural resources: plentiful coal, soft brown as well as hard black; or the wool being produced in abundance by herds of sheep. CSIR also made some significant “pure science” discoveries, for example the importance of nutritional trace elements in agricultural soils [5] and in the development of radio astronomy [6].

In retrospect the lack of money-grubbing is quite striking. At least as remarkable, and not unrelated, is that judgments were made qualitatively, not quantitatively. People were judged by the quality, the significance, the importance of what they accomplished, rather than by how much of something they did. We judged our university teachers by their mastery of the subjects they taught and on how they treated us. Faculty appointments and promotions relied on personal recommendations. Successful researchers might often — and naturally— publish more than others, but not necessarily. Numbers of publications were not the most important thing, nor how often one’s publications were cited by others: The Science Citation Index was founded only in 1963, followed by the Social Sciences Citation Index in 1973 and the Arts and Humanities Citation Index a few years later. “Impact factors” of scientific journals had begun to be calculated in the early 1970s.

So in my years of learning chemistry and beginning research, nothing interfered with having an idealistic view of science, implicitly “pure” science, sheer knowledge-seeking. For my cohort of students, it was an attractive, worthy vocation. The most desired prospect was to be able to work at a university or a research institute. If one was less fortunate, it might be a necessary to take a job in industry, which in those years was little developed in Australia, involving the manufacture of such uncomplicated or unsophisticated products as paint, or the processing of sugar cane or technicalities associated with brewing beer, making wine, or distilling spirits.

The normal path to an academic career in Australia began with post-doctoral experience in either Britain or the United States. My opportunity came in the USA; there, in the late 1950s, I caught my first glimpses of what science would become, with an influx of funds from government and industry and the associated consequences, then unforeseen if not unforeseeable but at any rate not of any apparent concern.

——————————————-

[1]    Henry H. Bauer, Science Is Not What You Think: How It Has Changed, Why We Can’t Trust It, How It Can Be Fixed, McFarland, 2017
[2]    Critiques of Contemporary Science and Academe
https://mega.nz/file/NfwkSR7S#K7llqDfA9JX_mVEWjPe4W-uMM53aMr2XMhDP6j0B208
[3]    What’s Wrong With Medicine; https://mega.nz/file/gWoCWTgK#1gwxo995AyYAcMTuwpvP40aaB3DuA5cvYjK11k3KKSU
[4]    Insight borrowed from Paula E. Stephen & Sharon G. Levin, Striking the Mother Lode in Science: The Importance of Age, Place, and Time, Oxford University Press, 1992
[5]    Best known is the discovery that cobalt supplements avoided “coast disease”, a wasting condition of sheep; see Gerhard N. Schrauzer, “The discovery of the essential trace elements: An outline of the history of biological trace element research”, chapter 2, pp. 17-31, in Earl Frieden, Biochemistry of the Essential Ultratrace Elements, Plenum Press, 1984; and the obituary, “Hedley Ralph Marston 1900-1965”; https://www.science.org.au/fellowship/fellows/biographical-memoirs/hedley-ralph-marston-1900-1965
[6] Stories of Australian Astronomy: Radio Astronomy; https://stories.scienceinpublic.com.au/astronomy/radio-astronomy/

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The misleading popular myth of science exceptionalism

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2020/12/28

Human beings are fallible; but we suppose the Pope to be infallible on spiritual matters and science to be exceptional among human endeavors as correctly, authoritatively knowledgeable about the workings of the material world. Other sources purporting to offer veritable knowledge may be fallible — folklore, history, legend, philosophy — but science can be trusted to speak the truth.

Scholars have ascribed the infallibility of science to its methodology and to the way scientists behave. Science is thought to employ the scientific method, and behavior among scientists is supposedly described by the Mertonian Norms. Those suppositions have somehow seeped into the conventional wisdom. Actually, however, contemporary scientific activity does not proceed by the scientific method, nor do scientists behave in accordance with the Mertonian Norms. Because the conventional wisdom is so wrong about how science and scientists work, public expectations about science are misplaced, and public policies and actions thought to be based on science may be misguided.

Contemporary science is unrecognizably different from the earlier centuries of modern science (commonly dated as beginning around the 16th century). The popular view was formed by those earlier times, and it has not yet absorbed how radically different the circumstances of scientific activities have become, increasingly since the middle of the 20th century.

Remarkable individuals were responsible for the striking achievements of modern science that brought science its current prestige and status; and there are still some remarkably talented people among today’s scientists. But on the whole, scientists or researchers today are much like other white-collar professionals [1: p. 79], subject to conflicts of interest and myriad annoyances and pressures from patrons and outside interests; 21st century “science” is just as interfered with and corrupted by commercial, ideological, and political forces as are other sectors of society, say education, or justice, or trade.

Modern science developed through the voluntary activities of individuals sharing the aim of understanding how Nature works. The criterion of success was that claimed knowledge be true to reality. Contemporary science by contrast is not a vocation carried on by self-supporting independent individuals; it is done by white-collar workers employed by a variety of for-profit businesses and industries and not-for-profit colleges, universities, and government agencies. Even as some number of researchers still genuinely aim to learn truths about Nature, their prime responsibility is to do what their employers demand, and that can conflict with being wholeheartedly truthful.

The scientific method and the Mertonian Norms
 do not encompass the realities of contemporary science

The myth of the scientific method has been debunked at book length [2]. It should suffice, though, just to point out that the education and training of scientists may not even include mention of the so-called scientific method.

I had experienced a bachelor’s-degree education in chemistry, a year of undergraduate research, and half-a-dozen years of graduate research leading to both a master’s degree and a doctorate before I ever heard of “the scientific method”. When I eventually did, I was doing postdoctoral research in chemistry (at the University of Michigan); and I heard of “the scientific method” not from my sponsor and mentor in the Chemistry Department but from a graduate student in political science. (Appropriately enough, because it is the social and behavioral sciences, as well as some medical doctors, who make a fetish of claiming to follow the scientific method, in the attempt to be granted as much prestige and trustworthiness as physics and chemistry enjoy.)

The scientific method would require individuals to change their beliefs readily whenever the facts seem to call for it. But everything that psychology and sociology can agree on is that it is very difficult and considerably rare for individuals or groups to modify a belief once it has become accepted. The history of science is consonant with that understanding: New and better understanding is persistently resisted by the majority consensus of the scientific community for as long as possible [3, 4]; pessimistically, in the words of Max Planck, until the proponents of the earlier belief have passed away [5]; as one might put it, science progresses one funeral at a time.

The Mertonian norms [6], too, are more myth than actuality. They are, in paraphrase:

Ø     Communality or communalism (Merton had said “communism”): Science is an activity of the whole scientific community and it is a public good — findings are shared freely and openly.
Ø      Universalism: Knowledge about the natural world is universally valid and applicable. There are no separations or distinctions by nationality, religion, race, sex, etc.
Ø      Disinterestedness: Science is done for the public good, not for personal benefit; scientists seek to be impartial, objective, unbiased, not self-serving.
Ø      Skepticism: Claims and reported findings are subject to critical appraisal and testing throughout the scientific community before they can be accepted as proper scientific knowledge.

As with the scientific method, these norms suggest that scientists behave in ways that do not come naturally to human beings. Free communal sharing of everything might perhaps have characterized human society in the days of hunting and foraging [7], but it was certainly not the norm in Western society at the time of the Scientific Revolution and the beginnings of modern science. Disinterestedness is a very strange trait to attribute to a human being, voluntarily doing something without having any personal interest in the outcome; at the very least, there is surely a strong desire that what one does should be recognized as the good and right way to do things, as laudable in some way. Skepticism is no more natural than is the ready willingness to change beliefs demanded by the scientific method.

As to universalism, that goes without saying if claimed knowledge is actually true, it has nothing to do with behavior. If some authority attempts to establish something that is not true, it just becomes a self-defeating, short-lived dead end like the Stalinist “biology” of Lysenko or the Nazi non-Jewish “Deutsche Physik” [8].

Merton wrote that the norms, the ethos of science, “can be inferred from the moral consensus of scientists as expressed in use and wont, in countless writings on the scientific spirit and in moral indignation directed toward contraventions of the ethos” [6]. That falls short of claiming to have found empirically that scientists actually behave like that for the inferred reasons.

Merton’s norms are a sociologist’s speculation that the successes of science could only have come if scientists behaved like that; just as “the scientific method” is a philosophers’ guess that true knowledge could only be arrived at if knowledge seekers proceeded like that.

More compatible with typical human behavior would be the following:

Early modern science became successful after the number of people trying to understand the workings of the natural world reached some “critical mass”, under circumstances in which they could be in fairly constant communication with one another. Those circumstances came about in the centuries following the Dark Ages in Europe. Eventually various informal groups began to meet, then more formal “academies” were established (of which the Royal Society of London is iconic as well as still in existence). Exchanges of observations and detailed information were significantly aided by the invention of inexpensive printing. Relatively informal exchanges became more formal, as Reports and Proceedings of Meetings, leading to what are now scientific journals and periodicals (some of which still bear the time-honored title of “Proceedings of . . .).

Once voluntary associations had been established among individuals whose prime motive was to understand Nature, some competition, some rivalry, and also some cooperation will have followed automatically. Everyone wanted to get it right, and to be among the first to get it right, so the criterion for success was the concurrence and approval of the others who were attempting the same thing. Open sharing was then a matter of self-interest and therefore came naturally, because one could obtain approval and credit only if one’s achievements were known to others. Skepticism was provided by those others: one had to get it right in order to be convincing. There was no need at all for anyone to be unnaturally disinterested. (This scenario is essentially the one Michael Polanyi  described by the analogy of communally putting together a jigsaw puzzle [2: pp. 42-44, passim; 9].)

Such conditions of free, voluntary interactions among individuals sharing the sole aim of understanding Nature, something like a intellectual free-market conditions, simply do not exist nowadays; few if any researchers can be self-supporting, independent, intellectual entrepreneurs, most are employees and thereby beholden to and restricted by the aims and purposes of those who hold the purse-strings.

Almost universally nowadays, the gold standard of reliability is thought to be “the peer-reviewed mainstream literature”. But it would be quite misleading to interpret peer review as the application of organized skepticism, “critical appraisal and testing throughout the scientific community”. As most productive researchers well know, peer review does not guarantee the accuracy or objectivity or honesty of what has passed peer-review. In earlier times, genuine and effective peer-review took place by the whole scientific community after full details of claimed results and discoveries had been published. Nowadays, in sharp contrast, so called peer-review is carried out by a small number of individuals chosen by journal editors to advise on whether reported claims should even be published. Practicing and publishing researchers know that contemporary so-called peer-review is riddled with bias, prejudice, ignorance and general incompetence. But even worse than the failings of peer review in decisions concerning publication is the fact that the same mechanism is used to decide what research should be carried out, and even how it should be carried out [1: pp. 106-9, passim].

Contemporary views of science, and associated expectations about science, are dangerously misplaced because of the pervasive mistaken belief that today’s scientific researchers are highly talented, exceptional individuals in the mold of Galileo, Newton, Einstein, etc.,  and that they are unlike normal human beings in being disinterested, seeking only to serve the public good, disseminating their findings freely, self-correcting by changing their theories whenever the facts call for it, and perpetually skeptical about their own beliefs.

Rather, a majority consensus nowadays exercises dogmatic hegemony, insisting on theories contrary to fact on a number of  topics, including such publicly important ones as climate-change and HIV/AIDS [10].

————————————————-

[1]    Henry H. Bauer, Science Is Not What You Think: How It Has Changed, Why We Can’t Trust It, How It Can Be Fixed, McFarland, 2017
[2]    Henry H. Bauer, Scientific Literacy and Myth of the Scientific Method, University of Illinois Press, 1992;
“I would strongly recommend this book to anyone who hasn’t yet heard that the scientific method is a myth. Apparently there are still lots of those folks around”
(David L. Goodstein, Science, 256 [1992] 1034-36)
[3]    Bernard Barber, “Resistance by scientists to scientific discovery”,
 Science, 134 (1961) 596-602
[4]    Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press, 1970 (2nd ed., enlarged ; 1st ed. 1962)
[5]    Max Planck, Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers, 1949; translated from German by Frank Gaynor, Greenwood Press, 1968
[6]    Robert K. Merton, “The normative structure of science” (1942); pp. 267–78 in The Sociology of Science (ed. N. Storer, University of Chicago Press, 1973)
[7]    Christopher Ryan & Cacilda Jethá, Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, HarperCollins, 2010
[8]    Philipp Lenard, Deutsche Physik, J. F. Lehmann (Munich), 1936
[9]    Michael Polanyi, “The Republic of Science: Its political and economic theory”,
Minerva, I (1962) 54-73
[10]  Henry H. Bauer, Dogmatism  in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth, McFarland, 2012

Posted in conflicts of interest, consensus, funding research, media flaws, peer review, politics and science, resistance to discovery, science is not truth, scientific culture, scientism, scientists are human, the scientific method, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

 
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