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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.

———————————————————–

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 »

Dangerous knowledge IV: The vicious cycle of wrong knowledge

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/02/03

Peter Duesberg, universally admired scientist, cancer researcher, and leading virologist, member of the National Academy of Sciences, recipient of a seven-year Outstanding Investigator Grant from the National Institutes of Health, was astounded when the world turned against him because he pointed to the clear fact that HIV had never been proven to cause AIDS and to the strong evidence that, indeed, no retrovirus could behave in the postulated manner.

Frederick Seitz, at one time President of the National Academy of Sciences and for some time President of Rockefeller University, became similarly non grata for pointing out that parts of an official report contradicted one another about whether human activities had been proven to be the prime cause of global warming (“A major deception on global warming”, Wall Street Journal, 12 June 1996).

A group of eminent astronomers and astrophysicists (among them Halton Arp, Hermann Bondi, Amitabha Ghosh, Thomas Gold, Jayant Narlikar) had their letter pointing to flaws in Big-Bang theory rejected by Nature.

These distinguished scientists illustrate (among many other instances involving less prominent scientists) that the scientific establishment routinely refuses to acknowledge evidence that contradicts contemporary theory, even evidence proffered by previously lauded fellow members of the elite establishment.

Society’s dangerous wrong knowledge about science includes the mistaken belief that science hews earnestly to evidence and that peer review — the behavior of scientists — includes considering new evidence as it comes in.

Not so. Refusal to consider disconfirming facts has been documented on a host of topics less prominent than AIDS or global warming: prescription drugs, Alzheimer’s disease, extinction of the dinosaurs, mechanism of smell, human settlement of the Americas, the provenance of Earth’s oil deposits, the nature of ball lightning, the evidence for cold nuclear fusion, the dangers from second-hand tobacco smoke, continental-drift theory, risks from adjuvants and preservatives in vaccines, and many more topics; see for instance Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth, Jefferson (NC): McFarland 2012. And of course society’s officialdom, the conventional wisdom, the mass media, all take their cue from the scientific establishment.

The virtually universal dismissal of contradictory evidence stems from the nature of contemporary science and its role in society as the supreme arbiter of knowledge, and from the fact of widespread ignorance about the history of science, as discussed in earlier posts in this series (Dangerous knowledge; Dangerous knowledge II: Wrong knowledge about the history of science; Dangerous knowledge III: Wrong knowledge about science).

The upshot is a vicious cycle. Ignorance of history makes it seem incredible that “science” would ignore evidence, so claims to that effect on any given topic are brushed aside — because it is not known that science has ignored contrary evidence routinely. But that fact can only be recognized after noting the accumulation of individual topics on which this has happened, evidence being ignored. That’s the vicious cycle.

Wrong knowledge about science and the history of science impedes recognizing that evidence is being ignored in any given actual case. Thereby radical progress is nowadays being greatly hindered, and public policies are being misled by flawed interpretations enshrined by the scientific consensus. Society has succumbed to what President Eisenhower warned against (Farewell speech, 17 January 1961) :

in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should,
we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger
that public policy could itself become the captive
of a scientific-technological elite.

The vigorous defending of established theories and the refusal to consider contradictory evidence means that once theories have been widely enough accepted, they soon become knowledge monopolies, and support for research establishes the contemporary theory as a research cartel(“Science in the 21st Century: Knowledge Monopolies and Research Cartels”).

The presently dysfunctional circumstances have been recognized only by two quite small groups of people:

  1. Observers and critics (historians, philosophers, sociologists of science, scholars of Science & Technology Studies)
  2. Researchers whose own experiences and interests happened to cause them to come across facts that disprove generally accepted ideas — for example Duesberg, Seitz, the astronomers cited above, etc. But these researchers only recognize the unwarranted dismissal of evidence in their own specialty, not that it is a general phenomenon (see my talk, “HIV/AIDS blunder is far from unique in the annals of science and medicine” at the 2009 Oakland Conference of Rethinking AIDS; mov file can be downloaded at http://ra2009.org/program.html, but streaming from there does not work).

Such dissenting researchers find themselves progressively excluded from mainstream discourse, and that exclusion makes it increasingly unlikely that their arguments and documentation will gain attention. Moreover, frustrated by a lack of attention from mainstream entities, dissenters from a scientific consensus find themselves listened to and appreciated increasingly only by people outside the mainstream scientific community to whom the conventional wisdom also pays no attention, for instance the parapsychologists, ufologists, cryptozoologists. Such associations, and the conventional wisdom’s consequent assigning of guilt by association, then entrenches further the vicious cycle of dangerous knowledge that rests on the acceptance of contemporary scientific consensuses as not to be questioned — see chapter 2 in Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth and “Good Company and Bad Company”, pp. 118-9 in Science Is Not What You Think: How It Has Changed, Why We Can’t Trust It, How It Can Be Fixed (McFarland 2017).

Posted in conflicts of interest, consensus, denialism, funding research, global warming, media flaws, peer review, resistance to discovery, science is not truth, science policy, scientific culture, scientism, scientists are human, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Dangerous knowledge II: Wrong knowledge about the history of science

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/01/27

Knowledge of history among most people is rarely more than superficial; the history of science is much less known even than is general (political, social) history. Consequently, what many people believe they know about science is typically wrong and dangerously misleading.

General knowledge about history, the conventional wisdom about historical matters, depends on what society as a whole has gleaned from historians, the people who have devoted enormous time and effort to assemble and assess the available evidence about what happened in the past.

Society on the whole does not learn about history from the specialists, the primary research historians. Rather, teachers of general national and world histories in schools and colleges have assembled some sort of whole story from all the specialist bits, perforce taking on trust what the specialist cadres have concluded. The interpretations and conclusions of the primary specialists are filtered and modified by second-level scholars and teachers. So what society as a whole learns about history as a whole is a sort of third-hand impression of what the specialists have concluded.

History is a hugely demanding pursuit. Its mission is so vast that historians have increasingly had to specialize. There are specialist historians of economics, of   mathematics, and of other aspects of human cultures; and there are historians who specialize in particular eras in particular places, say Victorian Britain. Written material still extant is an important resource, of course, but it cannot be taken literally, it has to be evaluated for the author’s identity, and clues as to bias and ignorance. Artefacts provide clues, and various techniques from chemistry and physics help to discover dates or to test putative dates. What further makes doing history so demanding is the need to capture the spirit of a different time and place, an holistic sense of it; on top of which the historian needs a deep, authentic understanding of the particular aspect of society under scrutiny. So doing economic history, for example, calls not only for a good sense of general political history, it requires also a good understanding of the whole subject of economics itself in its various stages of development.

The history of science is a sorely neglected specialty within history. There are History Departments in colleges and universities without a specialist in the history of science — which entails also that many of the people who — at both school and college levels — teach general history or political or social or economic history, or the history of particular eras or places, have never themselves learned much about the history of science, not even as to how it impinges on their own specialty. One reason for the incongruous place — or lack of a place — for the history of science with respect to the discipline of history as a whole is the need for historians to command an authentic understanding of the particular aspect of history that is their special concern. Few if any people whose career ambition was to become historians have the needed familiarity with any science; so a considerable proportion of historians of science are people whose careers began in a science and who later turned to history.

Most of the academic research in the history of science has been carried on in separate Departments of History of Science, or Departments of History and Philosophy of Science, or Departments of History and Sociology of Science, or in the relatively new (founded within the last half a century) Departments of Science & Technology Studies (STS).

Before there were historian specialists in the history of science, some historical aspects were typically mentioned within courses in the sciences. Physicists might hear bits about Galileo, Newton, Einstein. Chemists would be introduced to thought-bites about alchemy, Priestley and oxygen, Haber and nitrogen fixation, atomic theory and the Greeks. Such anecdotes were what filtered into general knowledge about the history of science; and the resulting impressions are grossly misleading. Within science courses, the chief interest is in the contemporary state of known facts and established theories, and historical aspects are mentioned only in so far as they illustrate progress toward ever better understanding, yielding an overall sense that science has been unswervingly progressive and increasingly trustworthy. In other words, science courses judge the past in terms of what the present knows, an approach that the discipline of history recognizes as unwarranted, since the purpose of history is to understand earlier periods fully, to know about the people and events in their own terms, under their own values.

*                   *                   *                  *                    *                   *

How to explain that science, unlike other human ventures, has managed to get better all the time? It must be that there is some “scientific method” that ensures faithful adherence to the realities of Nature. Hence the formulaic “scientific method” taught in schools, and in college courses in the behavioral and social sciences (though not in the natural sciences).

Specialist historians of science, and philosophers and sociologists of science and scholars of Science & Technology Studies all know that science is not done by any such formulaic scientific method, and that the development of modern science owes as much to the precursors and ground-preparers as to such individual geniuses as Newton, Galileo, etc. — Newton, by the way, being so fully aware of that as to have used the modest “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” mentioned in my previous post (Dangerous knowledge).

*                     *                   *                   *                   *                   *

Modern science cannot be understood, cannot be appreciated without an authentic sense of the actual history of science. Unfortunately, for the reasons outlined above, contemporary culture is pervaded by partly ignorance and partly wrong knowledge of the history of science. In elementary schools and in high schools, and in college textbooks in the social sciences, students are mis-taught that science is characterized, defined, by use of “the scientific method”. That is simply not so: see Chapter 2 in Science Is Not What You Think: How It Has Changed, Why We Can’t Trust It, How It Can Be Fixed (McFarland 2017)  and sources cited there. The so-called the scientific method is an invention of philosophical speculation by would-be interpreters of the successes of science; working scientists never subscribed to this fallacy, see for instance Reflections of a Physicist (P. W. Bridgman, Philosophical Library, 1955), or in 1992 the physicist David Goodstein, “I would strongly recommend this book to anyone who hasn’t yet heard that the scientific method is a myth. Apparently there are still lots of those folks around” (“this book” being my Scientific Literacy and Myth of the Scientific Method).

The widespread misconception about the scientific method is compounded by the misconception that the progress of science has been owing to individual acts of genius by the people whose names are common currency — Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, etc. — whereas in reality those unquestionably outstanding individuals were not creating out of the blue but rather placing keystones, putting final touches, synthesizing; see for instance Tony Rothman’s Everything’s Relative: And Other Fables from Science and Technology (Wiley, 2003). The same insight is expressed in Stigler’s Law, that discoveries are typically named after the last person who discovered them, not the first (S. M. Stigler, “Stigler’s Law of Eponymy”, Transactions of the N.Y. Academy of Science, II, 39 [1980] 147–58).

That misconception about science progressing by lauded leaps by applauded geniuses is highly damaging since it hides the crucially important lesson that the acts of genius that we praise in hindsight were vigorously, often even viciously resisted by their contemporaries, their contemporary scientific establishment and scientific consensus; see “Resistance by scientists to scientific discovery” (Bernard Barber, Science, 134 [1961] 596–602); “Prematurity and uniqueness in scientific discovery” (Gunther Stent, Scientific American, December 1972, 84–93); Prematurity in Scientific Discovery: On Resistance and Neglect (Ernest B. Hook (ed)., University of California Press, 2002).

What is perhaps most needed nowadays, as the authority of science is invoked in so many aspects of everyday affairs and official policies, is clarity that any contemporary scientific consensus is inherently and inevitably fallible; and that the scientific establishment will nevertheless defend it zealously, often unscrupulously, even when it is demonstrably wrong.

 

Recommended reading: The historiography of the history of science, its relation to general history, and related issues, as well as synopses of such special topics as evolution or relativity, are treated authoritatively in Companion to the History of Modern Science (eds.: Cantor, Christie, Hodge, Olby; Routledge, 1996) [not to be confused with the encyclopedia titled Oxford Companion to the History of Modern Science, ed. Heilbron, Oxford University Press, 2003).

Posted in consensus, media flaws, resistance to discovery, science is not truth, scientific culture, scientific literacy, scientism, scientists are human, the scientific method, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Science is broken: Illustrations from Retraction Watch

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2017/12/21

I commented before about Science is broken: Perverse incentives and the misuse of quantitative metrics have undermined the integrity of scientific research.  The magazine The Scientist published on 18 December “Top 10 Retractions of 2017 —
Making the list: a journal breaks a retraction record, Nobel laureates Do the Right Thing, and Seinfeld characters write a paper”, compiled by Retraction Watch. It should be widely read and digested for an understanding of the jungle of unreliable stuff nowadays put out under the rubric of “science”.

See also “Has all academic publishing become predatory? Or just useless? Or just vanity publishing?”

 

Posted in conflicts of interest, fraud in medicine, fraud in science, media flaws, science is not truth, scientific culture, scientists are human | Tagged: , | Leave a 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 »

Has all academic publishing become predatory? Or just useless? Or just vanity publishing?

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2017/06/14

A pingback to my post “Predatory publishers and fake rankings of journals” led me to “Where to publish and not to publish in bioethics – the 2017 list”.

That essay brings home just how pervasive has become for-profit publishing of purportedly scholarly material. The sheer volume of the supposedly scholarly literature is such as to raise the question, who looks at any part of this literature?

One of the essay’s links leads to a listing by the Kennedy Center for Ethics of 44 journals in the field of bioethics.  Another link leads to a list of the “Top 100 Bioethics Journals in the World, 2015” by the author of the earlier “Top 50 Bioethics Journals and Top 250 Most Cited Bioethics Articles Published 2011-2015

What, I wonder, does any given bioethicist actually read? How many of these journals have even their Table of Contents scanned by most bioethicists?

Beyond that: Surely the potential value of scholarly work in bioethics is to improve the ethical practices of individuals and institutions in the real world. How does this spate of published material contribute to that potential value?

Those questions are purely rhetorical, of course. I suggest that the overwhelming mass of this stuff has no influence whatever on actual practices by doctors, researchers, clinics and other institutions.

This literature does, however, support the existence of a body of bioethicists whose careers are tied in some way to the publication of articles about bioethics.

The same sort of thing applies nowadays in every field of scholarship and science. The essay’s link to Key Journals in The Philosopher’s Index brings up a 79-page list, 10 items per page, of key [!] journals in philosophy.

This profusion of scholarly journals supports not only communities of publishing scholars in each field, it also nurtures an expanding community of meta-scholars whose publications deal with the profusion of publication. The earliest work in this genre was the Science Citation Index which capitalized on information technology to compile indexes through which all researchers could discover which of their published work had been cited and where.

That was unquestionably useful, including by making it possible to discover people working in one’s own specialty. But misuse became abuse, as administrators and bureaucrats began simply to count how often an individual’s work had been cited and to equate that number with quality.

No matter how often it has been pointed out that this equation is so wrong as to be beyond rescuing, this attraction of supposedly objective numbers and the ease of obtaining them has made citation-counting an apparently permanent part of the scholarly literature.

Not only that. The practice has been extended to judging the influence a journal has by counting how often the articles in it have been cited, yielding a “journal impact factor” that, again, is typically conflated with quality, no matter how often or how learnedly the meta-scholars point out the fallacies in that equation — for example different citing practices in different fields, different editorial practices that sometimes limit number of permitted citations, the frequent citation of work that had been thought important but that turned out to be wrong.

The scholarly literature had become absurdly voluminous even before the advent of on-line publishing. Meta-scholars had already learned several decades ago that most published articles are never cited by anyone other than the original author(s): see for instance J. R. Cole & S. Cole, Social Stratification in Science (University of Chicago Press, 1973); Henry W. Menard, Science: Growth and Change (Harvard University Press, 1971); Derek de Solla Price, Little Science, Big Science … And Beyond (Columbia University Press, 1986).

Derek Price (Science Since Babylon, Yale University Press, 1975) had also pointed out that the growth of science at an exponential rate since the 17th century had to cease in the latter half of the 20th century since science was by then consuming several percent of the GDP of developed countries. And indeed there has been cessation of growth in research funds; but the advent of the internet has made it possible for publication to continue to grow exponentially.

Purely predatory publishing has added more useless material to what was already unmanageably voluminous, with only rare needles in these haystacks that could be of any actual practical use to the wider society.

Since almost all of this publication has to be paid for by the authors or their research grants or patrons, one could also characterize present-day scholarly and scientific publication as vanity publishing, serving to the benefit only of the author(s) — except that this glut of publishing now supports yet another publishing community, the scholars of citation indexes and journal impact factors, who concern themselves for example with “Google h5 vs Thomson Impact Factor” or who offer advice for potential authors and evaluators and administrators about “publishing or perishing”.

To my mind, the most damaging aspect of all this is not the waste of time and material resources to produce useless stuff, it is that judgment of quality by informed, thoughtful individuals is being steadily displaced by reliance on numbers generated via information technology by procedures that are understood by all thinking people to be invalid substitutes for informed, thoughtful human judgment.

 

Posted in conflicts of interest, funding research, media flaws, scientific culture | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

How to interpret statistics; especially about drug efficacy

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2017/06/06

How (not) to measure the efficacy of drugs  pointed out that the most meaningful data about a drug are the number of people needed to be treated for one person to reap benefit, NNT, and the number needed to be treated for one person to be harmed, NNH.

But this pertinent, useful information is rarely disseminated, and most particularly not by drug companies. Most commonly cited are statistics about drug performance relative to other drugs or relative to placebo. Just how misleading this can be is described in easily understood form in this discussion of the use of anti-psychotic drugs.

 

That article (“Psychiatry defends its antipsychotics: a case study of institutional corruption” by Robert Whitaker) has many other points of interest. Most important, of course, the potent demonstration that official psychiatric practice is not evidence-based, rather, its aim is to defend the profession’s current approach.

 

In these ways, psychiatry differs only in degree from the whole of modern medicine — see WHAT’S WRONG WITH PRESENT-DAY MEDICINE  — and indeed from contemporary science on too many matters: Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth, Jefferson (NC): McFarland 2012.

Posted in conflicts of interest, consensus, media flaws, medical practices, peer review, prescription drugs, scientific culture, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: , | Leave a 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 »

Climate-change facts: Temperature is not determined by carbon dioxide

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2017/05/02

The mainstream claims about carbon dioxide , global warming, and climate change, parroted by most media and accepted by most of the world’s governments, are rather straightforward: carbon dioxide released in the burning of “fossil fuels” (chiefly coal and oil) drives global warming because CO2 is a “greenhouse gas”, absorbing heat that would otherwise radiate harmlessly out into space. Since the mid-19th century, when the Industrial Revolution set off this promiscuous releasing of CO2, the Earth has been getting hotter at an unprecedented pace.

The trouble with these claims is that actual data demonstrate that global temperature is not determined by the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.

For example, during the past 500 million years, CO2 levels have often been much higher than now, including times when global temperatures were lower (1):

“The gray bars at the top … correspond to the periods when the global climate was cool; the intervening white space corresponds to the warm modes … no correspondence between pCO2 and climate is evident …. Superficially, this observation would seem to imply that pCO2 does not exert dominant control on Earth’s climate …. A wealth of evidence, however, suggests that pCO2 exerts at least some control …. [but this Figure] … shows that the ‘null hypothesis’ that pCO2 and climate are unrelated cannot be rejected on the basis of this evidence alone.” [To clarify convoluted double negative: All the evidence cited in support of mainstream claims is insufficient to over-rule what the above Figure shows, that CO2 does not determine global temperatures (the “null hypothesis”).]

Again, with temperature levels in quantitative detail (2):

Towards the end of the Precambrian Era, CO2 levels (purple curve) were very much higher than now while temperatures (blue curve) were if anything lower. Over most of the more recent times, CO2 levels have been very much lower while temperatures most of the time were considerably higher.

Moreover, the historical range of temperature fluctuations makes a mockery of contemporary mainstream ambitions to prevent global temperatures rising by as much as 2°C; for most of Earth’s history, temperatures have been about 6°C higher than at present.

Cause precedes effect

The data just cited do not clearly demonstrate whether rising CO2 brings about subsequent rises in temperature — or vice versa. However, ice-core data back as far as 420,000 years do show which comes first: temperature changes are followed by CO2 changes (3):

On average, CO2 rises lag about 800 years behind temperature rises; and CO2 levels also decline slowly after temperatures have fallen.

Since the Industrial Revolution

Over the last 150 years, global temperatures have risen, and levels of CO2 have risen. This period is minuscule by comparison to the historical data summarized above. Crucially, what has happened in this recent sliver of time cannot be compared directly to the past because the historical data are not fine-grained enough to discern changes over such short periods of time. What is undisputed, however, is that CO2 and temperature have not increased in tandem in this recent era, just as over geological time-spans. From the 1940s until the 1970s, global temperatures were falling, and mainstream experts were telling the mass media that an Ice Age was threatening (4) — at the same time as CO2 levels were continuing their merry rise with fossil fuels being burnt at an ever-increasing rate (5):

1945 to 1977 cool period with soaring CO2 emissions. Global temperatures began to cool in the mid–1940’s at the point when CO2 emissions began to soar … . Global temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere dropped about 0.5°C (0.9° F)
from the mid-1940s until 1977 and temperatures globally
cooled about 0.2°C (0.4° F) …. Many of the world’s glaciers advanced during this time and recovered a good deal
of the ice lost during the 1915–1945 warm period”.

Furthermore (5):

Global cooling from 1999 to 2009. No global warming has occurred above the 1998 level. In 1998, the PDO [Pacific Decadal Oscillation] was in its warm mode. In 1999, the PDO flipped from its warm mode into its cool mode and satellite imagery confirms that the cool mode has become firmly entrenched since then and global cooling has deepened significantly in the past few years.”

In short:
–>       Global temperatures have often been high
while CO2 levels were low, and vice versa
–>        CO2 levels rise or fall after temperatures have risen or fallen
–>         CO2 levels have risen steadily but temperatures decreased
between the 1940s and 1970s, and since about 1998
there has been a pause in warming, perhaps even cooling

Quite clearly, CO2 is not the prime driver of global temperature. Data, facts, about temperature and CO2 demonstrate that something else has far outweighed the influence of CO2 levels in determining temperatures throughout Earth’s history, including since the Industrial Revolution. “Something else” can only be natural forces. And indeed there are a number of known natural forces that affect Earth’s temperature; and many of those forces vary cyclically over time. The amount of energy radiated to Earth by the Sun varies in correlation with the 11-year periodic cycle of sun-spots, which is fairly widely known; but there are many other cycles known only to specialists, say the 9-year Lunisolar Precession cycle; and these natural forces have periodically warmed and cooled the Earth in cycles of glaciation and warmth at intervals of roughly 100,000 – 120,000 years (the Milankovitch Cycles), with a number of other cycles superposed on those (6).

So the contemporary mainstream view, the so-called “scientific consensus”, is at odds with the evidence, the facts.

That will seem incredible to many people, who might well ask how that could be possible. How could “science” be so wrong?

In brief: because of facts about science that are not much known outside the ranks of historians and philosophers and sociologists of science (7): that the scientific consensus at any given time on any given matter has been wrong quite often over the years and centuries (8); and that science nowadays has become quite different from our traditional view of it (9).

____________________________________

(1)    Daniel H. Rothman, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 99 (2002) 4167-71, doi: 10.1073/pnas.022055499
(2)    Nahle Nasif, “Cycles of Global Climate Change”, Biology Cabinet Journal Online, #295 (2007); primary sources of data are listed there
(3)    The 800 year lag in CO2 after temperature – graphed; primary sources are cited there
(4)    History rewritten, Global Cooling from 1940 – 1970, an 83% consensus, 285 papers being “erased”;
 1970s Global Cooling Scare;
 1970s Global Cooling Alarmism 
(5)    Don Easterbrook,
 “Global warming and CO2 during the past century”
(6)    David Dilley, Natural Climate Pulse, January 2012;
(7)    For example:
What everyone knows is usually wrong (about science, say)
Scientific literacy in one easy lesson
The culture and the cult of science
(8)    For example:
Bernard Barber, “Resistance by scientists to scientific discovery”,
Science, 134 (1961) 596–602.
Gunther Stent, “Prematurity and uniqueness in
scientific discovery”, Scientific American,
December 1972, pp. 84-93.
Hook, Ernest B. (ed), Prematurity in Scientific Discovery:
On Resistance and Neglect,
                                          University of California Press, 2002.
Science: A Danger for Public Policy?!
(9)   For example:
How Science Has Changed — notably since World War II
The Science Bubble
The business of for-profit “science”
From Dawn to Decadence: The Three Ages of Modern Science

Posted in consensus, global warming, resistance to discovery, science is not truth, science policy, scientific culture, the scientific method, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

 
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