Skepticism about science and medicine

In search of disinterested science

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.

———————————————————–

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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2 Responses to “Where to turn for disinterested scientific knowledge and insight?”

  1. Obviously, a lawyer should be chairing the decisions. S/he must have demonstrated genuine curiosity about errors in CONsensus. I will be too old. Disqualifying others should be easy? Testing their openness to “unaccepted” explanations for actions. Humans are obsessed by movements! Show videos of animals and supply multiple choice answers with a few known incorrect answers. A do not know response must be included in all of them. Intellectual pride is a fault!

    Like

  2. It should be international. America has an odious reputation for falsehoods. USSR produced Lysenko….
    The Nobel Committee is suspect

    Like

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