Skepticism about science and medicine

In search of disinterested science

Dangerous knowledge III: Wrong knowledge about science

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/01/29

In the first post of this series (Dangerous knowledge) I pointed to a number of specific topics on which the contemporary scientific consensus is doubtfully in tune with the actual evidence. That disjunction is ignored or judged unimportant both by most researchers and by most observers; and that, I believe, is because the fallibility of science is not common knowledge; which in turn stems from ignorance and wrong knowledge about the history of science and, more or less as a consequence, about science itself.

The conventional wisdom regards science as a thing that is characterized by the scientific method. An earlier post (Dangerous knowledge II: Wrong knowledge about the history of science) mentioned that the scientific method is not a description of how science is done, it was thought up in philosophical speculation about how science could have been so successful, most notably in the couple of centuries following the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century.

Just as damaging as misconceptions about how science is done is the wrong knowledge that science is even a thing that can be described without explicit attention to how scientific activity has changed over time, how the character of the people doing science has changed over time, most drastically since the middle of the 20th century. What has happened since then, since World War II, affords the clearest, most direct understanding of why contemporary official pronouncements about matter of science and medicine need to be treated with similar skepticism as are official pronouncements about matters of economics, say, or politics. As I wrote earlier (Politics, science, and medicine),

In a seriously oversimplified nutshell:

The circumstances of scientific activity have changed, from about pre-WWII to nowadays, from a cottage industry of voluntarily cooperating, independent, largely disinterested ivory-tower intellectual entrepreneurs in which science was free to do its own thing, namely the unfettered seeking of truth about the natural world, to a bureaucratic corporate-industry-government behemoth in which science has been pervasively co-opted by outside interests and is not free to do its own thing because of the pervasive conflicts of interest. Influences and interests outside science now control the choices of research projects and the decisions of what to publish and what not to make public.

 

For a detailed discussion of these changes in scientific activity, see Chapter 1 of Science Is Not What You Think: How It Has Changed, Why We Can’t Trust It, How It Can Be Fixed (McFarland 2017); less comprehensive descriptions are in Three Stages of Modern Science  and The Science Bubble.

Official pronouncements are not made primarily to tell the truth for the public good. Statements from politicians are often motivated by the desire to gain favorable attention, as is widely understood. But less widely understood is that official statements from government agencies are also often motivated by the desire to gain favorable attention, to make the case for the importance of the agency (and its Director and other personnel) and the need for its budget to be considered favorably. Press releases from universities and other research institutions have the same ambition. And anything from commercial enterprises is purely self-interested, of course.

The stark corollary is that no commercial or governmental entity, nor any sizable not-for-profit entity, is devoted primarily to the public good and the objective truth. Organizations with the most laudable aims, Public Citizen,  say, or the American Heart Association, etc. etc. etc., are admittedly devoted to doing good things, to serving the public good, but it is according to their own particular definition of the public good, which may not be at all the same as others’ beliefs about what is best for the public, for society as a whole.

Altogether, a useful generalization is that all corporate entities, private or governmental, commercial or non-profit, have a vested self-interest in the status quo, since that represents the circumstances of their raison d’être, their prestige, their support from particular groups in society or from society as a whole.

The hidden rub is that a vested interest in the status quo means defending things as they are, even when objective observers might note that those things need to be modified, superseded, abandoned. Examples from the past are legion and well known: in politics, say, the American involvement in Vietnam and innumerable analogous matters. But not so well known is that unwarranted defense of the status quo is also quite common on medical and scientific issues. The resistance to progress, the failure to correct mis-steps in science and medicine in any timely way, has been the subject of many books and innumerable articles; for selected bibliographies, see Critiques of Contemporary Science and Academe and What’s Wrong with Present-Day Medicine. Note that all these critiques have been effectively ignored to the present day, the flaws and dysfunctions remain as described.

Researchers who find evidence that contradicts the status quo, the established theories, learn the hard way that such facts don’t count. As noted in my above-mentioned book,  science has a love-hate relationship with the facts: they are welcomed before a theory has been established, but after that only if they corroborate the theory; contradictory facts are anathema. Yet researchers never learn that unless they themselves uncover such unwanted evidence; scientists and engineers and doctors are trained to believe that their ventures are essentially evidence-based.

Contributing to the resistance against rethinking established theory is today’s hothouse, overly competitive, rat-race research climate. It is no great exaggeration to say that researchers are so busy applying for grants and contracts and publishing that they have no time to think new thoughts.

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One Response to “Dangerous knowledge III: Wrong knowledge about science”

  1. Charles Lyell authored the “millions of years ago” that then became billions of years, as an origin date for the Earth. He had a poor basis for this. The idea was to dispell the panics that occurred every millenium. An expected “Second Coming” of a Messiah for the JudeoXianMuslim hordes is unsettling to commerce!

    The Old Testament is clearly a suspect document, but there are reasons for accepting quite a bit of what was originally recorded on metal etc of oral histories from survivors of the Expulsion and Exodus that may correspond to specific external events. But with religion, politics business and CONsensus science on evolution all involved, how to assess what is relevant?

    Like

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