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Where to turn for disinterested scientific knowledge and insight?

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/02/11

The “vicious cycle of wrong knowledge” illustrates the dilemma we face nowadays: Where to turn for disinterested scientific knowledge and insight?

In centuries past in the intellectual West, religious authorities had offered unquestionable truth. In many parts of the world, religious authorities or political authorities still do. But in relatively emancipated, socially and politically open societies, the dilemma is inescapable. We accept that religion doesn’t have final answers on everything about the natural world, even if we accept the value of religious teachings about how we should behave as human beings. Science, it seemed, knew what religion didn’t, about the age of the Earth, about the evolution of living things, about all sorts of physical, material things. So “science” became the place to turn for reliable knowledge. We entered the Age of Science (Knight, 1983). But we (most of us) recognize that scientific knowledge cannot be absolutely and finally true because, ultimately, it rests on experience, on induction from observations, which can never be a complete reflection of the natural world; there remain always the known unknown and the unknown unknown.

Nevertheless, for practical purposes we want to be guided by the best current understanding that science can afford. The problem becomes, how to glean the best current understanding that science can offer?

Society’s knee-jerk response is to consult the scientific community: scientific associations, lauded scientists, government agencies, scientific literature. What society hears, however, is not a disinterested analysis or filtering of what those sources say, because all of them conform to whatever the contemporary “scientific consensus” happens to be. And, as earlier discussed (Dangerous knowledge II: Wrong knowledge about the history of science), that consensus is inevitably fallible, albeit the conventional wisdom is not on guard against that, largely because of misconceptions stemming from an holistic ignorance of the history of science.

The crux of the problem is that scientific knowledge and ideas that do not conform to the scientific consensus are essentially invisible in the public sphere. In any case, society has no mechanism for ensuring that what the scientific consensus holds at any given time is the most faithful, authoritative reflection of the available evidence and its logical interpretation. That represents clear and present danger as “science” is increasingly turned to for advice on public policies, in an environment replete with claims of truth from many sides, people claiming to speak for religion or for science, or organizations claiming to do so, including sophisticated advertisements by commercial and political groups.

In less politically partisan times, Congress and the administration had the benefit of the Office of Technological Assessment (OTA), founded in 1972 to provide policy makers with advice, as objective and up-to-date as possible, about technical issues; but OTA was disbanded in 1995 for reasons of partisan politics, and no substitute has been established. Society needs badly some authoritative, disinterested, non-partisan mechanism for analyzing, filtering, and interpreting scientific claims.

The only candidate so far on offer for that task is a Science Court, apparently first mooted half a century ago by Arthur Kantrowitz (1967) in the form of an “institute for scientific judgment”, soon named by others as a Science Court (Cavicchi 1993; Field 1993; Mazur 1993; Task Force 1993). Such a Court’s sole mission would be to assess the validity of conflicting contemporary scientific and technical claims and advice.

The need for such a Court is most obvious in the context of impassioned controversy in the public arena where political and ideological interests confuse and obfuscate the purely technical points, as for instance nowadays over global warming (A politically liberal global-warming skeptic?). Accordingly, a Science Court would need complete independence, for which the best available appropriate model is the United States Supreme Court. Indeed, perhaps a Science Court could be managed and supervised by the Supreme Court.

Many knotty issue beside independence present themselves in considering how a Science Court might function: choice of judges or panels or juries; choice of issues to take on; possibilities for appealing findings. For an extended discussion of such matters, see chapter 12 of Science Is Not What You Think and further sources given there. But the salient point is this:

Society needs but lacks an authoritative, disinterested, non-partisan mechanism for adjudicating conflicting scientific advice. A Science Court seems the only conceivable possibility.

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Jon R. Cavicchi, “The Science Court: A Bibliography”, RISK — Issues in Health and Safety, 4 [1993] 171–8.

Thomas G. Field, Jr., “The Science Court Is Dead; Long Live the Science Court!” RISK — Issues in Health and Safety, 4 [1993] 95–100.

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

David Knight, The Age of Science, Basil Blackwell, 1986.

Allan Mazur, “The Science Court: Reminiscence and Retrospective”, RISK — Issues in Health and Safety, 4 [1993] 161–70.

Task Force of the Presidential Advisory Group on Anticipated Advances in Science and Technology, “The Science Court Experiment: An Interim Report”, RISK — Issues in Health and Safety, 4 [1993] 179–88

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Posted in consensus, legal considerations, media flaws, politics and science, science is not truth, science policy, scientific culture, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

Politics, science, and medicine

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2017/12/31

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not yet widely realized is the sea change that has overtaken science since about the middle of the 20th century, the time of World War II. It’s not the scientific method that determines science, it’s the people who are doing the research and interpreting it and using it; and the human activity of doing science has changed out of sight since the early days of modern science. In a seriously oversimplified nutshell:

The circumstances of scientific activity have changed, from about pre-WWII to nowadays, from a cottage industry of voluntarily cooperating, independent, largely disinterested ivory-tower intellectual entrepreneurs in which science was free to do its own thing, namely the unfettered seeking of truth about the natural world, to a bureaucratic corporate-industry-government behemoth in which science has been pervasively co-opted by outside interests and is not free to do its own thing because of the pervasive conflicts of interest. Influences and interests outside science now control the choices of research projects and the decisions of what to publish and what not to make public.

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

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

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

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

Science is broken

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2017/11/21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can truth prevail?

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2017/10/08

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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.

 

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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 »