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Archive for the ‘peer review’ Category

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 vconventrate 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.

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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 »

What everyone knows is all too often wrong: dinosaur extinction, and much more

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/08/26

“What everyone knows” is all too often wrong, as I pointed out years ago, specifically about science punditry and TED talks and books;  and about climate change;  see also Who guards the guardians? Who guards science?; “Dangerous knowledge”; Dangerous knowledge II: Wrong knowledge about the history of science;  Dangerous knowledge III: Wrong knowledge about scienceDangerous knowledge IV: The vicious cycle of wrong knowledge.

Perhaps the main reason for “everyone” being wrong about so many things is that most of us take our knowledge on most or even all matters on the authority of other people, and those are all too often unwitting or witting false prophets [1]. Very few people ever bother to look for themselves into what the actual evidence is for commonly held beliefs.

I had become interested long ago in what science is and how it works, and my academic work came to focus on the “hard cases”: controversies in science, particularly the roles played by minority views and claims. So I had the time as well as the interest to dig quite deeply into the facts underlying a number of controversies, including controversies that the mainstream asserts not to be controversial. That is how I came to realize, for example, that HIV has never been proven to be the cause of AIDS, indeed has never even been proven to exist [2].

When I have the occasion to encounter someone who parrots HIV=AIDS theory, which “everyone knows”, I like to ask, “How do you know that HIV causes AIDS?”

Almost invariably the answer is, “Everyone knows that”.

Exactly. QED.

Increasingly since the 19th century, perhaps since about the early-to-middle 19th century, “science” has become the authority for most people as well as for organizations both private and public [3]. That even includes many scholars and pundits of whom one might expect better: When I had first collated HIV-test data and was giving talks about the failings of HIV/AIDS theory, a sociologist in a Science-Studies program said that I must be wrong because “tens of thousands of papers” had been published in the HIV=AIDS genre.

Until the most recent few decades, science has rarely played the role of false prophet on issues sufficiently salient as to inform public policies and actions; an exception in the first quarter of the 20th century was when misguided expert opinion about genetics and heredity led to the forced sterilization of tens of thousands of Americans [4].

Nowadays, unfortunately, science has grown so large and unwieldy as to be in many ways dysfunctional [5], so that it has given bad advice on at least two matters of considerable public importance: not only HIV/AIDS [2] but also climate change [6].

In past times and on less prominent issues whose significance rarely matters outside the scientific community itself, “science” has quite typically been wrong before it got things right. The “scientific consensus” at any given time is tentative and temporary; yet, human nature being what it is, the elite proponents of the consensus have always defended their view vigorously, including denigrating and even persecuting fellow scientists who disagree [7].

A case in point is the view that the extinction of the dinosaurs about 65 million years ago was caused by the impact on Earth of a large asteroid. A splendid recent article in the Atlantic magazine [9] gives full details of the career gauntlets run by paleontologist Gerta Keller as she has been amassing evidence against the asteroid hypothesis and for the earlier theory that the extinction was brought on by a lengthy episode of recurring intense volcanism — for perhaps 350,000 years, with particularly intense eruptions during the 100,000 or so years that coincide with the extinction. (Calculating the timing of happenings 65 million years ago is unlikely ever to permit accuracy of better than some tens of thousands of years.)

A point that seems powerful to a lay person like myself is that the dinosaur extinction was the fifth major mass extinction indicated by the fossil record, and expert opinion seems to be almost undivided that the first four extinctions had been caused by extremes of volcanic action.

The Atlantic article is also commendably accurate about contemporary science in noting how vigorously the mainstream consensus, the ruling elite, defends its point of view, how unscrupulously at least some members of that elite and their acolytes attack those who dissent; science has become riddled with knowledge monopolies.

Many examples of that sad state of affairs are at hand in a number of other fields [7]: Big-Bang cosmology, amyloid plaque as cause of Alzheimer’s disease, anti-depressant and other prescription drugs, first human settlement of the Americas, nuclear “cold fusion”, dangers of second-hand smoke, plate tectonics (“continental drift”), mechanism of the sense of smell, physiological correlates of schizophrenia, risks from mercury compounds in tooth fillings and in vaccines, possible relation between certain multiple vaccines and autism… .

It is really quite stunning, how many cases there are where “what everyone knows”, namely, the reigning scientific consensus, is questionable in light of the actual evidence, the unquestioned data.

 

That last is a most important thing that everyone does not know but should.

 

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[1]    As an academic Dean once remarked “Saying so, makes it so”, when the sayer is someone in some sort of authority.

[2]    Henry H. Bauer, The Origin, Persistence and Failings of HIV/AIDS Theory, McFarland 2007; “The Case against HIV”

[3]    David Knight, The Age of Science, Basil Blackwell, 1986

[4]    “Bauer: Could science mislead public policy?”, Roanoke Times, 10 June 2018;

[5]    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)

[6]    For many discussions, with source references, about the politicized nature of this controversy and the fact that the actual observational data do not support the hypothesis of carbon-dioxide-induced global warming (let alone carbon-dioxide-induced climate change), see the articles at https://scimedskeptic.wordpress.com/ that come up when setting “climate change” in the “Search” box.

[7]    The literature on these points is vast. Pertinent sections of reference [5] cover much of this ground and cite many other sources; see also reference [8].

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

[9]    Bianca Bosker, “The nastiest feud in science”, Atlantic, September 2018

Posted in consensus, denialism, 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: , , , | 2 Comments »

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

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/08/07

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

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

Claims made using scientific language should:

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

    Claims made using scientific language should not:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who guards the guardians? Who guards science?

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/06/24

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? This quotation attributed to Juvenal describes the inescapable dilemma as to how societies can be governed .

Today’s guardian of reliable knowledge is science. It is the acknowledged authority on the natural world, on what exists in the world and on how those things behave. Most governments accept as reliable, as true for all practical purposes, whatever the current scientific consensus is: on matters of health, the environment, the solar system, the universe. The mass media, too, accept that scientific consensus; and that largely determines what the general public believes, “what everyone knows”.

Nowadays in that category of “what everyone knows” there are literally innumerable things; among them that the universe began with a Big Bang; that ghosts and Loch Ness Monsters do not exist; that HIV causes AIDS; that hypertension causes heart attacks and strokes; that carbon dioxide released by burning fossil fuels is causing climate change and bringing more frequent and more extreme and more damaging events like hurricanes; etc., etc.

But what guards against the scientific consensus being wrong?

Nothing and nobody.

That really matters, because the history of science is crystal clear that contemporary science, the contemporary scientific consensus, has almost invariably been wrong until further progress superseded and replaced it.

That steady improvement over the centuries gave rise to a comforting shibboleth, that “science is self-correcting”. At any given moment, however, the scientific consensus stands possibly uncorrected and awaiting future “self”-correction. One cannot justifiably assert, therefore, that any contemporary scientific consensus is known to be unquestionably true. It is not known with absolute certainty that the universe began with a Big Bang; that ghosts and Loch Ness Monsters do not exist; that HIV causes AIDS; that hypertension causes heart attacks and strokes; that carbon dioxide released by burning fossil fuels is causing climate change and bringing more frequent and more extreme and more damaging events like hurricanes; etc., etc.

Nevertheless, contemporary society treats these and other contemporary scientific consensuses as true. This amounts to what President Eisenhower warned against: that “public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite” [1]. Science can indeed mislead public policy, as when tens of thousands of Americans were forcibly sterilized in the misguided belief that this improved the genetic stock [2]. Science is far from automatically or immediately self-correcting [3].

I’ve wondered how Eisenhower could have been so prescient in 1960, because the conditions that conduce to public policies being misled by science were then just beginning to become prominent: the massive governmental stimulation of scientific activity that has produced today’s dysfunctional hyper-competitiveness, with far too many would-be researchers competing for far too few reliably permanent positions and far too little support for the resources that modern research needs [4]. Moreover, the scientific consensus is guarded not only by the scientists who generated it, powerful societal institutions are vested in the correctness of the scientific consensus [4]: It is virtually inconceivable, for instance, that official bodies like the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, the World Health Organization, and the like would admit to error of the views that they have promulgated; try to imagine, for example, how it could ever be officially admitted that HIV does not cause AIDS [5].

SUGGESTION TO THE READER:
Reflect on how you formed an opinion about — Big-Bang theory? Loch Ness Monsters? Ghosts? Climate change? … etc. etc. Almost always it will not have been by looking into the evidence but rather by trusting someone’s assertion.

Who has the interest, time, and energy to study all those things? Obviously we must take our beliefs on many matters from trusted authorities; and for a couple of centuries the scientific consensus has been a better guide than most others. But that is no longer the case. The circumstances of 21st-century science mean that society needs guardians to check that what the scientific consensus recommends for public policy corresponds to the best available evidence. On many issues, a minority of experts differs from the scientific consensus, and it would be valuable to have something like a Science Court to assess the arguments and evidence pro and con [6].

I’ve had the luxury of being able to look into quite a few topics because that was appropriate to the second phase of my academic career, in Science & Technology Studies (STS). Through having made a specialty of studying unorthodoxy in science, I stumbled on copious examples of the scientific consensus treating, in recent times, competent minority opinions well within the scientific community with the same disdain, or even worse, as that traditionally directed towards would-be science, fringe science — Loch Ness Monsters, ghosts, UFOS, and the like.

In Dogmatism in Science and Medicine [7], I pointed to the evidence that the contemporary scientific consensus is wrong about Big-Bang theory, global warming and climate change, HIV/AIDS, extinction of the dinosaurs, and more, including what modern medicine says about prescription drugs. The failings of the scientific consensus in modern medicine have been detailed recently by Richard Harris [8] as well as in many works of the last several decades [9]. That the scientific consensus is wrong about HIV and AIDS is documented more fully in The Origin, Persistence and Failings of HIV/AIDS Theory (McFarland, 2007). Why science has become less believable is discussed in [4], which also describes many misconceptions about science and about statistics, the latter bearing a large part of the blame for what’s wrong with today’s medical practices.

But my favorite obsession over where the scientific consensus is wrong remains the existence of Loch Ness “Monsters”, Nessies. It was my continuing curiosity about this that led to my career change from chemistry to STS, which brought many unforeseeable and beneficial side-effects. My 1986 book, The Enigma of Loch Ness: Making Sense of a Mystery [10], showed how the then-available evidence could be interpreted to support belief in the reality of Nessies but could also be plausibly enlisted to reject the reality of Nessies. However, the book’s chief purpose was to explain why seeking to “discover” Nessies was not a sensible task for organized science.

Now in 2018 quite proper science, in the guise of “environmental DNA”, has offered a good chance that my belief in the reality of Loch Ness “Monsters” may be vindicated within a year or so by mainstream science. I plan to say more about that soon.

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[1]  Farewell Address to the Nation, 17 January 1961
[2]  “Bauer: Could science mislead public policy?”
[3]  Science is NOT self-correcting (How science has changed — VII)
[4]  Science Is Not What You Think — how it has changed,
why we can’t trust it, how it can be fixed
(McFarland, 2017)
[5]   “OFFICIAL!   HIV does not cause AIDS!”
[6]    For a detailed history and analysis of the concept of a Science Court,
see chapter 12 in [4]
[7]    Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth (McFarland, 2012)
[8]    Richard Harris, Rigor Mortis — How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions (Basic Books, 2017)
[9]    What’s Wrong with Present-Day Medicine, a bibliography last updated 17 April 2017
[10]  The Enigma of Loch Ness: Making Sense of a Mystery, University of Illinois Press, 1986;
in Cassette Book format, RC 25592, narrated by Richard Dorf, 1988;
U.K. edition, Stirling (Scotland): Johnston & Bacon 1991;
re-issued by Wipf & Stock, 2012

Posted in conflicts of interest, consensus, funding research, global warming, media flaws, medical practices, peer review, politics and science, prescription drugs, resistance to discovery, science is not truth, science policy, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

Science is NOT self-correcting (How science has changed — VII)

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/05/06

One of the common and popular shibboleths about science is that it is self-correcting. That implies happening inevitably and automatically. But despite the existence of innumerable scientific organizations and institutions, there is no overarching system or set of protocols or hierarchy that governs all scientific activity. Nothing about scientific activity is automatic or inevitable.

The illusion of self-correction may trace back to the fact that science has surely progressed over time, to better and deeper understanding of how the world works, superseding and rejecting mistakes and misunderstandings. However, this correcting of earlier mis-steps was never automatic; more important, it was never a sure thing. Barber [1] surveyed the long history of hegemonic scientific consensuses vigorously resisting correction. Stent [2] described the phenomenon of “premature discovery” whereby some hegemonic scientific consensuses have forestalled correction for decades — about 40 years with Mendel’s quantitative insight into heredity, about half a century with Wegener’s insight into continental movements.

Barber and Stent dealt with the more-or-less classic modern science that subsisted up until about the middle of the 20th century, the sort of science whose ethos could be fairly adequately described by the Mertonian Norms [3]; a cottage industry of independent, voluntarily cooperating, largely disinterested ivory-tower intellectual entrepreneurs in which science was free to do its own thing, seeking truths about the natural world. Individuals were free to publish their results with little or no hindrance. There were plenty of journals and plenty of journal space, and editors were keen to receive contributions: “From the mid-1800s, there was more journal space than there were articles . . . . assistant editors [had the] . . . primary responsibility . . . to elicit articles and reviews to fill the pages of the publication” [4].

The onus for ensuring that published work was sound rested on the authors, there was not the contemporary gauntlet of “peer reviewers” to run: “for most of the history of scientific journals, it has been editors — not referees — who have been the key decision-makers and gatekeepers. . . . It was only in the late 20th century that refereeing was rebranded as ‘peer review’ and acquired (or reacquired) its modern connotation of proof beyond reasonable doubt. . . . A Google ngram — which charts yearly frequencies of any phrase in printed documents — makes the point starkly visible: it was in the 1970s that the term ‘peer review’ became widely used in English. [We] . . . do not yet know enough about why the post-war expansion of scientific research . . . led to . . . ‘peer review’ [coming] . . . to dominate the evaluation of scholarly research” [5].

Nowadays, by contrast, where publication makes a career and lack of publication means career failure, journals are swamped with submissions at the same time as costs have exploded and libraries are hard pressed to satisfy their customers’ wishes for everything that gets published. Journals are now ranked in prestige by how small a proportion of submissions they accept, and “peer review” is pervaded by conflicts of interest. The overall consequence is that the “leading journals” hew to the current “scientific consensus” so that unorthodoxies, radical novelties, minority views find it difficult to get published. How extreme can be the efforts of “the consensus” to suppress dissent has been profusely documented on a number of topics, including the very publicly visible issues of HIV/AIDS and climate change [6, 7, 8].

Where the consensus happens to be in need of “self-correction”, in other words, today’s circumstances within the scientific community work against any automatic or easy or quick correction.

That situation is greatly exacerbated by the fact that correction nowadays is no simple revising of views within the scientific community. “Science” has become so entwined with matters of great public concern that particular beliefs about certain scientific issues have large groups of influential supporters outside the scientific community who seek actively to suppress dissent from “the consensus”; over HIV/AIDS, those groupies who abet the consensus include the pharmaceutical industry and activist organizations largely supported by drug companies; over climate change, environmentalists have seized on “carbon emissions” as a weapon in their fight for sustainability and stewardship of nature.

Science is not inevitably or automatically self-correcting. Its official agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, the World Health Organization, etc., are captives of the contemporary scientific consensus and thereby incapable of drawing on the insights offered by minority experts, which is also the case with the peer-review system and the professional journals.

Even when outright fraud or demonstrated honest mistakes have been published, there is no way to ensure that the whole scientific community becomes aware of subsequent corrections or retractions, so errors may continue to be cited as though they were reliable scientific knowledge. Even the journals regarded as the most reliable (e.g. Nature journals, Cell, Proceedings of the National Academy) make it quite difficult for retractions or corrections to be published [9], and even complete retraction seemed to reduce later citation by only about one-third, very far from “self-correcting” the whole corpus of science [10].

 

==========================================

[1]    Bernard Barber, “Resistance by scientists to scientific discovery”, Science, 134 (1961) 596–602

[2]    Gunther Stent, “Prematurity and uniqueness in scientific discovery”, Scientific American, December 1972, 84–93

[3]    How science has changed — II. Standards of Truth and of Behavior

[4]    Ray Spier, “The history of the peer-review process”, TRENDS in Biotechnology, 20 (2002) 357-8

[5]    Aileen Fyfe, “Peer review: not as old as you might think”, 25 June 2015

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

[7]    Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth, McFarland, 2012

[8]    Science Is Not What You Think: How It Has Changed, Why We Can’t Trust It, How It Can Be Fixed (McFarland 2017)

[9]    “Science is self-correcting” (ed.) Lab Times, 2012. #1: 3

[10]  Mark P. Pfeifer & Gwendolyn L. Snodgrass, “The continued use of retracted, invalid scientific literature”, JAMA, 263 (1990) 1420-3)

 

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How science changed — III. DNA: disinterest loses, competition wins

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/04/10

The Second World War marked a shift of economic and political power from Europe to the United States, with associated changes in the manner and style with which those powers are deployed. Science began to change at about the same time and in somewhat analogous and perhaps associated ways.

The change in the norms of science, from CUDOS to PLACE, that Ziman had described (How science has changed — II. Standards of Truth and of Behavior) began with what happened in the middle of the 20th century. The first of the Mertonian norms to fade away was disinterestedness: Science came to be like other spheres of human activity in that some people chose to pursue it as an avenue for satisfying personal ambition rather than as an opportunity to serve the public good.

My cohort of science students in Australia in the early 1950s had been notably idealistic about science. We could imagine no finer future then the opportunity to earn a living doing science. The relative absence of excessive personal ambition may have stemmed in large part from the fact that Australia was at that time a profoundly egalitarian society; no one should imagine himself to be “better” than anyone else [1].

Our ideals about science included taking honesty for granted, as Merton had.

Our ranking of desirable occupations had doing research in a university setting at the top. Those who were not good enough to do innovative self-directed research would still be able to have a place in science by working in industry. If one were not talented enough even for that, one would have to make do with teaching science. And if one could not even do that, then it would have to be some sort of administrative job. I still recall the minor functionary at the University of Sydney who represented a living lesson for us in the wages of sin: As a graduate student in chemistry, he had faked some of his results, and so he had been condemned to lifelong labor as a paper pusher.

The sea change in science around the middle of the 20th century is illustrated in microcosm by the circumstances of the discovery of the structure of DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick. Watson’s description of that discovery in his memoir, The Double Helix (Atheneum, 1968), and the reactions to that book in the scientific community, illustrate the profound changes in scientific activity beginning to take place around that time. Gunther Stent’s annotated edition of The Double Helix [2] provides a ready source for appreciating how the DNA discovery touches on many aspects of how scientific activity changed profoundly, beginning in the middle of the 20th century; the edition includes the original text of the book, commentaries, many of the original book reviews, and pertinent articles.

Watson himself, as portrayed in his own memoir, exemplifies the brash, personally ambitious American ignorant of or simply ignoring the traditional ways of doing things, in personal behavior as well as in doing science [3].

In Watson’s memoir, traditional ways including disinterestedness are exemplified by the Europeans Max Perutz and Erwin Chargaff. Perutz had been working diligently for a decade or so, gradually refining what could be learned about the structure of proteins through the technique of X-ray crystallography. With similar diligence Erwin Chargaff had been analyzing the chemical constitutions of DNA from a variety of different sources. Both those research approaches comported with traditional experience that carefully accumulating sufficient pertinent information would eventually be rewarded by important new understanding. In Britain, since Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin were working on DNA structure via X-ray crystallography, no other British lab would trespass onto that research project.

Watson of course had no such scruples, nor was he prepared to wait for the traditional ways to pay off; Watson’s own words make it appear that his prime motivation was to make a name for himself — any advance in human understanding, for the public good, would be a byproduct.

To short-circuit old-fashioned laborious approaches, he and his co-worker Francis Crick looked to what had been pioneered by another American, Linus Pauling, who is often still regarded as the outstanding chemist of the 20th century. Pauling did also use X-ray crystallography, but only as a secondary adjunct. He had laid the foundations for an understanding of chemical bonding and had been interested from the beginning in the three-dimensional structures of molecules; applying his insights to the study of macromolecules, he succeeded in elucidating the configuration of protein molecules in part by constructing feasible molecular models.

Traditional cosmopolitan European culture could be disdainful and snobbish toward the parvenu, nouveau-riche American ways that were taking over the world, including the world of science. Erwin Chargaff provides an apposite, rather sad illustration. He disliked not only Watson’s personality and actions, he led himself to believe that his own diligent traditional work on the chemical composition of DNA should have been rewarded by a share of the Nobel Prize. Chargaff’s review [4] of The Double Helix flaunts his cultured erudition and also reveals his personal disappointment; later he refused Gunther Stent permission to reprint his review, in company with all the others, in Stent’s annotated edition.

The technical point at issue is that Chargaff had been content to allow results to accumulate until insight revealed itself rather than to take a gamble on some premature interpretation: he had merely remarked on an apparently consistent ratio of purines to pyrimidines in the DNA from a variety of sources [5]: “It is . . . noteworthy — whether this is more than accidental cannot yet be said — that in all deoxypentose nucleic acids examined thus far the molar ratios of total purines to total pyrimidines, and also of adenine to thymine and of guanine to cytosine, were not far from 1”.

The important insight, however, is that the numbers are exactly equal; adenine faces thymine, and guanine faces cytosine in the molecular structure of DNA, and that is the central and crucial feature of the double helix. In hindsight, Chargaff wanted his tentative statement of approximate equality to be construed as “the discovery of   the base-pairing regularities” [4].

Erwin Chargaff may have been acerbic and ungenerous in his book review, but he will also have spoken for generations of scientists in his regret for the passing of the more idealistic, disinterested, traditional order and distaste for what was replacing it: “in our time a successful cancer researcher is not one who ‘solves the riddle,’ but rather one who gets a lot of money to do so” [6]; “Watson’s book may contribute to the much-needed demythologization of modern science”; “with very few exceptions, it is not the men that make science; it is science that makes the men” [4].

That disappearing idealistic traditional order might be exemplified in Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith. Published in 1925 by Harcourt, Brace, according to amazon.com there have been more than 80 later editions, including a 2008 paperback. Evidently the yearning remains strong for disinterested science for the public good. The book’s protagonist, after some early mis-steps and yieldings to commercial temptations, opts for pure research for the good of humankind. Even a couple of decades ago, an academic of my generation (a biochemist) told me that he still gave his graduate students Arrowsmith to read as a guide to the proper ethos of science.

That occasion for being reminded of Arrowsmith was a series of seminars I was then holding on our campus about ethics in research [7], a topic that was just becoming prominent as instances of dishonesty in scientific work were beginning to be noted with increasing frequency.

More about that in a future blog post.

========================================

[1]    A widely shared view was that “tall poppies” should be decapitated. A highly educated Labor-Party leader was careful to adopt a working-class accent in public to hide his normal “educated”, British-BBC-type dialect. I personally saw fisticuffs occasioned by one party feeling that the other had thought themselves better in some way
[2]    Gunther S. Stent (ed.), The Double Helix — Text, Commentary, Reviews, Original Papers, W. W. Norton, 1980
[3]    I had begun to sense the new self-serving ethos in science in the late 1960s, after a career move from Australia to the USA. I encountered ambitious young go-getters who luxuriated in the [then!] largesse of research support, inserting personal pleasures into publicly funded research travel, for example studying aspects of marine environments in ways that made possible scuba-diving and general cavorting in the Caribbean. I participated in the WETS, one of the informal associations of young up-and-comers who used to sample fleshly diversions as part of research-grant-paid trips to professional conferences
[4]    Erwin Chargaff, “A quick climb up Mount Olympus”, Science, 159 (1968) 1448-9
[5]    Erwin Chargaff, “Chemical specificity of nucleic acids and mechanism of their enzymatic degradation”, Experientia, 6 (1950) 201-40
[6]    Erwin Chargaff, Voices in the Labyrinth, Seabury, 1977, p. 89
[7]    For instance, “Ethics in Science” under “Current topics in analytical chemistry: critical analysis of the literature”, 15 & 17 March 1994;
reprinted at pp. 169-182 in Against the Tide, ed. Martín López Corredoira & Carlos Castro Perelman, Universal Publishers, 2008;

 

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How science has changed — II. Standards of Truth and of Behavior

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/04/08

The scientific knowledge inherited from ancient Babylon and Greece and from medieval Islam was gained by individuals or by groups isolated from one another in time as well as geography. Perhaps the most consequential feature of the “modern” science that we date from the 17th-century Scientific Revolution is the global interaction of the people who are doing science, and especially the continuity over time of their collective endeavors.
These interactions among scientists began in quite informal and individual ways. An important step was the formation of academies and societies, among which the Royal Society of London is usually acknowledged to be the earliest (founded 1660) that has remained active up to the present time — though it was not the earliest such institution and even the claim of “longest continually active” has been challenged [1].
Even nowadays, the global community of scientists remains in many ways informal despite the host of scientific organizations and institutions, national and international: the global scientific community is not governed by any formal structure that lays down how science should be done and how scientists should behave.
However, observing the actualities of scientific activity indicates that there had evolved some agreed-on standards generally seen within the community of scientists as proper behavior. Around the time of the Second World War, sociologist Robert Merton described those informal standards, and they came to be known as the “Mertonian Norms” of science [2]. They comprise:

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 or religion race or anything of that sort.
Ø    Disinterestedness: Science is done for the public good and not for personal benefit; scientists seek to be impartial, objective, unbiased, and 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.

Note that honesty is not mentioned; it was simply taken for granted.
These norms clearly make sense for a cottage industry, as ideal behavior that individuals should aim for; but they are not appropriate for a corporate environment, they cannot guide the behavior of individuals who are part of some hierarchical enterprise.
In the late 1990s, John Ziman [3] discussed the change in scientific activity as it had morphed from the activities of an informal, voluntary collection of individuals seeking to understand how the world works to a highly organized activity with assigned levels of responsibility and authority and where sources of research funding have a say in what gets done, and which often expect to get something useful in return for their investments, something profitable.
The early cottage industry of science had been essentially self-supporting. Much could be done without expensive equipment. People studied what was conveniently at hand, so there was little need for funds to support travel. Interested patrons and local benefactors could provide the small resources needed for occasional meetings and the publication of findings.
Up to about the middle of the 20th century, universities were able to provide the funds needed for basic research in chemistry and biology and physics. The first sign that exceptional resources could be needed had come in the 1920s when Lawrence constructed the first large “atom-smashing machine”; but that and the need for expensive astronomical telescopes remained outliers in the requirements for the support of scientific research overall.
From about the time of the Second World War, however, research going beyond what had already been accomplished began to require ever more expensive and specialized equipment as well as considerable infrastructure: technicians to support the equipment, glass-blowers and secretaries and book-keepers and librarians, and managers of such ancillary staff; so researchers increasingly came to need support beyond that available from individual patrons or universities. Academic research came to rely increasingly on getting grants for specific research projects from public agencies or from wealthy private foundations.
Although those sources of research funds typically claim that they want to support simply “the best science”, their view of what the best science is does not necessarily jibe with the judgments of the individual researchers [4].
At the same time as research in universities was calling on outside sources of funding, an increasing number of industries were setting up their own laboratories for research specifically toward creating and improving their products and services. Such product-specific “R&D” (research and development) sometimes turned up novel basic knowledge, or revealed the need for such fundamentally new understanding. One consequence has been that some really striking scientific advances have come from such famous industrial laboratories as Bell Telephone Laboratories or the Research Laboratory of General Electric. Researchers employed in industry have received a considerable number of Nobel Prizes, often jointly with academics [5].
Under these new circumstances, as Ziman [3] pointed out, the traditional distinction between “applied” research and “pure” or “basic” research lost its meaning.
Ziman rephrased the Mertonian norms as the nice acronym CUDOS, adding the “O” for originality, quite appropriately since within the scientific community credit was and is given to for the most innovative, original contributions; CUDOS, or preferably “kudos”, being the Greek term for acclaim of exceptional accomplishment. By contrast, Ziman proposed for the norms that obtain in a corporate scientific enterprise, be it government or private, the acronym PLACE: Researchers nowadays get their rewards not by adhering to the Mertonian norms but by producing Proprietary findings whose significance may be purely Local rather than universal, the subject of research having been chosen under the Authority of an employer or patron and not by the individual researcher, who is Commissioned to do the work as an Expert employee.

Ziman too did not mention honesty; like Merton he simply took it for granted.
Ziman had made an outstanding career in solid-state physics before, in his middle years, he began to publish, starting in 1968 [6] highly insightful works about how science functions, in particular what makes it reliable. In the late 1960s, it had still been reasonable to take honesty in science for granted; but by the time Ziman published Prometheus Bound, honesty in science could no longer be taken for granted; Ziman had failed to notice some of what was happening in scientific activity. Competition for resources and for career advancement had increased to a quite disturbing extent, presumably the impetus for the increasing frequency with which scientists were found to have cheated in some way. Even published, supposedly peer-reviewed research failed later attempted confirmation in many cases, and all too often it was revealed as simply false, faked [7].
More about that in a following blog post.

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[1]    “The Royal Societies [sic] claim to be the oldest is based on the fact that they developed out of a group that started meeting in Gresham College in 1645 but unlike the Leopoldina this group was informal and even ceased to meet for two years between 1658 and 1660” — according to The Renaissance Mathematicus, “It wasn’t the first but…”
[2]    Robert K. Merton, “The normative structure of science” (1942); most readily accessible as pp. 267–78 in The Sociology of Science (ed. N. Storer, University of Chicago Press, 1973) a collection of Merton’s work
[3]    John Ziman, Prometheus Bound: Science in a Dynamic Steady State, Cambridge University Press, 1994
[4]    Richard Muller, awarded a prize by the National Science Foundation, pointed out that truly innovative studies are unlikely to be funded and need to be carried out more or less surreptitiously; and Charles Townes, who developed masers and lasers, testified to his difficulty in getting research support for that ground-breaking work, or even encouragement from some of his distinguished older colleagues —
Richard A. Muller, “Innovation and scientific funding”, Science, 209 (1980) 880–3
Charles Townes, How the Laser Happened: Adventures of a Scientist, Oxford University Press , 1999
[5]    Karina Cummings, “Nobel Science Prizes in industry”;
Nobel Laureates and Research Affiliations
[6]    John Ziman, Public Knowledge (1968); followed by The Force of
Knowledge
(1976); Reliable Knowledge (1978); An Introduction to Science
Studies
(1984); Prometheus Bound (1994); Real Science (2000);
all published by Cambridge University Press
[7]    John P. A. Ioannidis, “Why most published research findings are false”,
         PLoS Medicine, 2 (2005) e124
Daniele Fanelli, “How many scientists fabricate and falsify research? A systematic review and meta-analysis of survey data”,
PLoS ONE, 4(#5, 2009): e5738

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How science has changed: Who are the scientists?

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/04/07

Scientists are people who do science, Nowadays scientists are people who work at science as a full-time occupation and who earn their living at it.
Science means studying and learning about the natural world, and human beings have been doing that since time immemorial; indeed, in a sense all animals do that, but humans have developed efficient means to transmit gained knowledge to later generations.
At any rate, there was science long before [1] there were scientists, full-time professional students of Nature. Our present-day store of scientific knowledge includes things that have been known for at least thousands of years. For example, from more than 6,000 years ago in Mesopotamia (Babylon, Sumer) we still use base-60 mathematics for the number of degrees in the arcs of a circle (360) and the number of seconds in a minute and the number of minutes in an hour. We still cry “Eureka” (found!!) for a new discovery, as supposedly Archimedes did more than 2000 years ago when he recognized that floating an object in water was an easy way to measure its volume (by the increase in height of the water) and that the object’s weight equaled the weight of the water it displaced. The Islamic science of the Middle Ages has left its mark in language with, for instance, algebra or alchemy.
Despite those early pieces of science that are still with us today, most of what the conventional wisdom thinks it knows about science is based on what historians call “modern” science, which is generally agreed to have emerged around the 17th century in what is usually called The Scientific Revolution.
The most widely known bits of science are surely the most significant advances. Those are typically associated with the names of people who either originated them or made them popular [2]; so many school-children hear about Archimedes and perhaps Euclid and Ptolemy; and for modern science, even non-science college students are likely to hear of Galileo and Newton and Darwin and Einstein. Chemistry students will certainly hear about Lavoisier and Priestley and Wöhler and Haber; and so on, just as most of us have learned about general history in terms of the names of important individuals. So far as science is concerned, most people are likely to gain the general impression that it has been done and is being done by a relatively small number of outstanding individuals, geniuses in fact. That impression could only be entrenched by the common thought-bite that “science” overthrew “religion” sometime in the 19th century, leading to the contemporary role of science as society’s ultimate arbiter of true knowledge.
The way in which scientists in modern times have been featured in books and in films also gives the impression that scientists are somehow special, that they are by no means ordinary people. Roslynn Haynes [3] identified several stereotypes of scientists, for example “adventurer” or “the noble scientist as hero or savior of society”, with most stereotypes however being less than favorable — “mad, bad, dangerous scientist, unscrupulous in the exercise of power”. But no matter whether good or bad in terms of morals or ethics, society’s stereotype of “scientist” is “far from an ordinary person”.
That is accurate enough for the founders of modern science, but it became progressively less true as more and more people came to take part in some sort of scientific activity. Real change began in the early decades of the 19th century, when the term “scientist” seems to have been used for the first time [4].
By the end of the 19th century it had become possible to earn a living through being a scientist, through teaching or through doing research that led to commercially useful results (as in the dye-stuff industry) or through doing both in what nowadays are called research universities. By the early 20th century, scientists no longer deserved to be seen as outstanding individual geniuses, but they were still a comparatively elite group of people with quite special talents and interests. Nowadays, however, there is nothing distinctly elite about being a scientist. In terms of numbers (in the USA), scientists at roughly 2.7 million are comparable to engineers at 2.1 million (in ~2001), less elite than lawyers (~ 1 million) or doctors (~800,000); and teachers, at ~3.5 million, are almost as elite as scientists.
Nevertheless, so far as the general public and the conventional wisdom are concerned, there is still an aura of being special and distinctly elite associated with science and being a scientist, no doubt because science is so widely acknowledged as the ultimate authority on what is true about the workings of the natural world; and because “scientist” brings to most minds someone like Darwin or Einstein or Galileo or Newton.
So the popular image of scientists is wildly wrong about today’s world. Scientists today are unexceptional white-collar workers. Certainly a few of them could still be properly described as geniuses, just as a few engineers or doctors could be — or those at the high tail-end of any distribution of human talent; but by and large, there is nothing exceptional about scientists nowadays. That is an enormous change from times past, and the conventional wisdom has not begun to be aware of that change.
One aspect of that change is that the first scientists were amateurs seeking to satisfy their curiosity about how the world works, whereas nowadays scientists are technicians or technical experts who do what they are told to do by employers or enabled to do by patrons. A very consequential corollary is that the early scientists had nothing to gain by being untruthful, whereas nowadays the rewards potentially available to prominent scientists have tempted a significant number to practice varying degrees of dishonesty.
Another way of viewing the change that science and scientists have undergone is that science used to be a cottage industry largely self-supported by independent entrepreneurial workers, whereas nowadays science is a corporate behemoth whose workers are apparatchiks, cogs in bureaucratic machinery; and in that environment, individual scientists are subject to conflicts of interest and a variety of pressures owing to their membership in a variety of groups.

Science today is not a straightforward seeking of truth about how the world works; and claims emerging from the scientific community are not necessarily made honestly; and even when made honestly, they are not necessarily true. More about those things in future posts.

=======================================

[1]    For intriguing tidbits about pre-scientific developments, see “Timeline Outline View”
[2]    In reality, most discoveries hinge on quite a lot of work and learning that prefigured them and made them possible, as discussed for instance by Tony Rothman in Everything’s Relative: And Other Fables from Science and Technology (Wiley, 2003). That what matters most is not the act of discovery but the making widely known is the insight embodied in Stigler’s Law, that discoveries are typically named after the last person who discovered them, not the first (S. M. Stigler, “Stigler’s Law of Eponymy”, Transactions of the N.Y. Academy of Science, II: 39 [1980] 147–58)
[3]    Roslynn D. Haynes, From Faust to Strangelove: Representations of the Scientist in Western Literature, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994; also “Literature Has shaped the public perception of science”, The Scientist, 12 June 1989, pp. 9, 11
[4]    William Whewell is usually credited with coining the term “scientist” in the early 1830s

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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).

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 »

 
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