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Science is broken

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2017/11/21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can truth prevail?

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2017/10/08

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

What science says about global warming and climate change

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2017/07/06

There is strong evidence that global temperatures are not significantly dependent on the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (Climate-change facts: Temperature is not determined by carbon dioxide).

That’s what science — the evidence, the facts — says.

Nevertheless, the overwhelmingly widespread belief among public and governments is the opposite, believing carbon dioxide to be the single most important determinant of global temperature and climate.

How could such a disparity between fact and public belief come about?

President Eisenhower foresaw the possibility half a century ago:
“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” (Farewell speech, 17 January 1961).

Such influence of a scientific-technological elite is possible because “science” has become believed in superstitiously: on authority, not because it offers sound evidence and logic (Superstitious belief in science). A number of popular misunderstandings about science conspire to maintain this state of affairs, notably a failure to appreciate how drastically different scientific activities became following World War II, different from earlier times; science nowadays is not self-correcting and it does not follow the so-called scientific method. A full discussion of those points is in my just-published Science Is Not What You Think — How it has changed, Why we can’t trust it, How it can be fixed.

The “fix” refers to the possible establishment of a Science Court to adjudicate expert differences over technical issues. That was first suggested more than half a century ago when the experts were at loggerheads and arguing publicly over whether power could be generated safely using nuclear reactors.
More recently, some legal scholars have pointed out that such an institution could help the legal system to cope with cases where technical issues play an important role.
Beyond that, I suggest that a Science Court is needed to force the prevailing “scientific consensus” to respond substantively to critiques like those made by the many critics of human-caused global warming and climate change.

Posted in consensus, global warming, politics and science, science is not truth, science policy, scientific literacy, scientism | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Vaccines: The good, the bad, and the ugly

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2017/05/21

Only in recent years have I begun to wonder whether there are reasons not to follow official recommendations about vaccination. In the 1930s, I had the then-usual vaccinations, including (in Austria, perhaps Europe) against smallpox. A few others in later years when I traveled quite a bit.

But the Andrew Wakefield affair *, and the introduction of Gardasil **, showed me that official sources had become as untrustworethy about vaccines as they have become about prescription drugs.

It seems that Big Pharma had just about run out of new diseases to invent against which to create drugs and had turned to snake-oil-marketing of vaccines. We are told, for example, that 1 in 3 people will experience shingles in their lifetime and should get vaccinated against it. Have one in three of your aged friends ever had shingles? Not among my family and friends. One of my buddies got himself vaccinated, and came down with shingles a couple of weeks later. His physician asserted that the attack would have been more severe if he hadn’t been vaccinated — no need for a control experiment, or any need to doubt official claims.

So it’s remarkable that the Swedish Government has resisted attempts to make vaccinations compulsory (“Sweden bans mandatory vaccinations over ‘serious health concerns’” by Baxter Dmitry, 12 May 2017).

That article includes extracts from an interview of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., on the Tucker Carlson Show, which included such tidbits as the continued presence of thimerosal (organic mercury compound) in many vaccines including the seasonal flu vaccines that everyone is urged to get; and the huge increase in number of things against which vaccination is being recommended:

“I got three vaccines and I was fully compliant. I’m 63 years old. My children got 69 doses of 16 vaccines to be compliant. And a lot of these vaccines aren’t even for communicable diseases. Like Hepatitis B, which comes from unprotected sex, or using or sharing needles – why do we give that to a child on the first day of their life? And it was loaded with mercury.”

 

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“Autism and Vaccines: Can there be a final unequivocal answer?”
      “YES: Thimerosal CAN induce autism”

** See “Gardasil and Cervarix: Vaccination insanity” and many other posts recovered with SEARCH for “Gardasil” on my blogs: https://scimedskeptic.wordpress.com/?s=gardasil and https://hivskeptic.wordpress.com/?s=gardasil

Posted in fraud in medicine, legal considerations, medical practices, politics and science, prescription drugs, science is not truth, science policy, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Superstitious belief in science

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2017/05/16

Most people have a very misled, unrealistic view of “science”. A very damaging consequence is that scientific claims are given automatic respect even when that is unwarranted — as it always is with new claims, say about global warming. Dramatic changes in how science is done, especially since mid-20th century, make it less trustworthy than earlier.

In 1987, historian John Burnham published How Superstition Won and Science Lost, arguing that modern science had not vanquished popular superstition by inculcating scientific, evidence-based thinking; rather, science had itself become on worldly matters the accepted authority whose pronouncements are believed without question, in other words superstitiously, by society at large.

Burnham argued through detailed analysis of how science is popularized, and especially how that has changed over the decades. Some 30 years later, Burnham’s insight is perhaps even more important. Over those years, certain changes in scientific activity have also become evident that support Burnham’s conclusion from different directions: science has grown so much, and has become so specialized and bureaucratic and dependent on outside patronage, that it has lost any ability to self-correct. As with religion in medieval times, official pronouncements about science are usually accepted without further ado, and minority voices of dissent are dismissed and denigrated.

A full discussion with source references, far too long for a blog post, is available here.

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

Speaking Truth to Big Pharma Power

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2017/03/18

Some time ago I recommended the newsletter of Mad in America, a diligent and reliable commentary on the flaws of modern psychiatric medicine.

A recent issue had links to a superb series of articles by David Healy, a psychiatrist who has spoken truth to Big Pharma and to the conventional (lack of) wisdom, at considerable personal cost. Healy also founded a website with information about dru side effects, RxRisk:
Tweeting While Psychiatry Burns
Tweeting while Medicine Burns (Psychopharmacology Part 2)
Burn Baby Burn (Psychopharmacology Part 3)

Also useful in this newsletter, link to a report of a meta-analysis confirming the Minimal Effectiveness and High Risk of SSRIs

Posted in conflicts of interest, medical practices, politics and science, prescription drugs, science is not truth, scientific culture, scientists are human | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Political Correctness in Science

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2017/03/06

Supposedly, science investigates via the scientific method: testing the validity of hunches (hypotheses) against reality and allowing reality to establish beliefs, thereby discarding disproved pre-judgments, hunches, prejudices, biases. Scientific theories. are determined by facts, evidence.   Science is empirical, pragmatic; it does not accept beliefs on authority or from tradition.

Historians, philosophers, sociologists, scholars of Science & Technology Studies have long recognized that this view of science is mythical (i), but it continues to be taught in schools and in social-science texts and it is the conventional wisdom found in the media and in public discourse generally. A corollary of the misconception that scientific theories have been successfully tested against reality is the widespread belief that what science says, what the contemporary scientific consensus is, can safely be accepted as truth for all practical purposes.

So it seems incongruous, paradoxical, that large numbers of scientists should disagree violently, on any given issue, over what science really says. Yet that is the case on a seemingly increasing range of topics (ii), some of them of great public import, for instance whether HIV causes AIDS (iii) or whether human-generated carbon dioxide is the prime cause of global warming and climate change. On those latter matters as well as some others, the difference of opinion within the scientific community parallels political views: left-leaning (“liberal”) opinion regards it as unquestionably true that HIV causes AIDS and that human-generated carbon dioxide is the prime cause of global warming and climate change, whereas right-leaning (“conservative”) opinion denies that those assertions constitute “settled science” or have been proved beyond doubt. Those who harbor these “conservative” views are often labeled “denialists”; it is not to be countenanced that politically liberal individuals should be global warming skeptics (iv).

In other words, it is politically incorrect to doubt that HIV causes AIDS or that human-generated carbon dioxide is the prime cause of global warming. It requires no more than cursory observation of public discourse to recognize this pervasive phenomenon. Governments and Nobel-Prize committees illustrate that those beliefs are officially acted on as though they were established truths. One cadre of mainstream scientists even wants criminal charges laid (v) against those who question that global warming is caused primarily by human-generated carbon dioxide. So political correctness is present within the scientific community in the USA.

I’m of a sufficient age to be able to testify that half a century ago it would not have occurred to any researchers in a democratic society to urge the government to prosecute for criminal conspiracy other researchers who disagreed with them. Declaring certain scientific research programs as politically incorrect and therefore substantively without merit, and persecuting those who perpetrated such research, characterized totalitarian regimes, not free societies. Stalin’s Soviet Union declared wrong the rest of the world’s understanding of genetics and imprisoned exponents of it; it also declared wrong the rest of the world’s understanding of chemical bonding and quantum mechanics. Nazism’s Deutsche Physik banned relativity and other “Jewish” science.

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Political correctness holds that HIV causes AIDS and that human-generated carbon dioxide is the prime cause of global warming. Those beliefs also characterize left-leaning opinion. Why is political correctness a left-wing phenomenon?

In contemporary usage, political correctness means “marked by or adhering to a typically progressive orthodoxy on issues involving especially ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or ecology” (vi) or “conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated” (vii), evidently “progressive” or “liberal” or Left-ish views. But those descriptions fail to capture the degree of fanatical dogmatism that can lead practicing scientists to urge that those of differing views be criminally prosecuted; political correctness includes the wish to control what everyone believes.

Thus political correctness has been appropriately called “liberal fascism”, which also reveals why it is a phenomenon of the ultra-extreme Left. Attempted control of beliefs and corresponding behavior is openly proclaimed, unashamedly, by the extreme Right; it is called, and calls itself, fascism, Nazism, and needs no other name. But the Left, the “liberals”, claim to stand for and to support individual freedom of belief and speech; so a name is needed for the phenomenon by which proclamations of liberal ideals are coupled with attempts to enforce adherence to particular beliefs and social norms. Political correctness is the hypocrisy of self-proclaimed liberals functioning as authoritarian fascists.

That hypocrisy pervades political correctness, I was able to observe at first hand during my years in academic administration. People say things they don’t mean, and that they know everyone knows they don’t mean, and no one dares point to the absence of the Emperor’s clothes. For instance, the Pooh-Bahs assert that affirmative action means goals and not quotas, even as hiring practices and incentives demonstrate that they are quotas. For innumerable examples gathered over the years, see the newsletter I edited from 1993 until my retirement at the end of 1999 (viii).

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Science had represented for a long time the virtues associated with honest study of reality. Around the 1930s and 1940s, sociologist Robert Merton could describe the norms evidently governing scientific activity as communal sharing of universally valid observations and conclusions obtained by disinterested people deploying organized skepticism. That description does not accommodate researchers urging criminal prosecution of peers who disagree with them about evidence or conclusions. It does not accommodate researchers lobbying publishers to withdraw articles accepted for publication following normal review; and those norms do not describe the now prevalent circumstances in which one viewpoint suppresses others through refusal to allow publication or participation in scientific meetings (ix).

Science, in other words, is not at all what it used to be, and it is not what the popular view of it is, that common view having been based on what scientific activity used to be. It has not yet been widely recognized, how drastically science has changed since about the middle of the 20th century (x). Among the clues indicative of those changes are the spate of books since the 1980s that describe intense self-interested competition in science (xi) and the increasing frequency of fraud, again beginning about in the 1980s, that led to establishment of the federal Office of Research Integrity. That political correctness has surfaced within the scientific community is another illustration of how radically different are the circumstances of scientific activity now compared to a century ago and by contrast to the outdated conventional wisdom about science.

Political correctness began to pervade society as a whole during the same years as science was undergoing drastic change. The roots of political correctness in society at large may be traceable to the rebellious students of the 1960s, but the hegemony of their ideals in the form of political correctness became obvious only in the 1980s, when the term “political correctness” came into common usage:

The origin of the phrase in modern times is generally credited to gallows humor among Communists in the Stalin era (xii):

“Comrade, your statement is factually incorrect.”
“Yes, it is. But it is politically correct.”

That political correctness is in contemporary times a Left-ish phenomenon is therefore true to its modern origin.

How seriously political correctness corrupts science should be obvious, since it more than breaks all the traditional norms. Those norms are often summarized as universalism, communalism, disinterestedness, skepticism — taking for granted as well simple honesty and absence of hypocrisy. Nowadays what was taken for granted no longer applies. It is simply dishonest to assert that something has been proven beyond doubt when strong contrary evidence exists that is taken seriously by competent researchers. One cannot, of course, look into the minds of those who assert certainty where there is none (xiii), but among possible explanations, hypocrisy may be the least culpable.

Science cannot be isolated from the rest of society, so the incursion of political correctness into science is understandable. Moreover, what used to be the supposedly isolated ivory tower of academe is nowadays the very epicenter where political correctness breeds and from where it spreads. Whatever the causes may be, however, it is important to recognize how science has changed and that it can be corrupted by the same influences as the rest of society.

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i        Henry H. Bauer, Scientific Literacy and Myth of the Scientific Method, University of Illinois Press 1992; http://www.press.uillinois.edu/books/catalog/77xzw7sp9780252064364.html.

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

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

iv      Henry H. Bauer, “A politically liberal global-warming skeptic?”, 2012/11/25; https://scimedskeptic.wordpress.com/2012/11/25/a-politically-liberal-global-warming-skeptic.

v       Letter to President Obama, Attorney General Lynch, and OSTP Director Holdren, 1 September 2015; http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2015/09/19/letter-to-president-obama-investigate-deniers-under-rico.
The original pdf posted in 2003 at http://www.iges.org/letter/LetterPresidentAG.pdf is no longer there. The Wayback Machine says, “The letter that was inadvertently posted on this web site has been removed. It was decided more than two years ago that the Institute of Global Environment and Society (IGES) would be dissolved when the projects then undertaken by IGES would be completed. All research projects by IGES were completed in July 2015, and the IGES web site is in the process of being decommissioned”.
As of March 2017, however, a Google search for “Institute of Global Environment and Society” led to a website with that header, albeit augmented by “COLA”: http://www.m.monsoondata.org/home.html accessed 4 March 2017. Right-leaning Internet sources offer insight into this seeming mystery: http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2015/09/22/lead-climate-scientist-behind-obamarico-letter-serious-questions-answer/ and http://leftexposed.org/2015/10/institute-of-global-environment-and-society, both accessed 4 March 2017.

vi      http://www.dictionary.com/browse/politically-correct?s=t (accessed 4 March 2017).

vii     https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/politically%20correct (accessed 4 March 2017).

viii    https://web.archive.org/web/20131030115950/http://fbox.vt.edu/faculty/aaup/index4.html.

ix      Ref. ii, especially chapter 3.

x       Henry H. Bauer, “Three stages of modern science”, Journal of Scientific Exploration, 27 (2013) 505-13; https://www.dropbox.com/s/xl6jaldtx3uuz8b/JSE273-3stages.pdf?dl=0.

xi      Natalie Angier, Natural Obsessions: The Search for the Oncogene, Houghton Mifflin 1987; David H. Clark, The Quest for SS433, Viking 1985; Sheldon Glashow with Ben Bova, Interactions: A Journey through the Mind of a Particle Physicist and the Matter of the World, Warner 1988; Jeff Goldberg Anatomy of a Scientific Discovery, Bantam 1988; Stephen S. Hall, Invisible Frontiers: The Race to Synthesize a Human Gene, Atlantic Monthly Press 1987; Robert M. Hazen, The Breakthrough: The Race for the Superconductor, Summit 1988; David L. Hull, Science as a Process: An Evolutionary Account of the Social and Conceptual Development of Science, University of Chicago Press 1988; Robert Kanigel, Apprentice to Genius: The Making of a Scientific Dynasty, Macmillan 1986; Charles E. Levinthal,. Messengers of Paradise: Opiates and the Brain, Anchor/Doubleday 1988; Roger Lewin, Bones of Contention: Controversies in the Search for Human Origins, Simon and Schuster 1987; Ed Regis, Who Got Einstein’s Office: Eccentricity and Genius at the Institute for Advanced Study, Addison-Wesley 1987; Bruce Schechter, The Path of No Resistance: The Story of the Revolution in Superconductivity, Touchstone (Simon and Schuster) 1990; Solomon H. Snyder, Brainstorming: The Science and Politics of Opiate Research, Harvard University Press 1989; Gary Taubes, Nobel Dreams: Power, Deceit, and the Ultimate Experiment, Random House 1986; Robert Teitelman, Gene Dreams: Wall Street, Academia, and the Rise of Biotechnology, Basic Books 1989; Nicholas Wade, The Nobel Duel: Two Scientists’ 21-Year Race to Win the World’s Most Coveted Research Prize, Doubleday 1981.

xii     Jon Miltimore, “The historical origin of ‘political correctness’”, 5 December 2016, http://www.intellectualtakeout.org/blog/historical-origin-political-correctness; Angelo M. Codevilla, “The rise of political correctness”, Claremont Review of Books, Fall 2016, pp. 37-43; http://www.claremont.org/download_pdf.php?file_name=1106Codevilla.pdf.

xiii    Henry H. Bauer , “Shamans of Scientism: Conjuring certainty where there is none”, Journal of Scientific Exploration, 28 (2014) 491-504.

 

Posted in legal considerations, media flaws, politics and science, science is not truth, scientific culture, scientists are human, the scientific method, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Science: A Danger for Public Policy?!

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2017/02/08

Public policies rely on advice and consent from science about an ever wider range of issues (environmental challenges, individual and public health. infrastructure and its safety, military systems). Surely this is unquestionably good, that public policies are increasingly pragmatic through respecting the facts delivered by science?

No. Not necessarily, not always.

The central problem is that science — humankind’s understanding of nature, of the world — doesn’t just deliver facts. Science is perpetually incomplete. On any given question it may not be unequivocal.

The media, the public, policy makers, the legal system all presume that a contemporary consensus in the scientific community can be safely accepted as true for all practical purposes. The trouble is that any contemporary scientific consensus may later prove to have been wrong.

If this assertion seems outlandish —theoretically possible but so unlikely as to be ignorable in practice — it is because the actual history and nature of science are not widely enough understood.

The contemporary scientific consensus has in fact been wrong about many, perhaps even most of the greatest advances in science: Planck and quantums, Wegener and drifting continents, Mendel and quantitative genetic heredity; the scientific consensus and 1976   Nobel Prize for discovering the viral cause of mad-cow diseases was wrong; that stomach ulcers are caused by bacteria had been pooh-poohed by the mainstream consensus for some two decades before adherents of the consensus were willing to examine the evidence and then award a Nobel Prize in 2005.

Historical instances of a mistaken scientific consensus being have seemingly not affected major public policies in catastrophic ways, although one possible precedent for such unhappy influence may be the consensus that supported the eugenics movement around the 1920s, resulting in enforced sterilization of tens of thousands of people in the USA as recently as the latter half of the 20th century.

Nowadays, though, the influence of science is so pervasive that the danger has become quite tangible that major public policies might be based on a scientific consensus that is at best doubtfully valid and at worst demonstrably wrong.

The possibility that significant public actions might be dictated by an unproven scientific consensus was explicitly articulated by President Eisenhower. His warning against the potential influence of the military-industrial complex is quite often cited, but little cited is another warning he gave in the same speech:

“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.”

That can happen when a contemporary scientific consensus is accepted as practical truth, as settled science. The crucial distinction could hardly be explained more clearly than Michael Crichton did in an invited lecture at CalTech:

“Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough. Nobody says the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. . . . It would never occur to anyone to speak that way.”

Crichton had in mind the present-day scientific consensus that human-caused generation of carbon dioxide is chiefly responsible for rising global temperatures and associated major climate-change. The fact that there are highly competent public dissenters — including such winners of Nobel Prizes as Ivar Giaever (Physics 1973), Robert Laughlin (Physics 1998), Kary Mullis (Chemistry 1993) — demonstrates that human-caused global warming is a consensus, not the unanimity associated with such “settled science” as the Periodic Table of the chemical elements or that E=mc2.

The proponents of human-caused global warming constitute an effective elite. Since they represent the contemporary consensus, they largely control peer review, research funding, and which research gets published; and they hold important positions in the halls of power of individual nations as well as in such international organizations as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The history of science is unequivocal: Contemporary scientific consensuses have been wrong on some of the most significant issues. Those who determine public policies would do well to seek an impartial comparison and analysis of the substantive claims made both by proponents of a mainstream consensus and by those who claim that the evidence does not prove that consensus to be unquestionably correct.

In absence of an impartial comparative analysis, public discourse and public actions are determined by ideology and not by evidence. “Liberals” assert that the mainstream consensus on global warming equals “science” and anyone who properly respects the environment is supposed to accept this scientific consensus. On the other side, many “conservatives” beg to differ, as when Senator Inhofe flourishes a snowball. One doubts that most proponents of either side could give an accurate summary of the pertinent evidence. That is not a very good way to discuss or to make public policy.

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This little essay had been offered as an Op-Ed to the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times. the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Financial Times (London), and USA Today. That it appears here confirms that none of those media stalwarts wanted to use it.

Posted in consensus, global warming, media flaws, politics and science, science is not truth, science policy, scientism, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

How Science Has Changed — notably since World War II

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2017/01/01

The way science is usually mentioned, including its history, seems to imply a fundamental continuity in the development of modern science from its origins around the 16th-17th centuries (Galileo, Newton) to the present time, via the understanding of heredity (Mendel, much later DNA), of evolution (Darwin, Lynn Margulis, many others), of atomic structure and chemical bonding, of relativity and quantum mechanics, and much else.

One can certainly discern a continuity in these discoveries and accumulations of facts and the development of ever-better, more encompassing explanations. But the nature of scientific activity — who does science and how they do it — is best understood not as a continuum over this period but as three clearly distinguishable stages in which the interaction of science with society as a whole is significantly different: what the social place of scientists is, how their work is supported, how the fruits of science are disseminated and how they are accepted (or not accepted) outside science itself.

To understand the role of science in today’s worlds it is essential to understand this history.

The birth of “modern” science is credited uncontroversially to “The” Scientific Revolution of the 17th century, but there is not equally general recognition that there have been three distinctly and significantly different stages of scientific activity since then.

In the first stage, a variety of people — clergy, craftsmen, aristocrats, entrepreneurs —were seeking to satisfy their curiosity about how the world works; truth-seeking was effectively in the hands of amateurs, people doing it for the sake of doing it, truth-seeking was their chief controlling interest. Missteps taken at this stage resulted chiefly from the inherent difficulty of making discoveries and from such inherent human flaws as pride and avarice.

The second stage, roughly much of the later 19th century and first half of the 20th, saw science becoming a career, a plausible way to make a living, not unlike other careers in academe or in professions like engineering: respectable and potentially satisfying but not any obvious path to great influence or wealth. Inevitably there were conflicts of interest between furthering a career and following objectively where evidence pointed, but competition and collegiality served well   enough to keep the progress of science little affected by conflicting career interests. The way to get ahead was by doing good science.

In the third and present stage, which began at about the middle of the 20th century, science faces a necessary change in ethos as its centuries-long expansion at an exponential rate has changed to a zero-sum, steady-state situation that has fostered intensely cutthroat competition. At the same time, the record of science’s remarkable previous successes has led industry and government to co-opt and exploit science and scientists. Those interactions offer the possibility for individual practitioners of science to gain considerable public influence and wealth. That possibility tempts to corruption. Outright fraud in research has become noticeably more frequent, and public pronouncements about matters of science are made not for the purpose of enlightenment on truths about the natural world but largely for self-interested bureaucratic and commercial motives. As a result. one cannot nowadays rely safely on the soundness of what authoritative institutions and individuals say about science.

For a full discussion with pertinent citations and references, see my article “Three Stages of Modern Science”, Journal of Scientific Exploration, 27 (2013) 505-13.

Posted in conflicts of interest, fraud in science, funding research, politics and science, science is not truth, scientific culture, scientists are human | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

Trust science at your peril: Beware of scientism and political correctness

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2016/06/25

Science is, ideally, a quest for authentic understanding of the world, of everything in the universe. Scientism is a religious faith which preaches that only science is capable of gaining such authentic understanding and that contemporary scientific claims are for all practical purposes true.

In reality, science is a perpetually unfinished quest. The history of science tells of false trails followed, of errors made, of misguided theories held dogmatically long after the evidence had turned against them, of researchers motivated by self-interest and influenced — corrupted, in a sense — by conflicts of interest.

Science has progressed marvelously, but the progress has not come steadily and linearly, it has come through continual correction of minor errors as well as periodic scientific revolutions in which former dogmas were discarded and replaced by different theories, different beliefs, different dogmas, sometimes to an extent capable of changing world-views.

Those realities have been described and documented in many articles and books over many decades (1), yet the conventional wisdom seems ignorant of them. In the popular view, science deploys the scientific method which guarantees getting things right through scrupulous adherence to facts, so that the scientific consensus on any given topic at any given time can supposedly be relied on quite safely to guide personal and public actions.

People who question the mainstream view, the official positions disseminated by such bodies as the National Academy, the Royal Society of London, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, the World Health Organization, etc., are dismissed as ignoramuses on a par with those who still believe that the Earth is flat, and they are denigrated, attacked, and suppressed as “denialists” — for example, the eminently qualified scientists who question whether HIV really causes AIDS (2), or whether carbon dioxide is the prime cause of global warming (3), or whether the universe began in a Big Bang about 13 billion years ago (4).

In other words, the officially accepted conventional wisdom functions as an exercise of scientism, proclaiming as true — as not to be questioned — any contemporary claims that have the imprimatur of a prevailing scientific consensus.

The most common popular, mass-media-disseminated beliefs about science fall in line with the official scientistic conventional wisdom. Prominent popularizers of the scientistic faith include people sometimes described as the “New Atheists” — see for instance Curtis White in The Science Delusion (Melville House, 2014), who names among others Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Bill Mahler. Self-styled “Skeptics” (for instance Michael Shermer and the late Martin Gardner) are also apostles of scientism, as illustrated in associated publications (Skeptic, Skeptical Inquirer).

But promiscuously indiscriminate faith in currently accepted scientific knowledge is unwarranted. One does not need the immense scholarly literature (1) to recognize that, it is already obvious from first principles and fundamental logic:

–>      Science is carried out by human beings and is therefore inherently fallible.

–>      Scientific theories are neither uniquely determined nor proved by any amount of factual evidence. The proverbial black swans demonstrate that no matter how comprehensive or long-standing any given body of evidence and associated explanations may be, no matter that an hypothesis may have been thoroughly tested and accepted via the scientific method, there may remain lurking in the unknown unknown some bits of data that can disprove the accepted theory instantly and devastatingly.

The popular adherence to scientistic dogmas is immensely dangerous because it may support public policies that cause tangible damage, sometimes on a large scale. Historical examples are fairly well known, but their lesson has not been learned; perhaps because a corollary of contemporary scientistic faith seems to be the notion, implicit if not explicit, that even if science was fallible in earlier times, today’s science is so advanced, so sophisticated, that it is no longer dangerously fallible. That and similar corollaries are acts of faith unsupported by evidence, thereby confirming that scientism is a quasi-religious faith: it is unshakeable, embraced as absolutely and self-evidently true.

A couple of recent books (5) describe the considerable damage done by public policies based on a scientific consensus which remained active during something like half of the 20th century: the policies of forced sterilization of purportedly feeble-minded individuals. This was an exercise in eugenics, a program intended to improve the national genetic stock, and it was supported and justified by the prevailing scientific consensus.

In reviewing these books, David Oshinsky focuses on the Supreme Court’s 8-to-1 decision in 1927, written by the revered Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and agreed to by the “liberal” Jewish Louis Brandeis as well as by 6 other Associate Justices, upholding the forced sterilization of those judged to be mentally defective: “Was it an isolated misstep or something more: an indictment of Justice Holmes and the Progressive movement he appeared to embrace?” (6).

Oshinsky describes the IMBECILES book by Cohen as “a superb history of eugenics in America, from its beginnings as an offshoot of social Darwinism — human survival of the fittest — to its rise as a popular movement, advocating the state-sponsored sterilization of ‘feeble­minded, insane, epileptic, inebriate, criminalistic and other degenerate persons’.”

The point I want to make here is that the forced sterilization of tens of thousands of Americans, which continued in some States into the 1960s, is nowadays described as an outrage based on pseudo-science, yet it had relied on what was regarded at the time as perfectly sound science supported fervently by individuals whose reputation remains that of progressive reformers: as well as Justices Holmes and Brandeis, strong advocates of this eugenic program included other “progressive icons like Theodore Roosevelt and the birth control champion Margaret Sanger . . . . people who combined ‘extravagant faith in science and the state with an outsized confidence in their own expertise.’ . . . Science didn’t lie” (6).

This notion that science doesn’t lie, that it can always be believed, is a tenet of scientism, and it is baseless, quite wrong, as already noted. Yet this notion, this subconscious scientism continues to corrupt public discourse. Scientism is a faith held unwittingly by most popular media, including such elites as the New York Times; and it is held, again unwittingly, by today’s sociopolitical progressives or liberals.

When some claims by some scientists seem plausibly consistent with liberal, progressive programs, activists seize on them, make dogmas of the claims, and denigrate and attack those who disagree as unscientific denialists.

This circumstance is what has come to be called in recent decades “political correctness”: certain views are to be accepted as so self-evidently correct, objectively true — and by the way ethically and morally sound — that disagreeing with them is virtually a criminal act; and indeed actions that are politically incorrect may bring sanctions. Contemporary illustrations of such sanctions are the penalties imposed by colleges and universities on students and faculty who make politically incorrect statements, including the mere use of a word or a phrase that acts as a “trigger”, a “micro-aggression” that makes some individual belonging to a certified-discriminated-against minority feel uncomfortable (7).

That something is politically correct is shown when people who have no direct specific knowledge about a topic express with certainty a dogmatic opinion about it. They have obviously taken this opinion on faith, from sources congenial to them on ideological grounds, which may be based religiously, socially, politically — at any rate, not on actual evidence about the matter.

Contemporary scientific claims that have attained the status of politically correct include that HIV causes AIDS and that human-caused liberation of carbon dioxide is the prime cause of climate change. The manner in which media and individuals refer to these matters is an immediate proof that opinions about them are politically correct, not evidence-based.

For example, the vigilantes who most assiduously and viciously attack those who question whether HIV causes AIDS include an economist (Nicoli Nattrass), a graduate student (Ken Witwer), a psychologist (Seth Kalichman), a lawyer (Jeanne Bergman), an activist (Nathan Geffen) and others, all of whom feel qualified, despite their lack of appropriate qualifications, to denigrate eminent molecular biologists with deep knowledge of the subject, and even to demand that the National Library of Medicine remove a journal from MEDLINE (8).

Left-leaning media (say, MSNBC) treat HIV=AIDS as indisputable settled science; right-leaning media (say, Fox News) doubt that HIV causes AIDS.

Left-leaning media treat as indisputably settled science that human activities are responsible for global warming and climate change; right-leaning media doubt or deny that.

Nature, however, will not be mocked, and the truth is not determined by human ideologies. Public policies (and also private actions, of course) had best be based on the soundest, most probing and skeptical assessment of current knowledge-claims in light of the indisputable fact that no contemporary scientific consensus represents guaranteed truth.

If the present scientistic, politically correct beliefs about HIV/AIDS and about climate change are as misguided as were the scientistic, politically correct beliefs about mental deficiency and eugenics, then immense harm is being done and will continue to be done. Unfortunately, the plain evidence is that HIV does not cause AIDS (9, 10), and the notion that human activities are responsible for global warming and climate change is suggested only by highly complicated, sophisticated, and fallible computer programs that have already been wrong about the global cooling in the 1940s to 1970s and the lack of appreciable warming since about 2000 (4).

Forced sterilization as part of a eugenic program to improve the fitness of the population was supported by progressive reformers and by eminent medical and scientific experts. That physical traits are transmitted from one generation to another was known, scientifically as well as popularly. That behavioral characteristics are similarly transmitted was not obviously wrong, and when sanctioned by experts it became the conventional wisdom. So feeble-minded-ness, epilepsy, poverty, criminality and other socially undesirable characteristics came to be targets for elimination, by quarantining or sterilizing people and families where such characteristics had been noted (11). There was not sufficient dissent within expert communities to prevent what is now recognized as pseudo-science from becoming accepted as settled science, during the early decades of the 20th century: “Less than 100 years ago, America’s finest minds were convinced the nation was threatened by sexually insatiable female morons” (12). Those finest minds included, as well as the earlier mentioned progressive reformers, David Starr Jordan, a biologist specializing in ichthyology, an activist for peace, an eminent educator — president of Indiana University and later founding president of Stanford University — and moreover so concerned with distinguishing good science from bad science and pseudo-science that he had written a book about it (13), as well as works about eugenics (14).

So policy makers might be excused for succumbing to the “scientific” evidence supporting eugenics — a century ago. Nowadays, though, there is no similar excuse for sticking with the theory of HIV/AIDS or with the claim that it is indisputably settled science that global warming and climate change are humanly caused. Competent, qualified experts have published and spoken copiously, pointing to the deficiencies of the present scientific consensuses on these matters. It is past time that these whistle-blowers, these “denialists”, be attended to; that the actual evidence be attended to.

 

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(1)    For example, among dozens or hundreds of worthwhile works:
Bernard Barber, “Resistance by scientists to scientific discovery,” Science, 134 (1961) 596-602
Henry H. Bauer, Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method (University of Illinois Press, 1992)
Michael Crichton, “Aliens cause global warming” (Caltech Michelin Lecture), 17 January 2003
Daniel S. Greenberg, Science, Money and Politics: Political Triumph and Ethical Erosion (University of Chicago Press, 2001) & Science for Sale: The Perils, Rewards, and Delusions of Campus Capitalism (University of Chicago Press, 2007)
Paul R. Gross & Norman Levitt, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994)
Susan Haack, Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate (University of Chicago Press, 1998) & Defending Science — within Reason (Prometheus, 2003)
Ernest B. Hook, (ed). Prematurity in Scientific Discovery: On Resistance and Neglect (University of California Press, 2002)
David Knight, The Age of Science: The Scientific World-View in the Nineteenth Century (Basil Blackwell, 1986)
Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago Press, 1970, 2nd ed., enlarged)
Derek J. de Solla Price, Little Science, Big Science … and Beyond (Columbia University Press, 1963/1986; the 1986 edition contains additional chapters)
Gunther Stent, “Prematurity and uniqueness in scientific discovery,” Scientific American, December 1972, pp. 84-93
John Ziman, Real Science—What It Is, and What It Means (Cambridge University Press, 2000)

(2)   Henry H. Bauer, The Origin, Persistence and Failings of HIV/AIDS Theory (McFarland, 2007)

(3)    Henry H. Bauer, “A politically liberal global-warming skeptic?”, 25 November 2012

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

(5)      IMBECILES: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck by Adam Cohen (Penguin Press, 2016)
ILLIBERAL REFORMERS: Race, Eugenics and American Economics in the Progressive Era by Thomas C. Leonard (Princeton University Press, 2016)

(6)    David Oshinsky, review of (5), New York Times Book Review, 14 March 2016

(7)    A rather random selection of pieces about micro-aggression:
“Microaggression theory”“21 Racial Microaggressions you hear on a daily basis”;
“Ten things you didn’t know were racist”“Microaggression”“Microaggression Theory: An assault on everyday life”“Microaggressions: Power, privilege, and everyday life”

(8)    Letter of 5 August 2009

(9)    Henry H. Bauer, The Origin, Persistence and Failings of HIV/AIDS Theory (McFarland, 2007)

(10) Henry H. Bauer, The Case against HIV

(11) Edwin Black, War against the Weak, Thunder’s Mouth Press (2003)

(12) Farhad Manjoo, “Progressive genocide”, reviewing Better for All the World: The Secret History of Forced Sterilization and America’s Quest for Racial Purity by Harry Bruinius

(13) David Starr Jordan, The Higher Foolishness, Bobbs-Merrill (1927)

(14) David Starr Jordan, The human harvest; A Study of the Decay of Races through the Survival of the Unfit (American Unitarian Association, 1907); The Heredity of Richard Roe; A Discussion of the Principles of Eugenics (American Unitarian Association, 1911)

Posted in conflicts of interest, consensus, denialism, global warming, media flaws, politics and science, science is not truth, science policy, scientism, scientists are human | Tagged: , , , , , , | 6 Comments »