Skepticism about science and medicine

In search of disinterested science

The Case for a Science Court

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2019/01/24

I mentioned the concept of a Science Court in a previous post on this blog: “Who guards the guardians? Who guards science?”

and I’ve mentioned it in a number of other places as well. Sometimes those mentions have brought comments on a variety of blogs. Some raised objections to the idea, unfortunately most commonly individuals who have not read my full discussion of the concept, which comprises the 20 pages of chapter 12 in my latest book, “Science Is Not What You Think”  (see reviews of it).

Obviously I cannot reproduce here the 20 pages of that book chapter. Here are the salient points:

Ø     Nowadays, science is almost universally taken as the ultimate authority on knowledge about the natural world

Ø     Media, pundits, policymakers, and governments accept as reliable knowledge what science says

Ø     “What science says” is taken to be the contemporary “scientific consensus”, the mainstream view, the view held by the contemporary elite group of experts on the given topic

Ø     The history of science is unequivocal, that any given contemporary scientific consensus has been quite often significantly mistaken

Ø     History also records that contemporary experts who dissented from the scientific consensus sometimes — though by no means always — turn out to have been closer to the truth and then the consensus was

Ø     Society at large, and policymakers in particular, would benefit from an impartial independent assessment of the evidence respectively for and against the contemporary consensus. The aim of a Science Court would be precisely to facilitate such an impartial independent assessment.

The need for such an institution is nowadays quite pressing because on a whole host of topics there is no substantive, open, public, debate between proponents and challengers of the contemporary consensus. Many of those topics are of little or no immediate practical public significance, say, what the mechanism is of the sense of smell, or what caused the extinction of dinosaurs, or some other matters discussed in my earlier book, Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth (2012) .

However, there are also some topics of prime human, social, political importance on which informed and qualified experts have offered strong evidence that the contemporary consensus is dangerously flawed: HIV/AIDS, human-caused global warming and climate change, the role of prescription drugs in preventive medicine. On those, the popular media illustrate well enough that official institutions accept the scientific consensus and dismiss all challenges as “denialism”, no matter how eminent are the challengers. Something like a Science Court would seem to be the only conceivable mechanism by which the consensus could be forced to confront openly and substantively the challenges to its hegemonic, dogmatically held, view.

In my chapter-length discussion, I consider also the following:

Ø     The formal structure, sponsorship, authority and powers of the Science Court

Ø     Staffing of the Court: permanent and also ad hoc as appropriate to each specific topic

Ø     The choice of advocates for and against, on each particular topic

Ø     The choice of which issues are to be considered by the Court

My chapter discusses the benefits the Science Court would bring on questions concerning prescription drugs, climate change, and HIV/AIDS. It also describes the history of the concept of a Science Court, which dates back half a century to qualms about the potential safety of generating power in nuclear reactors, when equally qualified experts were arguing both sides of the issue. In more recent times, several legal scholars have argued that a specifically Science Court would be of considerable benefit to the judicial system in general and as a whole, since that system is called on increasingly to decide cases in which central questions involve scientific evidence and the qualifications of expert witnesses.

The pressing need for a Science Court nowadays arises because the scientific consensus cannot be relied upon to deliver the benefits that “science” supposedly brings, namely, the best available impartial, objective, unbiased assessment of what is actually known, what “science” has established.

Science did indeed bring those benefits for the first several centuries of what is generally called “modern science”, beginning around the 16th/17th centuries or so with the Reformation and the subsequent Enlightenment. What has not yet been widely enough recognized is how different scientific activity is since the middle of the 20th century, by comparison with those earlier centuries of modern science. Those differences are described in considerable detail in chapter 1 of my recent book; in a nutshell:

The circumstances of scientific activity have changed, from about pre-WWII to nowadays, from a cottage industry of voluntarily cooperating, independent, largely disinterested ivory-tower intellectual entrepreneurs, where science was free to do its own thing, namely the unfettered seeking of truth about the natural world; to nowadays a bureaucratic corporate-industry-government behemoth in which science has been pervasively co-opted by outside interests and is not free to do its own thing because of the omnipresent conflicts of interest. Influences and interests outside science now control the choices of research projects and the decisions of what to publish and what not to make public.

Aspects of that change were noted by John Burnham in his book, How Superstition Won and Science Lost (1987), and by Jacques Barzun in his magisterial From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life (2000).

Science nowadays plays much the same societal role as the Roman Catholic Church did in Western Civilization before the Reformation and the Enlightenment. The Church had become corrupted through bureaucracy and self-interest and the dysfunctions that arise inevitably as a result of human failings when an activity becomes too big and too powerful. It became obvious that the Church’s policies and actions had grown seriously at variance with its founding ideals. The Reformation and the Enlightenment brought and demonstrated the benefits of empirical, rational, evidence-based, pragmatism in the search for reliable understanding, by contrast to taking for granted what the authorities said.

Today’s scientific activity has become similarly dysfunctional through growing too big and too influential; something like a Science Court is needed to bring society the benefits of empirical, rational, evidence-based, pragmatism in the search for reliable insights.

 

Please note that I am far from alone in noting the dysfunctions of contemporary science and medicine: consider the many books, articles, and reports listed in these bibliographies:
http://henryhbauer.homestead.com/CRITIQUES_OF_CONTEMPORARY_SCIENCE_AND_MEDICINE.pdf
http://henryhbauer.homestead.com/WhatIsWrongWithMedicine.pdf

2 Responses to “The Case for a Science Court”

  1. Vortex said

    The proposal is very good overall, yet one big question about the potential Science Court – and the harshest problem that it would face if actually installed one day – is how to make the proponents of the mainstream / “consensus” view to participate in its proceedings. They are most likely to refuse to debate (as they are actually doing now), insisting that no “legitimate” debate exists already and that their participation will “give undue credit to the science denial” (or “pseudoscience”, or “superstition”, or “conspiracy theories”, or “populism” etc.).

    What are potential ways to prevent such avoidance of the real debate by the dominant position proponents?

    Like

    • Vortex:

      P. 210 of my book:
      “Strong subpoena powers are essential since some of the researchers who
      have expressed strong opinions but have failed to engage other viewpoints would not willingly subject themselves to open debate that includes cross-examinations and revealing of research data….
      need to be forced into engaging publicly on issues that they have
      insisted are uncontroversial settled science; they would be forced into engaging publicly on an apparently equal footing with individuals and groups that they had earlier described as incompetent or worse.”
      P. 215 of my book:
      “Challenging a Mainstream Consensus
      This book argues that policies based on the prevailing scientific con-
      sensus are sometimes misguided. To adjudicate such a challenge, the Science Court would have to accept for adjudication issues proposed by minority groups of experts, to the displeasure of the range of professional organizations whose members are overwhelmingly vested in the consensus, and to the discomfort of the private and governmental groups that have supported research in line with the prevailing consensus. Is that conceivable? Can a government-established institution be impartial toward anti–Establishment challenges?
      Yes, at least sometimes. Thus the government was able to pass laws
      designed to protect whistleblowers, and experts who dissent from a scientific consensus are blowing a whistle. Further, there are even precedents for supporting within official mainstream institutions some research that goes against the prevailing consensus.
      One such program is in the National Institutes of Health: the National
      Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH)….

      A second example is in the Defense Department: the Defense Advanced
      Research Projects Agency ….

      Perhaps then a truly independent Science Court could agree to look into claims by scientists who charge that a particular mainstream consensus
      is questionable and is causing misuse of public funds.”

      Like

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