Skepticism about science and medicine

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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).

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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 III: Wrong knowledge about science

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/01/29

In the first post of this series (Dangerous knowledge) I pointed to a number of specific topics on which the contemporary scientific consensus is doubtfully in tune with the actual evidence. That disjunction is ignored or judged unimportant both by most researchers and by most observers; and that, I believe, is because the fallibility of science is not common knowledge; which in turn stems from ignorance and wrong knowledge about the history of science and, more or less as a consequence, about science itself.

The conventional wisdom regards science as a thing that is characterized by the scientific method. An earlier post (Dangerous knowledge II: Wrong knowledge about the history of science) mentioned that the scientific method is not a description of how science is done, it was thought up in philosophical speculation about how science could have been so successful, most notably in the couple of centuries following the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century.

Just as damaging as misconceptions about how science is done is the wrong knowledge that science is even a thing that can be described without explicit attention to how scientific activity has changed over time, how the character of the people doing science has changed over time, most drastically since the middle of the 20th century. What has happened since then, since World War II, affords the clearest, most direct understanding of why contemporary official pronouncements about matter of science and medicine need to be treated with similar skepticism as are official pronouncements about matters of economics, say, or politics. As I wrote earlier (Politics, science, and medicine),

In a seriously oversimplified nutshell:

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

 

For a detailed discussion of these changes in scientific activity, see Chapter 1 of Science Is Not What You Think: How It Has Changed, Why We Can’t Trust It, How It Can Be Fixed (McFarland 2017); less comprehensive descriptions are in Three Stages of Modern Science  and The Science Bubble.

Official pronouncements are not made primarily to tell the truth for the public good. Statements from politicians are often motivated by the desire to gain favorable attention, as is widely understood. But less widely understood is that official statements from government agencies are also often motivated by the desire to gain favorable attention, to make the case for the importance of the agency (and its Director and other personnel) and the need for its budget to be considered favorably. Press releases from universities and other research institutions have the same ambition. And anything from commercial enterprises is purely self-interested, of course.

The stark corollary is that no commercial or governmental entity, nor any sizable not-for-profit entity, is devoted primarily to the public good and the objective truth. Organizations with the most laudable aims, Public Citizen,  say, or the American Heart Association, etc. etc. etc., are admittedly devoted to doing good things, to serving the public good, but it is according to their own particular definition of the public good, which may not be at all the same as others’ beliefs about what is best for the public, for society as a whole.

Altogether, a useful generalization is that all corporate entities, private or governmental, commercial or non-profit, have a vested self-interest in the status quo, since that represents the circumstances of their raison d’être, their prestige, their support from particular groups in society or from society as a whole.

The hidden rub is that a vested interest in the status quo means defending things as they are, even when objective observers might note that those things need to be modified, superseded, abandoned. Examples from the past are legion and well known: in politics, say, the American involvement in Vietnam and innumerable analogous matters. But not so well known is that unwarranted defense of the status quo is also quite common on medical and scientific issues. The resistance to progress, the failure to correct mis-steps in science and medicine in any timely way, has been the subject of many books and innumerable articles; for selected bibliographies, see Critiques of Contemporary Science and Academe and What’s Wrong with Present-Day Medicine. Note that all these critiques have been effectively ignored to the present day, the flaws and dysfunctions remain as described.

Researchers who find evidence that contradicts the status quo, the established theories, learn the hard way that such facts don’t count. As noted in my above-mentioned book,  science has a love-hate relationship with the facts: they are welcomed before a theory has been established, but after that only if they corroborate the theory; contradictory facts are anathema. Yet researchers never learn that unless they themselves uncover such unwanted evidence; scientists and engineers and doctors are trained to believe that their ventures are essentially evidence-based.

Contributing to the resistance against rethinking established theory is today’s hothouse, overly competitive, rat-race research climate. It is no great exaggeration to say that researchers are so busy applying for grants and contracts and publishing that they have no time to think new thoughts.

Posted in conflicts of interest, consensus, medical practices, peer review, resistance to discovery, science is not truth, scientists are human, the scientific method, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

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 »

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 »

Politics, science, and medicine

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2017/12/31

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Science is broken: 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 »

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 »

Superstitious belief in science

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2017/05/16

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

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

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

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

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

Speaking Truth to Big Pharma Power

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2017/03/18

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

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

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

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

Money has corrupted science, including some individual scientists

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2017/03/11

Some years ago, I had blogged about “The business of for-profit ‘science’”, pointing out that “A number of trends, in society as a whole as well as in science and medicine, have led to the present dysfunctional state of affairs. It is not the result of conspiracies or overt evil-doing . . .”.

Systemic change means that just “doing what everyone does” results in bad things for the public as a whole. An obvious illustration at the moment is that politics has become so pervaded by “spin” that truth has essentially disappeared from what politicians and their spokespeople say, with consequences that everyone should fear.

But that “normal” behavior has become dysfunctional does not entail that there is not also deliberate additional mischief being done, and things that seem so out of order that they ought to be criminally prosecutable.

One aspect of present dysfunctionality in scientific activities is the proliferation of what has been aptly described as predatory publishing on-line of what seem on their face to be scientific journals but whose entire raison d’être is to make money for the publishers from the fees paid by author. The steadily updated list of apparently predatory publishers and journals inaugurated by Jeffrey Beall was no longer on-line as of some time between 12 and 18 January 2017, but the Wayback Machine makes an earlier version available .

Admittedly, every active, publishing researcher knows that peer review and editorial judgments are far from infallibly expert and impartial, but the predatory journals have no quality control at all, illustrated by the acceptance of entirely fake articles, for instance in Open Information Science published by Bentham Science (Jessica Shepherd, “Editor quits after journal accepts bogus science article”, 18 June 2009 ); the editor of another Bentham journal, Open Chemical Physics, resigned after an article she had never seen was published, a piece that alleged the presence of “nanothermite” particles in the dust from the Twin Towers terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 (Thomas Hoffmann, “Chefredaktør skrider efter kontroversiel artikel om 9/11”, 28 April 2009; Denis G. Rancourt, “Editor in Chief resigned over the Harrit et al. nanothermite paper”, 11 November 2010).

Beall had listed more than 1100 publishers, some of which publish hundreds of ”journals” where “article processing charges” run from a few hundred dollars upwards to more than $1000. Any honest researcher with results of any importance seeks publication in a long-established and respected journal, so all this “publication” by the predators is sheer waste, much of it money that had been awarded to scientists as research grants. Bentham Science, perhaps iconic of the more prominent predators, lists well over 100 journals. In 2013, Science published the report of a sting operation in which fake manuscripts with obvious flaws were sent to a number of open-access journals; more than half the fake articles were accepted for publication (John Bohannon, “Who’s Afraid of Peer Review? A spoof paper concocted by Science reveals little or no scrutiny at many open-access journals”, Science 342 [2013] 60-5).

Of course not all mainstream print journals manage always to detect even obvious deficiencies, but predatory journals leave other clues, for example, that they continually solicit people for submissions and to serve as editors and on editorial boards (e.g. D. H. Kaye, “Flaky academic journals”, 21 December 2016; Gunther Eysenbach, “Black sheep among Open Access Journals and Publishers”).

Legitimate journals employ copyeditors, but the predators do not. Recently I benefited from e-mails that revealed yet further deceitful money grubbing. Bentham Science journals suggest that authors get (and pay for) copy-editing and language improvement services offered by Eureka Science — whose staff happens to be the same people who also run Bentham Science. The “two” companies also pretend to be separate entities in the arranging of conferences, for example the International Conference on Drug Discovery and Therapy (six since 2008).

Conferences can be real money-makers. For the 2017 International Conference on Drug Discovery and Therapy, registration fees range from about $500 for mere attendees to, for speakers ~$1000 (academic) o r~ $1600 (corporate) (the approximate “~” because fees vary a bit according to when they are paid). Invited speakers pay the same fees as non-invited, which strikes me as odd. When I’m invited to speak I’m offered expenses, even an honorarium; but then I haven’t been active in mainstream science research for quite some time. The Conference organizers do offer free travel and accommodation to a few eminent people, say Nobel Prize winners, since having those attend lends apparent legitimacy to the proceedings. These meetings can be lucrative indeed for the organizers: the 2015 International Conference on Drug Discovery and Therapy listed more than 360 registrants.

The identity of Bentham Science and Eureka Science was revealed to me by Fiona Hayden, self-described as a researcher in the field of corporate ethics with a special interest in the STM publishing industry. She discovered that
Ø      Bentham Science hides its identity and location.
Ø      It organizes conferences but tells potential audience that it is just a media partner, that the organizer is a different company.
Ø      It asks authors to pay for grammar and English editing to its own company with the different name Eureka Science.
Ø      It does not allow its employees to disclose on their social media accounts that they work for Bentham Science.
Ø      It puts people who expose them on a black list.

The version of the black list Hayden sent me had about 30 names. The criterion for inclusion seems to be anyone who might be a whistleblower about improper happenings: one person on the list whom I had known reasonably well was an activist for integrity of academic ideals; another has been one of the most prominent advocates of respectable high-quality open-access publishing.

At one of the “Eureka” conferences, several of the staff had identified themselves as Bentham employees to Hayden and her colleagues, who also identified by name and e-mail address several individuals active in “both” companies, which are registered in Karachi as Information Technology Services (ITS). Among the registrants at the 2015 Conference on Drug Discovery and Therapy, about 15 were Bentham employees listed as ITS or Eureka.

ITS, Bentham Science, & Eureka Science are one and the same, owned by retired Professor Atta-ur-Rehman who is always president or vice president of Eureka conferences (Fiona Hayden e-mail, 2 March 2017). While serving as Chairman of the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan, Atta-ur-Rehman had been warned about the publishing of fake journals in Pakistan (Q. Isa Daudpota [professor at Pakistan’s Air University], “Scourge of fake journals”, 30 November 2011, ).

I had posted recently about The Scourge of Wikipedia; Wiki’s unreliability is illustrated by its Google summary for Bentham Science, which makes it appear as a perfectly respectable mainstream outfit instead of the reality:

Fiona Hayden also supplied links to some articles by a range of authors deploring predatory publishing and other sad aspects of contemporary science:

http://www.dcscience.net/2011/12/16/open-access-peer-review-grants-and-other-academic-conundrums/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4315198/

http://neurodojo.blogspot.de/2015/04/how-much-harm-is-done-by-predatory.html

http://www.acc.org/latest-in-cardiology/articles/2013/05/10/16/21/straight-talk-predatory-publishers

http://blog.pokristensson.com/2010/11/04/academic-spam-and-open-access-publishing/

http://www.editage.com/insights/simple-steps-authors-can-follow-to-protect-their-research-from-predatory-publishers

https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn17288-crap-paper-accepted-by-journal/

*                     *                   *                   *                   *                   *                   *                   *

Predatory publishing exists because of how the whole enterprise of science has been corrupted by outside interests and the overweening pursuit of financial profit. I deplore what Bentham/Eureka/ITS does, though the conferences are evidently found useful, given that they attract so many attendees. Meeting fresh faces from distant places can be a rewarding experience, as I found at a couple of the Conferences on the Unity of the Sciences  despite that they were organized by the Unification Church, many of whose other activities I deplore.

The degree to which “normal” mainstream science has succumbed to financial corruption may be illustrated by the Institute of Global Environment and Society, established by a professor at George Mason University. It has cashed in on the hysteria over climate change  by garnering “82 federal grants and 3 contracts from 5 agencies totaling $26,222,420 from Fiscal Year 2008 to FY 2016: (Source: www.USASpending.gov)” and spending most of it on salaries:

“IGES 2014 Income: $3,846,141 including $3,832,383 federal contributions; 2013 income $4,186,639 including $4,174 658 federal contributions; IGES spent $3,296,720 on salaries in 2014; $3,194,792 on salaries in 2013”. Principals of IGES moreover had the gall to urge criminal action against “global warming deniers” — Political correctness in science, 2017/03/06.

Not that long-established scientific publishers abstain from money grubbing, also profiting exorbitantly from open-access publishing designed to extract more money from authors and their patrons: Nature also publishes more than 30 open-access on-line journals as well as 42 journals with “hybrid open access” with per article fees between $1350 and $5200 for different journals. Elsevier charges fees ranging between $500 and $5,000, depending on the journal, for “open access” publishing.

It may be that predatory publishing will inevitably continue so long as science continues to be characterized by cutthroat competitiveness and judgments made by quantity of research grants and of publications.

There may be an analogy with drug trafficking or prostitution: so long as the demand exists, entrepreneurs will find profitable ways to satisfy the demand. So long as scientific careers call for long lists of publications, sleazy publishers will continue to exist.

 

Posted in fraud in science, funding research, peer review, science is not truth, scientific culture, scientists are human | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

 
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