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Dangerous knowledge IV: The vicious cycle of wrong knowledge

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/02/03

Peter Duesberg, universally admired scientist, cancer researcher, and leading virologist, member of the National Academy of Sciences, recipient of a seven-year Outstanding Investigator Grant from the National Institutes of Health, was astounded when the world turned against him because he pointed to the clear fact that HIV had never been proven to cause AIDS and to the strong evidence that, indeed, no retrovirus could behave in the postulated manner.

Frederick Seitz, at one time President of the National Academy of Sciences and for some time President of Rockefeller University, became similarly non grata for pointing out that parts of an official report contradicted one another about whether human activities had been proven to be the prime cause of global warming (“A major deception on global warming”, Wall Street Journal, 12 June 1996).

A group of eminent astronomers and astrophysicists (among them Halton Arp, Hermann Bondi, Amitabha Ghosh, Thomas Gold, Jayant Narlikar) had their letter pointing to flaws in Big-Bang theory rejected by Nature.

These distinguished scientists illustrate (among many other instances involving less prominent scientists) that the scientific establishment routinely refuses to acknowledge evidence that contradicts contemporary theory, even evidence proffered by previously lauded fellow members of the elite establishment.

Society’s dangerous wrong knowledge about science includes the mistaken belief that science hews earnestly to evidence and that peer review — the behavior of scientists — includes considering new evidence as it comes in.

Not so. Refusal to consider disconfirming facts has been documented on a host of topics less prominent than AIDS or global warming: prescription drugs, Alzheimer’s disease, extinction of the dinosaurs, mechanism of smell, human settlement of the Americas, the provenance of Earth’s oil deposits, the nature of ball lightning, the evidence for cold nuclear fusion, the dangers from second-hand tobacco smoke, continental-drift theory, risks from adjuvants and preservatives in vaccines, and many more topics; see for instance Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth, Jefferson (NC): McFarland 2012. And of course society’s officialdom, the conventional wisdom, the mass media, all take their cue from the scientific establishment.

The virtually universal dismissal of contradictory evidence stems from the nature of contemporary science and its role in society as the supreme arbiter of knowledge, and from the fact of widespread ignorance about the history of science, as discussed in earlier posts in this series (Dangerous knowledge; Dangerous knowledge II: Wrong knowledge about the history of science; Dangerous knowledge III: Wrong knowledge about science).

The upshot is a vicious cycle. Ignorance of history makes it seem incredible that “science” would ignore evidence, so claims to that effect on any given topic are brushed aside — because it is not known that science has ignored contrary evidence routinely. But that fact can only be recognized after noting the accumulation of individual topics on which this has happened, evidence being ignored. That’s the vicious cycle.

Wrong knowledge about science and the history of science impedes recognizing that evidence is being ignored in any given actual case. Thereby radical progress is nowadays being greatly hindered, and public policies are being misled by flawed interpretations enshrined by the scientific consensus. Society has succumbed to what President Eisenhower warned against (Farewell speech, 17 January 1961) :

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 vigorous defending of established theories and the refusal to consider contradictory evidence means that once theories have been widely enough accepted, they soon become knowledge monopolies, and support for research establishes the contemporary theory as a research cartel(“Science in the 21st Century: Knowledge Monopolies and Research Cartels”).

The presently dysfunctional circumstances have been recognized only by two quite small groups of people:

  1. Observers and critics (historians, philosophers, sociologists of science, scholars of Science & Technology Studies)
  2. Researchers whose own experiences and interests happened to cause them to come across facts that disprove generally accepted ideas — for example Duesberg, Seitz, the astronomers cited above, etc. But these researchers only recognize the unwarranted dismissal of evidence in their own specialty, not that it is a general phenomenon (see my talk, “HIV/AIDS blunder is far from unique in the annals of science and medicine” at the 2009 Oakland Conference of Rethinking AIDS; mov file can be downloaded at http://ra2009.org/program.html, but streaming from there does not work).

Such dissenting researchers find themselves progressively excluded from mainstream discourse, and that exclusion makes it increasingly unlikely that their arguments and documentation will gain attention. Moreover, frustrated by a lack of attention from mainstream entities, dissenters from a scientific consensus find themselves listened to and appreciated increasingly only by people outside the mainstream scientific community to whom the conventional wisdom also pays no attention, for instance the parapsychologists, ufologists, cryptozoologists. Such associations, and the conventional wisdom’s consequent assigning of guilt by association, then entrenches further the vicious cycle of dangerous knowledge that rests on the acceptance of contemporary scientific consensuses as not to be questioned — see chapter 2 in Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth and “Good Company and Bad Company”, pp. 118-9 in Science Is Not What You Think: How It Has Changed, Why We Can’t Trust It, How It Can Be Fixed (McFarland 2017).

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Posted in conflicts of interest, consensus, denialism, funding research, global warming, media flaws, peer review, resistance to discovery, science is not truth, science policy, scientific culture, scientism, scientists are human, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Dangerous knowledge III: Wrong knowledge about science

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/01/29

In the first post of this series (Dangerous knowledge) I pointed to a number of specific topics on which the contemporary scientific consensus is doubtfully in tune with the actual evidence. That disjunction is ignored or judged unimportant both by most researchers and by most observers; and that, I believe, is because the fallibility of science is not common knowledge; which in turn stems from ignorance and wrong knowledge about the history of science and, more or less as a consequence, about science itself.

The conventional wisdom regards science as a thing that is characterized by the scientific method. An earlier post (Dangerous knowledge II: Wrong knowledge about the history of science) mentioned that the scientific method is not a description of how science is done, it was thought up in philosophical speculation about how science could have been so successful, most notably in the couple of centuries following the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century.

Just as damaging as misconceptions about how science is done is the wrong knowledge that science is even a thing that can be described without explicit attention to how scientific activity has changed over time, how the character of the people doing science has changed over time, most drastically since the middle of the 20th century. What has happened since then, since World War II, affords the clearest, most direct understanding of why contemporary official pronouncements about matter of science and medicine need to be treated with similar skepticism as are official pronouncements about matters of economics, say, or politics. As I wrote earlier (Politics, science, and medicine),

In a seriously oversimplified 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 in which science was free to do its own thing, namely the unfettered seeking of truth about the natural world, to 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 pervasive 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.

 

For a detailed discussion of these changes in scientific activity, see Chapter 1 of Science Is Not What You Think: How It Has Changed, Why We Can’t Trust It, How It Can Be Fixed (McFarland 2017); less comprehensive descriptions are in Three Stages of Modern Science  and The Science Bubble.

Official pronouncements are not made primarily to tell the truth for the public good. Statements from politicians are often motivated by the desire to gain favorable attention, as is widely understood. But less widely understood is that official statements from government agencies are also often motivated by the desire to gain favorable attention, to make the case for the importance of the agency (and its Director and other personnel) and the need for its budget to be considered favorably. Press releases from universities and other research institutions have the same ambition. And anything from commercial enterprises is purely self-interested, of course.

The stark corollary is that no commercial or governmental entity, nor any sizable not-for-profit entity, is devoted primarily to the public good and the objective truth. Organizations with the most laudable aims, Public Citizen,  say, or the American Heart Association, etc. etc. etc., are admittedly devoted to doing good things, to serving the public good, but it is according to their own particular definition of the public good, which may not be at all the same as others’ beliefs about what is best for the public, for society as a whole.

Altogether, a useful generalization is that all corporate entities, private or governmental, commercial or non-profit, have a vested self-interest in the status quo, since that represents the circumstances of their raison d’être, their prestige, their support from particular groups in society or from society as a whole.

The hidden rub is that a vested interest in the status quo means defending things as they are, even when objective observers might note that those things need to be modified, superseded, abandoned. Examples from the past are legion and well known: in politics, say, the American involvement in Vietnam and innumerable analogous matters. But not so well known is that unwarranted defense of the status quo is also quite common on medical and scientific issues. The resistance to progress, the failure to correct mis-steps in science and medicine in any timely way, has been the subject of many books and innumerable articles; for selected bibliographies, see Critiques of Contemporary Science and Academe and What’s Wrong with Present-Day Medicine. Note that all these critiques have been effectively ignored to the present day, the flaws and dysfunctions remain as described.

Researchers who find evidence that contradicts the status quo, the established theories, learn the hard way that such facts don’t count. As noted in my above-mentioned book,  science has a love-hate relationship with the facts: they are welcomed before a theory has been established, but after that only if they corroborate the theory; contradictory facts are anathema. Yet researchers never learn that unless they themselves uncover such unwanted evidence; scientists and engineers and doctors are trained to believe that their ventures are essentially evidence-based.

Contributing to the resistance against rethinking established theory is today’s hothouse, overly competitive, rat-race research climate. It is no great exaggeration to say that researchers are so busy applying for grants and contracts and publishing that they have no time to think new thoughts.

Posted in conflicts of interest, consensus, medical practices, peer review, resistance to discovery, science is not truth, scientists are human, the scientific method, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Politics, science, and medicine

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2017/12/31

I recently posted a blog about President Trump firing members of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS in which I concluded with
”Above all, the sad and bitter fact is that truth-seeking does not have a political constituency, be it about HIV, AIDS, or anything else”.

That sad state of affairs, the fragile foothold that demonstrable truth has in contemporary society, is owing to a number of factors, including that “Science is broken” and the effective hegemony of political correctness (Can truth prevail?).

A consequence is that public policies are misguided about at least two issues of significant social impact: HIV/AIDS (The Case against HIV), and human-caused global warming (A politically liberal global-warming skeptic?).

Science and medicine are characterized nowadays on quite a number of matters by dogmatic adherence to views that run counter to the undisputed evidence (Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth, McFarland, 2012). To cite just one absurdity (on a matter that has no significant public impact): in cosmology, the prevailing Big-Bang theory of the universe requires that “dark matter” and “dark energy” make up most of the universe, the “dark” signifying that they have never been directly observed; and there are no credible suggestions for how they might be observed directly, and nothing is known about them except that their postulated influences are needed to make Big-Bang theory comport to the facts of the real world. Moreover, a less obviously flawed theory has been available for decades, the “steady-state” theory that envisages continual creation of new matter, observational evidence for which was collected and published by Halton Arp (Qasars, Redshifts and Controversies, Interstellar Media, 1987; Seeing Red: Redshifts, Cosmology and Academic Science, Apeiron, 1998).

Dozens of books have documented what is wrong with contemporary medicine, science, and academe:
Critiques of contemporary science and academe;
What’s wrong with present-day medicine.

The common feature of all the flaws is the failure to respect the purported protocols of “the scientific method”, namely, to test hypotheses against reality and to keep testing theories against reality as new evidence comes in.

Some political commentators have described our world as “post-truth”, and a variety of social commentators have held forth for decades about a “post-modern” world. But the circumstances are not so much “post-truth” or “post-modern” as pre-Enlightenment.

So far as we know and guess, humans accepted as truth the dogmatic pronouncements of elders, shamans, priests, kings, emperors and the like until, perhaps half a millennium ago, the recourse to observable evidence began to supersede acceptance of top-down dogmatic authority. Luther set in motion the process of taking seriously what the Scriptures actually say instead of accepting interpretations from on high. The religious (Christian only) Reformation was followed by the European Enlightenment; the whittling away of political power from traditional rulers; the French Revolution; the Scientific Revolution. By and large, it became accepted, gradually, that truth is to be found by empirical means, that explanations should deal with the observed natural world, that beliefs should be tested against tangible reality.

Science, in its post-17th-century manifestation as “modern science”, came to be equated with tested truth. Stunning advances in understanding confirmed science’s ability to learn accurately about the workings of nature. Phenomena of physics and of astronomy came to be understood; then chemistry; then sub-atomic structure, relativity, quantum mechanics, biochemistry … how could the power of science be disputed?

So it has been shocking, not fully digested by any means, that “science” has become untrustworthy, as shown in the last few decades by, for instance, increasing episodes of dishonesty, fraud, unreproducible claims.

Not yet widely realized is the sea change that has overtaken science since about the middle of the 20th century, the time of World War II. It’s not the scientific method that determines science, it’s the people who are doing the research and interpreting it and using it; and the human activity of doing science has changed out of sight since the early days of modern science. In a seriously oversimplified 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 in which science was free to do its own thing, namely the unfettered seeking of truth about the natural world, to 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 pervasive 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.

What science is purported to say is determined by people; actions based on what science supposedly says are chosen by people; so nowadays it is political and social forces that determine beliefs about what science says. Thus politically left-leaning people and groups acknowledge no doubt that HIV causes AIDS and that human generation of carbon dioxide is the prime forcer of climate change; whereas politically right-leaning people and groups express doubts or refuse flatly to believe those things.

For more detailed discussion of how the circumstances of science have changed, see “Three stages of modern science”; “The science bubble”; and chapter 1 in Science Is Not What You Think: How It Has Changed, Why We Can’t Trust It, How It Can Be Fixed (McFarland 2017).

For how to make science a public good again, to make science truly reflect evidence rather than being determined by political or religious ideology, see chapter 12 in Science Is Not What You Think: How It Has Changed, Why We Can’t Trust It, How It Can Be Fixed (McFarland 2017).

Posted in conflicts of interest, fraud in medicine, fraud in science, global warming, politics and science, science is not truth, science policy, scientists are human, the scientific method, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Science is broken: Illustrations from Retraction Watch

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2017/12/21

I commented before about Science is broken: Perverse incentives and the misuse of quantitative metrics have undermined the integrity of scientific research.  The magazine The Scientist published on 18 December “Top 10 Retractions of 2017 —
Making the list: a journal breaks a retraction record, Nobel laureates Do the Right Thing, and Seinfeld characters write a paper”, compiled by Retraction Watch. It should be widely read and digested for an understanding of the jungle of unreliable stuff nowadays put out under the rubric of “science”.

See also “Has all academic publishing become predatory? Or just useless? Or just vanity publishing?”

 

Posted in conflicts of interest, fraud in medicine, fraud in science, media flaws, science is not truth, scientific culture, scientists are human | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Blood pressure: Official guidelines make no sense

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2017/11/28

These guidelines make no sense because

  1. BP increases normally with age, as known for more than half a century; yet guidelines for what is said to be “normal” and what is called “hypertension” ignore the correlation with age.
  2. The guidelines are not based on pertinent data because the dependence on age is not properly taken into account.

It’s no wonder, then, that the guidelines were changed in one way in 2013 and in the opposite way just four years later.

At the end of 2013, the most authoritative recommendations for managing blood pressure stated that “There is strong evidence to support treating hypertensive persons aged 60 years or older to a BP goal of less than 150/90 mmHg and hypertensive persons 30 through 59 years of age to a diastolic goal of less than 90 mmHg; however, there is insufficient evidence in hypertensive persons younger than 60 years for a systolic goal, or in those younger than 30 years for a diastolic goal, so the panel recommends a BP of less than 140/90 mmHg for those groups based on expert opinion” [emphases added].

Note first that the criterion for describing someone as “hypertensive” is based on insufficient evidence, which has not prevented modern medicine from being quite dogmatic about calling people of any age hypertensive when their BP exceeds what is the common average in healthy 30-40-year-olds, namely about 140/90.

Then note that the goal of ≤150 systolic not as low as what had been recommended dogmatically for the previous three decades or more.

And then contemplate how to value “expert opinion” that is based on insufficient evidence.

In “Don’t take a pill if you’re not ill”  I made a point I’ve not seen elsewhere: population-average numbers for blood sugar, cholesterol, and BP are taken as the desirable upper limits and medication is administered to lower everyone’s numbers to those levels; yet no consideration is given to raising the numbers if they are lower than the average, even as there is evidence that, for example, higher cholesterol is good for older people since it is associated with lower mortality (1, 2). If the population average is more desirable than higher numbers, why aren’t the averages regarded as better than lower numbers as well?

In “Everyone is sick?” I cited the Institute of Medicine finding that measures like (and including) BP are not symptoms of illness even as they are treated as such; discussed further re BP in “‘Hypertension’: An illness that isn’t illness”.

“60 MINUTES on aging — correlations or causes?” cited the finding that mini-strokes in older people were less frequent with higher blood pressure, the very opposite of the official dogma.

So now in 2017 the guidelines call for significantly lower BP than the 2013-14 set, namely “normal (<120/80 mmHg), elevated (120-129/<80 mmHg), stage 1 hypertension (130-139/80-89 mmHg), or stage 2 hypertension(³140/90 mmHg)”; though it is conceded that this is merely a “strong recommendation” based on “moderate-quality evidence” (3).

Defining hypertension as ≥130 makes it likely that some of this “moderate-quality” evidence came from the SPRINT trial, which concluded (4) that “Among patients at high risk for cardiovascular events but without diabetes, targeting a systolic blood pressure of less than 120 mm Hg, as compared with less than 140 mm Hg, resulted in lower rates of fatal and nonfatal major cardiovascular events and death from any cause, although significantly higher rates of some adverse events were observed in the intensive-treatment group” [emphasis added].

There is here a conundrum: How could there be lower rates of “fatal and nonfatal major cardiovascular events” when Table S5 in the Supplementary Appendix reports only 118 “Serious Adverse Events and Conditions of Interest Classified as Possibly or Definitely Related to the Intervention” under standard treatment (to ≤140) by contrast to 220 under the intensive treatment? With the latter confirming “significantly higher rates of some adverse events were observed in the intensive-treatment group”?

At any rate, all these data are incapable of delivering a meaningful answer about possible risks posed by high BP. Since BP increases with age, the only way to detect its possible risk would be to monitor the health and mortality rates of cohorts of people of the same age, and this is not the case in the SPRINT Trial.

There are plenty of other reasons to be wary of the SPRINT study. The Supplementary Appendix asserts that “All components of the SPRINT study protocol were designed and implemented by the investigators. The investigative team collected, analyzed, and interpreted the data. All aspects of manuscript writing and revision were carried out by the coauthors. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors”. But which ones exactly? There are 6 pages of names; there were 102 clinical sites; a trial coordinating center and centers for MRI reading and electrocardiography reading; an independent data and safety monitoring board; institutional review boards at each clinical site; and a steering committee (13 members) and a writing committee (members not detailed in the Appendix).

When everyone is responsible, then in practice no one is responsible.

Rhetorical questions:

Ø      Who conceived the idea of testing more stringent criteria than formerly for controlling BP?

Ø      What data stimulated that idea, given that the 2013 guidelines cited above revealed a lack of evidence for a systolic goal in persons younger than 60?

Ø      Why are there no statements about conflicts of interest? Biomedical research requires funding. Research articles typically list potential conflicts of interest, and it is well known that most biomedical scientists have some sort of consulting or other relationship with drug companies. Here the only possible clue lies in the Acknowledgments: “The SPRINT investigators acknowledge the contribution of study medications (azilsartan and azilsartan combined with chlorthalidone) from Takeda Pharmaceuticals International, Inc.”

The official BP guidelines make no sense because

  1. BP increases normally with age, as known for more than half a century; yet guidelines for what is said to be “normal” ignore the correlation with age.
  2. The guidelines are not based on pertinent data but on admittedly “moderate-quality” evidence; that is actually of much lower quality than that because it does not offer age-specific information.

**************************************************************************

  1. Schatz et al., “Cholesterol and all-cause mortality in elderly people from the Honolulu Heart Program: a cohort study”, Lancet, 358 (2001) 351-5.
  2. Chapter 3 in Joel M. Kaufmann, Malignant Medical Myths, Infinity Publishing, 2006; ISBN 0-7414-2909-8.
  3. Adam S. Cifu & Andrew M. Davis, “JAMA Clinical Guidelines Synopsis: Prevention, detection, evaluation, and management of high blood pressure in adults”, JAMA; published online 20 November 2017; Clinical Review & Education, E1-3.
  4. The SPRINT Research Group, “A randomized trial of intensive versus standard blood-pressure control”, New England Journal of Medicine, 373 (2015) 2103-16.

 

Posted in conflicts of interest, medical practices, prescription drugs, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Science is broken

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2017/11/21

Science is broken: Perverse incentives and the misuse of quantitative metrics have undermined the integrity of scientific research is the full title of an article published in the on-line journal AEON . I learned of it through a friend who was interested in part because the authors are at the university from which I retired some 17 years ago.

The article focuses on the demands on researchers to get grants and publish, and that their achievements are assessed quantitatively rather than qualitatively, through computerized scoring of such things as Journal Impact Factor and numbers of citations of an individual’s work.

I agree that those things are factors in what has gone wrong, but there are others as well.

The AEON piece is an abbreviated version of the full article in Environmental Engineering Science (34 [2017] 51-61; DOI: 10.1089/ees.2016.0223). I found it intriguing that the literature cited in it overlaps very little with the literature with which I’ve been familiar. That illustrates how over-specialized academe has become, and with that the intellectual life of society as a whole. There is no longer a “natural philosophy” that strives to integrate knowledge across the board, from all fields and specializations; and there are not the polymath public intellectuals who could guide society through the jungle of ultra-specialization. So it is possible, as in this case of “science is broken”, for different folk to reach essentially the same conclusion by extrapolating from quite different sets of sources and quite independently of one another.

I would add more factors, or perhaps context, to what Edwards and Roy emphasized:

The character of research activity has changed out of sight since the era or “modern science” began; for example, the number of wannabe “research universities” in the USA has tripled or quadrupled since WWII — see “Three stages of modern science”; “The science bubble”; chapter 1 in Science Is Not What You Think [McFarland 2017].

This historical context shows how the perverse incentives noted by Edwards and Roy came about. Honesty and integrity, dedication to truth-seeking above all, were notable aspects of scientific activity when research was something of an ivory-tower avocation; nowadays research is so integrated with government and industry that researchers face much the same difficulties as professionals who seek to practice honesty and integrity while working in the political realm or the financial realm: the system makes conflicts of interest, institutional as well as personal, inevitable. John Ziman (Prometheus Bound, Cambridge University Press) pointed out how the norms of scientific practice nowadays differ from those traditionally associated with science “in the good old days” (the “Mertonian” norms of communality, universality, disinterestedness, skepticism).

My special interest has long been in the role of unorthodoxies and minority views in the development of science. The mainstream, the scientific consensus, has always resisted drastic change (Barber, “Resistance by scientists to scientific discovery”, Science, 134 [1961] 596–602), but nowadays that resistance can amount to suppression; see “Science in the 21st century”; Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth [McFarland, 2012]). Radical dissent from mainstream views is nowadays expressed openly almost only by long-tenured full professors or by retired people.

I’m in sympathy with the suggestions at the end of the formal Edwards and Roy paper, but I doubt that even those could really fix things since the problem is so thoroughgoingly systemic. Many institutions and people are vested in the status quo. Thus PhD programs will not change in the desired direction so long as the mentoring faculty are under pressure to produce more publications and grants, which leads to treating graduate students as cheap hired hands pushing the mentor’s research program instead of designing PhD research as optimum for neophytes to learn to do independent research. The drive for institutional prestige and status and rankings seems the same among university leaders, and they seek those not by excelling in “higher education” but by winning at football and basketball and by getting and spending lots of grant money on “research”. How to change that obsession with numbers: dollars for research, games won in sports?

That attitude is not unique to science or to academe. In society as a whole there has been increasing pressure to find “objective” criteria to avoid the biases inherent inevitably in human judgments. Society judges academe by numbers — of students, of research expenditures, of patents, of magnitude of endowment , etc. — and we compare nations by GDP rather than level of satisfaction among the citizens. In schools we create “objective” and preferably quantifiable criteria like “standards of learning” (SOLs), that supersede the judgments of the teachers who are in actual contact with actual students. Edwards and Roy cite Goodhart’s Law, which states that “when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure”, which was new to me and which encapsulates so nicely much of what has gone wrong. For instance, in less competitive times, the award of a research grant tended to attest the quality of the applicant’s work; but as everything increased in size, and the amount of grants brought in became the criterion of quality of applicant and of institution, the aim of research became to get more grants rather than to do the most advancing work that would if successful bring real progress as well as more research funds. SOLs induced teachers to cheat by sharing answers with their students before giving the test. And so on and on. The cart before the horse. The letter of every law becomes the basis for action instead of the human judgment that could put into practice the spirit of the law.

Posted in conflicts of interest, consensus, fraud in science, funding research, politics and science, resistance to discovery, science is not truth, scientific culture | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Can truth prevail?

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2017/10/08

Recently I joined the Heterodox Academy, whose mission is to promote viewpoint diversity :

We are a politically diverse group of social scientists, natural scientists, humanists, and other scholars who want to improve our academic disciplines and universities.
We share a concern about a growing problem: the loss or lack of “viewpoint diversity.” When nearly everyone in a field shares the same political orientation, certain ideas become orthodoxy, dissent is discouraged, and errors can go unchallenged.
To reverse this process, we have come together to advocate for a more intellectually diverse and heterodox academy.

My personal focus for quite some time has been the lack of viewpoint diversity on scientific issues — HIV/AIDS, global warming, and a host of less prominent topics (see Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth). But earlier I had been appalled — and still am — over political correctness, by which I mean the dogmatic assertion that certain sociopolitical views must not only prevail but must be enforced, including by government action.

I became aware of political correctness when it came to my university in the late 1980s (distinctly later than elsewhere) and led to the resignation of Alan Mandelstamm, a nationally renowned teacher (of economics) who had for more than a decade attracted more students to his classes than any other teacher of any subject, as well as having a variety of faculty members from other fields sit in on his classes purely for the learning experience. I’ve described the circumstances of Al’s resignation in a couple of articles (The trivialization of sexual harassment: Lessons from the Mandelstamm Case; Affirmative action at Virginia Tech: The tail that wagged the dog). Al passed away some years ago; his obituary has been funded to be permanent and the contributors to it testify to what a marvelous instructor Al was, to the benefit of untold numbers of individuals: 4 years after Al died, former students and associates who learn of his passing continue to add their recollections. Al and I had both participated in the Virginia chapter of the National Association of Scholars (NAS), which stands for traditional academic ideals:
NAS is concerned with many issues, including academic content, cost, unfairness, academic integrity, campus culture, attitudes, governance, and long-term trends. We encourage commitment to high intellectual standards, individual merit, institutional integrity, good governance, and sound public policy.

What that involves in practice is illustrated in the newsletter I edited until my retirement.

Common to NAS, the Heterodox Academy, and dissenting from dogmatism on HIV/AIDS, global warming, and many other issues is the belief that views and actions ought to be consonant with and indeed formed by the available evidence and logical inferences from it — by the truth, in other words, at least as close as humans can come to it at any given time.

Ideologies and worldviews can make it difficult for us even to acknowledge what the evidence is when it seems incompatible with our beliefs. Since my interest for many decades has been in unorthodoxies, I’ve looked into the evidence pertaining to a greater number of controversial issues, in more detail and depth, than most people have had occasion to, with the frustrating consequence that nowadays many of the people with whom I share the preponderance of sociopolitical preferences are not with me regarding HIV/AIDS or global warming; I’m the rare example of “A politically liberal global-warming skeptic”; and I wish that those who seem to agree with me did not include people whose sociopolitical views and actions are abhorrent to me (say, Ted Cruz or Jeff Sessions).

At any rate, in science and in the humanities and in politics, in all aspects of human life, the thing to aim for is to find the best evidence and to be guided by it. Through the Heterodox Academy I learned recently of the Pro-Truth Pledge; see “How to address the epidemic of lies in politics: The ‘Pro-Truth Pledge,’ based on behavioral science research, could be part of the answer”.

The badge of that pledge is now on my personal website, and I encourage others to join this venture.

 

I don’t expect quick results, of course, but “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step” (often misattributed to Chairman Mao, but traceable more than a millennium further back to Lao Tzu or Laozi, founder of Taoism).

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

American Medicine Needs Reform — or perhaps revolution

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2017/09/10

Dozens of books and myriad articles have been published over the last few decades about What’s Wrong With Present-Day Medicine.

A recent addition is An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back by Elisabeth Rosenthal, lauded in a lead review  in the New York Times (4 & 9 April 2017) and with 250 customer reviews on amazon.com, >80% of them 5-starred.

The New York Times review is titled “Why an open market won’t repair American health care”, which indicates clearly enough why it may take a revolution, and perhaps a President Bernie Sanders, and certainly a squashing of the Republican Party’s free-market-above-all ideology, to bring American citizens the guaranteed and affordable heath care that is enjoyed by the citizens of every other major country on Earth.

It is far from only the political left that recognizes this need. Angus Deaton, 2015 Nobel Prize for economic science, wrote: “I would add [to possible ways of reducing income inequality] the creation of a single-payer health system; not because I am in favor of socialized medicine but because the artificially inflated costs of health care are powering up inequality by producing large fortunes for a few while holding down wages; the pharmaceutical industry alone had 1,400 lobbyists in Washington in 2014. American health care does a poor job of delivering health, but is exquisitely designed as an inequality machine, commanding an ever-larger share of G.D.P. and funneling resources to the top of the income distribution” (review of The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution — Why Economic Inequality Threatens Our Republic by Ganesh Sitaraman, New York Times, 20 March 2017)

 

 

Posted in conflicts of interest, medical practices | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

Has all academic publishing become predatory? Or just useless? Or just vanity publishing?

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2017/06/14

A pingback to my post “Predatory publishers and fake rankings of journals” led me to “Where to publish and not to publish in bioethics – the 2017 list”.

That essay brings home just how pervasive has become for-profit publishing of purportedly scholarly material. The sheer volume of the supposedly scholarly literature is such as to raise the question, who looks at any part of this literature?

One of the essay’s links leads to a listing by the Kennedy Center for Ethics of 44 journals in the field of bioethics.  Another link leads to a list of the “Top 100 Bioethics Journals in the World, 2015” by the author of the earlier “Top 50 Bioethics Journals and Top 250 Most Cited Bioethics Articles Published 2011-2015

What, I wonder, does any given bioethicist actually read? How many of these journals have even their Table of Contents scanned by most bioethicists?

Beyond that: Surely the potential value of scholarly work in bioethics is to improve the ethical practices of individuals and institutions in the real world. How does this spate of published material contribute to that potential value?

Those questions are purely rhetorical, of course. I suggest that the overwhelming mass of this stuff has no influence whatever on actual practices by doctors, researchers, clinics and other institutions.

This literature does, however, support the existence of a body of bioethicists whose careers are tied in some way to the publication of articles about bioethics.

The same sort of thing applies nowadays in every field of scholarship and science. The essay’s link to Key Journals in The Philosopher’s Index brings up a 79-page list, 10 items per page, of key [!] journals in philosophy.

This profusion of scholarly journals supports not only communities of publishing scholars in each field, it also nurtures an expanding community of meta-scholars whose publications deal with the profusion of publication. The earliest work in this genre was the Science Citation Index which capitalized on information technology to compile indexes through which all researchers could discover which of their published work had been cited and where.

That was unquestionably useful, including by making it possible to discover people working in one’s own specialty. But misuse became abuse, as administrators and bureaucrats began simply to count how often an individual’s work had been cited and to equate that number with quality.

No matter how often it has been pointed out that this equation is so wrong as to be beyond rescuing, this attraction of supposedly objective numbers and the ease of obtaining them has made citation-counting an apparently permanent part of the scholarly literature.

Not only that. The practice has been extended to judging the influence a journal has by counting how often the articles in it have been cited, yielding a “journal impact factor” that, again, is typically conflated with quality, no matter how often or how learnedly the meta-scholars point out the fallacies in that equation — for example different citing practices in different fields, different editorial practices that sometimes limit number of permitted citations, the frequent citation of work that had been thought important but that turned out to be wrong.

The scholarly literature had become absurdly voluminous even before the advent of on-line publishing. Meta-scholars had already learned several decades ago that most published articles are never cited by anyone other than the original author(s): see for instance J. R. Cole & S. Cole, Social Stratification in Science (University of Chicago Press, 1973); Henry W. Menard, Science: Growth and Change (Harvard University Press, 1971); Derek de Solla Price, Little Science, Big Science … And Beyond (Columbia University Press, 1986).

Derek Price (Science Since Babylon, Yale University Press, 1975) had also pointed out that the growth of science at an exponential rate since the 17th century had to cease in the latter half of the 20th century since science was by then consuming several percent of the GDP of developed countries. And indeed there has been cessation of growth in research funds; but the advent of the internet has made it possible for publication to continue to grow exponentially.

Purely predatory publishing has added more useless material to what was already unmanageably voluminous, with only rare needles in these haystacks that could be of any actual practical use to the wider society.

Since almost all of this publication has to be paid for by the authors or their research grants or patrons, one could also characterize present-day scholarly and scientific publication as vanity publishing, serving to the benefit only of the author(s) — except that this glut of publishing now supports yet another publishing community, the scholars of citation indexes and journal impact factors, who concern themselves for example with “Google h5 vs Thomson Impact Factor” or who offer advice for potential authors and evaluators and administrators about “publishing or perishing”.

To my mind, the most damaging aspect of all this is not the waste of time and material resources to produce useless stuff, it is that judgment of quality by informed, thoughtful individuals is being steadily displaced by reliance on numbers generated via information technology by procedures that are understood by all thinking people to be invalid substitutes for informed, thoughtful human judgment.

 

Posted in conflicts of interest, funding research, media flaws, scientific culture | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

How to interpret statistics; especially about drug efficacy

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2017/06/06

How (not) to measure the efficacy of drugs  pointed out that the most meaningful data about a drug are the number of people needed to be treated for one person to reap benefit, NNT, and the number needed to be treated for one person to be harmed, NNH.

But this pertinent, useful information is rarely disseminated, and most particularly not by drug companies. Most commonly cited are statistics about drug performance relative to other drugs or relative to placebo. Just how misleading this can be is described in easily understood form in this discussion of the use of anti-psychotic drugs.

 

That article (“Psychiatry defends its antipsychotics: a case study of institutional corruption” by Robert Whitaker) has many other points of interest. Most important, of course, the potent demonstration that official psychiatric practice is not evidence-based, rather, its aim is to defend the profession’s current approach.

 

In these ways, psychiatry differs only in degree from the whole of modern medicine — see WHAT’S WRONG WITH PRESENT-DAY MEDICINE  — and indeed from contemporary science on too many matters: Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth, Jefferson (NC): McFarland 2012.

Posted in conflicts of interest, consensus, media flaws, medical practices, peer review, prescription drugs, scientific culture, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

 
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