Skepticism about science and medicine

In search of disinterested science

Archive for February, 2018

Where to turn for disinterested scientific knowledge and insight?

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/02/11

The “vicious cycle of wrong knowledge” illustrates the dilemma we face nowadays: Where to turn for disinterested scientific knowledge and insight?

In centuries past in the intellectual West, religious authorities had offered unquestionable truth. In many parts of the world, religious authorities or political authorities still do. But in relatively emancipated, socially and politically open societies, the dilemma is inescapable. We accept that religion doesn’t have final answers on everything about the natural world, even if we accept the value of religious teachings about how we should behave as human beings. Science, it seemed, knew what religion didn’t, about the age of the Earth, about the evolution of living things, about all sorts of physical, material things. So “science” became the place to turn for reliable knowledge. We entered the Age of Science (Knight, 1983). But we (most of us) recognize that scientific knowledge cannot be absolutely and finally true because, ultimately, it rests on experience, on induction from observations, which can never be a complete reflection of the natural world; there remain always the known unknown and the unknown unknown.

Nevertheless, for practical purposes we want to be guided by the best current understanding that science can afford. The problem becomes, how to glean the best current understanding that science can offer?

Society’s knee-jerk response is to consult the scientific community: scientific associations, lauded scientists, government agencies, scientific literature. What society hears, however, is not a disinterested analysis or filtering of what those sources say, because all of them conform to whatever the contemporary “scientific consensus” happens to be. And, as earlier discussed (Dangerous knowledge II: Wrong knowledge about the history of science), that consensus is inevitably fallible, albeit the conventional wisdom is not on guard against that, largely because of misconceptions stemming from an holistic ignorance of the history of science.

The crux of the problem is that scientific knowledge and ideas that do not conform to the scientific consensus are essentially invisible in the public sphere. In any case, society has no mechanism for ensuring that what the scientific consensus holds at any given time is the most faithful, authoritative reflection of the available evidence and its logical interpretation. That represents clear and present danger as “science” is increasingly turned to for advice on public policies, in an environment replete with claims of truth from many sides, people claiming to speak for religion or for science, or organizations claiming to do so, including sophisticated advertisements by commercial and political groups.

In less politically partisan times, Congress and the administration had the benefit of the Office of Technological Assessment (OTA), founded in 1972 to provide policy makers with advice, as objective and up-to-date as possible, about technical issues; but OTA was disbanded in 1995 for reasons of partisan politics, and no substitute has been established. Society needs badly some authoritative, disinterested, non-partisan mechanism for analyzing, filtering, and interpreting scientific claims.

The only candidate so far on offer for that task is a Science Court, apparently first mooted half a century ago by Arthur Kantrowitz (1967) in the form of an “institute for scientific judgment”, soon named by others as a Science Court (Cavicchi 1993; Field 1993; Mazur 1993; Task Force 1993). Such a Court’s sole mission would be to assess the validity of conflicting contemporary scientific and technical claims and advice.

The need for such a Court is most obvious in the context of impassioned controversy in the public arena where political and ideological interests confuse and obfuscate the purely technical points, as for instance nowadays over global warming (A politically liberal global-warming skeptic?). Accordingly, a Science Court would need complete independence, for which the best available appropriate model is the United States Supreme Court. Indeed, perhaps a Science Court could be managed and supervised by the Supreme Court.

Many knotty issue beside independence present themselves in considering how a Science Court might function: choice of judges or panels or juries; choice of issues to take on; possibilities for appealing findings. For an extended discussion of such matters, see chapter 12 of Science Is Not What You Think and further sources given there. But the salient point is this:

Society needs but lacks an authoritative, disinterested, non-partisan mechanism for adjudicating conflicting scientific advice. A Science Court seems the only conceivable possibility.

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Jon R. Cavicchi, “The Science Court: A Bibliography”, RISK — Issues in Health and Safety, 4 [1993] 171–8.

Thomas G. Field, Jr., “The Science Court Is Dead; Long Live the Science Court!” RISK — Issues in Health and Safety, 4 [1993] 95–100.

Arthur Kantrowitz, “Proposal for an Institution for Scientific Judgment”, Science,
156 [1967] 763–4.

David Knight, The Age of Science, Basil Blackwell, 1986.

Allan Mazur, “The Science Court: Reminiscence and Retrospective”, RISK — Issues in Health and Safety, 4 [1993] 161–70.

Task Force of the Presidential Advisory Group on Anticipated Advances in Science and Technology, “The Science Court Experiment: An Interim Report”, RISK — Issues in Health and Safety, 4 [1993] 179–88

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Dangerous knowledge IV: The vicious cycle of wrong knowledge

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/02/03

Peter Duesberg, universally admired scientist, cancer researcher, and leading virologist, member of the National Academy of Sciences, recipient of a seven-year Outstanding Investigator Grant from the National Institutes of Health, was astounded when the world turned against him because he pointed to the clear fact that HIV had never been proven to cause AIDS and to the strong evidence that, indeed, no retrovirus could behave in the postulated manner.

Frederick Seitz, at one time President of the National Academy of Sciences and for some time President of Rockefeller University, became similarly non grata for pointing out that parts of an official report contradicted one another about whether human activities had been proven to be the prime cause of global warming (“A major deception on global warming”, Wall Street Journal, 12 June 1996).

A group of eminent astronomers and astrophysicists (among them Halton Arp, Hermann Bondi, Amitabha Ghosh, Thomas Gold, Jayant Narlikar) had their letter pointing to flaws in Big-Bang theory rejected by Nature.

These distinguished scientists illustrate (among many other instances involving less prominent scientists) that the scientific establishment routinely refuses to acknowledge evidence that contradicts contemporary theory, even evidence proffered by previously lauded fellow members of the elite establishment.

Society’s dangerous wrong knowledge about science includes the mistaken belief that science hews earnestly to evidence and that peer review — the behavior of scientists — includes considering new evidence as it comes in.

Not so. Refusal to consider disconfirming facts has been documented on a host of topics less prominent than AIDS or global warming: prescription drugs, Alzheimer’s disease, extinction of the dinosaurs, mechanism of smell, human settlement of the Americas, the provenance of Earth’s oil deposits, the nature of ball lightning, the evidence for cold nuclear fusion, the dangers from second-hand tobacco smoke, continental-drift theory, risks from adjuvants and preservatives in vaccines, and many more topics; see for instance Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth, Jefferson (NC): McFarland 2012. And of course society’s officialdom, the conventional wisdom, the mass media, all take their cue from the scientific establishment.

The virtually universal dismissal of contradictory evidence stems from the nature of contemporary science and its role in society as the supreme arbiter of knowledge, and from the fact of widespread ignorance about the history of science, as discussed in earlier posts in this series (Dangerous knowledge; Dangerous knowledge II: Wrong knowledge about the history of science; Dangerous knowledge III: Wrong knowledge about science).

The upshot is a vicious cycle. Ignorance of history makes it seem incredible that “science” would ignore evidence, so claims to that effect on any given topic are brushed aside — because it is not known that science has ignored contrary evidence routinely. But that fact can only be recognized after noting the accumulation of individual topics on which this has happened, evidence being ignored. That’s the vicious cycle.

Wrong knowledge about science and the history of science impedes recognizing that evidence is being ignored in any given actual case. Thereby radical progress is nowadays being greatly hindered, and public policies are being misled by flawed interpretations enshrined by the scientific consensus. Society has succumbed to what President Eisenhower warned against (Farewell speech, 17 January 1961) :

in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should,
we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger
that public policy could itself become the captive
of a scientific-technological elite.

The vigorous defending of established theories and the refusal to consider contradictory evidence means that once theories have been widely enough accepted, they soon become knowledge monopolies, and support for research establishes the contemporary theory as a research cartel(“Science in the 21st Century: Knowledge Monopolies and Research Cartels”).

The presently dysfunctional circumstances have been recognized only by two quite small groups of people:

  1. Observers and critics (historians, philosophers, sociologists of science, scholars of Science & Technology Studies)
  2. Researchers whose own experiences and interests happened to cause them to come across facts that disprove generally accepted ideas — for example Duesberg, Seitz, the astronomers cited above, etc. But these researchers only recognize the unwarranted dismissal of evidence in their own specialty, not that it is a general phenomenon (see my talk, “HIV/AIDS blunder is far from unique in the annals of science and medicine” at the 2009 Oakland Conference of Rethinking AIDS; mov file can be downloaded at http://ra2009.org/program.html, but streaming from there does not work).

Such dissenting researchers find themselves progressively excluded from mainstream discourse, and that exclusion makes it increasingly unlikely that their arguments and documentation will gain attention. Moreover, frustrated by a lack of attention from mainstream entities, dissenters from a scientific consensus find themselves listened to and appreciated increasingly only by people outside the mainstream scientific community to whom the conventional wisdom also pays no attention, for instance the parapsychologists, ufologists, cryptozoologists. Such associations, and the conventional wisdom’s consequent assigning of guilt by association, then entrenches further the vicious cycle of dangerous knowledge that rests on the acceptance of contemporary scientific consensuses as not to be questioned — see chapter 2 in Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth and “Good Company and Bad Company”, pp. 118-9 in Science Is Not What You Think: How It Has Changed, Why We Can’t Trust It, How It Can Be Fixed (McFarland 2017).

Posted in conflicts of interest, consensus, denialism, funding research, global warming, media flaws, peer review, resistance to discovery, science is not truth, science policy, scientific culture, scientism, scientists are human, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

 
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