Skepticism about science and medicine

In search of disinterested science

Archive for August, 2018

21st century science:   Group-Thinking Elites and Fanatical Groupies

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/08/11

Science has been a reliable resource for official policies and actions for much of the era of modern science, which is usually regarded as having begun around the 17th century.

It is almost without precedent that a mistaken scientific consensus should lead to undesirable and damaging public actions, yet that is now the case in two instances: the belief that carbon dioxide generated by the burning of fossil fuels is primarily responsible for global warming and climate change; and the belief that HIV is the cause of AIDS.

Both those beliefs gained hegemony during the last two or three decades. That these beliefs are mistaken seems incredible to most people, in part because of the lack of any well known precedent and in part because the nature of science is widely misunderstood; in particular it is not yet widely recognized how much science has changed since the middle of the 20th century.

The circumstances of modern science that conspire to make it possible for mistaken theories to bring misguided public policies have been described in my recent book, Science Is Not What You Think [1]. The salient points are these:

Ø     Science has become dysfunctionally large

Ø     It is hyper-competitive

Ø     It is not effectively self-correcting

Ø     It is at the mercy of multiple external interests and influences.

A similar analysis was offered by Judson [2]. That title reflects the book’s opening theme of the prevalence of fraud in modern science (as well as in contemporary culture). It assigns blame to the huge expansion in the number of scientists and the crisis that the world of science faces as it finds itself in something of a steady-state so far as resources are concerned, after a period of some three centuries of largely unfitted expansion: about 80% of all the scientists who have ever lived are extant today; US federal expenditure on R&D increased 4-fold (inflation-adjusted!) from 2003 to 2002, and US industry increased its R&D spending by a factor of 26 over that period! Judson also notes the quintessential work of John Ziman explicating the significance of the change from continual expansion to what Ziman called a dynamic steady-state [3].

Remarkably enough, President Eisenhower had foreseen this possibility and warned against it in his farewell address to the nation: “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 proponents of human-caused-climate-changer theory and of HIV/AIDS theory are examples of such elites.

A crucial factor is that elites, like all other groups, may be dysfunctionally affected by the phenomenon of Groupthink.

Janis [4] showed in detail several decades ago how that phenomenon of Groupthink had produced disastrously bad policy actions by the United States. The same phenomenon of Groupthink can cause bad things to happen in other social sectors than the government. Recently, Booker [5] has shown how Groupthink has been responsible for making it a worldwide belief, a shibboleth, a cliché, that humankind’s use of fossil fuels is causing global warming and climate change through the release of carbon dioxide.

Commonly held ideas about science do not envisage the possibility that a scientific consensus could bring misguided policies and actions on a global scale. What most people know — think they know — about science is that its conclusions are based on solid evidence, and that the scientific method safeguards against getting things wrong, and that science that has been primarily responsible for civilization’s advances over the last few centuries.

Those things that most people know are also largely mistaken [1, 6]. Science is a human activity and is subject to all the frailties and fallibilities of any human activity. The scientific method and the way in which it is popularly described does not accurately portray how science is actually done.

While much of the intellectual progress in understanding how the world works does indeed stand to the credit of science, what remains to be commonly realized is that since about the middle of the 20th century, science has become too big for its own good. The huge expansion of scientific activity since the Second World War has changed science in crucial ways. The number of people engaged in scientific activity has far outstripped the available resources, leading to hyper-competition and associated sloppiness and outright dishonesty. Scientists nowadays are in no way exceptional individuals, people doing scientific work are as common as are teachers, doctors, or engineers. It is in this environment that Groupthink has become significantly and damagingly important.

Booker [5] described this in relation to the hysteria over the use of fossil fuels. A comparable situation concerns the belief that HIV is the cause of AIDS [7]. The overall similarities in these two cases are that a quite small number of researchers arrived initially at more or less tentative conclusions; but those conclusions seemed of such great import to society at large that they were immediately seized upon and broadcast by the media as breaking news. Political actors become involved, accepting those conclusions quickly became politically correct, and those who then questioned and now question the conclusions are vigorously opposed, often maligned as unscientific and motivated by non-scientific agendas.

 

At any rate, contemporary science has become a group activity rather than an activity of independent intellectual entrepreneurs, and it is in this environment that Groupthink affects the elites in any given field — the acknowledged leading researchers whose influence is entrenched by editors and administrators and other bureaucrats inside and outside the scientific community.

A concomitant phenomenon is that of fanatical groupies. Concerning both human-caused climate change and the theory that HIV causes AIDS, there are quite large social groups that have taken up the cause with fanatical vigor and that attack quite unscrupulously anyone who differs from the conventional wisdom. These groupies are chiefly people with little or no scientific background, or whose scientific ambitions are unrequited (which includes students). As with activist groups in general, groupie organizations are often supported by (and indeed often founded by) commercial or political interests. Non-profit organizations which purportedly represent patients and other concerned citizens and which campaign for funds to fight against cancer, multiple sclerosis, etc., are usually funded by Big Pharma, as are HIV/AIDS activist groups.

__________________________________

[1]  Henry H. Bauer, Science Is Not What You Think — how it has changed, why we can’t trust it, how it can be fixed, McFarland 2017

[2] Horace Freeland Judson, The Great Betrayal, Harcourt 2004

[3]  John Ziman, Prometheus Bound, Cambridge University Press 1994

[4]  I. L. Janis, Victims of Groupthink, 1972; Groupthink, 1982, Houghton Mifflin.

[5]  Christopher Booker, GLOBAL WARMING: A case study in groupthink, Global Warming Policy Foundation, Report 28; Human-caused global warming as Groupthink

[6]  Henry H. Bauer, Scientific Literacy and Myth of the Scientific Method, University of Illinois Press 1992

[7]  Henry H. Bauer, The Origin, Persistence and Failings of HIV/AIDS Theory, McFarland 2007

Advertisements

Posted in conflicts of interest, consensus, fraud in science, funding research, global warming, media flaws, science is not truth, science policy, scientific culture, scientific literacy, scientism, scientists are human, the scientific method, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Intellectual charlatanry: TED doesn’t know how to distinguish between good science and bad science

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/08/07

On the Mad in America website I came across “TED betrays its own brand by flagging nutrition talk”. After following a number of links, I was led to the guidelines that the TED organization prescribes for talks eligible to be described as “TEDx” (“TEDx is an international community that organizes TED-style events anywhere and everywhere — celebrating locally-driven ideas and elevating them to a global stage. TEDx events are produced independently of TED conferences, each event curates speakers on their own, but based on TED’s format and rules.”).

Sadly, TED’s guidelines for what constitutes good science reveal abysmal ignorance:

Claims made using scientific language should:

  • Be testable experimentally.
    That would exclude all the science that relies only on observation because experimenting is not possible: astronomy, cosmology, geology, parts of biology, almost everything to do with human beings…. String theory, which presently dominates theoretical physics, is not testable experimentally, nor is cosmology’s consensus that “the universe” originated in a Big Bang about 13 billion years ago. And so on, The theory of evolution by natural selection is not testable experimentally.
    Much of what is nowadays regarded as “accepted science” or “settled science   consists just of reasonably solid observations supporting more or less plausible inductive explanations.
  • Have been published in a peer-reviewed journal (beware… there are some dodgy journals out there that seem credible, but aren’t. For further reading, here’s an article on the topic).
    The cited article does not begin to cover this issue. Peer review is not the guarantor of reliability that it is so widely taken to be (pp. 106-9 in “Science Is Not What You Think — how it has changed, why we can’t trust it, how it can be fixed”).
    Even what is published in highly regarded, long-established, peer-reviewed journals may be quite wrong. Perhaps 90% of the primary research literature in physics later turns out to have been faulty or flawed in some way (John Ziman, “Reliable Knowledge”, Cambridge University Press, 1978, p. 40). As an editor of The Lancet (Richard Horton) once put it, “Peer review … is simply a way to collect opinions from experts in the field. Peer review tells us about the acceptability, not the credibility, of a new finding”
    .
    What peer review does very effectively is to entrench whatever the prevailing majority consensus happens to be; but the history of science is perfectly clear that any majority consensus may have a very limited useful life before it is superseded.
  • Be based on theories that are also considered credible by experts in the field.
    Thereby entrenching the possibly wrong contemporary consensus.
  • Be backed up by experiments that have generated enough data to convince other experts of its legitimacy.
    Nonsense, see detailed comments above.
  • Have proponents who are secure enough to acknowledge areas of doubt and need for further investigation.
    Proponents of a contemporary consensus are rarely so “scientific”.
  • Not fly in the face of the broad existing body of scientific knowledge.
    Again, thereby entrenching the possibly wrong contemporary consensus.
  • Be presented by a speaker who works for a university and/or has a phD [sic] or other bona fide high level scientific qualification.
    When we founded the Society for Scientific Exploration (which Wikipedia and other science-ignorant sources describe as a “fringe science” organization) it was made a requirement for full membership that applicants have a PhD or equivalent credentials. I found that rather funny, since anyone even slightly acquainted with academe or people with PhDs knows that these are absolutely no warranty of intelligence or competence or lack of kookiness.
  • Show clear respect for the scientific method and scientific thinking generally.
    “The scientific method” is a myth (“Scientific Literacy and Myth of the Scientific Method”, University of Illinois Press, 1992), and “scientific thinking” is no more easily defined than “the method” 

    Claims made using scientific language should not:

  • Be so obscure or mysterious as to be untestable
    See above re testable
  • Be considered ridiculous by credible scientists in the field
    Once more, relies on current consensus
  • Be based on experiments that can not be reproduced by others.
    For misguided views that “reproducibility” is a necessary criterion and is applied in practice, see pp. 53ff. in “Science Is Not What You Think”, book cited above
  • Be based on data that do not convincingly corroborate the experimenter’s theoretical claims.
    “Convincing” is in the eyes of the beholder
  • Come from overconfident fringe experts.
    Mainstream experts often suffer from overconfidence, and labeling someone a “fringe expert” is no easy matter
  • Use over-simplified interpretations of legitimate studies
    Simplification is a necessity in teaching and in talking to general audiences; what is “over” simplified is again in the eyes of the beholder

—————————————————————-

My detailed comments should make plain that whoever drew up these guidelines was insufficiently knowledgeable about science. That’s rather serious for an organization that says:
“Science is a big part of the TED universe, and it’s important that TEDx organizers sustain our reputation as a credible forum for sharing ideas that matter. It’s not always easy to distinguish between real science and pseudoscience…”

Indeed it isn’t, see for example Science or Pseudoscience: Magnetic Healing, Psychic Phenomena, and Other Heterodoxies (University of Illinois Press, 2001). It is likely to be impossible for an organization whose guidelines for distinguishing are ignorant rubbish, as above. And so it happened that TED “flagged” a TEDx talk about micronutrients and mental health given by a well-published PhD professor at a very respectable university:

“NOTE FROM TED: We’ve flagged this talk, which was filmed at a TEDx event, because it appears to fall outside TEDx’s curatorial guidelines. There is limited evidence to support the claims made by this speaker. Please do not look to this talk for medical advice.”

For comments on this flagging, see James Moore’s blog post “Julia Rucklidge: Nutrition, Mental Health and TED” which includes an audio of Moore’s interview with Rucklidge in which she describes the flagging (starting at about 18 minutes in the 30-minute interview).

My point here is not, however, just that the flagging was unwarranted. Anyone can learn that easily enough by checking Rucklidge’s publications and following a few other links. My point is to expose TED as practicing charlatanry, falsely claiming expertise it does not possess (“charlatan: a person falsely claiming to have a special knowledge or skill; a fraud, quack, sham, fake, impostor, hoaxer, cheat, deceiver, double-dealer, swindler, fraudster, mountebank; (informal) phony, shark, con man, con artist, scam artist, flimflammer, bunco artist, shyster, snake oil salesman; (dated) confidence man/woman”).

Not only charlatanry: sheer incompetence, and arrogant incompetence at that. Rucklidge’s TEDx talk was flagged by TED without notifying Rucklidge or the organizers of her talk. When Rucklidge learned of this, she wanted to find out the reason for the flagging — but has been unable to get any pertinent information from TED! However, TED did eventually modify the text of its flag, to:

“NOTE FROM TED: We’ve flagged this talk, which was filmed at a TEDx event, because it appears to fall outside TEDx’s curatorial guidelines. Given that the intersection of nutrition and mental health is an emerging field of study with limited conclusive evidence, please consult with a mental health professional and do not look to this talk for medical advice.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3dqXHHCc5lA)

This still impugns Rucklidge’s reputation as a legitimate, credible scientist by claiming it is “outside TEDx’s curatorial guidelines”. That is an outrage; and no less an outrage that TED flags a talk without consulting its author and its sponsor, something that decency as well as plain common sense would dictate.

The only obvious reason for anyone to object to Rucklidge’s talk and work is that she points out that presently used psychiatric drugs do not work for some significant proportion of people who need help; and so mainstream psychiatry and Big Pharma may well feel challenged. But this remains conjecture so long as TED will not explain its actions. Clearly, TED ought to be held accountable; but how?

That question is likely to become more frequent and more pressing as time goes by, because it pertains not only to TED but to an increasing number of ventures on the Internet — Facebook, Twitter, etc., the whole genre nowadays categorized as “social media”.

Perhaps a first necessary step is for the realization to become general and widespread, that “social media” includes TED, TEDx, Wikipedia, and innumerable other sites that offer all sorts of purportedly authoritative, reliable information — dictionary definitions, say — and yet have no evident credentials and are frequently anonymous, offering no contactable individual who could be held accountable for errors or for committing personal libel like that visited on Professor Rucklidge.

In her interview with Moore, Rucklidge mentions the classic case of Semmelweiss as an example of unconventional work that was wrongly disdained by contemporary mainstream experts. Unfortunately, this and the fact of many similar cases are known usually only to historians of science or medicine; for further examples see Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth).

See also my long-ago post, “TED and TEDx reinvent the wheel — and get it all wrong (or, Ignorant punditry about science and pseudo-science)”

Posted in consensus, media flaws, peer review, resistance to discovery, the scientific method, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Human-caused global warming as Groupthink

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/08/02

Carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere
is not
the overarching determinant of global temperature.

Over the life of the Earth, carbon dioxide levels have been far higher than now during Ice Ages, for example. Since the mid-19th-century Industrial Revolution, levels of carbon dioxide have increased while temperatures were cooling rather than warming during ~1880-1910 and ~1940-1970s, and they have remained relatively steady since ~1998; see sources cited in Climate-change facts: Temperature is not determined by carbon dioxide. The lack of warming since the start of the 21st century is acknowledged surreptitiously by the Royal Society of London and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in offering attempted explanations for it.

Since the evidence is quite clear, there exists a great mystery:
How has it happened that essentially the whole official world insists mistakenly that human generation of carbon dioxide is causing unnatural warming and climate change?

How could that happen in this modern era in which science is the supreme intellectual authority?

A huge literature of books, articles, pamphlets, and blogs has rehearsed the substantive flaws in the belief that human generation of carbon dioxide is causing global warming (AGW, Anthropogenic Global Warming) and climate change (ACC). There has not, however, been the same degree of analysis of how national and international institutions have come to accept this mistaken notion to the extent of making policies based on it.

Christopher Booker has now offered an explanation in GLOBAL WARMING: A case study in groupthink.

By “science” Booker here means psychology. He invokes and applies the concept of Groupthink which had been developed by psychologist Irving Janis [1, 2] several decades ago:

“Janis’s focus was on decision-making in the foreign policy arena. However, as soon as you look, you see that his ideas apply elsewhere. The climate debate is a case in point — all of the characteristic ‘rules’ of groupthink are there: warmist ideas can’t be tested against reality, and so to ensure they are upheld as the truth, they have to be elevated into a ‘consensus’ and anyone who challenges them must be crushed. These are precisely the features that Janis used to define Groupthink.”

So just as Groupthink led to the policy disasters of Pearl Harbour, the Bay of Pigs fiasco and Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam war, attempts to suppress serious debate of climate science and the policies that are being promoted as solutions are leading to irrational behaviour, costly policy blunders and corruption on an unprecedented scale. This will only end when groupthink eventually bumps up against reality.

As Booker puts it in his conclusions:

“Every South Sea Bubble ends in a crash. Every form of Groupthink eventually has its day. This is invariably what happens when human beings get carried along by the crowd, simply because they have lost the urge or ability to think for themselves” [3].

I would differ with that last comment, however. Human beings do not customarily lose the urge or ability to think for themselves, all too often they never acquired it. That ability is not genetically inherent and it has to be gained against strong odds. We humans are raised to believe what we’re taught, by parents, by teachers, and by preachers and sundry self-appointed prophets; nowadays, by intrusive media and innumerable internet sources claiming to offer reliable facts and insights. The question is not, how people can believe clearly wrong things, even absurd things: examples are everywhere of people devoutly believing things that are against logic and against tangible facts. The mystery is how some people manage, at least some of the time, to come to think for themselves by forming beliefs on the basis of evidence, thereby rejecting their earlier indoctrination [4].

Booker describes the essential characteristics of Groupthink as
Ø      A group of people come to share a particular view or belief.
Ø      They insist that their belief is shared by a ‘consensus’ of all right-minded opinion
Ø      They defend it with irrational, dismissive hostility towards anyone who disagrees.

GLOBAL WARMING: A case study in groupthink shows rather convincingly how these factors played out in the rise and subsequent hegemony of AGW belief.

This historical analysis is invaluable in revealing the specific actions of specific actors that led initially to AGW belief among a group of scientists. That belief was congenial to various groups, outside the scientific community (notably environment al activists) whose internal consensuses then in turn also display the characteristic features of Groupthink.

Beliefs come in a very wide range of degrees of intensity. Human groups display conformity in matters small and large, sometimes to the degree of unanimity, and Groupthink is intellectual conformity that demands unanimity within the group.
Over AGW, this demand for unanimity is displayed in actions as well as words, in the conviction of being right and the hostility towards disbelievers, as when the latter are referred to as ignoramuses (“Flat-Earthers” is a common epithet) or as “denialists”, harking to the morally despicable genre of Holocaust deniers.

It has not often enough been remarked, how extraordinary it is that disagreements between scientists reach the level of hostility of charging fellow scientists not just with being ridiculously wrong but also with being as morally despicable as Holocaust deniers. And it also goes against the conventional wisdom about science to suggest that Groupthink exists in the scientific community. Popularly, scientists are regarded as strikingly individual, whether it be in a laudable way (Galileo, Darwin, Einstein) or the opposite (Dr. Frankenstein and other mad or evil scientists [5]). The conventional wisdom has not yet grasped just how drastically different today’s science is from its popular image; that was formed by the earlier centuries of modern (since ~17th century) and has not digested the enormous changes since about World War II [6]. Science nowadays is by and large a group activity. That is not to deny that scientists see themselves as individuals, but they are also to varying degrees subject to group influences. Chemists (say) not only do individual work toward a particular goal, they are aware of and accommodate in various ways the other chemists 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, of having a professional as well as personal interest in the prestige and status of science in the wider society.

The most intense group feeling of course concerns whatever the immediate research project is, since that determines professional career status, prestige, future prospects. If it were to turn out that AGW is wrong, that human generation of carbon dioxide is not causing global warming and climate change, this would be devastating for the careers of current proponents of AGW, and for their institutions. Little wonder, then, that the dogma of AGW is defended with such determination.

Intense competitiveness in science and its sad consequences became significant only since the second or third quarter of the 20th century, so AGW is something of a new phenomenon, international acceptance of a mistaken scientific consensus. There is one other instance already, though, which also took hold in the last couple of decades of the 20th century: the theory that HIV causes AIDS. That is distinctly contrary to copious evidence (The Case against HIV) yet it is propounded and defended so determinedly that it is simply inconceivable that official bodies would ever come to acknowledge that the theory is wrong (OFFICIAL!   HIV does not cause AIDS!).

 

It is a sad fact
that in the era of Fake (Political) News,
there has also come into being
Fake Scientific Consensuses.

 

———————————————–

[1]  I. L. Janis, Victims of Groupthink, 1972; Groupthink, 1982, Houghton Mifflin.

[2]  Paul’t Hart, “Irving L. Janis’ Victims of Groupthink”, Political Psychology, 12 (1991) 247-78.

[3]  NEW STUDY: CLIMATE GROUPTHINK LEADS TO A DEAD END.

[4]  See “Motives for Believing”, chapter 11 in Beyond Velikovsky: The History of a Public Controversy, University of Illinois Press 1984/1999.

[5]  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.

[6]  Science Is Not What You Think — how it has changed, why we can’t trust it, how it can be fixed (McFarland, 2017), chapter 1.

 

Posted in consensus, global warming, media flaws, politics and science, science is not truth, science policy, scientific culture, scientists are human, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

 
%d bloggers like this: