Skepticism about science and medicine

In search of disinterested science

Identifying the Loch Ness Monster

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/07/01

Thirty years ago, I explained [1] why science would make no effort to search for the creatures popularly known as Loch Ness Monsters or Nessies: the creatures are seen so rarely that any quest relying on a visual encounter with a Nessie, by eyesight or by photography, would be extremely unlikely to succeed. Scientists cannot sustain a career unless they obtain useful results; at Loch Ness they would be engaged in a war of attrition against the laws of chance, as Adrian Shine once put it. So I have not expected in my lifetime to learn what these creatures really are. Yet now it seems that we will find it out within about a year.

The breakthrough comes from the approach known as “eDNA”, environmental DNA.

“[L]iving things leave behind skin, hair, feathers, poo, bark, pollen and spores as part of their day-to-day activities. These traces result in a potpourri of organic material in our soil and water from which DNA can be extracted and sequenced. Our aim is to produce a census of life in Loch Ness and to establish if there is any scientific basis for the centuries-old monster legend” [2].

It seems incredible, or perhaps magical, but the technique seems to have extraordinary capabilities: “From about a litre or two of water here in Dunedin, we can detect very easily over 150 different species that are present in the inner harbour or the outer harbour” [3].

At Loch Ness, Gemmell’s team “collected 259 water samples from various parts of the loch, including its chilly depths, more than 200 metres down” [2]; so there are good grounds for Nessie believers like myself to be very hopeful that by early in 2019 we will at last know what sort of creature Nessie is.

A common opinion favors something related to the plesiosaurs which supposedly died out roughly 60 million years ago, so presumably authentic plesiosaur DNA is not available for comparison; but snakes and turtles are close relatives in the tree of life with presumably some significant similarities in DNA.

My own best guess, in fact my prediction for what will be found, is that DNA will suggest that Nessies are related to plesiosaurs much as are leatherback turtles, which have been seen at times in the cold waters around Scotland.

Unfortunately, eDNA is not foolproof: “It may be that there is no monster, but we can’t prove that … unfortunately it’s very difficult to prove a negative: the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. So it might be that if there was a monster, we just didn’t sample water anywhere near where it had been over the last week or so or there may be other explanations” [4].

So we believers have a ready excuse if no marine reptilian DNA turns up. It’s actually a bit worrying if eDNA requires that the organic stuff had been shed within a week or so and somewhere near where the water was sampled — it’s generally agreed that there cannot be more than a couple of dozen Nessies at any given time, and the Loch is about 20 miles long and a mile wide and as deep as nearly 800 feet in some places. That’s why encounters are so rare. Sonar data also suggest that Nessies spend much time at the bottom; and some speculation about physiology and lifestyle suggests significant periods of inactivity.

Still, my hope is that it will be the contemporary doubters, the Nessie denialists, who will need to grasp at straws to find ways to explain away the presence of DNA from some sort of marine reptile. Turtles around the streams that flow into the Loch will be suggested, and much more as well — self-styled skeptics who can maintain that the large, rapidly-moving hump filmed by Tim Dinsdale was actually a boat can surely come up with other absurdly far-fetched suggestions.
We vindicated believers, on the other hand, will move on to point to larger lessons to be drawn from the many decades during which official science managed to ignore or dismiss the staggering amount of evidence: the Dinsdale film, the Rines underwater photos, the innumerable sonar contacts, and the thousands of eyewitness reports.
For a summary of all that evidence and links and references to further detail, see my Loch Ness web-page “Genuine facts about ‘Nessie’, the Loch Ness ‘Monster’”.

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[1]    The Enigma of Loch Ness: Making Sense of a Mystery, University of Illinois Press 1986; re-issued by Wipf & Stock, 2012
[2]    “Monster hunt: using environmental DNA to survey life in Loch Ness”, by Neil Gemmell (Professor of Reproduction and Genomics, University of Otago, New Zealand; 26 June 2018
[3]    Toby Manhire, “In search of the Loch Ness Monster’s DNA – and science people give a damn about”
[4]   “Scholar reveals details of plan on hunt for Loch Ness Monster’s DNA”

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Posted in resistance to discovery, science is not truth, scientific culture, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Who guards the guardians? Who guards science?

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/06/24

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? This quotation attributed to Juvenal describes the inescapable dilemma as to how societies can be governed .

Today’s guardian of reliable knowledge is science. It is the acknowledged authority on the natural world, on what exists in the world and on how those things behave. Most governments accept as reliable, as true for all practical purposes, whatever the current scientific consensus is: on matters of health, the environment, the solar system, the universe. The mass media, too, accept that scientific consensus; and that largely determines what the general public believes, “what everyone knows”.

Nowadays in that category of “what everyone knows” there are literally innumerable things; among them that the universe began with a Big Bang; that ghosts and Loch Ness Monsters do not exist; that HIV causes AIDS; that hypertension causes heart attacks and strokes; that carbon dioxide released by burning fossil fuels is causing climate change and bringing more frequent and more extreme and more damaging events like hurricanes; etc., etc.

But what guards against the scientific consensus being wrong?

Nothing and nobody.

That really matters, because the history of science is crystal clear that contemporary science, the contemporary scientific consensus, has almost invariably been wrong until further progress superseded and replaced it.

That steady improvement over the centuries gave rise to a comforting shibboleth, that “science is self-correcting”. At any given moment, however, the scientific consensus stands possibly uncorrected and awaiting future “self”-correction. One cannot justifiably assert, therefore, that any contemporary scientific consensus is known to be unquestionably true. It is not known with absolute certainty that the universe began with a Big Bang; that ghosts and Loch Ness Monsters do not exist; that HIV causes AIDS; that hypertension causes heart attacks and strokes; that carbon dioxide released by burning fossil fuels is causing climate change and bringing more frequent and more extreme and more damaging events like hurricanes; etc., etc.

Nevertheless, contemporary society treats these and other contemporary scientific consensuses as true. This amounts to what President Eisenhower warned against: that “public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite” [1]. Science can indeed mislead public policy, as when tens of thousands of Americans were forcibly sterilized in the misguided belief that this improved the genetic stock [2]. Science is far from automatically or immediately self-correcting [3].

I’ve wondered how Eisenhower could have been so prescient in 1960, because the conditions that conduce to public policies being misled by science were then just beginning to become prominent: the massive governmental stimulation of scientific activity that has produced today’s dysfunctional hyper-competitiveness, with far too many would-be researchers competing for far too few reliably permanent positions and far too little support for the resources that modern research needs [4]. Moreover, the scientific consensus is guarded not only by the scientists who generated it, powerful societal institutions are vested in the correctness of the scientific consensus [4]: It is virtually inconceivable, for instance, that official bodies like the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, the World Health Organization, and the like would admit to error of the views that they have promulgated; try to imagine, for example, how it could ever be officially admitted that HIV does not cause AIDS [5].

SUGGESTION TO THE READER:
Reflect on how you formed an opinion about — Big-Bang theory? Loch Ness Monsters? Ghosts? Climate change? … etc. etc. Almost always it will not have been by looking into the evidence but rather by trusting someone’s assertion.

Who has the interest, time, and energy to study all those things? Obviously we must take our beliefs on many matters from trusted authorities; and for a couple of centuries the scientific consensus has been a better guide than most others. But that is no longer the case. The circumstances of 21st-century science mean that society needs guardians to check that what the scientific consensus recommends for public policy corresponds to the best available evidence. On many issues, a minority of experts differs from the scientific consensus, and it would be valuable to have something like a Science Court to assess the arguments and evidence pro and con [6].

I’ve had the luxury of being able to look into quite a few topics because that was appropriate to the second phase of my academic career, in Science & Technology Studies (STS). Through having made a specialty of studying unorthodoxy in science, I stumbled on copious examples of the scientific consensus treating, in recent times, competent minority opinions well within the scientific community with the same disdain, or even worse, as that traditionally directed towards would-be science, fringe science — Loch Ness Monsters, ghosts, UFOS, and the like.

In Dogmatism in Science and Medicine [7], I pointed to the evidence that the contemporary scientific consensus is wrong about Big-Bang theory, global warming and climate change, HIV/AIDS, extinction of the dinosaurs, and more, including what modern medicine says about prescription drugs. The failings of the scientific consensus in modern medicine have been detailed recently by Richard Harris [8] as well as in many works of the last several decades [9]. That the scientific consensus is wrong about HIV and AIDS is documented more fully in The Origin, Persistence and Failings of HIV/AIDS Theory (McFarland, 2007). Why science has become less believable is discussed in [4], which also describes many misconceptions about science and about statistics, the latter bearing a large part of the blame for what’s wrong with today’s medical practices.

But my favorite obsession over where the scientific consensus is wrong remains the existence of Loch Ness “Monsters”, Nessies. It was my continuing curiosity about this that led to my career change from chemistry to STS, which brought many unforeseeable and beneficial side-effects. My 1986 book, The Enigma of Loch Ness: Making Sense of a Mystery [10], showed how the then-available evidence could be interpreted to support belief in the reality of Nessies but could also be plausibly enlisted to reject the reality of Nessies. However, the book’s chief purpose was to explain why seeking to “discover” Nessies was not a sensible task for organized science.

Now in 2018 quite proper science, in the guise of “environmental DNA”, has offered a good chance that my belief in the reality of Loch Ness “Monsters” may be vindicated within a year or so by mainstream science. I plan to say more about that soon.

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[1]  Farewell Address to the Nation, 17 January 1961
[2]  “Bauer: Could science mislead public policy?”
[3]  Science is NOT self-correcting (How science has changed — VII)
[4]  Science Is Not What You Think — how it has changed,
why we can’t trust it, how it can be fixed
(McFarland, 2017)
[5]   “OFFICIAL!   HIV does not cause AIDS!”
[6]    For a detailed history and analysis of the concept of a Science Court,
see chapter 12 in [4]
[7]    Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth (McFarland, 2012)
[8]    Richard Harris, Rigor Mortis — How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions (Basic Books, 2017)
[9]    What’s Wrong with Present-Day Medicine, a bibliography last updated 17 April 2017
[10]  The Enigma of Loch Ness: Making Sense of a Mystery, University of Illinois Press, 1986;
in Cassette Book format, RC 25592, narrated by Richard Dorf, 1988;
U.K. edition, Stirling (Scotland): Johnston & Bacon 1991;
re-issued by Wipf & Stock, 2012

Posted in conflicts of interest, consensus, funding research, global warming, media flaws, medical practices, peer review, politics and science, prescription drugs, resistance to discovery, science is not truth, science policy, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

Science is NOT self-correcting (How science has changed — VII)

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/05/06

One of the common and popular shibboleths about science is that it is self-correcting. That implies happening inevitably and automatically. But despite the existence of innumerable scientific organizations and institutions, there is no overarching system or set of protocols or hierarchy that governs all scientific activity. Nothing about scientific activity is automatic or inevitable.

The illusion of self-correction may trace back to the fact that science has surely progressed over time, to better and deeper understanding of how the world works, superseding and rejecting mistakes and misunderstandings. However, this correcting of earlier mis-steps was never automatic; more important, it was never a sure thing. Barber [1] surveyed the long history of hegemonic scientific consensuses vigorously resisting correction. Stent [2] described the phenomenon of “premature discovery” whereby some hegemonic scientific consensuses have forestalled correction for decades — about 40 years with Mendel’s quantitative insight into heredity, about half a century with Wegener’s insight into continental movements.

Barber and Stent dealt with the more-or-less classic modern science that subsisted up until about the middle of the 20th century, the sort of science whose ethos could be fairly adequately described by the Mertonian Norms [3]; a cottage industry of independent, voluntarily cooperating, largely disinterested ivory-tower intellectual entrepreneurs in which science was free to do its own thing, seeking truths about the natural world. Individuals were free to publish their results with little or no hindrance. There were plenty of journals and plenty of journal space, and editors were keen to receive contributions: “From the mid-1800s, there was more journal space than there were articles . . . . assistant editors [had the] . . . primary responsibility . . . to elicit articles and reviews to fill the pages of the publication” [4].

The onus for ensuring that published work was sound rested on the authors, there was not the contemporary gauntlet of “peer reviewers” to run: “for most of the history of scientific journals, it has been editors — not referees — who have been the key decision-makers and gatekeepers. . . . It was only in the late 20th century that refereeing was rebranded as ‘peer review’ and acquired (or reacquired) its modern connotation of proof beyond reasonable doubt. . . . A Google ngram — which charts yearly frequencies of any phrase in printed documents — makes the point starkly visible: it was in the 1970s that the term ‘peer review’ became widely used in English. [We] . . . do not yet know enough about why the post-war expansion of scientific research . . . led to . . . ‘peer review’ [coming] . . . to dominate the evaluation of scholarly research” [5].

Nowadays, by contrast, where publication makes a career and lack of publication means career failure, journals are swamped with submissions at the same time as costs have exploded and libraries are hard pressed to satisfy their customers’ wishes for everything that gets published. Journals are now ranked in prestige by how small a proportion of submissions they accept, and “peer review” is pervaded by conflicts of interest. The overall consequence is that the “leading journals” hew to the current “scientific consensus” so that unorthodoxies, radical novelties, minority views find it difficult to get published. How extreme can be the efforts of “the consensus” to suppress dissent has been profusely documented on a number of topics, including the very publicly visible issues of HIV/AIDS and climate change [6, 7, 8].

Where the consensus happens to be in need of “self-correction”, in other words, today’s circumstances within the scientific community work against any automatic or easy or quick correction.

That situation is greatly exacerbated by the fact that correction nowadays is no simple revising of views within the scientific community. “Science” has become so entwined with matters of great public concern that particular beliefs about certain scientific issues have large groups of influential supporters outside the scientific community who seek actively to suppress dissent from “the consensus”; over HIV/AIDS, those groupies who abet the consensus include the pharmaceutical industry and activist organizations largely supported by drug companies; over climate change, environmentalists have seized on “carbon emissions” as a weapon in their fight for sustainability and stewardship of nature.

Science is not inevitably or automatically self-correcting. Its official agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, the World Health Organization, etc., are captives of the contemporary scientific consensus and thereby incapable of drawing on the insights offered by minority experts, which is also the case with the peer-review system and the professional journals.

Even when outright fraud or demonstrated honest mistakes have been published, there is no way to ensure that the whole scientific community becomes aware of subsequent corrections or retractions, so errors may continue to be cited as though they were reliable scientific knowledge. Even the journals regarded as the most reliable (e.g. Nature journals, Cell, Proceedings of the National Academy) make it quite difficult for retractions or corrections to be published [9], and even complete retraction seemed to reduce later citation by only about one-third, very far from “self-correcting” the whole corpus of science [10].

 

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[1]    Bernard Barber, “Resistance by scientists to scientific discovery”, Science, 134 (1961) 596–602

[2]    Gunther Stent, “Prematurity and uniqueness in scientific discovery”, Scientific American, December 1972, 84–93

[3]    How science has changed — II. Standards of Truth and of Behavior

[4]    Ray Spier, “The history of the peer-review process”, TRENDS in Biotechnology, 20 (2002) 357-8

[5]    Aileen Fyfe, “Peer review: not as old as you might think”, 25 June 2015

[6]    Henry H. Bauer, The Origin, Persistence and Failings of HIV/AIDS Theory, McFarland, 2007

[7]    Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth, McFarland, 2012

[8]    Science Is Not What You Think: How It Has Changed, Why We Can’t Trust It, How It Can Be Fixed (McFarland 2017)

[9]    “Science is self-correcting” (ed.) Lab Times, 2012. #1: 3

[10]  Mark P. Pfeifer & Gwendolyn L. Snodgrass, “The continued use of retracted, invalid scientific literature”, JAMA, 263 (1990) 1420-3)

 

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How science has changed — VI. The influences of groups

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/04/26

Popular stereotypes of scientists picture them as strikingly individual, whether admirably so (Galileo, Darwin, Einstein) or the opposite (Dr. Frankenstein and other mad or evil scientists [1]). That is one of the most significant ways in which the folklore about science differs from today’s reality: Science nowadays is by and large a group activity, and that has many far-reaching corollaries. This is not to deny that scientists see themselves as individuals and act as individuals, but they are also influenced to varying degrees by group memberships and associated loyalties, and that can interfere with truth-seeking.

Memberships in groups and the associated loyalties is a common human experience. First comes the family group; then there is the extended family or clan, and perhaps subgroups of the clan. Other groups cut across different lines, defined by religion, by ethnicity, by nationality; and also, very much pertinent to the circumstances of science, there are groups associated with the way in which we earn a living; we are influenced by our memberships in professional guilds or trade unions.

Under some circumstances it becomes necessary to set priorities with respect to loyalty to the various groups to which we belong. In most circumstances the highest priority is on loyalty to the family, though some individuals have placed a higher priority on religion or some other ideology. Among professional researchers, the most important thing is the current research project and the associated paradigm and scientific consensus: going with this group is the way to further a career whereas dissenting from the group can spell the blighting of a career.

The groups to which scientists belong is one of the most significant aspects of scientific activity, and that has changed fundamentally in recent times, since about WWII.
In the earlier stages of modern science, what we by hindsight describe as scientists were individuals who, for a variety of reasons, were interested in learning to understand the way the natural world works. One of the most crucial foundations of modern science came when groups of such inquiring minds got together, at first informally but soon formally; the Royal Society of London is generally cited as iconic. Those people came together explicitly and solely to share and discuss their findings and their interpretations. At that stage, scientists belonged effectively to just one science-related group, concerned with seeking true understanding of the workings of the world. Since this was a voluntary activity engaged in by amateurs, in other words by people who were not deriving a living or profit from this activity, these early pre-scientists were not much hindered from practicing loyalty simply to truth-seeking; it did not conflict with or interfere with their loyalties to their families or to their religion or to their other social groups.

As the numbers of proto-scientists grew, their associations were influenced by geography and therefore by nationality, so there came occasions when loyalty to truth-seeking was interfered with by questions of who should get credit for particular advances and discoveries. Even in retrospect, British and French sources may differ over whether the calculations for the discovery of Neptune should be credited most to the English John Couch Adams or the French Urbain Le Verrier — and German sources might assert that the first physical observation of the planet was made by Johann Gottfried Galle; again, British and German sources may still differ by hindsight over whether Isaac Newton or Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz invented the calculus.

Still, for the first two or three centuries of modern science, the explicit ideal or ethos of science was the unfettered pursuit of genuine truth about how the world works. Then, in the 1930s in Nazi Germany and decades later in the Soviet Union, authoritarian regimes insisted that science had to bend to ideology. In Nazi Germany, scientists had to abstain from relativity and other so-called “Jewish” science; in the Soviet Union, chemists had to abstain from the rest of the world’s theories about chemical combination, and biologists had to abstain from what biologists everywhere else knew about evolution. In democratic societies, a few individual scientists were disloyal to their own nations in sharing secrets with scientists in unfriendly other nations, sometimes giving as reason or excuse their overarching loyalty to science, which should not be subject to national boundaries.

By and large, then, up to about the time of WWII, scientific activity was not unlike how Merton had described it [2], which remains the view of it that most people seem still to have of it today: Scientists as truth-seeking individuals, smarter and more knowledgeable than ordinary people, dedicated to science and unaffected by crass self-interest or by conflicts of interest.

That view does not describe today’s reality, as pointed out in earlier posts in this series [2, 3].   The present essay discusses the consequences of the fact that scientists are anything but isolated individuals freely pursuing truth; rather, they are ordinary human beings subject to the pressures of belonging to a variety of groups. Under those conditions, the search for truth can be hindered and distorted.

Chemists (say) admittedly do work individually toward a particular goal, but that goal is not freely self-selected: either it is set by an employer or by a source of funding that considered the proposed work and decided to support it. Quite often, chemists nowadays work in teams, with different individuals focusing on minor specific aspects of some overall project. They are aware of and accommodate in various ways other chemists who happen to be working toward the same or similar goals, be it in the same institution or elsewhere; and they also share some group interests with other chemists in their own institution who may be working on other projects. Chemists everywhere share group interests through national and international organizations and publications. Beyond that, chemists share with biologists, biochemists, physicists and others the group interest of being scientists, having a professional as well as personal interest in the overall prestige and status of science as a whole in the wider society — at the same time as chemists regard their discipline as just a bit “better” than the other sciences, it is “the central science” because it builds on physics and biologists need it; whereas physicists have long known that their discipline is the most fundamental, “the queen of the sciences”, without which there could not be a chemistry or any other science; and so on — biologists know that their field matters much more to human societies than the physical sciences since it is the basis of understanding living things and is indispensable for effective medicine.

So scientists differ among themselves in a number of ways. All feel loyalty to science by comparison to other human endeavors, but especial loyalty to their own discipline; and within that to their particular specialty — among chemists, to analytical or inorganic or organic or physical chemistry; and within each of those to experimental approaches or to theoretical ones. Ultimately, all researchers are obsessed with and loyal to the very specific work they are engaged in every day, and that may be intensely specialized.

For example, researchers working to perfect computer models to mimic global temperatures and climate do just that; they do not have time to work themselves at estimating past temperatures by, for instance, doing isotope analyses of sea-shells. Since such ultra-specialization is necessary, researchers need to rely on and trust those who are working in related areas. So those who are computer-modeling climate take on trust what they are told by geologists about historical temperature and climate changes, and what the meteorologists can tell them about relatively recent weather and climate, and what physicists tell them about heat exchange and the absorption of heat by different materials, and so on.

With all that, despite the fact that research is done within highly organized and even bureaucratic environments, there is actually no overarching authority to monitor and assess what is happening in science, let alone to ensure that things are being done appropriately. In particular, there is no mechanism for deciding that any given research project may have gone off the rails in the sense of drawing unwarranted conclusions or ignoring significant evidence. There is no mechanism to ensure that proper consideration is being given to the views of all competent and informed scientists working on a particular topic.

A consequence is that on quite a range of matters, the so-called scientific consensus, the view accepted as valid by society’s conventional wisdom and by the policy makers, may be at actual odds with inescapable evidence. That circumstance has been documented for example as to the Big-Bang theory in cosmology, the mechanism of smell, the cause of Alzheimer’s disease, the cause of the extinction of the dinosaurs, and more [4].

Of course, the scientific consensus was very often wrong on particular matters throughout the era of modern science. Moreover, the scientific consensus defends itself quite vigorously against the mavericks who point out its errors [5], until eventually the contrary evidence becomes so overwhelming that the old views simply have to give away, in what Thomas Kuhn [6] described as a scientific revolution.

Defense of the consensus illustrates how strong the group influence is on the leading voices in the scientific community; indeed, it has been described as Groupthink [7]. The success of careers, the gaining of eminence and leadership roles hinge on being right, in other words being in line with the contemporary consensus; thus admitting to error can be tantamount to loss of prestige and status and destruction of a career. That is why Max Planck, in the early years of the 20th century, observed that “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it” [8]; a paraphrase popular among those of us who question an established view is that “Science progresses funeral by funeral”.

At the same time as the history of science teaches that any contemporary scientific consensus is quite fallible and may well be wrong, it also records that — up to quite recent times — science has been able to correct itself, albeit it could take quite a long time — several decades in the case of Mendel’s laws of heredity, or Wegener’s continental drift, or about the cause of mad-cow diseases or of gastritis and stomach ulcers.
Unfortunately it seems as though science’s self-correction does not always come in time to forestall society’s policy-makers from making decisions that spell tangible harm to individuals and to societies as a whole, illustrating what President Eisenhower warned against, that “public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite” [9].

More about that in future blog posts.

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[1]   Roslynn D. Haynes, From Faust to Strangelove: Representations of the Scientist in Western Literature, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994; David J. Skal, Screams of Reason: Mad Science and Modern Culture, W. W. Norton, 1998
[2]    How science has changed— II. Standards of Truth and of Behavior
[3]    How science has changed: Who are the scientists?
How science changed — III. DNA: disinterest loses, competition wins
How science changed — IV. Cutthroat competition and outright fraud
[4]    Henry H. Bauer, Dogmatism   in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth, McFarland, 2012
[5]    Bernard Barber, “Resistance by scientists to scientific discovery”, Science, 134 (1961) 596–602
[6]    Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press, 1970 (2nd ed., enlarged); 1st ed. was 1962)
[7]    I. L. Janis, Victims of Groupthink, 1972; Groupthink, 1982, Houghton Mifflin
[8]    Max Planck, Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers (1949); translated from German by Frank Gaynor, Greenwood Press, 1968
[9]    Dwight D. Eisenhower, Farewell speech, 17 January 1961

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How science changed — V. And changed academe

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/04/19

After WWII, lavish support for science made it a cash cow that academe used to change itself; a change abetted by the corruption of collegiate sport.

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Science began as an informal cottage industry; nowadays it is a highly organized bureaucratic behemoth that is pervasively intertwined with other sectors of human society.

Science began as a disinterested quest to understand how the world works; practical applications were an incidental though welcome byproduct. Nowadays, society values science for its byproducts more than for the truths it reveals about Nature.

Teaching institutions, colleges, universities were founded to educate (albeit sometimes indoctrinate) future generations. Nowadays much of academe has become a self-serving enterprise in which institutions seek status and prestige from what used to be incidental byproducts; research in academe now has an immediate eye out for patents and potential commercial applications, and intercollegiate sports for local enjoyment have become means of mass entertainment for lucrative revenue. A research university will have many dozens of administrators engaged in managing grant-related matters, intellectual property matters, compliance with regulations, status of research staff, and so on. Almost every university has many dozens of administrative staff engaged in managing its intercollegiate sports programs as well as coaches (whose salaries often exceed those of the university president) and assistant coaches (whose salaries are comparable to or exceed those of full professors).

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Scientific activity changed from a cottage industry quite slowly at first, and in fits and starts. Already in the 19th century science had been important in the commercial dye-stuff industry. During the First World War, the German war effort was supported by the discovery, by the chemist Fritz Haber, how to synthesize fertilizers and explosives using the nitrogen in the air. During the 1930s, medical practice began to have genuinely curative capabilities with the discovery of bacteria-killing sulfonamides. But, by and large, up to the Second World War scientific activity remained something of a cottage industry, and basic scientific research was largely an academic ivory-tower activity.

World War II demonstrated the powerful capabilities of applications of scientific understanding; not only the war-ending atomic bombs but also and earlier the sonar that was such an invaluable weapon against submarines and the radar that was invaluable to Great Britain in staving off the German Blitzkrieg bombers; as well as all sorts of developments and improvements in weaponry in techniques of communication and of navigation.

Vannevar Bush had been director of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development, seeing at first hand what science could accomplish. Shortly after the end of World War II he presented the president of the United States with a report entitled Science: The Endless Frontier,  which suggested that scientific research and development could be as valuable to peacetime society as science had proved to be in warfare.

Bush’s initiative is generally credited for the subsequent enormous, unprecedented resources directed into the expansion of scientific activity. The federal support of science came in part as grants to support research activity in the form of specific proposed projects, but also in large part through scholarships and fellowships to stimulate more students to go into science as a career.

That influx of funds led to truly far-reaching changes in academe.

Traditionally, the role of universities was to provide tertiary education, preparing people for the professions. A small proportion of academe comprised so-called “research universities” where the faculty were as much concerned with extending the boundaries of scholarship and of science as they were with the education and training of students; yet the research and scholarship were designed to serve the aim of educating students to become independent professionals. However, the emphasis on scientific research and on training more scientists led eventually to the contemporary circumstances where the primary aim is determined by the demands of the research project rather than by whether the work is best suited for the students to learn how to do independent research. Graduate students came to be seen as cheap technical help rather than as apprentices to be nurtured; science faculty among themselves could be heard referring to the graduate students they were mentoring as “pairs of hands”. In earlier days, prospective graduate students in the sciences would choose their mentors to fit with the students’ specific research interests; nowadays graduate students in the sciences sign on to mentors who have the research grants to support them and they work as cogs in the mentor’s long-term research program [1].

The overt aim of supporting and enhancing science had the corollary effect, no doubt unforeseen and unintended, of making science more prestigious than other intellectual fields within colleges and universities. In time, that tempted some of those other fields to distort themselves in trying to mimic science and gain comparable status and prestige thereby. And not only intellectual prestige: science (and engineering and medical) faculty had higher salaries than faculty in the humanities and the social sciences, and moreover scientists could augment their academic ”9-month” salaries with an extra 20-30% from their research grants as summer-time stipends.

In the humanities, for example — philosophy, history, to some degree psychology — scholarship traditionally focused on critical analysis of traditional classical insights gained by earlier scholars, with comparatively little expectation that entirely novel, ground-breaking insights could be attained. Scholars in the humanities would occasionally publish critiques and analyses and perhaps eventually scholarly monographs. By contrast, in the sciences the emphasis was on novelty, on going beyond what was already known. As other parts of academe developed the ambition to be as well-supported fiscally and thereby as highly regarded as the sciences, they also came to emphasize originality and publication. Graduate students working towards doctoral degrees in history or psychology or sociology are nowadays supposed to generate stuff that deserves publication, often as a monograph. The sciences have become an inappropriate role model for other intellectual disciplines.

The pots of gold available for science-related activities also tempted whole institutions, four-year colleges and teachers’ colleges in particular, to seek prestige and status by transforming themselves into “research” universities. By hiring scientists, grants could be obtained whose amounts were calculated not only to cover the actual costs of the research but also “overhead” costs to reimburse the whole institution for the use of its infrastructure pertinent to the research (“indirect costs” became a popular euphemism for “overhead”). Those indirect costs could be as high as a 50% surcharge on the actual costs of research, and that provided a pool of money that upper-level administrators could draw on for all sorts of things. In the 1940s, the United States had 107 doctorate-granting research universities; by 1950–54 there were 142, by 1960–64 there were 208, and by 1970–74 the number had grown to 307 [2]; since then the rate of growth has been much less, with a count of 334 in 2016 [3 ].

 

The influx of science-related money may have stimulated academe to change in inappropriate and undesirable ways, but science cannot be held responsible for all of today’s ills of academe. Like science, like sports, like so much else, academe has been corrupted by the love of money. One of the most serious consequences is the progressive elimination of tenure-track faculty, replaced by teachers on fixed-term contracts. Academic freedom cannot exist in the absence of tenure, and genuine freedom of thought, expression, and criticism cannot exist in the absence of academic freedom.

Perhaps the most fundamental problem is that both academe and science both should be venues for unfettered truth-seeking activities. But truth-seeking is inevitably subversive, and it is never supported for its own sake by the powers that be. The corruption and distortion of science and academe make it easier for non-truths to spread, which is dangerous for the long-term health of society.

=========================================

[1]    Now-graduated Jorge Cham has described life as a graduate student by means of comic strips: see Sara Coelho, “Piled Higher and Deeper: The everyday life of a grad student”, Science, 323 (2009) 1668–9.
[2]    A Century of Doctorates: Data Analyses of Growth and Change, National Academies Press, 1978.
[3]    According to the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education

 

 

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Categories: funding research, science policy, scientific culture
Tags: science changed academe,corruption of academe

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How science changed — IV. Cutthroat competition and outright fraud

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/04/15

The discovery of the structure of DNA was a metaphorical “canary in the coal mine”, warning of the intensely competitive environment that was coming to scientific activity. The episode illustrates in microcosm the seismic shift in the circumstances of scientific activity that started around the middle of the 20th century [1], the replacement of one set of unwritten rules by another set [2].
The structure itself was discovered by Watson and Crick around 1950, but it was only in 1968, with the publication of Watson’s personal recollections, that attention was focused on how Watson’s approach and behavior marked a break from the traditional unwritten rules of scientific activity.
It took even longer for science writers and journalists to realize just how cutthroat the competition had become in scientific and medical research. Starting around 1980 there appeared a spate of books describing fierce fights for priority on a variety of specific topics:
Ø    The role of the brain in the release of hormones; Guillemin vs. Schally — Nicholas Wade, The Nobel Duel: Two Scientists’ 21-year Race to Win the World’s Most Coveted Research Prize, Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1981.
Ø    The nature and significance of a peculiar star-like object — David H. Clark, The Quest for SS433, Viking, 1985.
Ø    “‘Mentor chains’, characterized by camaraderie and envy, for example in neuroscience and neuropharmacology” — Robert Kanigel, Apprentice to Genius: The Making of a Scientific Dynasty, Macmillan, 1986.
Ø    High-energy particle physics, atom-smashers — Gary Taubes, Nobel Dreams: Power, Deceit, and the Ultimate Experiment, Random House, 1986.
Ø    “Soul-searching, petty rivalries, ridiculous mistakes, false results as rivals compete to understand oncogenes” — Natalie Angier, Natural Obsessions: The Search for the Oncogene, Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
Ø    “The brutal intellectual darwinism that dominates the high-stakes world of molecular genetics research” — Stephen S. Hall, Invisible Frontiers: The Race to Synthesize a Human Gene, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1987.
Ø    “How the biases and preconceptions of paleoanthropologists shaped their work” — Roger Lewin, Bones of Contention: Controversies in the Search for Human Origins, Simon & Schuster, 1987.
Ø    “The quirks of . . . brilliant . . . geniuses working at the extremes of thought” — Ed Regis, Who Got Einstein’s Office: Eccentricity and Genius at the Institute for Advanced Study, Addison-Wesley, 1987.
Ø    High-energy particle physics — Sheldon Glashow with Ben Bova, Interactions: A Journey Through the Mind of a Particle Physicist and the Matter of the World, Warner, 1988.
Ø    Discovery of endorphins — Jeff Goldberg, Anatomy of a Scientific Discovery, Bantam, 1988.
Ø    “Intense competition . . . to discover superconductors that work at practical temperatures “ — Robert M. Hazen, The Breakthrough: The Race for the Superconductor, Summit, 1988.
Ø    Science is done by human beings — David L. Hull, Science as a Process, University of Chicago Press, 1988.
Ø    Competition to get there first — Charles E. Levinthal, Messengers of Paradise: Opiates and the Brain, Anchor/Doubleday 1988.
Ø    “Political machinations, grantsmanship, competitiveness” — Solomon H. Snyder, Brainstorming: The Science and Politics of Opiate Research, Harvard University Press, 1989.
Ø    Commercial ambitions in biotechnology — Robert Teitelman, Gene Dreams: Wall Street, Academia, and the Rise of Biotechnology, Basic Books, 1989.
Ø    Superconductivity, intense competition — Bruce Schechter, The Path of No Resistance: The Story of the Revolution in Superconductivity, Touchstone (Simon & Schuster), 1990.
Ø    Sociological drivers behind scientific progress, and a failed hypothesis — David M. Raup, The Nemesis Affair: A Story of the Death of Dinosaurs and the Ways of Science, Norton 1999.

These titles illustrate that observers were able to find intense competitiveness wherever they looked in science; though mostly in medical or biological science, with physics including astronomy the next most frequently mentioned field of research.
Watson’s memoir had not only featured competition most prominently, it had also revealed that older notions of ethical behavior no longer applied: Watson was determined to get access to competitors’ results even if those competitors were not yet anxious to reveal all to him [3]. It was not only competitiveness that increased steadily over the years; so too did the willingness to engage in behavior that not so long before had been regarded as improper.
Amid the spate of books about how competitive research had become, there also was published. Betrayers of the Truth: Fraud and Deceit in the Halls of Science by science journalists William Broad and Nicholas Wade (Simon & Schuster, 1982). This book argued that dishonesty has always been present in science, citing in an appendix 33 “known or suspected” cases of scientific fraud from 1981 back to the 2nd century BC. These actual data could not support the book’s sweeping generalizations [4], but Broad and Wade had been very early to draw attention to the fact that dishonesty in science was a significant problem. What they failed to appreciate was why: not that there had always been a notable frequency of fraud in science but that scientific activity was changing in ways that were in process of making it a different kind of thing than in the halcyon few centuries of modern science from the 17th century to the middle of the 20th century.
Research misconduct had featured in Congressional Hearings as early as 1981. Soon the Department of Health and Human Services established an Office of Scientific Integrity, now the Office of Research Integrity. Its mission is to instruct research institutions about preventing fraud and dealing with allegations of it. Scientific periodicals began to ask authors to disclose conflicts of interest, and co-authors to state specifically what portions of the work were their individual responsibility.
Academe has proliferated Centers for Research and Medical Ethics [5], and there are now periodicals entirely devoted to such matters [6]. Courses in research ethics have become increasingly common; it is even required that such courses be available at institutions that receive research funds from federal agencies.
In 1989, the Committee on the Conduct of Science of the National Academy of Sciences issued the booklet On Being a Scientist, which describes proper behavior; that booklet’s 3rd edition, titled A Guide to Responsible Conduct in Research, makes even clearer that the problem of scientific misconduct is now widely seen as serious.
Another indication that dishonesty has increased is the quite frequent retraction of published research reports: Retraction Watch estimates that 500-600 published articles are retracted annually. John Ioannidis has made a specialty of reviewing literature for consistency, and reported: “Why most published research findings are false” [7]. Nature has an archive devoted to this phenomenon [8].

Researchers half a century ago would have been aghast and disbelieving at all this, that science could have become so untrustworthy. It has happened because science changed from an amateur avocation to a career that can bring fame and wealth [9]; and scientific activity changed from a cottage industry to a highly bureaucratic corporate industry, with pervasive institutional as well as individual conflicts of interest; and researchers’ demands for support have far exceeded the available supply.

And as science changed, it drew academe along with it. More about that later.

===============================================

[1]    How science changed — III. DNA: disinterest loses, competition wins
[2]    How science has changed— II. Standards of Truth and of Behavior
[3]    The individuals Watson mentioned as getting him access corrected his recollections: they shared with him nothing that was confidential. The significant point remains that Watson had no such scruples.
[4]    See my review, “Betrayers of the truth: a fraudulent and deceitful title from the journalists of science”, 4S Review, 1 (#3, Fall) 17–23.
[5]   There is an Online Ethics Center for Engineering and Science. Physical Centers have been established at: University of California, San Diego (Center for Ethics in Science and Technology); University of Delaware (Center for Science, Ethics and Public Policy); Michigan State University (Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences); University of Notre Dame (John J. Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values).
[6]    Accountability in Research (founded 1989); Science and Engineering Ethics (1997); Ethics and Information Technology (1999); BMC Medical Ethics (2000); Ethics in Science and Environmental Politics (2001).
[7]    John P. A. Ioannidis, “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False”, PLoS Medicine, 2 (2005): e124. 
[8]    “Challenges in irreproducible research”
[9]    How science has changed: Who are the scientists?

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How science changed — III. DNA: disinterest loses, competition wins

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/04/10

The Second World War marked a shift of economic and political power from Europe to the United States, with associated changes in the manner and style with which those powers are deployed. Science began to change at about the same time and in somewhat analogous and perhaps associated ways.

The change in the norms of science, from CUDOS to PLACE, that Ziman had described (How science has changed — II. Standards of Truth and of Behavior) began with what happened in the middle of the 20th century. The first of the Mertonian norms to fade away was disinterestedness: Science came to be like other spheres of human activity in that some people chose to pursue it as an avenue for satisfying personal ambition rather than as an opportunity to serve the public good.

My cohort of science students in Australia in the early 1950s had been notably idealistic about science. We could imagine no finer future then the opportunity to earn a living doing science. The relative absence of excessive personal ambition may have stemmed in large part from the fact that Australia was at that time a profoundly egalitarian society; no one should imagine himself to be “better” than anyone else [1].

Our ideals about science included taking honesty for granted, as Merton had.

Our ranking of desirable occupations had doing research in a university setting at the top. Those who were not good enough to do innovative self-directed research would still be able to have a place in science by working in industry. If one were not talented enough even for that, one would have to make do with teaching science. And if one could not even do that, then it would have to be some sort of administrative job. I still recall the minor functionary at the University of Sydney who represented a living lesson for us in the wages of sin: As a graduate student in chemistry, he had faked some of his results, and so he had been condemned to lifelong labor as a paper pusher.

The sea change in science around the middle of the 20th century is illustrated in microcosm by the circumstances of the discovery of the structure of DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick. Watson’s description of that discovery in his memoir, The Double Helix (Atheneum, 1968), and the reactions to that book in the scientific community, illustrate the profound changes in scientific activity beginning to take place around that time. Gunther Stent’s annotated edition of The Double Helix [2] provides a ready source for appreciating how the DNA discovery touches on many aspects of how scientific activity changed profoundly, beginning in the middle of the 20th century; the edition includes the original text of the book, commentaries, many of the original book reviews, and pertinent articles.

Watson himself, as portrayed in his own memoir, exemplifies the brash, personally ambitious American ignorant of or simply ignoring the traditional ways of doing things, in personal behavior as well as in doing science [3].

In Watson’s memoir, traditional ways including disinterestedness are exemplified by the Europeans Max Perutz and Erwin Chargaff. Perutz had been working diligently for a decade or so, gradually refining what could be learned about the structure of proteins through the technique of X-ray crystallography. With similar diligence Erwin Chargaff had been analyzing the chemical constitutions of DNA from a variety of different sources. Both those research approaches comported with traditional experience that carefully accumulating sufficient pertinent information would eventually be rewarded by important new understanding. In Britain, since Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin were working on DNA structure via X-ray crystallography, no other British lab would trespass onto that research project.

Watson of course had no such scruples, nor was he prepared to wait for the traditional ways to pay off; Watson’s own words make it appear that his prime motivation was to make a name for himself — any advance in human understanding, for the public good, would be a byproduct.

To short-circuit old-fashioned laborious approaches, he and his co-worker Francis Crick looked to what had been pioneered by another American, Linus Pauling, who is often still regarded as the outstanding chemist of the 20th century. Pauling did also use X-ray crystallography, but only as a secondary adjunct. He had laid the foundations for an understanding of chemical bonding and had been interested from the beginning in the three-dimensional structures of molecules; applying his insights to the study of macromolecules, he succeeded in elucidating the configuration of protein molecules in part by constructing feasible molecular models.

Traditional cosmopolitan European culture could be disdainful and snobbish toward the parvenu, nouveau-riche American ways that were taking over the world, including the world of science. Erwin Chargaff provides an apposite, rather sad illustration. He disliked not only Watson’s personality and actions, he led himself to believe that his own diligent traditional work on the chemical composition of DNA should have been rewarded by a share of the Nobel Prize. Chargaff’s review [4] of The Double Helix flaunts his cultured erudition and also reveals his personal disappointment; later he refused Gunther Stent permission to reprint his review, in company with all the others, in Stent’s annotated edition.

The technical point at issue is that Chargaff had been content to allow results to accumulate until insight revealed itself rather than to take a gamble on some premature interpretation: he had merely remarked on an apparently consistent ratio of purines to pyrimidines in the DNA from a variety of sources [5]: “It is . . . noteworthy — whether this is more than accidental cannot yet be said — that in all deoxypentose nucleic acids examined thus far the molar ratios of total purines to total pyrimidines, and also of adenine to thymine and of guanine to cytosine, were not far from 1”.

The important insight, however, is that the numbers are exactly equal; adenine faces thymine, and guanine faces cytosine in the molecular structure of DNA, and that is the central and crucial feature of the double helix. In hindsight, Chargaff wanted his tentative statement of approximate equality to be construed as “the discovery of   the base-pairing regularities” [4].

Erwin Chargaff may have been acerbic and ungenerous in his book review, but he will also have spoken for generations of scientists in his regret for the passing of the more idealistic, disinterested, traditional order and distaste for what was replacing it: “in our time a successful cancer researcher is not one who ‘solves the riddle,’ but rather one who gets a lot of money to do so” [6]; “Watson’s book may contribute to the much-needed demythologization of modern science”; “with very few exceptions, it is not the men that make science; it is science that makes the men” [4].

That disappearing idealistic traditional order might be exemplified in Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith. Published in 1925 by Harcourt, Brace, according to amazon.com there have been more than 80 later editions, including a 2008 paperback. Evidently the yearning remains strong for disinterested science for the public good. The book’s protagonist, after some early mis-steps and yieldings to commercial temptations, opts for pure research for the good of humankind. Even a couple of decades ago, an academic of my generation (a biochemist) told me that he still gave his graduate students Arrowsmith to read as a guide to the proper ethos of science.

That occasion for being reminded of Arrowsmith was a series of seminars I was then holding on our campus about ethics in research [7], a topic that was just becoming prominent as instances of dishonesty in scientific work were beginning to be noted with increasing frequency.

More about that in a future blog post.

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[1]    A widely shared view was that “tall poppies” should be decapitated. A highly educated Labor-Party leader was careful to adopt a working-class accent in public to hide his normal “educated”, British-BBC-type dialect. I personally saw fisticuffs occasioned by one party feeling that the other had thought themselves better in some way
[2]    Gunther S. Stent (ed.), The Double Helix — Text, Commentary, Reviews, Original Papers, W. W. Norton, 1980
[3]    I had begun to sense the new self-serving ethos in science in the late 1960s, after a career move from Australia to the USA. I encountered ambitious young go-getters who luxuriated in the [then!] largesse of research support, inserting personal pleasures into publicly funded research travel, for example studying aspects of marine environments in ways that made possible scuba-diving and general cavorting in the Caribbean. I participated in the WETS, one of the informal associations of young up-and-comers who used to sample fleshly diversions as part of research-grant-paid trips to professional conferences
[4]    Erwin Chargaff, “A quick climb up Mount Olympus”, Science, 159 (1968) 1448-9
[5]    Erwin Chargaff, “Chemical specificity of nucleic acids and mechanism of their enzymatic degradation”, Experientia, 6 (1950) 201-40
[6]    Erwin Chargaff, Voices in the Labyrinth, Seabury, 1977, p. 89
[7]    For instance, “Ethics in Science” under “Current topics in analytical chemistry: critical analysis of the literature”, 15 & 17 March 1994;
reprinted at pp. 169-182 in Against the Tide, ed. Martín López Corredoira & Carlos Castro Perelman, Universal Publishers, 2008;

 

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How science has changed — II. Standards of Truth and of Behavior

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/04/08

The scientific knowledge inherited from ancient Babylon and Greece and from medieval Islam was gained by individuals or by groups isolated from one another in time as well as geography. Perhaps the most consequential feature of the “modern” science that we date from the 17th-century Scientific Revolution is the global interaction of the people who are doing science, and especially the continuity over time of their collective endeavors.
These interactions among scientists began in quite informal and individual ways. An important step was the formation of academies and societies, among which the Royal Society of London is usually acknowledged to be the earliest (founded 1660) that has remained active up to the present time — though it was not the earliest such institution and even the claim of “longest continually active” has been challenged [1].
Even nowadays, the global community of scientists remains in many ways informal despite the host of scientific organizations and institutions, national and international: the global scientific community is not governed by any formal structure that lays down how science should be done and how scientists should behave.
However, observing the actualities of scientific activity indicates that there had evolved some agreed-on standards generally seen within the community of scientists as proper behavior. Around the time of the Second World War, sociologist Robert Merton described those informal standards, and they came to be known as the “Mertonian Norms” of science [2]. They comprise:

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 or religion race or anything of that sort.
Ø    Disinterestedness: Science is done for the public good and not for personal benefit; scientists seek to be impartial, objective, unbiased, and 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.

Note that honesty is not mentioned; it was simply taken for granted.
These norms clearly make sense for a cottage industry, as ideal behavior that individuals should aim for; but they are not appropriate for a corporate environment, they cannot guide the behavior of individuals who are part of some hierarchical enterprise.
In the late 1990s, John Ziman [3] discussed the change in scientific activity as it had morphed from the activities of an informal, voluntary collection of individuals seeking to understand how the world works to a highly organized activity with assigned levels of responsibility and authority and where sources of research funding have a say in what gets done, and which often expect to get something useful in return for their investments, something profitable.
The early cottage industry of science had been essentially self-supporting. Much could be done without expensive equipment. People studied what was conveniently at hand, so there was little need for funds to support travel. Interested patrons and local benefactors could provide the small resources needed for occasional meetings and the publication of findings.
Up to about the middle of the 20th century, universities were able to provide the funds needed for basic research in chemistry and biology and physics. The first sign that exceptional resources could be needed had come in the 1920s when Lawrence constructed the first large “atom-smashing machine”; but that and the need for expensive astronomical telescopes remained outliers in the requirements for the support of scientific research overall.
From about the time of the Second World War, however, research going beyond what had already been accomplished began to require ever more expensive and specialized equipment as well as considerable infrastructure: technicians to support the equipment, glass-blowers and secretaries and book-keepers and librarians, and managers of such ancillary staff; so researchers increasingly came to need support beyond that available from individual patrons or universities. Academic research came to rely increasingly on getting grants for specific research projects from public agencies or from wealthy private foundations.
Although those sources of research funds typically claim that they want to support simply “the best science”, their view of what the best science is does not necessarily jibe with the judgments of the individual researchers [4].
At the same time as research in universities was calling on outside sources of funding, an increasing number of industries were setting up their own laboratories for research specifically toward creating and improving their products and services. Such product-specific “R&D” (research and development) sometimes turned up novel basic knowledge, or revealed the need for such fundamentally new understanding. One consequence has been that some really striking scientific advances have come from such famous industrial laboratories as Bell Telephone Laboratories or the Research Laboratory of General Electric. Researchers employed in industry have received a considerable number of Nobel Prizes, often jointly with academics [5].
Under these new circumstances, as Ziman [3] pointed out, the traditional distinction between “applied” research and “pure” or “basic” research lost its meaning.
Ziman rephrased the Mertonian norms as the nice acronym CUDOS, adding the “O” for originality, quite appropriately since within the scientific community credit was and is given to for the most innovative, original contributions; CUDOS, or preferably “kudos”, being the Greek term for acclaim of exceptional accomplishment. By contrast, Ziman proposed for the norms that obtain in a corporate scientific enterprise, be it government or private, the acronym PLACE: Researchers nowadays get their rewards not by adhering to the Mertonian norms but by producing Proprietary findings whose significance may be purely Local rather than universal, the subject of research having been chosen under the Authority of an employer or patron and not by the individual researcher, who is Commissioned to do the work as an Expert employee.

Ziman too did not mention honesty; like Merton he simply took it for granted.
Ziman had made an outstanding career in solid-state physics before, in his middle years, he began to publish, starting in 1968 [6] highly insightful works about how science functions, in particular what makes it reliable. In the late 1960s, it had still been reasonable to take honesty in science for granted; but by the time Ziman published Prometheus Bound, honesty in science could no longer be taken for granted; Ziman had failed to notice some of what was happening in scientific activity. Competition for resources and for career advancement had increased to a quite disturbing extent, presumably the impetus for the increasing frequency with which scientists were found to have cheated in some way. Even published, supposedly peer-reviewed research failed later attempted confirmation in many cases, and all too often it was revealed as simply false, faked [7].
More about that in a following blog post.

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[1]    “The Royal Societies [sic] claim to be the oldest is based on the fact that they developed out of a group that started meeting in Gresham College in 1645 but unlike the Leopoldina this group was informal and even ceased to meet for two years between 1658 and 1660” — according to The Renaissance Mathematicus, “It wasn’t the first but…”
[2]    Robert K. Merton, “The normative structure of science” (1942); most readily accessible as pp. 267–78 in The Sociology of Science (ed. N. Storer, University of Chicago Press, 1973) a collection of Merton’s work
[3]    John Ziman, Prometheus Bound: Science in a Dynamic Steady State, Cambridge University Press, 1994
[4]    Richard Muller, awarded a prize by the National Science Foundation, pointed out that truly innovative studies are unlikely to be funded and need to be carried out more or less surreptitiously; and Charles Townes, who developed masers and lasers, testified to his difficulty in getting research support for that ground-breaking work, or even encouragement from some of his distinguished older colleagues —
Richard A. Muller, “Innovation and scientific funding”, Science, 209 (1980) 880–3
Charles Townes, How the Laser Happened: Adventures of a Scientist, Oxford University Press , 1999
[5]    Karina Cummings, “Nobel Science Prizes in industry”;
Nobel Laureates and Research Affiliations
[6]    John Ziman, Public Knowledge (1968); followed by The Force of
Knowledge
(1976); Reliable Knowledge (1978); An Introduction to Science
Studies
(1984); Prometheus Bound (1994); Real Science (2000);
all published by Cambridge University Press
[7]    John P. A. Ioannidis, “Why most published research findings are false”,
         PLoS Medicine, 2 (2005) e124
Daniele Fanelli, “How many scientists fabricate and falsify research? A systematic review and meta-analysis of survey data”,
PLoS ONE, 4(#5, 2009): e5738

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How science has changed: Who are the scientists?

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/04/07

Scientists are people who do science, Nowadays scientists are people who work at science as a full-time occupation and who earn their living at it.
Science means studying and learning about the natural world, and human beings have been doing that since time immemorial; indeed, in a sense all animals do that, but humans have developed efficient means to transmit gained knowledge to later generations.
At any rate, there was science long before [1] there were scientists, full-time professional students of Nature. Our present-day store of scientific knowledge includes things that have been known for at least thousands of years. For example, from more than 6,000 years ago in Mesopotamia (Babylon, Sumer) we still use base-60 mathematics for the number of degrees in the arcs of a circle (360) and the number of seconds in a minute and the number of minutes in an hour. We still cry “Eureka” (found!!) for a new discovery, as supposedly Archimedes did more than 2000 years ago when he recognized that floating an object in water was an easy way to measure its volume (by the increase in height of the water) and that the object’s weight equaled the weight of the water it displaced. The Islamic science of the Middle Ages has left its mark in language with, for instance, algebra or alchemy.
Despite those early pieces of science that are still with us today, most of what the conventional wisdom thinks it knows about science is based on what historians call “modern” science, which is generally agreed to have emerged around the 17th century in what is usually called The Scientific Revolution.
The most widely known bits of science are surely the most significant advances. Those are typically associated with the names of people who either originated them or made them popular [2]; so many school-children hear about Archimedes and perhaps Euclid and Ptolemy; and for modern science, even non-science college students are likely to hear of Galileo and Newton and Darwin and Einstein. Chemistry students will certainly hear about Lavoisier and Priestley and Wöhler and Haber; and so on, just as most of us have learned about general history in terms of the names of important individuals. So far as science is concerned, most people are likely to gain the general impression that it has been done and is being done by a relatively small number of outstanding individuals, geniuses in fact. That impression could only be entrenched by the common thought-bite that “science” overthrew “religion” sometime in the 19th century, leading to the contemporary role of science as society’s ultimate arbiter of true knowledge.
The way in which scientists in modern times have been featured in books and in films also gives the impression that scientists are somehow special, that they are by no means ordinary people. Roslynn Haynes [3] identified several stereotypes of scientists, for example “adventurer” or “the noble scientist as hero or savior of society”, with most stereotypes however being less than favorable — “mad, bad, dangerous scientist, unscrupulous in the exercise of power”. But no matter whether good or bad in terms of morals or ethics, society’s stereotype of “scientist” is “far from an ordinary person”.
That is accurate enough for the founders of modern science, but it became progressively less true as more and more people came to take part in some sort of scientific activity. Real change began in the early decades of the 19th century, when the term “scientist” seems to have been used for the first time [4].
By the end of the 19th century it had become possible to earn a living through being a scientist, through teaching or through doing research that led to commercially useful results (as in the dye-stuff industry) or through doing both in what nowadays are called research universities. By the early 20th century, scientists no longer deserved to be seen as outstanding individual geniuses, but they were still a comparatively elite group of people with quite special talents and interests. Nowadays, however, there is nothing distinctly elite about being a scientist. In terms of numbers (in the USA), scientists at roughly 2.7 million are comparable to engineers at 2.1 million (in ~2001), less elite than lawyers (~ 1 million) or doctors (~800,000); and teachers, at ~3.5 million, are almost as elite as scientists.
Nevertheless, so far as the general public and the conventional wisdom are concerned, there is still an aura of being special and distinctly elite associated with science and being a scientist, no doubt because science is so widely acknowledged as the ultimate authority on what is true about the workings of the natural world; and because “scientist” brings to most minds someone like Darwin or Einstein or Galileo or Newton.
So the popular image of scientists is wildly wrong about today’s world. Scientists today are unexceptional white-collar workers. Certainly a few of them could still be properly described as geniuses, just as a few engineers or doctors could be — or those at the high tail-end of any distribution of human talent; but by and large, there is nothing exceptional about scientists nowadays. That is an enormous change from times past, and the conventional wisdom has not begun to be aware of that change.
One aspect of that change is that the first scientists were amateurs seeking to satisfy their curiosity about how the world works, whereas nowadays scientists are technicians or technical experts who do what they are told to do by employers or enabled to do by patrons. A very consequential corollary is that the early scientists had nothing to gain by being untruthful, whereas nowadays the rewards potentially available to prominent scientists have tempted a significant number to practice varying degrees of dishonesty.
Another way of viewing the change that science and scientists have undergone is that science used to be a cottage industry largely self-supported by independent entrepreneurial workers, whereas nowadays science is a corporate behemoth whose workers are apparatchiks, cogs in bureaucratic machinery; and in that environment, individual scientists are subject to conflicts of interest and a variety of pressures owing to their membership in a variety of groups.

Science today is not a straightforward seeking of truth about how the world works; and claims emerging from the scientific community are not necessarily made honestly; and even when made honestly, they are not necessarily true. More about those things in future posts.

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[1]    For intriguing tidbits about pre-scientific developments, see “Timeline Outline View”
[2]    In reality, most discoveries hinge on quite a lot of work and learning that prefigured them and made them possible, as discussed for instance by Tony Rothman in Everything’s Relative: And Other Fables from Science and Technology (Wiley, 2003). That what matters most is not the act of discovery but the making widely known is the insight embodied in Stigler’s Law, that discoveries are typically named after the last person who discovered them, not the first (S. M. Stigler, “Stigler’s Law of Eponymy”, Transactions of the N.Y. Academy of Science, II: 39 [1980] 147–58)
[3]    Roslynn D. Haynes, From Faust to Strangelove: Representations of the Scientist in Western Literature, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994; also “Literature Has shaped the public perception of science”, The Scientist, 12 June 1989, pp. 9, 11
[4]    William Whewell is usually credited with coining the term “scientist” in the early 1830s

Posted in conflicts of interest, fraud in science, funding research, media flaws, peer review, science is not truth, scientific culture, scientists are human | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

Denialism and pseudo-science

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/03/31

Nowadays, questioning whether HIV causes AIDS, or whether carbon dioxide causes global warming, is often deplored and attacked as “denialism” or pseudo-science. Yet questioning those theories is perfectly good, normal science.

Science is many things, including a human activity, an institution, an authority, but most centrally science means knowledge and understanding. Pseudo-science correspondingly means false claims dressed up as though they were reliable, genuine science. Denialism means refusing to believe what is unquestionably known to be true.

Knowledge means facts; understanding means theories or interpretations; and an essential adjunct to both is methodology, the means by which facts can be gathered.

There is an important connection not only between methods and facts but also between facts and theories: Un-interpreted facts carry no meaning. They are made meaningful only when connected to a conceptual framework, which is inevitably subjective. That is typically illustrated by diagrams where the facts consist of black and white lines and areas whose meaning depends on interpretations by the viewer. Different observers offer different interpretations.

The meanings of these facts — black-and-white lines and areas — are supplied by the viewer:
A young lady with extravagant hair treatment facing left — OR an old crone looking downwards;
A duck facing left OR a rabbit facing right;
Twin black profiles looking at one another OR a white vase.

In science, researchers often differ over the interpretation of the evidence: the facts are not disputed but different theories are offered to explain them.

At any rate, in considering what science can tell us we need to consider the three facets of science: facts, methods, and theories [1]. Normal scientific activity is guided by established theories and applies established methods to enlarge the range of factual knowledge.
Every now and again, something unconventional and unforeseen turns up in one of those three facets of science. It might be a new interpretation of existing facts, as in the theory of relativity; or it may be the application of a novel method as in radio-astronomy; or it may be the observation of previously unsuspected happenings, facts, for instance that atoms are not eternally stable and sometimes decompose spontaneously. When something of that sort happens, it is often referred to later as having been a scientific revolution, overturning what had been taken for granted in one facet of science while remaining content with what has been taken for granted in the other two facets.
The progress of science can be viewed as revolutions in facts, or in method followed by the gaining of possibly revolutionary facts, followed eventually by minor or major revisions of theory. Over a sufficiently long time — say, the several centuries of modern (post-17th-century) science — the impression by hindsight is of continual accumulation of facts and improvement of methods; the periodic changes in theoretical perspective are all that tends to be remembered by other than specialist historians of science.

(from “Why minority views should be listened to”)

The history of science also records episodes in which researchers proposed something novel simultaneously in two facets of science, for example when Gregor Mendel applied simple arithmetic to observations of plant breeding, an unprecedented methodology in biology that thereby uncovered entirely new facts. Another example might be the suggestion by Alfred Wegener in the early decades of the 20th century that the Earth’s continents must have moved, since the flora and fauna and geological formations are so alike on continents that are now far apart; making comparisons across oceans was an entirely novel methodology, and there was no theory to accommodate the possibility of continents moving. Episodes of that sort, where two of the three facets of science are unorthodox, have been labeled “premature science” by Gunther Stent [2]; the scientific community did not accept these suggestions for periods of several decades, until something more conventional showed that those unorthodox proposals had been sound.

When claims are made that do not fit with established theory or established methods or established facts, then those claims are typically dismissed out of hand and labeled pseudo-science. For example, claims of the existence of Loch Ness “monsters” involve unorthodox facts obtained by methods that are unorthodox in biology, namely eyewitness accounts, sonar echoes, photographs, and films, instead of the established way of certifying the existence of a species through the examination of an actual specimen; and the theory of evolution and the accepted fossil record have no place for the sort of creature that eyewitnesses describe.

In recent years it has it has been quite common see dissent from established scientific theories referred to as “denialism”. The connotation of that term “denialism” is not only that something is wrong but that it is reprehensibly wrong, that those who question the established view should know better, that it would be damaging to pay attention to them; moreover that denying (for example) that HIV causes AIDS is as morally distasteful as denying the fact of the Holocaust in which millions of Jews, Gypsies, and others were killed.

As Google N-grams for “denialism” indicate, until the last couple of decades, “denialism” meant to deny historical facts of genocide or something like it:

In the 1930s, “denialism” was applied to the refusal to acknowledge the millions of deaths in the Soviet Union caused by enforcement of collectivized agriculture and associated political purges, for example the 1932-33 Ukraine famine [3]. Holocaust denial was prominent for a while around 1970 but then faded away from mention in books until it re-appeared in the late 1980s [4]. But soon “denialism” directed at questioning of HIV/AIDS theory and the theory of carbon-dioxide-induced global warming swamped all other applications of the term:


This recent usage of “denialism” is consciously and specifically intended to arouse the moral outrage associated with denial of genocides, as admitted (for example) by the South African jurist Edwin Cameron [5]. But those genocides are facts, proved beyond doubt by the records of deaths as well as remains and various artefacts at concentration camps. By contrast, so-called “AIDS denialism” and so-called “climate-change denialism” or “global warming denialism” are the questioning or disputing of theories, not facts.

That questioning, moreover, is perfectly consonant with normal science:
⇒⇒   On the matter of whether HIV causes AIDS, dissidents do not question anything about established methods of virology, and they do not claim that HIV tests do not measure proteins, antibodies, and bits of genetic material; they merely assert that the results of HIV tests do not fit the theory that HIV is an infectious agent, and they assert that the methods used in HIV AIDS research are not sound methods for studying viruses since they have not been verified against experiments with authentic pure HIV virions derived directly from HIV+ individuals or from AIDS patients (The Case against HIV).
⇒⇒   On the matter of whether the liberation of carbon dioxide and by the burning of fossil fuels is the primary cause of global warming and climate change (AGW, Anthropogenic Global Warming and climate change [ACC]), those who question that theory do not question the facts about amounts of carbon dioxide present over time and they do not question the changes that have taken place in temperatures; they merely point out that the known and accepted facts show that there have been periods of time during which carbon-dioxide levels were very high while temperatures were very low, and that during several periods when carbon-dioxide levels were increasing the Earth’s temperature was not increasing or perhaps even cooling [6]. Furthermore, those who question AGW point out that the prime evidence offered for the theory is no evidence at all, merely the outputs of computer models that are supposed to take into account all the important variables — even as it is obvious that they do not do that, since those computer models do not provide an accurate record of the actual temperature changes that have been observed over many centuries.

Denialism means to deny something that is unquestionably true, but theories, interpretations, can never be known to be unquestionably true. Labeling as denialists those who question whether HIV causes AIDS, or those who question whether human-caused generation of carbon dioxide is the prime cause of global warming and climate change, is an attempt to finesse having to properly demonstrate the validity of those theories. Another attempt at such evasion is the oft-heard assertion that there is an “overwhelming consensus” on those matters. As Michael Crichton put it:
the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. . . . Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough. Nobody says the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. Nobody says the consensus is that the sun is 93 million miles away. It would never occur to anyone to speak that way [7].

When the assertion of consensus does not suffice, then the ad hominem tactic of crying “denialism” is invoked: the last refuge of intellectual scoundrels who cannot prove their case by evidence and logic.

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[1]    I first suggested this in “Velikovsky and the Loch Ness Monster: Attempts at demarcation in two controversies”, in a symposium on “The Demarcation between Science and Pseudo-Science” (ed. Rachel Laudan), published as Working Papers of the Center for the Study of Science in Society (VPI&SU), 2 (#1, April 1983) 87-106. The idea was developed further in The Enigma of Loch Ness: Making Sense of a Mystery (University of Illinois Press, 1986/88; reprint, Wipf & Stock, 2012; pp. 152-3); see also Science or Pseudoscience: Magnetic Healing, Psychic Phenomena, and Other Heterodoxies (University of Illinois Press, 2001); Science Is Not What You Think (McFarland, 2017)
[2]    Gunther Stent, “Prematurity and uniqueness in scientific discovery”, Scientific American, December 1972, pp. 84–93
[3]    Described as the Holodomor
[4]    Holocaust Denial Timeline
[5]    Edwin Cameron, Witness to AIDS, I. B. Tauris, 2005; see book review in Journal of Scientific Exploration, 20 (2006) 436-444
[6]    Climate-change facts: Temperature is not determined by carbon dioxide
[7]    Michael Crichton,  “Aliens cause global warming”, Caltech Michelin Lecture, 17 January 2003

 

Posted in consensus, denialism, global warming, media flaws, politics and science, science is not truth, science policy, scientific culture, scientific literacy, scientism, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

 
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