Skepticism about science and medicine

In search of disinterested science

Archive for the ‘science policy’ Category

Science: Sins of Commission and of Omission

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2019/04/21

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

On matters that influence public policies directly, policy-makers would be greatly helped if they could draw on historically well-informed, technically insightful, and above all impartial assessments of the contemporary mainstream consensus. A possible approach to providing such assistance would be the establishing of a Science Court; see chapter 12 in Science Is Not What You Think: How It Has Changed, Why We Can’t Trust It, How It Can Be Fixed (McFarland 2017).

 

—————————————————-

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

Advertisements

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

Optimal peer review for guiding public policy: A Science Court

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2019/01/29

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

———————————————-

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

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

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

[4]  The Case against HIV  and sources cited there

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

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

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

Vaccination, HIV, and a reminder that we are all fallible

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2019/01/27

A favorite family stories: On a road trip in an unfamiliar country, I had taken a wrong turn that sent us tens of miles in a wrong direction. When I discovered that and confessed to my passengers, my nine-year-old daughter pointed out that “No one’s perfect, not even Daddy”.

I was reminded of that once again after reading a book review by neurosurgeon Henry Marsh, who has a great deal of good things to his credit.

“HENRY MARSH studied medicine at the Royal Free Hospital in London, became a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1984 and was appointed Consultant Neurosurgeon at Atkinson Morley’s/St George’s Hospital in London in 1987. He has been the subject of two documentary films, Your Life in Their Hands, which won the Royal Television Society Gold Medal, and The English Surgeon, which won an Emmy, and is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir Do No Harm and NBCC finalist Admissions. He was made a CBE in 2010.”

Nevertheless Marsh too is fallible even when he appears to speak with authority. In his review of a book about vaccination, Between Hope and Fear by Michael Kinch, there are some seriously misleading comments:

“Dr. Gordon Stewart went on to maintain that AIDS was caused not by H.I.V. but by homosexual behavior. His view had a major influence on the South African president Thabo Mbeki, whose AIDS policies were subsequently estimated in a report by the Harvard School of Public Health to have resulted in 365,000 avoidable deaths” (Henry Marsh, “ Protecting the Herd”, New York Times Book Review, 9 September 2018, p.17).

In reality, AIDS is indeed not caused by HIV [1]. Stewart had observed the symptoms of AIDS resulting from drug abuse in New York City and New Orleans during 1968-71, long before “AIDS” came on the scene; John Lauritsen [2] pointed out from the beginning that what was common to the first AIDS victims was drug abuse, not homosexuality. Stewart’s insight enabled him to project correctly future official data on AIDS in Britain, whereas official projections based on HIV theory were dead wrong. As to “avoidable deaths” in South Africa [3], it was not a “report by the Harvard School of Public Health” but simply an article whose authors happen to be employed at that Harvard School, moreover an article that has been thoroughly debunked [4].

 

Marsh’s review also refers to the “false claims” of Andrew Wakefield. It is by no means established that Wakefield’s observations were incorrect, namely, that in some cases vaccination at an early age by the multivalent MMR vaccine appears to be associated with the appearance within a few weeks of symptoms of autism [5].

Altogether, controversies over vaccination and “anti-vaxxers” are badly flawed in several respects. Most notably, at the very beginning of any argument about “vaccination”, distinctions ought to be drawn between such long-established vaccinations as against smallpox or polio by comparison with the flurry of new vaccinations being produced by the pharmaceutical industry as it exhausts the possibility of marketing new prescription drugs for newly invented diseases; thus the vaccines (Gardasil, Cervarix) widely touted as preventive of cervical cancer (as well as other cancers) have never been demonstrated to do what they are supposed to do even as they have been demonstrably responsible for serious harm to a significant number of individuals [6].

There are sound general reasons why new vaccines should be tested to the utmost degree and with the greatest caution:

Ø     Vaccines are intended to make the immune system do new things, but the immune system remains far from completely understood

Ø     Reports that an autoimmune disease has set in following vaccination are therefore not implausible

Ø     Vaccines are touted as being entirely specific, yet they commonly include so-called “adjuvants”, which are entirely non-specific toxic substances intended to arouse the immune system

Ø     For commercial and not scientific reasons, vaccines often include preservatives, which are biologically active toxins

Ø     Since vaccination is intended to stimulate the immune system in some manner, it seems quite plausible that employing several vaccines simultaneously could cause adverse reactions, at least in some individuals

Ø     Officialdom has admitted harm from vaccinations in some instances by the fact that about $4 billion over a 40-year period have been paid to people harmed by vaccination, by the US National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program , including “$5,877,710 dollars to 49 victims in claims made against the highly controversial HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccines. To date 200 claims have been filed with VICP, with barely half adjudicated” (“U.S. court pays $6 million to Gardasil victims”)

 

To return for a moment to the issue of AIDS: Why is it that after 35 years of intensive efforts, there has yet to appear the vaccine against HIV that Robert Gallo had promised to produce within a few years of 1984? Perhaps there really is no exogenous “HIV” retrtovirus?

—————————————

[1]    See The Case against HIV  which cites ~900 articles and dozens of books

[2]    John Lauritsen, “CDC’s tables obscure AIDS-drugs connection”, Philadelphia Gay News, 14 February 1985; reprinted (ch. 1, pp. 11-22) in The AIDS War, New York: ASKLEPIOS, 1993.

[3]    Pride Chigwedere, George R. Seage III, Sofia Gruskin, Tun-Hou Lee & M. Essex, “Estimating the lost benefits of antiretroviral drug use in South Africa”, JAIDS 49 (2008) 410-5

[4]    Peter H. Duesberg, Daniele Mandrioli, Amanda McCormack, Joshua M. Nicholson, David Rasnick, Christian Fiala, Claus Koehnlein, Henry H. Bauer & Marco Ruggiero,AIDS since 1984: No evidence for a new, viral epidemic — not even in Africa”, Italian Journal of Anatomy and Embryology, 116 (2011) 73-92.

[5]     Officialdom and its groupies continue to maintain that the charges against Wakefield were correct (see e.g. Do Vaccines Cause Autism?), but he also has strong and informed defenders, for instance VAXXED: From Cover Up to Catastrophe or Andrew Wakefield’s Theories about MMR Vaccines and Autism

[6]    Sacrificial Virgins: Homepage: “How young girls are being seriously damaged by the vaccine with the highest reported adverse reactions of any existing vaccine” [emphasis added]
See also, for example, The Truth is Out: Gardasil Vaccine Coverup Exposed
The Gardasil Vaccine—Bad Science, Great Promotion, Dangerous

Posted in media flaws, medical practices, prescription drugs, science policy, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Case for a Science Court

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2019/01/24

I mentioned the concept of a Science Court in a previous post on this blog: “Who guards the guardians? Who guards science?”

and I’ve mentioned it in a number of other places as well. Sometimes those mentions have brought comments on a variety of blogs. Some raised objections to the idea, unfortunately most commonly individuals who have not read my full discussion of the concept, which comprises the 20 pages of chapter 12 in my latest book, “Science Is Not What You Think”  (see reviews of it).

Obviously I cannot reproduce here the 20 pages of that book chapter. Here are the salient points:

Ø     Nowadays, science is almost universally taken as the ultimate authority on knowledge about the natural world

Ø     Media, pundits, policymakers, and governments accept as reliable knowledge what science says

Ø     “What science says” is taken to be the contemporary “scientific consensus”, the mainstream view, the view held by the contemporary elite group of experts on the given topic

Ø     The history of science is unequivocal, that any given contemporary scientific consensus has been quite often significantly mistaken

Ø     History also records that contemporary experts who dissented from the scientific consensus sometimes — though by no means always — turn out to have been closer to the truth and then the consensus was

Ø     Society at large, and policymakers in particular, would benefit from an impartial independent assessment of the evidence respectively for and against the contemporary consensus. The aim of a Science Court would be precisely to facilitate such an impartial independent assessment.

The need for such an institution is nowadays quite pressing because on a whole host of topics there is no substantive, open, public, debate between proponents and challengers of the contemporary consensus. Many of those topics are of little or no immediate practical public significance, say, what the mechanism is of the sense of smell, or what caused the extinction of dinosaurs, or some other matters discussed in my earlier book, Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth (2012) .

However, there are also some topics of prime human, social, political importance on which informed and qualified experts have offered strong evidence that the contemporary consensus is dangerously flawed: HIV/AIDS, human-caused global warming and climate change, the role of prescription drugs in preventive medicine. On those, the popular media illustrate well enough that official institutions accept the scientific consensus and dismiss all challenges as “denialism”, no matter how eminent are the challengers. Something like a Science Court would seem to be the only conceivable mechanism by which the consensus could be forced to confront openly and substantively the challenges to its hegemonic, dogmatically held, view.

In my chapter-length discussion, I consider also the following:

Ø     The formal structure, sponsorship, authority and powers of the Science Court

Ø     Staffing of the Court: permanent and also ad hoc as appropriate to each specific topic

Ø     The choice of advocates for and against, on each particular topic

Ø     The choice of which issues are to be considered by the Court

My chapter discusses the benefits the Science Court would bring on questions concerning prescription drugs, climate change, and HIV/AIDS. It also describes the history of the concept of a Science Court, which dates back half a century to qualms about the potential safety of generating power in nuclear reactors, when equally qualified experts were arguing both sides of the issue. In more recent times, several legal scholars have argued that a specifically Science Court would be of considerable benefit to the judicial system in general and as a whole, since that system is called on increasingly to decide cases in which central questions involve scientific evidence and the qualifications of expert witnesses.

The pressing need for a Science Court nowadays arises because the scientific consensus cannot be relied upon to deliver the benefits that “science” supposedly brings, namely, the best available impartial, objective, unbiased assessment of what is actually known, what “science” has established.

Science did indeed bring those benefits for the first several centuries of what is generally called “modern science”, beginning around the 16th/17th centuries or so with the Reformation and the subsequent Enlightenment. What has not yet been widely enough recognized is how different scientific activity is since the middle of the 20th century, by comparison with those earlier centuries of modern science. Those differences are described in considerable detail in chapter 1 of my recent book; in a 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, where science was free to do its own thing, namely the unfettered seeking of truth about the natural world; to nowadays 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 omnipresent 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.

Aspects of that change were noted by John Burnham in his book, How Superstition Won and Science Lost (1987), and by Jacques Barzun in his magisterial From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life (2000).

Science nowadays plays much the same societal role as the Roman Catholic Church did in Western Civilization before the Reformation and the Enlightenment. The Church had become corrupted through bureaucracy and self-interest and the dysfunctions that arise inevitably as a result of human failings when an activity becomes too big and too powerful. It became obvious that the Church’s policies and actions had grown seriously at variance with its founding ideals. The Reformation and the Enlightenment brought and demonstrated the benefits of empirical, rational, evidence-based, pragmatism in the search for reliable understanding, by contrast to taking for granted what the authorities said.

Today’s scientific activity has become similarly dysfunctional through growing too big and too influential; something like a Science Court is needed to bring society the benefits of empirical, rational, evidence-based, pragmatism in the search for reliable insights.

 

Please note that I am far from alone in noting the dysfunctions of contemporary science and medicine: consider the many books, articles, and reports listed in these bibliographies:
http://henryhbauer.homestead.com/CRITIQUES_OF_CONTEMPORARY_SCIENCE_AND_MEDICINE.pdf
http://henryhbauer.homestead.com/WhatIsWrongWithMedicine.pdf

Posted in conflicts of interest, consensus, denialism, global warming, media flaws, medical practices, politics and science, prescription drugs, science is not truth, science policy | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

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

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/09/11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*                     *                   *                   *                   *                   *                   *                   *

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

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

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

*                   *                  *                     *                   *                   *                   *                   *

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

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

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

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/08/26

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

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

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

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

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

Exactly. QED.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

————————————————————————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in consensus, denialism, media flaws, peer review, politics and science, resistance to discovery, science is not truth, science policy, scientific culture, scientific literacy, scientism, scientists are human, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

21st century science:   Group-Thinking Elites and Fanatical Groupies

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/08/11

Science has been a reliable resource for official policies and actions for much of the era of modern science, which is usually regarded as having begun around the 17th century.

It is almost without precedent that a mistaken scientific consensus should lead to undesirable and damaging public actions, yet that is now the case in two instances: the belief that carbon dioxide generated by the burning of fossil fuels is primarily responsible for global warming and climate change; and the belief that HIV is the cause of AIDS.

Both those beliefs gained hegemony during the last two or three decades. That these beliefs are mistaken seems incredible to most people, in part because of the lack of any well known precedent and in part because the nature of science is widely misunderstood; in particular it is not yet widely recognized how much science has changed since the middle of the 20th century.

The circumstances of modern science that conspire to make it possible for mistaken theories to bring misguided public policies have been described in my recent book, Science Is Not What You Think [1]. The salient points are these:

Ø     Science has become dysfunctionally large

Ø     It is hyper-competitive

Ø     It is not effectively self-correcting

Ø     It is at the mercy of multiple external interests and influences.

A similar analysis was offered by Judson [2]. That title reflects the book’s opening theme of the prevalence of fraud in modern science (as well as in contemporary culture). It assigns blame to the huge expansion in the number of scientists and the crisis that the world of science faces as it finds itself in something of a steady-state so far as resources are concerned, after a period of some three centuries of largely unfitted expansion: about 80% of all the scientists who have ever lived are extant today; US federal expenditure on R&D increased 4-fold (inflation-adjusted!) from 1953 to 2002, and US industry increased its R&D spending by a factor of 26 over that period! Judson also notes the quintessential work of John Ziman explicating the significance of the change from continual expansion to what Ziman called a dynamic steady-state [3].

Remarkably enough, President Eisenhower had foreseen this possibility and warned against it in his farewell address to the nation: “in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite”. The proponents of human-caused-climate-changer theory and of HIV/AIDS theory are examples of such elites.

A crucial factor is that elites, like all other groups, may be dysfunctionally affected by the phenomenon of Groupthink.

Janis [4] showed in detail several decades ago how that phenomenon of Groupthink had produced disastrously bad policy actions by the United States. The same phenomenon of Groupthink can cause bad things to happen in other social sectors than the government. Recently, Booker [5] has shown how Groupthink has been responsible for creating the worldwide belief, shibboleth, cliché, that humankind’s use of fossil fuels is causing global warming and climate change through the release of carbon dioxide.

Commonly held ideas about science do not envisage the possibility that a scientific consensus could bring misguided policies and actions on a global scale. What most people know — think they know — about science is that its conclusions are based on solid evidence, and that the scientific method safeguards against getting things wrong, and that science that has been primarily responsible for civilization’s advances over the last few centuries.

Those things that most people know are also largely mistaken [1, 6]. Science is a human activity and is subject to all the frailties and fallibilities of any human activity. The scientific method and the way in which it is popularly described does not accurately portray how science is actually done.

While much of the intellectual progress in understanding how the world works does indeed stand to the credit of science, what remains to be commonly realized is that since about the middle of the 20th century, science has become too big for its own good. The huge expansion of scientific activity since the Second World War has changed science in crucial ways. The number of people engaged in scientific activity has far outstripped the available resources, leading to hyper-competition and associated sloppiness and outright dishonesty. Scientists nowadays are in no way exceptional individuals, people doing scientific work are as common as are teachers, doctors, or engineers. It is in this environment that Groupthink has become significantly and damagingly important.

Booker [5] described this in relation to the hysteria over the use of fossil fuels. A comparable situation concerns the belief that HIV is the cause of AIDS [7]. The overall similarities in these two cases are that a quite small number of researchers arrived initially at more or less tentative conclusions; but those conclusions seemed of such great import to society at large that they were immediately seized upon and broadcast by the media as breaking news. Political actors become involved, accepting those conclusions quickly became politically correct, and those who then questioned and now question the conclusions are vigorously opposed, often maligned as unscientific and motivated by non-scientific agendas.

 

At any rate, contemporary science has become a group activity rather than an activity of independent intellectual entrepreneurs, and it is in this environment that Groupthink affects the elites in any given field — the acknowledged leading researchers whose influence is entrenched by editors and administrators and other bureaucrats inside and outside the scientific community.

A concomitant phenomenon is that of fanatical groupies. Concerning both human-caused climate change and the theory that HIV causes AIDS, there are quite large social groups that have taken up the cause with fanatical vigor and that attack quite unscrupulously anyone who differs from the conventional wisdom. These groupies are chiefly people with little or no scientific background, or whose scientific ambitions are unrequited (which includes students). As with activist groups in general, groupie organizations are often supported by (and indeed often founded by) commercial or political interests. Non-profit organizations which purportedly represent patients and other concerned citizens and which campaign for funds to fight against cancer, multiple sclerosis, etc., are usually funded by Big Pharma, as are HIV/AIDS activist groups.

__________________________________

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

[2] Horace Freeland Judson, The Great Betrayal, Harcourt 2004

[3]  John Ziman, Prometheus Bound, Cambridge University Press 1994

[4]  I. L. Janis, Victims of Groupthink, 1972; Groupthink, 1982, Houghton Mifflin.

[5]  Christopher Booker, GLOBAL WARMING: A case study in groupthink, Global Warming Policy Foundation, Report 28; Human-caused global warming as Groupthink

[6]  Henry H. Bauer, Scientific Literacy and Myth of the Scientific Method, University of Illinois Press 1992

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

Posted in conflicts of interest, consensus, fraud in science, funding research, global warming, media flaws, science is not truth, science policy, scientific culture, scientific literacy, scientism, scientists are human, the scientific method, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Human-caused global warming as Groupthink

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/08/02

Carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere
is not
the overarching determinant of global temperature.

Over the life of the Earth, carbon dioxide levels have been far higher than now during Ice Ages, for example. Since the mid-19th-century Industrial Revolution, levels of carbon dioxide have increased while temperatures were cooling rather than warming during ~1880-1910 and ~1940-1970s, and they have remained relatively steady since ~1998; see sources cited in Climate-change facts: Temperature is not determined by carbon dioxide. The lack of warming since the start of the 21st century is acknowledged surreptitiously by the Royal Society of London and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in offering attempted explanations for it.

Since the evidence is quite clear, there exists a great mystery:
How has it happened that essentially the whole official world insists mistakenly that human generation of carbon dioxide is causing unnatural warming and climate change?

How could that happen in this modern era in which science is the supreme intellectual authority?

A huge literature of books, articles, pamphlets, and blogs has rehearsed the substantive flaws in the belief that human generation of carbon dioxide is causing global warming (AGW, Anthropogenic Global Warming) and climate change (ACC). There has not, however, been the same degree of analysis of how national and international institutions have come to accept this mistaken notion to the extent of making policies based on it.

Christopher Booker has now offered an explanation in GLOBAL WARMING: A case study in groupthink.

By “science” Booker here means psychology. He invokes and applies the concept of Groupthink which had been developed by psychologist Irving Janis [1, 2] several decades ago:

“Janis’s focus was on decision-making in the foreign policy arena. However, as soon as you look, you see that his ideas apply elsewhere. The climate debate is a case in point — all of the characteristic ‘rules’ of groupthink are there: warmist ideas can’t be tested against reality, and so to ensure they are upheld as the truth, they have to be elevated into a ‘consensus’ and anyone who challenges them must be crushed. These are precisely the features that Janis used to define Groupthink.”

So just as Groupthink led to the policy disasters of Pearl Harbour, the Bay of Pigs fiasco and Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam war, attempts to suppress serious debate of climate science and the policies that are being promoted as solutions are leading to irrational behaviour, costly policy blunders and corruption on an unprecedented scale. This will only end when groupthink eventually bumps up against reality.

As Booker puts it in his conclusions:

“Every South Sea Bubble ends in a crash. Every form of Groupthink eventually has its day. This is invariably what happens when human beings get carried along by the crowd, simply because they have lost the urge or ability to think for themselves” [3].

I would differ with that last comment, however. Human beings do not customarily lose the urge or ability to think for themselves, all too often they never acquired it. That ability is not genetically inherent and it has to be gained against strong odds. We humans are raised to believe what we’re taught, by parents, by teachers, and by preachers and sundry self-appointed prophets; nowadays, by intrusive media and innumerable internet sources claiming to offer reliable facts and insights. The question is not, how people can believe clearly wrong things, even absurd things: examples are everywhere of people devoutly believing things that are against logic and against tangible facts. The mystery is how some people manage, at least some of the time, to come to think for themselves by forming beliefs on the basis of evidence, thereby rejecting their earlier indoctrination [4].

Booker describes the essential characteristics of Groupthink as
Ø      A group of people come to share a particular view or belief.
Ø      They insist that their belief is shared by a ‘consensus’ of all right-minded opinion
Ø      They defend it with irrational, dismissive hostility towards anyone who disagrees.

GLOBAL WARMING: A case study in groupthink shows rather convincingly how these factors played out in the rise and subsequent hegemony of AGW belief.

This historical analysis is invaluable in revealing the specific actions of specific actors that led initially to AGW belief among a group of scientists. That belief was congenial to various groups, outside the scientific community (notably environment al activists) whose internal consensuses then in turn also display the characteristic features of Groupthink.

Beliefs come in a very wide range of degrees of intensity. Human groups display conformity in matters small and large, sometimes to the degree of unanimity, and Groupthink is intellectual conformity that demands unanimity within the group.
Over AGW, this demand for unanimity is displayed in actions as well as words, in the conviction of being right and the hostility towards disbelievers, as when the latter are referred to as ignoramuses (“Flat-Earthers” is a common epithet) or as “denialists”, harking to the morally despicable genre of Holocaust deniers.

It has not often enough been remarked, how extraordinary it is that disagreements between scientists reach the level of hostility of charging fellow scientists not just with being ridiculously wrong but also with being as morally despicable as Holocaust deniers. And it also goes against the conventional wisdom about science to suggest that Groupthink exists in the scientific community. Popularly, scientists are regarded as strikingly individual, whether it be in a laudable way (Galileo, Darwin, Einstein) or the opposite (Dr. Frankenstein and other mad or evil scientists [5]). The conventional wisdom has not yet grasped just how drastically different today’s science is from its popular image; that was formed by the earlier centuries of modern (since ~17th century) and has not digested the enormous changes since about World War II [6]. Science nowadays is by and large a group activity. That is not to deny that scientists see themselves as individuals, but they are also to varying degrees subject to group influences. Chemists (say) not only do individual work toward a particular goal, they are aware of and accommodate in various ways the other chemists working toward the same or similar goals, be it in the same institution or elsewhere; and they also share some group interests with other chemists in their own institution who may be working on other projects. Chemists everywhere share group interests through national and international organizations and publications. Beyond that, chemists share with biologists, biochemists, physicists and others the group interest of being scientists, of having a professional as well as personal interest in the prestige and status of science in the wider society.

The most intense group feeling of course concerns whatever the immediate research project is, since that determines professional career status, prestige, future prospects. If it were to turn out that AGW is wrong, that human generation of carbon dioxide is not causing global warming and climate change, this would be devastating for the careers of current proponents of AGW, and for their institutions. Little wonder, then, that the dogma of AGW is defended with such determination.

Intense competitiveness in science and its sad consequences became significant only since the second or third quarter of the 20th century, so AGW is something of a new phenomenon, international acceptance of a mistaken scientific consensus. There is one other instance already, though, which also took hold in the last couple of decades of the 20th century: the theory that HIV causes AIDS. That is distinctly contrary to copious evidence (The Case against HIV) yet it is propounded and defended so determinedly that it is simply inconceivable that official bodies would ever come to acknowledge that the theory is wrong (OFFICIAL!   HIV does not cause AIDS!).

 

It is a sad fact
that in the era of Fake (Political) News,
there has also come into being
Fake Scientific Consensuses.

 

———————————————–

[1]  I. L. Janis, Victims of Groupthink, 1972; Groupthink, 1982, Houghton Mifflin.

[2]  Paul’t Hart, “Irving L. Janis’ Victims of Groupthink”, Political Psychology, 12 (1991) 247-78.

[3]  NEW STUDY: CLIMATE GROUPTHINK LEADS TO A DEAD END.

[4]  See “Motives for Believing”, chapter 11 in Beyond Velikovsky: The History of a Public Controversy, University of Illinois Press 1984/1999.

[5]  Roslynn D. Haynes, From Faust to Strangelove: Representations of the Scientist in Western Literature, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994; David J. Skal, Screams of Reason: Mad Science and Modern Culture, W. W. Norton, 1998.

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

 

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

Who guards the guardians? Who guards science?

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/06/24

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

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

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

But what guards against the scientific consensus being wrong?

Nothing and nobody.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—————————————————————–

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

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

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

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/05/06

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 
%d bloggers like this: