Skepticism about science and medicine

In search of disinterested science

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).

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2 Responses to “Dangerous knowledge IV: The vicious cycle of wrong knowledge”

  1. Boris Starosta said

    Though I am well persuaded that there is a long history of suppression of contradictory evidence, I wonder what the trend is, and if this trend would in and of itself be evidence of “science gone off the rails.”

    I’ve been an enthusiastic reader of lots of science news for some 30 years, mainly in astronomy but also in other fields, and I can’t help but think that things have gotten worse, denunciations of dissent more shrill and urgent. “Fake news” and “anti-science” were not concepts anyone cared about 30 years ago, were they? Or was I simply unaware of them then?

    Now I observe writers denunciate dissent in what would seem to be unlikely places, as most recently in a magazine “Computing Edge,” which would ordinarily have no interest whatsoever in the history or sociology of science. In an article about the Equifax security breach (ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/8220474/), author Hal Berghel is apparently unable to stick to his subject, unable to contain his righteous contempt, thus adding a completely irrelevant sidebar rant about anti-science “zealots” latching onto the fact that some science papers now come with THOUSANDS OF AUTHORS!

    It would be comical if it weren’t so sad: his rant lists numerous factors, all evidence that science is struggling with conflicts of interest and self-destructive, distorting incentive structures, and then concludes that these are not valid criticisms of science (without evidence, of course. Resorting simply to an argument from authority, I guess).

    It just makes me shake my head, and thank my lucky stars that I never went into science/academia professionally.

    • Henry Bauer said

      Boris:
      I think the trend is that suppression of contrary evidence is increasingly about matters of significant public, social, political importance. Science, and the authority of science, nowadays feature in just about everything, whereas up to about World War II, science was pretty much an academic, intellectual pursuit. Big Pharma is a recent (several decades) phenomenon, for example. And as science became pervasively important, it changed: scientific activity nowadays is a hot-house overly competitive rat-race. Cheating, dishonesty, fraud in scientific matters became noticeably important in the last few decades. And it’s bureaucratic and corporate.
      Berghel doesn’t realize that scientific activity has changed more or less in tandem with the societal changes he deplores. He thinks science is still like it was when it was a disinterested (relatively!) truth-seeking ivory-tower activity (see his “The new science wars”, Computer, 50 #11, 2017, 72-6). Politics does exploit and corrupt science, and that has made what “science” says — “the scientific consensus” and what official agencies say — dubiously trustworthy. He should read my latest book, Science Is Not What You Think. Of course, so should everyone!

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