Skepticism about science and medicine

In search of disinterested science

The misleading popular myth of science exceptionalism

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2020/12/28

Human beings are fallible; but we suppose the Pope to be infallible on spiritual matters and science to be exceptional among human endeavors as correctly, authoritatively knowledgeable about the workings of the material world. Other sources purporting to offer veritable knowledge may be fallible — folklore, history, legend, philosophy — but science can be trusted to speak the truth.

Scholars have ascribed the infallibility of science to its methodology and to the way scientists behave. Science is thought to employ the scientific method, and behavior among scientists is supposedly described by the Mertonian Norms. Those suppositions have somehow seeped into the conventional wisdom. Actually, however, contemporary scientific activity does not proceed by the scientific method, nor do scientists behave in accordance with the Mertonian Norms. Because the conventional wisdom is so wrong about how science and scientists work, public expectations about science are misplaced, and public policies and actions thought to be based on science may be misguided.

Contemporary science is unrecognizably different from the earlier centuries of modern science (commonly dated as beginning around the 16th century). The popular view was formed by those earlier times, and it has not yet absorbed how radically different the circumstances of scientific activities have become, increasingly since the middle of the 20th century.

Remarkable individuals were responsible for the striking achievements of modern science that brought science its current prestige and status; and there are still some remarkably talented people among today’s scientists. But on the whole, scientists or researchers today are much like other white-collar professionals [1: p. 79], subject to conflicts of interest and myriad annoyances and pressures from patrons and outside interests; 21st century “science” is just as interfered with and corrupted by commercial, ideological, and political forces as are other sectors of society, say education, or justice, or trade.

Modern science developed through the voluntary activities of individuals sharing the aim of understanding how Nature works. The criterion of success was that claimed knowledge be true to reality. Contemporary science by contrast is not a vocation carried on by self-supporting independent individuals; it is done by white-collar workers employed by a variety of for-profit businesses and industries and not-for-profit colleges, universities, and government agencies. Even as some number of researchers still genuinely aim to learn truths about Nature, their prime responsibility is to do what their employers demand, and that can conflict with being wholeheartedly truthful.

The scientific method and the Mertonian Norms
 do not encompass the realities of contemporary science

The myth of the scientific method has been debunked at book length [2]. It should suffice, though, just to point out that the education and training of scientists may not even include mention of the so-called scientific method.

I had experienced a bachelor’s-degree education in chemistry, a year of undergraduate research, and half-a-dozen years of graduate research leading to both a master’s degree and a doctorate before I ever heard of “the scientific method”. When I eventually did, I was doing postdoctoral research in chemistry (at the University of Michigan); and I heard of “the scientific method” not from my sponsor and mentor in the Chemistry Department but from a graduate student in political science. (Appropriately enough, because it is the social and behavioral sciences, as well as some medical doctors, who make a fetish of claiming to follow the scientific method, in the attempt to be granted as much prestige and trustworthiness as physics and chemistry enjoy.)

The scientific method would require individuals to change their beliefs readily whenever the facts seem to call for it. But everything that psychology and sociology can agree on is that it is very difficult and considerably rare for individuals or groups to modify a belief once it has become accepted. The history of science is consonant with that understanding: New and better understanding is persistently resisted by the majority consensus of the scientific community for as long as possible [3, 4]; pessimistically, in the words of Max Planck, until the proponents of the earlier belief have passed away [5]; as one might put it, science progresses one funeral at a time.

The Mertonian norms [6], too, are more myth than actuality. They are, in paraphrase:

Ø     Communality or communalism (Merton had said “communism”): Science is an activity of the whole scientific community and it is a public good — findings are shared freely and openly.
Ø      Universalism: Knowledge about the natural world is universally valid and applicable. There are no separations or distinctions by nationality, religion, race, sex, etc.
Ø      Disinterestedness: Science is done for the public good, not for personal benefit; scientists seek to be impartial, objective, unbiased, not self-serving.
Ø      Skepticism: Claims and reported findings are subject to critical appraisal and testing throughout the scientific community before they can be accepted as proper scientific knowledge.

As with the scientific method, these norms suggest that scientists behave in ways that do not come naturally to human beings. Free communal sharing of everything might perhaps have characterized human society in the days of hunting and foraging [7], but it was certainly not the norm in Western society at the time of the Scientific Revolution and the beginnings of modern science. Disinterestedness is a very strange trait to attribute to a human being, voluntarily doing something without having any personal interest in the outcome; at the very least, there is surely a strong desire that what one does should be recognized as the good and right way to do things, as laudable in some way. Skepticism is no more natural than is the ready willingness to change beliefs demanded by the scientific method.

As to universalism, that goes without saying if claimed knowledge is actually true, it has nothing to do with behavior. If some authority attempts to establish something that is not true, it just becomes a self-defeating, short-lived dead end like the Stalinist “biology” of Lysenko or the Nazi non-Jewish “Deutsche Physik” [8].

Merton wrote that the norms, the ethos of science, “can be inferred from the moral consensus of scientists as expressed in use and wont, in countless writings on the scientific spirit and in moral indignation directed toward contraventions of the ethos” [6]. That falls short of claiming to have found empirically that scientists actually behave like that for the inferred reasons.

Merton’s norms are a sociologist’s speculation that the successes of science could only have come if scientists behaved like that; just as “the scientific method” is a philosophers’ guess that true knowledge could only be arrived at if knowledge seekers proceeded like that.

More compatible with typical human behavior would be the following:

Early modern science became successful after the number of people trying to understand the workings of the natural world reached some “critical mass”, under circumstances in which they could be in fairly constant communication with one another. Those circumstances came about in the centuries following the Dark Ages in Europe. Eventually various informal groups began to meet, then more formal “academies” were established (of which the Royal Society of London is iconic as well as still in existence). Exchanges of observations and detailed information were significantly aided by the invention of inexpensive printing. Relatively informal exchanges became more formal, as Reports and Proceedings of Meetings, leading to what are now scientific journals and periodicals (some of which still bear the time-honored title of “Proceedings of . . .).

Once voluntary associations had been established among individuals whose prime motive was to understand Nature, some competition, some rivalry, and also some cooperation will have followed automatically. Everyone wanted to get it right, and to be among the first to get it right, so the criterion for success was the concurrence and approval of the others who were attempting the same thing. Open sharing was then a matter of self-interest and therefore came naturally, because one could obtain approval and credit only if one’s achievements were known to others. Skepticism was provided by those others: one had to get it right in order to be convincing. There was no need at all for anyone to be unnaturally disinterested. (This scenario is essentially the one Michael Polanyi  described by the analogy of communally putting together a jigsaw puzzle [2: pp. 42-44, passim; 9].)

Such conditions of free, voluntary interactions among individuals sharing the sole aim of understanding Nature, something like a intellectual free-market conditions, simply do not exist nowadays; few if any researchers can be self-supporting, independent, intellectual entrepreneurs, most are employees and thereby beholden to and restricted by the aims and purposes of those who hold the purse-strings.

Almost universally nowadays, the gold standard of reliability is thought to be “the peer-reviewed mainstream literature”. But it would be quite misleading to interpret peer review as the application of organized skepticism, “critical appraisal and testing throughout the scientific community”. As most productive researchers well know, peer review does not guarantee the accuracy or objectivity or honesty of what has passed peer-review. In earlier times, genuine and effective peer-review took place by the whole scientific community after full details of claimed results and discoveries had been published. Nowadays, in sharp contrast, so called peer-review is carried out by a small number of individuals chosen by journal editors to advise on whether reported claims should even be published. Practicing and publishing researchers know that contemporary so-called peer-review is riddled with bias, prejudice, ignorance and general incompetence. But even worse than the failings of peer review in decisions concerning publication is the fact that the same mechanism is used to decide what research should be carried out, and even how it should be carried out [1: pp. 106-9, passim].

Contemporary views of science, and associated expectations about science, are dangerously misplaced because of the pervasive mistaken belief that today’s scientific researchers are highly talented, exceptional individuals in the mold of Galileo, Newton, Einstein, etc.,  and that they are unlike normal human beings in being disinterested, seeking only to serve the public good, disseminating their findings freely, self-correcting by changing their theories whenever the facts call for it, and perpetually skeptical about their own beliefs.

Rather, a majority consensus nowadays exercises dogmatic hegemony, insisting on theories contrary to fact on a number of  topics, including such publicly important ones as climate-change and HIV/AIDS [10].

————————————————-

[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]    Henry H. Bauer, Scientific Literacy and Myth of the Scientific Method, University of Illinois Press, 1992;
“I would strongly recommend this book to anyone who hasn’t yet heard that the scientific method is a myth. Apparently there are still lots of those folks around”
(David L. Goodstein, Science, 256 [1992] 1034-36)
[3]    Bernard Barber, “Resistance by scientists to scientific discovery”,
 Science, 134 (1961) 596-602
[4]    Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press, 1970 (2nd ed., enlarged ; 1st ed. 1962)
[5]    Max Planck, Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers, 1949; translated from German by Frank Gaynor, Greenwood Press, 1968
[6]    Robert K. Merton, “The normative structure of science” (1942); pp. 267–78 in The Sociology of Science (ed. N. Storer, University of Chicago Press, 1973)
[7]    Christopher Ryan & Cacilda Jethá, Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, HarperCollins, 2010
[8]    Philipp Lenard, Deutsche Physik, J. F. Lehmann (Munich), 1936
[9]    Michael Polanyi, “The Republic of Science: Its political and economic theory”,
Minerva, I (1962) 54-73
[10]  Henry H. Bauer, Dogmatism  in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth, McFarland, 2012

One Response to “The misleading popular myth of science exceptionalism”

  1. Polly said

    Yes, sadly, all very true. These days people are calling themselves “pro-science” if they have unquestioning faith in medical authorities. Anyone who expresses real scientific skepticism is accused of being a conspiracy theorist.

    As you said, what gets funded and what gets published is often controlled for reasons having nothing to do with actual science. It also seems obvious to me that researchers are often paid to get the results desired by drug companies. It isn’t hard to design an under-powered experiment guaranteed to not reject the null hypothesis. And the public thinks not rejecting null means accepting null.

    There are also simple ways to deceive with statistics — reporting relative risk instead of absolute risk, for example. This was done with the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines — the drug companies reported effectiveness as 95%, when the actual risk reduction was more like 3%.

    As for scientists not learning the scientific method — I got a PhD at a state university, and classes in research methodology were NOT required. By chance, I was teacher assistant for a research methodology class — otherwise, I would not have understood things like reversed causality or third variables, etc.

    Thank you for your skepticism! I only wish there were more of it.

    Like

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