Skepticism about science and medicine

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The HIV/AIDS blunder: Missed opportunities for mainstream research to self-correct

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2021/01/20

Quite a number of specific mis-steps conspired to the acceptance and continuance of HIV/AIDS theory. They illustrate much of what has gone wrong with science: It is subject to interference by commercial, political, and ideological influences; it is comprised of a variety of institutions that do not interact usefully or reliably. Above all:


 Science has no overarching watchdog to ensure
 that theories change appropriately
 as evidence accumulates

  1. 1.The first and crucial mistake was when the Secretary of Health and Human Services (Margaret Heckler) held a press conference at which Robert Gallo claimed to have discovered the probable cause of AIDS. Illustrated by this sad episode is political interference and the pervasive ignorance of how science works:
    →     Gallo had not yet published anything. Insiders regarded him as incompetent and untrustworthy. Investigative journalism later (2002) fully documented that he is an unscrupulous charlatan [1].
    →     Heckler’s background was as a lawyer and a politically active Republican.
    →     Activists had been campaigning vigorously for the Republican administration to do something about AIDS.
     →    This official endorsement of Gallo’s claim acted as a signal that anyone who wanted research support from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) would likely be successful by proposing to work on HIV; virologists in particular were hungry for funding after their failure to discover cancer-causing viruses in the “war on cancer” [2].
  2. 2.An important contributing factor  was statistical incompetence at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC):
    →     Mistakenly taking “gay” rather than drug abuse as the most meaningful association with AIDS [3]. The CDC should also have been aware  that AIDS-like symptoms had been quite common among addicts during the 1960-70s epidemic of so-called recreational drug use [4].
    →     Initiated the misleading “young, previously healthy, gay men” characterization based on 5 cases aged 29-36, average 32.6 [5]. Its Task Force on Kaposi’s Sarcoma had found the average age of AIDS victims to be 35. When Cochrane [6] re-examined the medical records 20 years later, she found that the average age of the first 25 AIDS patients in San Francisco had been 38. This mattered crucially: The greatest risk for sexual infections is among people <30; lifestyle ailments are increasingly likely at older ages, more compatible with a decade or two of what used to be called dissolute living.
    CDC researchers as early as 1987 failed to recognize the significance of their finding that, among Job Corps  members at ages about 17 and younger, females are more likely to test HIV-positive than males [7].
  3. 3.The Army HIV Research Office also failed to recognize the significance of their finding that at ages about 17 and younger, females are more likely to test HIV-positive than males [8].
  4. 4.Duesberg had published comprehensive debunkings of HIV in 1987 [9] and 1989 [10]. The latter  has a footnote promising a rebuttal from Gallo that never eventuated, despite several reminders [11: 233].
  5. 5.As the years went by, more and more conundrums emerged whose significance was missed:
    →     The purple skin-patches of Kaposi’s Sarcoma had been the iconic signature of AIDS,  yet after half-a-dozen years they had become rare among AIDS patients.
    →     The correlation between drug abuse and AIDS became stronger and stronger.
    →     Prostitutes who did not use drugs were not at risk of  becoming HIV-positive.
    →     Drug abusers who used clean needles would more likely to test HIV-positive than those who exchanged needles.
    →     Marriage and pregnancy are risk factors for testing HIV-positive.
    →     Many further instances, with primary sources cited also for the points above, see The Case against HIV

Lessons:

The clearest general lesson is that policymakers and administrators should not take far-reaching actions on matters of science or medicine without advice from individuals who have at least an elementary acquaintance with the history of science and the understanding of present-day scientific activity incorporated in Science and Technology Studies (STS [12]). Anyone with that background would be familiar with the danger of accepting any scientific claim made by an individual researcher or administrator of research before the claim had even been published. The training of most scientists and most doctors neglects that important background.

A fairly general lesson is that competence in statistics may be sorely lacking even in an agency like CDC where gathering and analyzing statistical data is a central task. Much has been written during the last several decades about the pervasive abuse and misuse of statistics in medicine and medical science [13].

It is also not irrelevant that an overwhelming of proportion of those who were carrying out and reporting HIV tests were medical doctors, MDs or DVMs, rather than people trained in research. This is not to discount and the insights of the many MDs who have been able to learn from experience and to transcend some of the mistaken lore they were originally taught [14]. But medical training focuses on applying what is known, not on questioning it. By contrast,  journalists who were covering the HIV/AIDS story [1, 15] had a more holistic mindset and noticed how inadequate the officially accepted view is.

A part of understanding what contemporary scientific or research activity involves is to recognize that the overwhelming proportion of individuals doing what is loosely called “research” or “science”  are not engaged in seeking fundamental truths. Most of the published reports on HIV testing were based on taking for granted that HIV causes AIDS and gathering data for other purposes, say, recruitment into the Armed Forces, or the presumed need of for antiviral drugs in different regions of Africa; so those “researchers” had been blind to  the steady accumulation of data incompatible with the view of HIV as a contagious infection.

Present-day institutions of medical science
are incapable of self-correcting a mistaken “consensus”

That is why society needs a Science Court

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

[1]    John Crewdson, Science Fictions: A scientific mystery, a massive cover-up and the dark legacy of Robert Gallo, Little, Brown, 2002
[2]    Peter Duesberg, Inventing the AIDS Virus, Regnery, 1996; chapter 4
[3]    John Lauritsen, “CDC’s tables obscure AIDS-drug connection”, Philadelphia Gay News, 14 February 1985 (and five other papers); reprinted as chapter I in The AIDS war: propaganda, profiteering and genocide from the medical-industrial complex, ASKLEPIOS, 1993
[4]    Neville Hodgkinson, AIDS: The Failure of Contemporary Science, Fourth Estate, 1996
[5]    Pneumocystis Pneumonia — Los Angeles, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 30 (#21, 5 June 1981.) 250-52
[6]    Michelle Cochrane, When AIDS began: San Francisco and the Making of an Epidemic, Routledge, 2004
[7]    Michael E. St. Louis, George A. Conway, Charles R. Hayman, Carol Miller, Lyle R. Petersen, Timothy J. Dondero,  “Human Immunodeficiency Virus Infection in Disadvantaged Adolescents: Findings From the US Job Corps”, JAMA, 266
(1991): 2387-91;  Fig. 4 [authors’ training: 5 MD, 1 RN]
 [8]   John F. Brundage, Donald S. Burke, Robert Visintine, Michael Peterson, Robert R. Redfield. “HIV Infection among young adults in the New York City area”, New York State Journal of Medicine, May 1988, 232-33; Fig. 3 [authors’ training: 5 MD, 1 DVM]
Donald S. Burke, John F. Brundage, Mary Goldenbaum, Lytt I. Gardner, Michael Peterson, Robert Visintine, Robert R. Redfield, & the Walter Reed Retrovirus Research Group, “Human Immunodeficiency Virus Infections in Teenagers: Seroprevalence Among Applicants for US Military Service”, JAMA, 263 (1990) 2074-77; Table 1 [authors’ training: 4 MD, 1 DVM, 1 MS, 1 PhD]
Burke, D. S., J. F. Brundage, J. R. Herbold, W. Berner,  L. I. Gardner, J. D. Gunzenhauser,  J. Voskovitch, & R. R. Redfield, “Human immunodeficiency virus infections among civilian applicants for United States military service, October 1985 to March 1986”, New England Journal of Medicine, 317 (1987) 131-36; Fig 1 [authors’ training: 5 MD, 1 PhD, 1 DVM]
[9]    Peter H. Duesberg, “Retroviruses as carcinogens and pathogens: expectations and reality”, Cancer Research, 47 (1987) 1199-220
[10]  Peter H. Duesberg, “Human immunodeficiency virus and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome: correlation but not causation”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 86 (1989) 755-64.
[11]  Henry H. Bauer, The Origin, Persistence and Failings of HIV/AIDS Theory, McFarland, 2007
[12]  “STS draws on the full range of disciplines in the social sciences and humanities to examine the ways that science and technology shape, and are shaped by, our society, politics, and culture. We study contemporary controversies, historical transformations, policy dilemmas, and broad philosophical questions” (Department of Science, Technology, and Society at Virginia Tech)
[13]  Illustrated in many of the books cited in What’s Wrong with Present-Day Medicine
but see particularly the cited articles by Altman, Ioannidis, Matthews
[14]  See for example in the books listed in [13] those by Angell, Brody, Goldacre, Gøtzsche, Greene, Kendrick, LeFanu, Ravnskov, Smith
[15]      See books by Farber, Hodgkinson, Leitner, Shenton, in The Case against HIV

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From uncritical about science to skeptical about science: 4

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2021/01/05

Learning about science from beyond the pale

Synopsis for this series of posts:

From post #1:
“Could my opinion be erroneous about a decline in the trustworthiness of science?
If not, why is it that what seems so obvious to me has not been noticed, has been overlooked by the overwhelming majority of practicing researchers, by pundits and by scholars of scientific activity and by science writers and journalists?
That conundrum had me retracing the evolution of my views about science, from my early infatuation with it to my current disillusionment.”

My interest in the Loch Ness Monster led indirectly to learning about other topics that science similarly ignores, dismisses, or denigrates, often by calling them pseudoscience (UFOs, Bigfoot, etc.). Trying to understand how studying such matters differs from doing science automatically meant trying to understand what makes science special; so by learning about pseudo-science one learns as well about science itself. As Rudyard Kipling put it, “And what should they know of England who only England know?” (from poem, The English Flag).

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

Continuing the narrative:

 Fortuitously for me, several things happened at about the same time in the mid-1970s: There was a shortage of potential graduate students, because the job market for PhDs had collapsed. My large 5-year grant came to an end, and new grant funds were more and more difficult to come by. There was a widespread infatuation, including at NSF, with the supposed value of interdisciplinary work, and my university was urging faculty to develop interdisciplinary projects as a way of attracting grant money. And some tangible evidence that the Loch Ness Monster is a real animal had been widely publicized: Underwater photographs of large flipper- or paddle-like objects apparently appendages on an indistinct large shape [1].

So I recruited an eminently interdisciplinary team of faculty members — a journalism professor, an historian of science, a philosopher of science, a sociologist — to study how scientific understanding or belief changes as evidence accumulates: Science had long been fairly sure that reports of the Loch Ness Monster were baseless; now that substantive evidence was accumulating, how would the scientific community accommodate it?

Our proposal to NSF was unsuccessful, but one of the reviewers’ comments set me off in a new direction. If we wanted to study how science treats unorthodox claims, a reviewer suggested, why not look into the Velikovsky Affair?

I had never heard of that, and obviously I should have; so I did look into it, and found it very interesting indeed. The psychoanalyst Immanuel Velikovsky had published a popular best seller, Worlds in Collision [2], in which he inferred from legends and myths about heavenly happenings that Jupiter had ejected a comet-like object that had come close to several other planets, producing on Earth effects that included such events reported in the Bible as the parting of the Red Sea and the collapse of the walls of Jericho.

Several things struck me about the Velikovsky Affair.

—> Many a people had found Velikovsky’s scenario plausible or even convincing.
—> That included some quite accomplished historians and social scientists, who had ventured strong criticisms of the scientists who had unceremoniously dismissed Velikovsky’s scenario as utter nonsense.
—> Scientists had indeed been arrogantly dogmatic, making the declaration of nonsense without attempting to address the substantive details in Velikovsky’s book, indeed famously saying that they had not bothered to or needed to read the book. They had behaved unscientifically, in other words.
—> I was struck particularly that everyone was quite wrong in several respects about the nature of science — not only media pundits and humanists but also scientists, including social scientists.

So I resolved to write a book, to be titled Velikovsky and the Loch Ness Monster, setting out the realities about science and illustrated by one example of science getting it right about an unorthodox claim (the Velikovsky Affair) and an example of science getting it wrong (the Loch Ness monster). Altogether, I had found all this so interesting, and the prospects for well-funded scientific research so gloomy, that I decided to make a permanent change of academic career, from chemistry to something like history or philosophy or sociology of science.

It was a very good time for such a move. Historians and philosophers and sociologists of science were teaching interdisciplinary courses together, sometimes establishing joint Centers or Departments, together with some political scientists, engineers, and scientists interested in science policy. The intellectual Zeitgeist was presaging an integration of disciplines that is now the actuality usually named Science & Technology Studies or Science, Technology & Society (the acronym STS works for both; earlier incarnations included “Science Studies”, “Science and Society”, and the like).

These developments in the scholarly world were another sign that the role of science in the wider society was undergoing significant changes following World War II. the Vannevar Bush Report to the President had resulted in dramatic increases in funding of research. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists had been founded in 1945 by some of those who had worked on the Manhattan Project and were very conscious that policy makers needed information and insights from the technical community for sound planning.

 To make my intended change of academic field possible, I needed time to learn at least the basics of the history and philosophy of science. But as member of a Chemistry Department, it was my obligation to garner grants and support and mentor graduate students, too time-consuming to allow for much new learning and thinking. So I applied for administrative jobs, which would be undemanding intellectually and leave ample time for reading and learning subjects new to me. After a couple of dozen failed applications, I lucked into what turned out to be perfect for me: Dean of Arts and Sciences at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (VPI&SU, formerly VPI, but now everywhere known as “Virginia Tech”).

It was easy for me to gather an informal group of people interested in interdisciplinary projects and coursework combining Humanities and Social Sciences with Engineering and Physical and Biological Sciences. The agriculture, engineering, and science departments at Virginia Tech were long-established, with strong research components; and several of the faculty in History and Philosophy in particular had already been teaching some interdisciplinary courses with faculty from technical fields.

Soon we created a Center for the Study of Science in Society (A few years later came interdisciplinary degrees, initially undergraduate but soon graduate as well. More recently the Center was replaced by a full-fledged Department of Science, Technology, and Society.

I learned a great deal about science from the discussions leading to the establishment of that Center, but my belief in the trustworthiness of science, or at least the fundamental potential trustworthiness of science, was not at all shaken. Indeed it may have been enhanced by learning how uncertain, by comparison, is the knowledge commanded by social science [3]. I also learned a great deal about differences between the various subjects professed in a College of Arts and Sciences [4]. But first I want to concentrate on what I learned about science — what can in general be learned about science by looking into matters like the Velikovsky Affair.

My planned volume of Velikovsky and the Loch Ness Monster proved far too ambitious, and eventually emerged as two separate books[5, 6]. I was again extraordinarily fortunate that the Velikovsky manuscript had been sent by the publisher for review by Marcello Truzzi, a sociologist of science long interested in scientific unorthodoxies.

 After World War II, there had come much public interest in topics like Velikovsky — the Yeti of the Himalayas, UFOs (unidentified flying objects, at first “flying saucers”), psychic phenomena, and more [7]. On all of those topics of great public interest but ignored or dismissed or denigrated by authoritative science, there were some quite well-established scientists, engineers, and other scholars who believed that there was sufficient substantive evidence, enough sheer facts, to warrant proper scientific investigation. A group of these mavericks was in the process of founding a Society for Scientific Exploration to exchange experiences and learn from one another. Because Truzzi had read my Velikovsky manuscript, I was invited to join in founding that Society .

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[1]    Reprinted in many places, for example “The Case for the Loch Ness Monster: The Scientific Evidence”, Journal of Scientific Exploration, 16(2002) 225-246
[2]    Immanuel Velikovsky, Worlds in Collision, Macmillan 1950
[3]    P. 128 ff. in Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method, University of Illinois Press, 1992 ; pp. 151-5 in Science Is Not What You Think: How It Has Changed, Why We Can’t Trust It, How It Can Be Fixed, McFarland 2017
[4]    To Rise above Principle: The Memoirs of an Unreconstructed Dean (under the pen-name ‘Josef Martin’), Wipf & Stock, 2012 (1st ed. was University of Illinois Press, 1988)
[5]    Beyond Velikovsky: The History of a Public Controversy, University of Illinois Press 1984
[6]    The Enigma of Loch Ness: Making Sense of a Mystery, University of Illinois Press 1986 [7]    The Literature of Fringe Science, Skeptical Inquirer, 11 (#2, Winter 1986-87) 205-10

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From uncritical about science to skeptical about science: 3

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2021/01/03

From more than ample funding to stifling competition

In the middle 1960s in the United States, I observed more of the consequences of the enormous infusion of federal resources into scientific activity that I had glimpsed as a postdoctoral researcher in the late 1950s.

Moving  from Australia, I was appointed Associate Professor at the University of Kentucky in 1966, just when the university was spreading its wings towards gaining recognition for research excellence. I was expected to help that along, given that I already had several dozen publications to my name.

Kentucky was far from alone in its ambition. The flood of federal money designed to stimulate scientific research and the training of future scientists had brought a major transformation in American academe. Four-year Liberal-Arts Colleges made themselves over into Research Universities; Teachers Colleges morphed into universities. In 1944, there had been 107 doctorate-granting institutions in the U.S.; then 142 by 1950-54, 208 by 1960-64, 307 by 1970-74 [1]. In chemistry, there had been 98 doctoral programs in 1955; by 1967 there were 165, and 192 by 1979 [2].

A presumably unforeseen consequence of pushing production of would-be researchers and wannabe research universities was that by the 1970s, demand for grant funds was exceeding the supply. At Kentucky, about half of the Chemistry Department’s proposals to the National Science Foundation (NSF) had been funded in the mid-to-late 1960s; but by 1978, our success rate had fallen to only 1 grant for every 10 applications. That sort of decline has continued into the 21st century: at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the main source of funds for biological and medical research, the national success rate for grant applicants fell from 31% in 1997 to 20% by 2014 [3]; the average age was 42 at which an individual first obtained a grant from NIH as Principal Investigator in 2011 [4].

By the 1970s, there were more PhD mathematicians and physicists graduating than there were academic research jobs available. Some pundits speculated that the 2008 economic crash owed quite a lot to ingenious stock-trading software programs and bad-mortgage-bundling-and-valuing “securities” designed by PhD mathematicians and physicists who were working on Wall Street because they could not find positions in academe.

When I had prepared at my first research grant application to the National Science Foundation in 1966, the newly-appointed Director of the University’s Research Division rewrote my budget without consulting me, to make it twice as long in duration and four times as costly in total. When the grant was refused, and I asked the NSF manager why, he pointed out that it requested about twice as much as their usual grants. Faced with this news, our Research Director expressed surprise, claiming that one of the purposes of these federal funds was to support universities in general.

Federal grants for scientific research brought with them many perks.

My particular specialty enabled me to observe how grants for analytical chemistry made it possible to enjoy summer-time fishing and scuba diving in the Caribbean, as a necessary part of research that involved analyzing sea-water.

Some groups of grant-getters would meet before or after professional meetings at desirable locations for fun and games. In those socially boisterous 1960s-70s, traveling at will on funds from research grants made it easy, for example, to sample the topless bars in San Francisco and perhaps a performance of the norm-breaking, counter-cultural musical Hair on the way to the highly regarded Gordon Research Conferences in Santa Barbara. And why not? What could be wrong with using small amounts of our grant funds for personal recreation, just as people in business or industry might use their travel expenses.

Such a point of view was certainly not hindered by the fact that grants for scientific research routinely brought, for academics, an additional 25-33% of personal salary. Almost all academics are  routinely paid on a so-called “9-month basis”, with no teaching or other responsibilities during the three months of summer. Since scientific research would be carried on year-round, including during the summer, it seemed quite appropriate that researchers would receive a salary during that time as part of their research grants.

That practice no doubt had an undesirable side-effect, arousing or enhancing jealousy among non-science academics, and perhaps increasing the determination, among social scientists in particular, to be treated like the physicists and chemists and biologists: after all, psychologists and sociologists are scientists too, are they not? Lobbying eventually — in 1957, seven years after NSF had been established — led to the Social Science Research Program at NSF, for support of anthropology, economics, sociology, and history and philosophy of science.

Federal grants for scientific research brought with them many benefits for institutions as well as for the researchers: universities siphoned off from grants the so-called “indirect costs”, the self-justifying, much-preferred term for “overhead”. Increased scientific research placed greater obligations on the university’s libraries and physical facilities and administrative tasks, so it seemed quite proper to add to the costs of actual research, and the researcher’s summer salary, and the wages and tuition fees of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, a certain percentage that the University Administration could use to defray those added burdens. That certain percentage can be as high as 50%, or even more in the case of private, non-state-funded, universities [5].

The more the money flowed, the more necessary it became for researchers to obtain grant funds. Costs increased all the time. Scientific journals had traditionally been published by scientific societies, underwritten by membership fees and edited by society members, often without remuneration. As printing and postage costs increased, journals began to levy so-called “page charges” that soon increased to many tens of dollars per published page, particularly as an increasing number of scientific periodicals were taken over or newly founded by commercial publishers, who naturally paid professional staff including editors. Page charges were of course legitimate charges on grant funds. Academics without access to grant funds could still be published in society journals, but their second-class status was displayed for all to see as their publications carried the header or footer, “Publication costs borne by the Society”.

Increasing competition, with the stakes continually increasing, would naturally encourage corner-cutting, unscrupulous behavior, even outright cheating and faking. At least by hindsight it is clear enough that scientists and universities had been corrupted by money — willingly,  greedily; but Science itself seemed not visibly affected, could still be trusted. Dishonest behavior began to be troubling, noticeably, only by the 1980s.

The 1960s were still pleasantly high-flying years for scientific researchers. Things went well for me personally, and at the tail end of those great years I even collared my best grant yet, a five-year (1969-74) million-dollar project for fundamental work relevant to fuel cells, whose promise was something of a fad at the time.

But in the early 1970s,  the American economy turned down. The  job market for PhD scientists collapsed. Our graduate program in chemistry could not attract enough students, and, as already mentioned, we were not doing well with grant funds from NSF.

That is when my recreational interest in the Loch Ness Monster began to pay off, in entirely unforeseeable ways: leading to new insights into science and how it was changing; as well as bringing a career change.

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[1]    A Century of Doctorates: Data Analyses of Growth and Change, National Academy of Sciences, 1978
[2]    Henry H. Bauer, Fatal Attractions: The Troubles with Science,
Paraview Press, 2001, p. 166
[3]    NIH Data Book: Research Grants, 15 June 2015
[4]    W. A. Shaffer “Age Distribution – AAMC Medical School Faculty and NIH R01 Principal Investigators” (2012), cited in Michael Levitt & Jonathan M. Levitt, “Future of fundamental discovery in US biomedical research”,
Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, USA, 114 (#25, 2017): 6498-6503
[5]        Jocelyn Kaiser, “The base rate for NIH grants averages about 52%; NIH plan to reduce overhead payments draws fire”

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From uncritical about science to skeptical about science: 2

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2021/01/02

How nice it is when Science is well funded

I was fortunate enough to experience two years (1956-58) of postdoctoral research in the United States, at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), with a wonderful mentor in Philip J. Elving.

At once I was impressed with the clear benefits to science from being amply funded. In Australia, research was done with what might be called a frugal adequacy of resources, whereas by the 1950s in the United States there was an intoxicating sense of affluence in the scientific research community: The National Science Foundation had been established in 1950, and the budget of the National Institutes of Health was increasing dramatically, following recommendations in Vannevar Bush’s Report to the President.

The differences at that time between the Australian environment and the American one gave me a glimpse of how the circumstances of science changed following World War II. After some wonderfully heady years of research support just waiting to be asked for, coming to everyone who asked, demand soon grew faster than supply, bringing eventually the present-day hot-house, cutthroat environment of incessant unbridled competition.

In Ann Arbor I appreciated also the change from a geographical backwater, as Australia then was. Supplies and equipment and library resources were all available without stint in Ann Arbor, or would arrive in short order if not already at hand. By contrast, in those years, journals and equipment reached Australia only by ship, in journeys taking a matter of months.

A few things however, pointed to some dark lining on the silver clouds of money, though their significance becomes obvious only in retrospect. They stuck in my memory because strange enough, different from my previous experience and expectations; but they were irrelevant at that time to my own doings and ambitions.

One strange thing concerned careers in research. I was taken aback when a doctoral student told me, in around 1957, that he intended to seek a job in industry in order to avoid the rat-race of academe. This was the very opposite of the view in my cohort of Australian students: for us, industry was the rat-race, whereas scientific research in academe seemed like an unhurried way to earn a living while doing something interesting and useful.

A second thing new to me occurred in a meeting of a research group that I was able to participate in. The discussion was about drafting a request for renewal of a research grant, and I was surprised when the group’s leader emphasized, more than once, that everything should be kept completely confidential so that rival competing research groups could not hear of it.

Only in recalling those times now do I recognize another indication of the way in which the force-feeding of scientific research had begun to alter judgments of value. The prestige of faculty members in Ann Arbor was closely tied to their productivity in research. Those who were not active in gathering grant funds were tolerated rather than appreciated, and they had few if any graduate students to mentor. A department chairman at the time, who had little if any research in his own background, was tolerated perhaps a bit more gratefully for doing the unpleasant administrative work that allowed others time for research.

Again it is only in retrospect that I can appreciate the significance of Department Chair by contrast to Department Head. It was then still the traditional practice in Australia for every academic Department to be governed autocratically by the only faculty member with the title of (Full) Professor. Consequences flowed from the fact that these appointments remained effective until retirement; there was no formal mechanism for replacing an unsatisfactory Department Head.

That there came universally, at least in the English-speaking world, a change from permanent Department Heads to Chairmanships with limited terms may be related to much wider changes, outside as well as inside academe. There has been a progressive disinclination to rely on individuals to make judgments and exert authority. Instead, there are supposedly objective protocols for decision-making, or at least “democratic” and thereby supposedly “fairer” ones. So in academe, initially in the sciences but by now everywhere, judgments are based on numbers rather than on qualitative assessments made by informed individuals. As to research, numbers of publications, of citations, of amounts of research funds awarded; as to teaching, numbers averaged from anonymous student responses.

After my postdoctoral stint, not much happened to change my views about science for half-a-dozen years or so, as I enjoyed the seeming fulfillment of my ambition. I returned to Australia in 1958 as a lecturer (= assistant professor, but already with tenure) in the Department headed by my PhD mentor, Bruno Breyer [1]. He had invented a novel technique in analytical chemistry [2], and there were unlimited numbers of things to try. Together with a few graduate students we were exploring the frontiers of science (or at least of aspects of electrochemistry), publishing quite prolifically, and I was teaching chemistry — giving a few lectures a week as well as supervising laboratory sessions.

It was my recreational reading that planted seeds of doubt, at the time unrecognized, about science as the ultimate resource for knowledge about the world.

I was a voracious reader, and had picked up at the library quite by chance a book titled Loch Ness Monster [3]. Of course I knew, as everyone did, that this was a hoax or a tourist trap; but riffling through the pages I saw photographs claimed to be from a 16 mm film taken by the book’s author. So I read the book and was intrigued by the possibility that what was universally dismissed as mistaken or fakery might in fact be a real animal as yet identified. Trying to learn more, I could find very little: mere paragraphs in encyclopedias, absolutely nothing in the scientific literature, just two books for a general audience. Why, I wondered, had science not investigated something of such wide public interest, even as a book [4] had been written by Rupert Gould, a respected commentator on the BBC and author of the recognized authoritative work on the marine chronometer [5], and a more recent book [6] had been published by a doctor living near Loch Ness.

So I experienced surprise and dissatisfaction over a surprising gap in scientific knowledge; but trust in what science does know remained intact.

About how drastically science was changing, in post-World-War-II growth and affluence, I began to learn only after moving from Australia to the USA. Breyer had retired, his replacement was intolerable, and I could find no suitable job in Australia. With tangible support from Elving in Ann Arbor, I was able to continue my career in chemistry at the University of Kentucky, beginning in 1966.

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[1] “Bruno Breyer 1900-1967”, Journal of Electroanalytical Chemistry, 21 (1969) 1-3
[2] B. Breyer & H. H. Bauer, Alternating Current Polarography and Tensammetry, vol. 13
of Chemical Analysis, ed. P. J. Elving & I. M. Kolthoff, Interscience, 1963
[3] Tim Dinsdale, Loch Ness Monster, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961
(many later editions, 4th in 1982)
[4] Rupert T. Gould, The Loch Ness Monster and Others, Geoffrey Bles, 1934;
University Books, 1969
[5] Rupert T. Gould, The Marine Chronometer: Its History and Development,
J. D. Potter, 1923
[6] Constance Whyte, More Than a Legend, Hamish Hamilton, 1957; rev. ed. 1961

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From uncritical about science to skeptical about science

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2020/12/31

Science has been so successful at unlocking Nature’s secrets, especially since about the 16th century, that by the early decades of the 20th century, science had become almost universally accepted as the trustworthy touchstone of knowledge about and insight into the material world. In many ways and in many places, science has superceded religion as the ultimate source of truth.
Yet in the 21st century, an increasing number and variety of voices are proclaiming that science is not — or no longer — to be trusted.
Such disillusion is far from unanimous, but I certainly share it [1], as do many others [2, 3], including such well-placed insiders as editors of scientific periodicals.
How drastically different 21st– century science is from the earlier modern science that won such status and prestige seems to me quite obvious; yet the popular view seems oblivious to this difference. Official statements from scientific authorities and institutions are still largely accepted automatically, unquestioningly, by the mass media and, crucially, by policy-makers and governments, including international collaborations.
Could my opinion be erroneous about a decline in the trustworthiness of science?
If not, why is it that what seems so obvious to me has not been noticed, has been overlooked by the overwhelming majority of practicing researchers, by pundits and by scholars of scientific activity and by science writers and journalists?

That conundrum had me retracing the evolution of my views about science, from my early infatuation with it to my current disillusionment.
Almost immediately I realized that I had happened to be in some of the right places at some of the right times [4] with some of the right curiosity to be forced to notice the changes taking place; changes that came piecemeal over the course of decades.
That slow progression will also have helped me to modify my belief, bit by bit, quite slowly. After all, beliefs are not easily changed. From trusting science to doubting science is quite a jump; for that to occur quickly would be like suddenly acquiring a religious belief, Saul struck on the road to Damascus, or perhaps the opposite, losing a faith like the individuals who escape from cults, say Scientology — it happens quite rarely.
So it is natural but worth noting that my views changed slowly just as the circumstances of research were also changing, not all at once but gradually.
Of course I didn’t recognize at the time the cumulating significance of what I was noticing. That comes more easily in hindsight. Certainly I could not have begun to suspect that a book borrowed for light recreational reading would lead a couple of decades later to major changes of professional career.

Beginnings: Science, chemistry, unquestioning trust in science

I had become enraptured by science, and more specifically by chemistry, through an enthusiastic teacher at my high school in Sydney, Australia, in the late 1940s. My ambition was to become a chemist, researching and teaching, and I could imagine nothing more interesting or socially useful.
Being uncritically admiring of science came naturally to my cohort of would-be or potential scientists. It was soon after the end of the second World War; and that science really understands the inner workings of Nature had been put beyond any reasonable doubt by the awesome manner in which the war ended, with the revelation of atomic bombs. I had seen the newspaper headlines, “Atom bomb used over Japan”, as I was on a street-car going home from high-school, and I remember thinking, arrogantly, “Gullible journalism, swallowing propaganda; there’s no such thing as an atomic bomb”.

Learning how it was a thing made science seem yet more wonderful.

The successful ending of that war was also of considerable and quite personal significance for me. By doing it, “science” had brought a feeling of security and relief after years of high personal anxiety, even fear. When I was a 7-year-old school-boy, my family had escaped from Austria, in the nick of time, just before the war had started; and then in Australia, we had experienced the considerable fear of a pending Japanese invasion, a fear is made very real by periodic news of Japanese atrocities in China, for instance civilians being buried alive, as illustrated in photographs.
Trusting science was not only the Zeitgeist of that time and place, it was personally welcome, emotionally appealing.

The way sciences were taught only confirmed that science could be safely equated with truth. For that matter, all subjects were taught quite dogmatically. We just did not question what our teachers said; time and place, again. In elementary school we had sat with arms folded behind our backs until the teacher entered, when we stood up in silent respect. Transgressions of any sort were rewarded by a stroke of a cane on an outstretched hand.
(Fifty years later, in another country if not another world, a university student in one of my classes complained about getting a “B” and not an “A”.)

I think chemistry also conduces to trusting that science gets it right. Many experiments are easy to do, making it seem obvious that what we’ve learned is absolutely true.
After much rote learning of properties of elements and compounds, the Periodic Table came as a wonderful revelation: never would I have to do all that memorizing again, everything can be predicted just from that Table.
Laboratory exercises, in high school and later at university, worked just as expected; failures came only from not being adept or careful enough. The textbooks were right.

Almost nothing at school or university, in graduate as well as undergraduate years, aroused any concerns that science might not get things right. A year of undergraduate research and half-a-dozen years in graduate study brought no reason to doubt that science could learn Nature’s truths. Individuals could make mistakes, of course; I was taken aback when a standard reference resource, Chemical Abstracts, sent me erroneously to an article about NaI instead of NOI — human error, obviously, in transcribing spoken words.

Of course there was still much to learn, but no reason to question that science could eventually come to really understand all the workings of the material world.

Honesty in doing science was taken for granted. We heard the horror story of someone who had cheated in some way; his studying of science was immediately canceled and he had to take a job somewhere as a junior administrator. Something I had written was plagiarized — the historical introduction in my PhD thesis — and the miscreant was roundly condemned, even as he claimed a misunderstanding. Individuals could of course go wrong, but that threw no doubt on the trustworthiness of Science itself.

In many ways, scientific research in Australia in the 1940s and 1950s enjoyed conditions not so different from the founding centuries of modern science when the sole driving aim was to learn how the world works. In the universities, scientific research was very much part of the training of graduate students for properly doing good science. The modest needed resources were provided by the University. No time and effort had to be spent seeking necessary support from outside sources, no need to locate and kowtow to potential patrons, individuals or managers at foundations or government agencies.
Research of a more applied sort was carried out by the government-funded Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, CSIR (which later became a standard government agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, CSIRO). There the atmosphere was quite like that in academe: people more or less happily working at a self-chosen vocation. The aims of research were sometimes quite practical, typically how better to exploit Australia’s natural resources: plentiful coal, soft brown as well as hard black; or the wool being produced in abundance by herds of sheep. CSIR also made some significant “pure science” discoveries, for example the importance of nutritional trace elements in agricultural soils [5] and in the development of radio astronomy [6].

In retrospect the lack of money-grubbing is quite striking. At least as remarkable, and not unrelated, is that judgments were made qualitatively, not quantitatively. People were judged by the quality, the significance, the importance of what they accomplished, rather than by how much of something they did. We judged our university teachers by their mastery of the subjects they taught and on how they treated us. Faculty appointments and promotions relied on personal recommendations. Successful researchers might often — and naturally— publish more than others, but not necessarily. Numbers of publications were not the most important thing, nor how often one’s publications were cited by others: The Science Citation Index was founded only in 1963, followed by the Social Sciences Citation Index in 1973 and the Arts and Humanities Citation Index a few years later. “Impact factors” of scientific journals had begun to be calculated in the early 1970s.

So in my years of learning chemistry and beginning research, nothing interfered with having an idealistic view of science, implicitly “pure” science, sheer knowledge-seeking. For my cohort of students, it was an attractive, worthy vocation. The most desired prospect was to be able to work at a university or a research institute. If one was less fortunate, it might be a necessary to take a job in industry, which in those years was little developed in Australia, involving the manufacture of such uncomplicated or unsophisticated products as paint, or the processing of sugar cane or technicalities associated with brewing beer, making wine, or distilling spirits.

The normal path to an academic career in Australia began with post-doctoral experience in either Britain or the United States. My opportunity came in the USA; there, in the late 1950s, I caught my first glimpses of what science would become, with an influx of funds from government and industry and the associated consequences, then unforeseen if not unforeseeable but at any rate not of any apparent concern.

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[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]    Critiques of Contemporary Science and Academe
https://mega.nz/file/NfwkSR7S#K7llqDfA9JX_mVEWjPe4W-uMM53aMr2XMhDP6j0B208
[3]    What’s Wrong With Medicine; https://mega.nz/file/gWoCWTgK#1gwxo995AyYAcMTuwpvP40aaB3DuA5cvYjK11k3KKSU
[4]    Insight borrowed from Paula E. Stephen & Sharon G. Levin, Striking the Mother Lode in Science: The Importance of Age, Place, and Time, Oxford University Press, 1992
[5]    Best known is the discovery that cobalt supplements avoided “coast disease”, a wasting condition of sheep; see Gerhard N. Schrauzer, “The discovery of the essential trace elements: An outline of the history of biological trace element research”, chapter 2, pp. 17-31, in Earl Frieden, Biochemistry of the Essential Ultratrace Elements, Plenum Press, 1984; and the obituary, “Hedley Ralph Marston 1900-1965”; https://www.science.org.au/fellowship/fellows/biographical-memoirs/hedley-ralph-marston-1900-1965
[6] Stories of Australian Astronomy: Radio Astronomy; https://stories.scienceinpublic.com.au/astronomy/radio-astronomy/

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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].

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[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

Posted in conflicts of interest, consensus, funding research, media flaws, peer review, politics and science, resistance to discovery, science is not truth, scientific culture, scientism, scientists are human, the scientific method, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Science Court: Why and What

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2020/12/16

The idea for what has come to be called a Science Court was proposed half a century ago by Arthur Kantrowitz [1].

The development of nuclear reactors as part of the atom-bomb project made it natural to contemplate the possibility of generating power for civil purposes by means of nuclear reactors (the reactor at Hanford that made plutonium for the Nagasaki bomb was also the first full-scale nuclear reactor ever built [2]).

The crucial question was whether power-generating nuclear reactors could be operated safely. The technical experts were divided over that, and Kantrowitz proposed that an “Institution for Scientific Judgment” was needed to adjudicate the opposing opinions.

In those years, scientific activity was still rather like in pre-WWII times: A sort of ivory-tower cottage industry of largely independent intellectual entrepreneurs who shared the aim of learning how the material world works. Mediating opposing opinions could then seem like a relatively straightforward matter of comparing data and arguments. Half a century later, however, scientific activity has pervaded business, commerce, and medical practices, and research has become intensely competitive, with cutthroat competition for resources and opportunities for profit-making and achieving personal wealth and influence. Conflicts of interest are ubiquitous and inescapable [3]. Mediating opposing technical opinions is now complicated because public acceptance of a particular view has consequences for personal and institutional power and wealth; deciding what “science” truly says is hindered by personal conflicts of interest, Groupthink, and institutional conflicts of interest.

Moreover, technical disagreements nowadays are not between more or less equally placed technical experts; they are between a hegemonic mainstream consensus and individual dissenters. The consensus elite controls what the media and the public learn about “science”, as the “consensus” dominates “peer review”, which in practice determines all aspects of scientific activity, for instance the allocation of positions and research resources and the publication (or suppression) of observations or results.

It has become quite common for the mainstream consensus to effectively suppress minority views and anomalous research results, often dismissing them out of hand, not infrequently labeling them pejoratively as denialist or flat-earther crackpot [4]. Thereby the media, the public, and policymakers may not even become aware of the existence of competent, plausible dissent from a governing consensus.

The history of science is, however, quite unequivocal: Over the course of time, a mainstream scientific consensus may turn out to be inadequate and to be replaced by previously denigrated and dismissed minority views.

Public actions and policies might bring about considerable damage if based on a possibly mistaken contemporary scientific consensus. Since nowadays a mainstream consensus so commonly renders minority opinions invisible to society at large, some mechanism is needed to enable policymakers to obtain impartial, unbiased, advice as to the possibility that minority views on matters of public importance should be taken into consideration.

That would be the prime purpose of a Science Court. The Court would not be charged with deciding or declaring what “science” truly says. It would serve just to force openly observed substantive engagement among the disagreeing technical experts — “force” because the majority consensus typically refuses voluntarily to engage substantively with dissident contrarians, even in private.

In a Court, as the elite consensus and the dissenters present their arguments and their evidence, points of disagreement would be made publicly visible and also clarified under mutual cross-examination. That would enable lay observers — the general public, the media, policymakers — to arrive at reasonably informed views about the relative credibility of the proponents of the majority and minority opinions, through noting how evasive or responsive or generally confidence-inspiring they are. Even if no immediate resolution of the differences of opinion could be reached, at least policymakers would be sufficiently well-informed about what public actions and policies might plausibly be warranted and which might be too risky for immediate implementation.

A whole host of  practical details can be specified only tentatively at the outset since they will likely need to be modified over time as the Court gains experience. Certain at the beginning is that public funding is needed as well as absolute independence, as with the Supreme Court of the United States. Indeed, a Science Court might well be placed under the general supervision of the Supreme Court. While the latter might not at first welcome accepting such additional responsibilities, that might change since the legal system is currently not well equipped to deal with cases where technical issues are salient [5]. For example, the issue of who should be acceptable as an expert technical witness encounters the same problem of adjudicating between a hegemonic majority consensus and a number of entirely competent expert dissenters as the problem of adjudicating opposing expert opinions.

Many other details need to be worked out: permanent staffing of the Court as well as temporary  staffing for particular cases; appointment or selection of advocates for opposing views; how to choose issues for consideration; the degree and type of authority the Court could exercise, given that a majority consensus would usually be unwilling to engage voluntarily with dissidents. These questions, and more, have been discussed elsewhere [6]. As already noted, however, if a Science Court is actually established, its unprecedented nature would inevitably make desirable progressive modification of its practices in the light of accumulating experience.

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[1]    Arthur Kantrowitz, “Proposal for an Institution for Scientific Judgment”, Science, 156 (1967) 763-64

[2]    Steve Olson, The Apocalypse Factory, W. W. Norton, 2020

[3]    Especially chapter 1 in 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

[4]    Henry H. Bauer, Dogmatism  in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth, McFarland, 2012

[5]    Andrew W. Jurs, “Science Court: Past proposals, current considerations, and a suggested structure”, Drake University Legal Studies Research Paper Series, Research Paper 11–06 (2010); Virginia Journal of Law and Technology, 15 #1

[6]    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

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Science: Sins of Commission and of Omission

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2019/04/21

What statisticians call a type-I error is a scientific sin of commission, namely, believing something to be true that is actually wrong. A type-II error, dismissing as false something that happens to be true, could be described as a scientific sin of omission since it neglects to acknowledge a truth and thereby makes impossible policies and actions based on that truth.

The history of science is a long record of both types of errors that were progressively corrected, sooner or later; but, so far as we can know, of course, the latest correction may never be the last word, because of the interdependence of superficially different bits of science. If, for instance, general relativity were found to be flawed, or quantum mechanics, then huge swaths of physics, chemistry, and other sciences would undergo major or minor changes. And we cannot know whether general relativity or quantum mechanics are absolutely true, that they are not a type-I error — all we know is that they have worked usefully up to now. Type-II errors may always be hiding in the vast regions of research not being done, or unorthodox claims being ignored or dismissed.

During the era of modern science — that is, since about the 17th century — type-I errors included such highly consequential and far-reaching dogmas as believing that atoms are indivisible, that they are not composed of smaller units. A socially consequential type-I error in the first quarter of the 20th century was the belief that future generations would benefit if people with less desirable genetic characteristics were prevented from having children, whereby tens of thousands of Americans were forcibly sterilized as late as late as 1980.

A type-II error during the second half of the 19th century was the determined belief that claims of alleviating various ailments by electrical or magnetic treatments were nothing but pseudo-scientific scams; but that was corrected in the second half of the 20th century, when electromagnetic treatment became the standard procedure for curing certain congenital failures of bone growth and for treating certain other bone conditions as well.
Another 19th-century type-II error was the ignoring of Mendel’s laws of heredity, which were then re-discovered half a century later.
During the first half of the 20th century, a type-II error was the belief that continents could not have moved around on the globe, something also corrected in the latter part of the 20th century.

 

Science is held in high regard for its elucidation of a great deal about how the world works, and for many useful applications of that knowledge. But the benefits that society can gain from science are greatly restricted through widespread ignorance of and misunderstanding about the true history of science.

Regarding general social and political history, Santayana’s adage is quite well-known, that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. That is equally true for the history of science. Since the conventional wisdom and the policy makers and so many of the pundits are ignorant of the fact that science routinely commits sins of both commission and omission, social and political policies continue to be made on the basis of so-called scientific consensus that may quite often be unsound.

In Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth (McFarland 2012), evidence is cited from well-qualified and respectable sources that the mainstream consensus is flawed on quite a number of topics. Some of these are of immediate concern only to scholars and researchers, for example about the earliest settlements of the Americas, or the extinction of the dinosaurs, or the mechanism of the sense of smell. Other topics, however, are of immediate public concern, for instance a possible biological basis for schizophrenia, or the cause of Alzheimer’s disease, or the possible dangers from mercury in tooth amalgams, or the efficacy of antidepressant drugs, or the hazards posed by second-hand tobacco smoke; and perhaps above all the unproven but dogmatic belief that human-generated carbon dioxide is the prime cause of global warming and climate change, and the long-held hegemonic belief that HIV causes AIDS.

The topic of cold nuclear fusion is an instance of a possible type-II error, a sin of omission, the mainstream refusal to acknowledge the strong evidence for potentially useful applications of nuclear-atomic transformations that can occur under quite ordinary conditions.

On these, and on quite a few other matters * as well, the progress of science and the well-being of people and of societies are greatly hindered by the widespread ignorance of the fact that science always has been and will continue to be fallible,   committing sins of both omission and of commission that become corrected only at some later time — if at all.

On matters that influence public policies directly, policy-makers would be greatly helped if they could draw on historically well-informed, technically insightful, and above all impartial assessments of the contemporary mainstream consensus. A possible approach to providing such assistance would be the establishing of a Science Court; 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).

 

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*    Type-I errors are rife in the misapplications of statistics in medical matters, including the testing and approval of new drugs and vaccines; see the bibliography, What’s Wrong with Present-Day Medicine
      For a number of possible type-II errors, see for instance The Anomalist  and the publications of the Society for Scientific Exploration  and the Gesellschaft für Anomalistik

Posted in consensus, funding research, global warming, media flaws, medical practices, peer review, politics and science, resistance to discovery, science is not truth, science policy, scientific culture, scientific literacy, scientism, scientists are human, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Optimal peer review for guiding public policy: A Science Court

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2019/01/29

“Peer review” is widely regarded as the mechanism by which science manages to produce impartial, unbiased, objective facts and interpretations. As with so many popular notions about scientific activity, this is very far from the truth [1].

Innumerable observers and practicing researchers have written copiously about the many things that are wrong with peer review [2]. Contemporary practices of peer review are only about a century old. They began simply as a way of assisting editors of journals to assess the merits for publication of manuscripts too specialized for the editorial staff itself it to render judgment. The need for such specialized advice was not unrelated to the enormous expansion of scientific activity that followed World War II, bringing an ever-increasing demand for space in scientific periodicals as well as ever-increasing competition between researchers for funding and for getting published as a necessary prerequisite for career advancement and resources for research.

At any rate, peer review in science is no more impartial, unbiased, or objective than is criticism of art, music, film, or literary products. One illustration of that: it is becoming quite common for journal editors to ask the authors of submitted manuscripts whether there are individuals who should not be asked to serve as peer reviewers because of their known biases or hostility against the authors. Another point: Peer reviewers are typically chosen because they work on much the same topic as that of the manuscript to be reviewed; thereby they are likely to be to some extent competitors or allies, conflicts of interest that ought to be disbarring.

Modern (post-16th-17th-century) science managed to progress and to succeed quite magnificently for several centuries without the current practices of systematic peer-review. The assessing of already published work through further research and commentary gave science the appearance and the effect of being eventually self-correcting. Note “eventually”: the trials and errors and that preceded correction, sometimes for very long periods indeed, were of concern only within the specialized scientific communities, they were not any problem for the wider society.

Nowadays, however, society in general and industries and governments in particular have come to look to contemporary science for immediate guidance to significant actions and policies. That makes the fact that peer review is not impartial or objective quite important, and indeed dangerous. The nature of scientific activity and of the scientific community is such that the consensus among those who happen to be the most prominent researchers in any given field comes to control what research gets funded, which results get published and which are suppressed, and what the media and the public and policy-makers take to be “what science says”.

Unfortunately, the history of science is far from widely known or appreciated, most notably the fact that the contemporary scientific consensus at any given time has almost invariably turned out, sooner or later, to have been flawed, in minor or major ways.

Ignorance of the history of science, together with the misguided view that any prominent contemporary scientific consensus can be safely relied upon to guide social and political actions on any matters that are technical, including matters of medicine and public health, have already resulted in widespread actions that have brought tangible harm on such issues as supposedly human-caused global warming and climate change [3] and the mistaken belief is that AIDS was caused by a novel virus that destroys the immune system [4]. The closest precedent for these contemporary mistakes seems to be the ideology of eugenics, which led to the forced sterilization of tens of thousands of Americans over a period of more than half a century.

Since peer-review is not effectively making science contemporaneously objective and reliable, on matters of social and political importance policymakers badly need some other way to counteract the bias and dogmatic single-mindedness of any contemporary scientific consensus. The only conceivable mechanism to that end would seem to be something like an Institution of Scientific Judgment, as Arthur Kantrowitz suggested half a century ago [5], a concept that has come to be described as a Science Court [6].

 

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

[2]  pp. 106-9 in [1] and sources cited there

[3]  “What everyone ought to know about global warming and climate change: an unbiased review”referring to “#16 A Summary” by Don Aitkin

[4]  The Case against HIV  and sources cited there

[5]  Arthur Kantrowitz, “Proposal for an Institution for Scientific Judgment”, Science, 156 (1967) 763–4.

[6]  Chapter 12 in [1] and sources cited there

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

What everyone ought to know about global warming and climate change: an unbiased review

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/09/11

“What everyone knows” is that burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide, a “greenhouse gas” that holds in heat, warming the Earth and causing climate change, with catastrophic consequences if it isn’t stopped soon.

All official agencies, all mainstream scientific groups, say that.

What few people know is that a considerable number of experts and informed observers do not believe this AGW scenario to be correct: AGW = Anthropogenic Global Warming, global warming caused by human actions.

Those dissenting experts point out that actual data on temperature and carbon-dioxide levels, over the life of the Earth but also over the last century, show that carbon dioxide does not cause high global temperature.

But few people, again, can believe that “everyone” could be wrong about this, that “science” could be so dogmatically wrong. To form an opinion as to the relative merits of the official view and of the dissenting experts, therefore requires not only looking at the data but also at how the official view came into bring and how and why it persists. Few people want to take the time and make the effort to wade through huge amounts of writings by opposing advocates to ferret out the genuine facts and legitimate conclusions, which often calls for reading between the lines and being skeptical about everything.

My recent discovery of the Peter Ridd affair had a wonderfully beneficial consequence, learning about the writings of Don Aitkin, an Australian whose academic career included research on social and political matters as well as administrative experience that included heading a university (as Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Canberra). Aitkin spent a decade or more reading and thinking about AGW, and summarized what he learned in a series of blogs. The last in the series, #16,  sums things up and has appropriate links to the earlier ones which concentrate on different aspects of the matter.

This offers a wonderfully convenient way for anyone to become genuinely informed about AGW, and “climate-change denialism”, and incidentally about the interaction between science and public policy. Aitkin is factually reliable and ideologically unbiased, an all-too-rare combination.

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My appreciation of Aitkin’s series on global warming was enhanced when he noted that the hysteria over AGW “bridges the space between science and politics in an almost unprecedented way, though it has some similarities to the ‘eugenics’ issue a hundred years ago”, something that had occurred to me also.

Another Aitkin blog-post, “A good starting position in discussions about ‘climate change’” cites the salient points made by Ben Pile at Climate Resistance:

  1. There is good scientific evidence that human activities are influencing the climate. But evidence is not fact, and neither evidence nor fact speak for themselves.
  2. The evidence for anthropogenic climate change is neither as strong nor as demanding of action as is widely claimed.
  3. Our ability to mitigate, let alone to reverse, any such change through reductions in CO2 emissions is even less certain, and may itself be harmful.
  4. The scientific consensus on climate change as widely reported inaccurately reflects the true state of scientific knowledge.
  5. How society should proceed in the face of a changing climate is the business of politics not science.
  6. Political arguments about climate change are routinely mistaken for scientific ones. Environmentalism uses science as a fig-leaf to hide an embarrassment of blind faith and bad politics.
  7. Science is increasingly expected to provide moral certainty in morally uncertain times.
  8. The IPCC is principally a political organisation.
  9. The current emphasis on mitigation strategies is impeding society’s ability to adapt to a changing climate, whatever its cause.
  10. The public remains unconvinced that mitigation is in its best interest. Few people have really bought into Environmentalism, but few people object vehemently to it. Most people are slightly irritated by it.
  11. And yet climate change policies go unchallenged by opposition parties.
  12. Environmentalism is a political ideology, yet it has never been tested democratically.
  13. Widespread disengagement from politics means that politicians have had to seek new ways to connect with the public. Exaggerated environmental concern is merely serving to provide direction for directionless politics.
  14. Environmentalism is not the reincarnation of socialism, communism or Marxism. It is being embraced by the old Right and Left alike. Similarly, climate change scepticism is not the exclusive domain of the conservative Right.
  15. Environmentalism will be worse for the poor than climate change.
  16. Environmentalism is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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Aitkin is an Australian, and any connection to Australia always rekindles my appreciation for the sanctuary Australia provided the refuigee Bauers and the excellent public education from which I benefited in elementary school (Picton, NSW), at The Sydney Boys’ High School, and at the University of Sydney (moreover, in those years, at almost no cost to my parents!).
Browsing Aitkin’s writings, I came across an after-dinner speech about “Australian values”  that rings true to my own recollections and also, I think, offers some insights into the similarities and differences between American and Australian life.

Posted in conflicts of interest, consensus, denialism, funding research, global warming, media flaws, peer review, politics and science, resistance to discovery, science is not truth, science policy, scientific culture, scientific literacy, scientism, scientists are human, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

 
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