Skepticism about science and medicine

In search of disinterested science

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.

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

[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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