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

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/09/11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/08/26

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

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

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

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

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

Exactly. QED.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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[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 »

Denialism and pseudo-science

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/03/31

Nowadays, questioning whether HIV causes AIDS, or whether carbon dioxide causes global warming, is often deplored and attacked as “denialism” or pseudo-science. Yet questioning those theories is perfectly good, normal science.

Science is many things, including a human activity, an institution, an authority, but most centrally science means knowledge and understanding. Pseudo-science correspondingly means false claims dressed up as though they were reliable, genuine science. Denialism means refusing to believe what is unquestionably known to be true.

Knowledge means facts; understanding means theories or interpretations; and an essential adjunct to both is methodology, the means by which facts can be gathered.

There is an important connection not only between methods and facts but also between facts and theories: Un-interpreted facts carry no meaning. They are made meaningful only when connected to a conceptual framework, which is inevitably subjective. That is typically illustrated by diagrams where the facts consist of black and white lines and areas whose meaning depends on interpretations by the viewer. Different observers offer different interpretations.

The meanings of these facts — black-and-white lines and areas — are supplied by the viewer:
A young lady with extravagant hair treatment facing left — OR an old crone looking downwards;
A duck facing left OR a rabbit facing right;
Twin black profiles looking at one another OR a white vase.

In science, researchers often differ over the interpretation of the evidence: the facts are not disputed but different theories are offered to explain them.

At any rate, in considering what science can tell us we need to consider the three facets of science: facts, methods, and theories [1]. Normal scientific activity is guided by established theories and applies established methods to enlarge the range of factual knowledge.
Every now and again, something unconventional and unforeseen turns up in one of those three facets of science. It might be a new interpretation of existing facts, as in the theory of relativity; or it may be the application of a novel method as in radio-astronomy; or it may be the observation of previously unsuspected happenings, facts, for instance that atoms are not eternally stable and sometimes decompose spontaneously. When something of that sort happens, it is often referred to later as having been a scientific revolution, overturning what had been taken for granted in one facet of science while remaining content with what has been taken for granted in the other two facets.
The progress of science can be viewed as revolutions in facts, or in method followed by the gaining of possibly revolutionary facts, followed eventually by minor or major revisions of theory. Over a sufficiently long time — say, the several centuries of modern (post-17th-century) science — the impression by hindsight is of continual accumulation of facts and improvement of methods; the periodic changes in theoretical perspective are all that tends to be remembered by other than specialist historians of science.

(from “Why minority views should be listened to”)

The history of science also records episodes in which researchers proposed something novel simultaneously in two facets of science, for example when Gregor Mendel applied simple arithmetic to observations of plant breeding, an unprecedented methodology in biology that thereby uncovered entirely new facts. Another example might be the suggestion by Alfred Wegener in the early decades of the 20th century that the Earth’s continents must have moved, since the flora and fauna and geological formations are so alike on continents that are now far apart; making comparisons across oceans was an entirely novel methodology, and there was no theory to accommodate the possibility of continents moving. Episodes of that sort, where two of the three facets of science are unorthodox, have been labeled “premature science” by Gunther Stent [2]; the scientific community did not accept these suggestions for periods of several decades, until something more conventional showed that those unorthodox proposals had been sound.

When claims are made that do not fit with established theory or established methods or established facts, then those claims are typically dismissed out of hand and labeled pseudo-science. For example, claims of the existence of Loch Ness “monsters” involve unorthodox facts obtained by methods that are unorthodox in biology, namely eyewitness accounts, sonar echoes, photographs, and films, instead of the established way of certifying the existence of a species through the examination of an actual specimen; and the theory of evolution and the accepted fossil record have no place for the sort of creature that eyewitnesses describe.

In recent years it has it has been quite common see dissent from established scientific theories referred to as “denialism”. The connotation of that term “denialism” is not only that something is wrong but that it is reprehensibly wrong, that those who question the established view should know better, that it would be damaging to pay attention to them; moreover that denying (for example) that HIV causes AIDS is as morally distasteful as denying the fact of the Holocaust in which millions of Jews, Gypsies, and others were killed.

As Google N-grams for “denialism” indicate, until the last couple of decades, “denialism” meant to deny historical facts of genocide or something like it:

In the 1930s, “denialism” was applied to the refusal to acknowledge the millions of deaths in the Soviet Union caused by enforcement of collectivized agriculture and associated political purges, for example the 1932-33 Ukraine famine [3]. Holocaust denial was prominent for a while around 1970 but then faded away from mention in books until it re-appeared in the late 1980s [4]. But soon “denialism” directed at questioning of HIV/AIDS theory and the theory of carbon-dioxide-induced global warming swamped all other applications of the term:


This recent usage of “denialism” is consciously and specifically intended to arouse the moral outrage associated with denial of genocides, as admitted (for example) by the South African jurist Edwin Cameron [5]. But those genocides are facts, proved beyond doubt by the records of deaths as well as remains and various artefacts at concentration camps. By contrast, so-called “AIDS denialism” and so-called “climate-change denialism” or “global warming denialism” are the questioning or disputing of theories, not facts.

That questioning, moreover, is perfectly consonant with normal science:
⇒⇒   On the matter of whether HIV causes AIDS, dissidents do not question anything about established methods of virology, and they do not claim that HIV tests do not measure proteins, antibodies, and bits of genetic material; they merely assert that the results of HIV tests do not fit the theory that HIV is an infectious agent, and they assert that the methods used in HIV AIDS research are not sound methods for studying viruses since they have not been verified against experiments with authentic pure HIV virions derived directly from HIV+ individuals or from AIDS patients (The Case against HIV).
⇒⇒   On the matter of whether the liberation of carbon dioxide and by the burning of fossil fuels is the primary cause of global warming and climate change (AGW, Anthropogenic Global Warming and climate change [ACC]), those who question that theory do not question the facts about amounts of carbon dioxide present over time and they do not question the changes that have taken place in temperatures; they merely point out that the known and accepted facts show that there have been periods of time during which carbon-dioxide levels were very high while temperatures were very low, and that during several periods when carbon-dioxide levels were increasing the Earth’s temperature was not increasing or perhaps even cooling [6]. Furthermore, those who question AGW point out that the prime evidence offered for the theory is no evidence at all, merely the outputs of computer models that are supposed to take into account all the important variables — even as it is obvious that they do not do that, since those computer models do not provide an accurate record of the actual temperature changes that have been observed over many centuries.

Denialism means to deny something that is unquestionably true, but theories, interpretations, can never be known to be unquestionably true. Labeling as denialists those who question whether HIV causes AIDS, or those who question whether human-caused generation of carbon dioxide is the prime cause of global warming and climate change, is an attempt to finesse having to properly demonstrate the validity of those theories. Another attempt at such evasion is the oft-heard assertion that there is an “overwhelming consensus” on those matters. As Michael Crichton put it:
the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. . . . Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough. Nobody says the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. Nobody says the consensus is that the sun is 93 million miles away. It would never occur to anyone to speak that way [7].

When the assertion of consensus does not suffice, then the ad hominem tactic of crying “denialism” is invoked: the last refuge of intellectual scoundrels who cannot prove their case by evidence and logic.

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[1]    I first suggested this in “Velikovsky and the Loch Ness Monster: Attempts at demarcation in two controversies”, in a symposium on “The Demarcation between Science and Pseudo-Science” (ed. Rachel Laudan), published as Working Papers of the Center for the Study of Science in Society (VPI&SU), 2 (#1, April 1983) 87-106. The idea was developed further in The Enigma of Loch Ness: Making Sense of a Mystery (University of Illinois Press, 1986/88; reprint, Wipf & Stock, 2012; pp. 152-3); see also Science or Pseudoscience: Magnetic Healing, Psychic Phenomena, and Other Heterodoxies (University of Illinois Press, 2001); Science Is Not What You Think (McFarland, 2017)
[2]    Gunther Stent, “Prematurity and uniqueness in scientific discovery”, Scientific American, December 1972, pp. 84–93
[3]    Described as the Holodomor
[4]    Holocaust Denial Timeline
[5]    Edwin Cameron, Witness to AIDS, I. B. Tauris, 2005; see book review in Journal of Scientific Exploration, 20 (2006) 436-444
[6]    Climate-change facts: Temperature is not determined by carbon dioxide
[7]    Michael Crichton,  “Aliens cause global warming”, Caltech Michelin Lecture, 17 January 2003

 

Posted in consensus, denialism, global warming, media flaws, politics and science, science is not truth, science policy, scientific culture, scientific literacy, scientism, 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.

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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 »

Dangerous knowledge

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/01/24

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble.
It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.

That’s very true.

In a mild way, the quote also illustrates itself since it is so often attributed wrongly; perhaps most often to Mark Twain but also to other humorists — Will Rogers, Artemus Ward, Kin Hubbard — as well as to inventor Charles Kettering, pianist Eubie Blake, baseball player Yogi Berra, and more (“Bloopers: Quote didn’t really originate with Will Rogers”).

Such mis-attributions of insightful sayings are perhaps the rule rather than any exception; sociologist Robert Merton even wrote a whole book (On the Shoulders of Giants, Free Press 1965 & several later editions) about mis-attributions over many centuries of the modest acknowledgment that “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”.

No great harm comes from mis-attributing words of wisdom. Great harm is being done nowadays, however, by accepting much widely believed and supposedly scientific medical knowledge; for example about hypertension, cholesterol, prescription drugs, and more (see works listed in What’s Wrong with Present-Day Medicine).

The trouble is that “science” was so spectacularly successful in elucidating so much about the natural world and contributing to so many useful technologies that it has come to be regarded as virtually infallible.

Historians and other specialist observers of scientific activity — philosophers, sociologists, political scientists, various others — of course know that science, no less than all other human activities, is inherently and unavoidably fallible.

Until the middle of the 20th century, science was pretty much an academic vocation not venturing very much outside the ivory towers. Consequently and fortunately, the innumerable things on which science went wrong in past decades and centuries did no significant damage to society as a whole; the errors mattered only within science and were corrected as time went by. Nowadays, however, science has come to pervade much of everyday life through its influences on industry, medicine, and official policies on much of what governments are concerned with: agriculture, public health, environmental matters, technologies of transport and of warfare, and so on. Official regulations deal with what is permitted to be in water and in the air and in innumerable man-made products; propellants in spray cans and refrigerants in cooling machinery have been banned, globally, because science (primarily chemists) persuaded the world that those substances were reaching the upper atmosphere and destroying the natural “layer” of ozone that absorbs some of the ultraviolet radiation from the sun, thereby protecting us from damage to eyes and skin. For the last three decades, science (primarily physicists) has convinced the world that human generation of carbon dioxide is warming the planet and causing irreversible climate change.

So when science goes wrong nowadays, that can do untold harm to national economies, and to whole populations of people if the matter has to do with health.

Yet science remains as fallible as it ever was, because it continues to be done by human beings. The popular illusion that science is objective and safeguarded from error by the scientific method is simply that, an illusion: the scientific method describes how science perhaps ought to be done, but how it is done depends on the human beings doing it, none of whom never make mistakes.

When I wrote that “science persuaded the world” or “convinced the world”, of course it was not science that did that, because science cannot speak for itself. Rather, the apparent “scientific consensus” at any given time is generally taken a priori as “what science says”. But it is rare that any scientific consensus represents what all pertinent experts think; and consensus is appealed to only when there is controversy, as Michael Crichton pointed out so cogently: “the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels[,] … invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough. Nobody says the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. Nobody says the consensus is that the sun is 93 million miles away. It would never occur to anyone to speak that way”.

Yet the scientific consensus represents contemporary views incorporated in textbooks and disseminated by science writers and the mass media. Attempting to argue publicly against it on any particular topic encounters the pervasive acceptance of the scientific consensus as reliably trustworthy. What reason could there be to question “what science says”? There seems no incentive for anyone to undertake the formidable task of seeking out and evaluating the actual evidence for oneself.

Here is where real damage follows from what everyone knows that just happens not to be so. It is not so that a scientific consensus is the same as “what science says”, in other words what the available evidence is, let alone what it implies. On any number of issues, there are scientific experts who recognize flaws in the consensus and dissent from it. That dissent is not usually mentioned by the popular media, however; and if it should be mentioned then it is typically described as misguided, mistaken, “denialism”.

Examples are legion. Strong evidence and expert voices dissent from the scientific consensus on many matters that the popular media regard as settled: that the universe began with a Big Bang about 13 billion years ago; that anti-depressant drugs work specifically and selectively against depression; that human beings (the “Clovis” people) first settled the Americas about 13,000 years ago by crossing the Bering Strait; that the dinosaurs were brought to an end by the impact of a giant asteroid; that claims of nuclear fusion at ordinary temperatures (“cold fusion”) have been decisively disproved; that Alzheimer’s disease is caused by the build-up of plaques of amyloid protein; and more. Details are offered in my book, Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth (McFarland, 2012). That book also documents the widespread informed dissent from the views that human-generated carbon dioxide is the prime cause of global warming and climate change, and that HIV is not the cause of AIDS (for which see the compendium of evidence and sources at The Case against HIV).

The popular knowledge that just isn’t so is, directly, that it is safe to accept as true for all practical purposes what the scientific consensus happens to be. That mistaken knowledge can be traced, however, to knowledge that isn’t so about the history of science, for that history is a very long story of the scientific consensus being wrong and later modified or replaced, quite often more than once.

Further posts will talk about why the real history of science is so little known.

 

Posted in consensus, denialism, global warming, media flaws, medical practices, prescription drugs, science is not truth, scientific literacy, scientism, scientists are human, the scientific method, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: , | 4 Comments »

What science says about global warming and climate change

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2017/07/06

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

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

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

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

President Eisenhower foresaw the possibility half a century ago:
“in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite” (Farewell speech, 17 January 1961).

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

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

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

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 »

What is scientific literacy good for?

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2016/01/03

The way scientific literacy is defined and measured makes no sense — see Scientific Literacy and Myth of the Scientific Method (1992/1994 and still in print, which surely says something about the validity of its arguments).
Scientific literacy is measured by what people know about things like atoms and about “the scientific method”, in effect by how well they could function within science; whereas scientific literacy should surely mean what non-scientists need to know about the role of science in society: when to believe the experts and when not to. About medicine, by analogy, we don’t need to know how drugs work, say, we just need to know where to find data about how long they have been in use and what their side effects are and whether there’s already a law suit against the manufacturer that is still actively advertising it (quite a common circumstance; see anticoagulants Pradaxa and Xarelto and anti-diabetes Invokana at the moment (2015-16).

It turns out that current measurements of scientific literacy yield results that should be highly embarrassing to the expert gurus on this topic.

For example, people who score high on “scientific literacy” do poorly on distinguishing pseudo-science from science — Chris Impey, Sanlyn Buxner, Jessie Antonellis, Elizabeth Johnson, & Courtney King, “A twenty-year survey of science literacy among college undergraduates”, Journal of College Science Teaching, 40 (#4, 2011) 31-7.

When it comes to human-caused climate change, perhaps the measures of “scientific literacy” are pretty meaningful after all, because the most scientifically literate according to these tests are least likely to believe that human generation of carbon dioxide is responsible for climate change:
“Climate skepticism not rooted in science illiteracy: Cultural values, not knowledge, shape global warming views, a study finds” (Janet Raloff, 29 May 2012)

“New study: Numerical and Science Literacy cause Climate Change Skepticism” (1 June 2012)”

“Study: Climate skeptics and proponents score highest on climate science literacy…but are the most polarized” (Anthony Watts, 23 February 2015)

As I had pointed out in the first entry on this blog (A politically liberal global-warming skeptic?), most people’s views about human-caused climate change are determined by their political affiliation and not by their understanding of science or familiarity with the evidence.

 

Posted in global warming, media flaws, politics and science, scientific literacy | Tagged: | 6 Comments »

Meaningless research

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2014/07/17

Medicine and doctors are often symbolized by reference to Greek mythology:

MedicalLogoAndText

Nowadays, though, much of so-called medical research would be better represented by p-values rampant over a field of nonsensical “associations”.

I had recently drawn attention (Statistics literacy) to a fine article about the lack of understanding of statistics that pervades the medical scene (Do doctors understand test results?). It explains how the risk of false-positive tests should be — but is not — understood by doctors and communicated to patients; and how relative risks are cited instead of absolute risks — a confusion that Big Pharma does much to promulgate because it helps to sell pills.
Another set of misunderstandings underlies much of the “research” that is picked up by the media as significant news: data mining coupled with the virtually universal mistake of taking correlations as indicating causation. A recent case in point concerns Alzheimer’s Disease (AD):

”Sleep disorders may raise risk of Alzheimer’s, new research shows
Sleep disturbances such as apnea may increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, while moderate exercise in middle age and mentally stimulating games, such as crossword puzzles, may prevent the onset of the dementia-causing disease, according to new research to be presented Monday”.

Note that “may increase” and “may prevent” both imply causation, that sleep disorders may actually cause AD while physical and mental exercise may bring about (cause) protection. But the evidence is only that there is some sort of correlation; and it’s vitally important to keep in mind that correlation doesn’t mean an association every time, it means only that two things are found together apparently more often than one might expect purely as a result of chance.

Note too that “may” is an often-used weasel word to insinuate something while guarding against being held accountable for actually asserting it; e.g., big campaign contributions may influence politicians; conflicts of interest may influence researchers; and so on.

Note as well “to be presented”, which illustrates publicity-seeking by researchers and the complicity of the media in that, as they ignore the fact that at this moment the matter is nothing more than hearsay: science is supposed to published and evaluated before being taken at all seriously.

As to “purely as a result of chance”, everyone should understand, but few do, that the almost universally used method of calculating these probabilities as “p-values” is itself quite misleading; see “Statistics can lie, but Jack Good never did — a personal essay in tribute to I J Good, 1916-2009”.
The take-away lesson is that what researchers claim as “statistically significant” is often not at all significant, indeed it may be entirely meaningless; yet it will still be picked up by the media and ballyhooed as the latest breakthrough.

Here’s how researchers in medically related fields (and elsewhere too, of course) can generate publications effortlessly and prolifically while disseminating misleading notions:
Select a topic — AD, say.
Collect a data set of people who have that condition, the data including every conceivable characteristic: age (in several categories such as young, early middle age, middle age, late middle age, young-old, fairly old, quite old); exercise habits (light, moderate, heavy); alcohol consumption (light, moderate, heavy); diet (many variables — fat, meat, dairy, vegan, gluten-free, etc.); other medical conditions and history (many indeed); race and ethnicity; any others you can think of (urban or rural, say; employment history and type of employment — veteran; blue or white collar; innumerable possibilities); tests by MRI, complete blood analysis, etc.
Feed all the data into a computer, and set it to find correlations.

Purely by chance, at least 1 of every 20 possible pairings will produce a “p ≤ 0.5 statistically significant” result. Since p ≤ 0.5, this is publishable, especially since the written report fails to emphasize that this resulted from a random sweep through 20 times as many pairings.

Naturally such results are quite likely to make little sense, since they are random by-chance associations. For example:
“[M]oderate physical exercise in middle age could decrease the risk that their cognitive deficits progress to dementia. . . .
Oddly, however, the association did not hold for people who engaged in light or vigorous exercise in middle age or for any level of physical activity later in life.
On a similarly counterintuitive note, another study suggested that high blood pressure among people at least 90 years old — “the oldest old” — may protect against cognitive impairment. . . . although hypertension is believed to increase the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia for middle-aged people, the risk may shift with time” [emphases added].

The reason these results seem so incongruous and counterintuitive is, of course, that they were never genuine results at all, just “associations” that occurred when looking for correlations among a whole host of possibilities.

The notion that moderate exercise but not light or heavy exercise might actually be a significant cause of something like Alzheimer’s is not entirely beyond the realm of possibility, I suppose. Still, it seems sufficiently farfetched that I would hesitate — or be ashamed — even to mention the possibility until it had been reproduced in quite a few studies.
On the other hand I’m perfectly willing to see an association between high blood pressure and good cognition in the elderly, since good cognition depends on plentiful oxygen which depends on a good blood flow; and since arteries become less flexible with age, more pressure is needed to achieve that.
On a further hand, though, the notion that high blood pressure increases the risk of dementia in middle age strikes me as sufficiently absurd as to be dismissed pending the strongest most direct possible evidence; it “is believed” by whom?

Common sense cries out to be applied whenever a p ≤ 0.5 association is touted as meaning something. Try it out on the suggestion that “A daily high dose of Vitamin E may slow early Alzheimer’s disease”. Think about the caveats in that piece, and the trivial magnitude of the reported possible effect.

That respected mass media feature such garbage may well be quite harmful. I would expect some number of people will start taking vitamin E supplements immediately, whether or not there are any indications that they are not getting enough of it already. Not to speak of all the >90-year-olds desperately trying to raise their blood pressure and puzzled about how to decide how much exercise at their age is “moderate” but not “light” or “heavy”; and all the 70-to-90-year-olds wondering at what age high blood pressure stops causing Alzheimer’s and starts protecting against it.

 

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