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Political Correctness in Science

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2017/03/06

Supposedly, science investigates via the scientific method: testing the validity of hunches (hypotheses) against reality and allowing reality to establish beliefs, thereby discarding disproved pre-judgments, hunches, prejudices, biases. Scientific theories. are determined by facts, evidence.   Science is empirical, pragmatic; it does not accept beliefs on authority or from tradition.

Historians, philosophers, sociologists, scholars of Science & Technology Studies have long recognized that this view of science is mythical (i), but it continues to be taught in schools and in social-science texts and it is the conventional wisdom found in the media and in public discourse generally. A corollary of the misconception that scientific theories have been successfully tested against reality is the widespread belief that what science says, what the contemporary scientific consensus is, can safely be accepted as truth for all practical purposes.

So it seems incongruous, paradoxical, that large numbers of scientists should disagree violently, on any given issue, over what science really says. Yet that is the case on a seemingly increasing range of topics (ii), some of them of great public import, for instance whether HIV causes AIDS (iii) or whether human-generated carbon dioxide is the prime cause of global warming and climate change. On those latter matters as well as some others, the difference of opinion within the scientific community parallels political views: left-leaning (“liberal”) opinion regards it as unquestionably true that HIV causes AIDS and that human-generated carbon dioxide is the prime cause of global warming and climate change, whereas right-leaning (“conservative”) opinion denies that those assertions constitute “settled science” or have been proved beyond doubt. Those who harbor these “conservative” views are often labeled “denialists”; it is not to be countenanced that politically liberal individuals should be global warming skeptics (iv).

In other words, it is politically incorrect to doubt that HIV causes AIDS or that human-generated carbon dioxide is the prime cause of global warming. It requires no more than cursory observation of public discourse to recognize this pervasive phenomenon. Governments and Nobel-Prize committees illustrate that those beliefs are officially acted on as though they were established truths. One cadre of mainstream scientists even wants criminal charges laid (v) against those who question that global warming is caused primarily by human-generated carbon dioxide. So political correctness is present within the scientific community in the USA.

I’m of a sufficient age to be able to testify that half a century ago it would not have occurred to any researchers in a democratic society to urge the government to prosecute for criminal conspiracy other researchers who disagreed with them. Declaring certain scientific research programs as politically incorrect and therefore substantively without merit, and persecuting those who perpetrated such research, characterized totalitarian regimes, not free societies. Stalin’s Soviet Union declared wrong the rest of the world’s understanding of genetics and imprisoned exponents of it; it also declared wrong the rest of the world’s understanding of chemical bonding and quantum mechanics. Nazism’s Deutsche Physik banned relativity and other “Jewish” science.

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Political correctness holds that HIV causes AIDS and that human-generated carbon dioxide is the prime cause of global warming. Those beliefs also characterize left-leaning opinion. Why is political correctness a left-wing phenomenon?

In contemporary usage, political correctness means “marked by or adhering to a typically progressive orthodoxy on issues involving especially ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or ecology” (vi) or “conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated” (vii), evidently “progressive” or “liberal” or Left-ish views. But those descriptions fail to capture the degree of fanatical dogmatism that can lead practicing scientists to urge that those of differing views be criminally prosecuted; political correctness includes the wish to control what everyone believes.

Thus political correctness has been appropriately called “liberal fascism”, which also reveals why it is a phenomenon of the ultra-extreme Left. Attempted control of beliefs and corresponding behavior is openly proclaimed, unashamedly, by the extreme Right; it is called, and calls itself, fascism, Nazism, and needs no other name. But the Left, the “liberals”, claim to stand for and to support individual freedom of belief and speech; so a name is needed for the phenomenon by which proclamations of liberal ideals are coupled with attempts to enforce adherence to particular beliefs and social norms. Political correctness is the hypocrisy of self-proclaimed liberals functioning as authoritarian fascists.

That hypocrisy pervades political correctness, I was able to observe at first hand during my years in academic administration. People say things they don’t mean, and that they know everyone knows they don’t mean, and no one dares point to the absence of the Emperor’s clothes. For instance, the Pooh-Bahs assert that affirmative action means goals and not quotas, even as hiring practices and incentives demonstrate that they are quotas. For innumerable examples gathered over the years, see the newsletter I edited from 1993 until my retirement at the end of 1999 (viii).

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Science had represented for a long time the virtues associated with honest study of reality. Around the 1930s and 1940s, sociologist Robert Merton could describe the norms evidently governing scientific activity as communal sharing of universally valid observations and conclusions obtained by disinterested people deploying organized skepticism. That description does not accommodate researchers urging criminal prosecution of peers who disagree with them about evidence or conclusions. It does not accommodate researchers lobbying publishers to withdraw articles accepted for publication following normal review; and those norms do not describe the now prevalent circumstances in which one viewpoint suppresses others through refusal to allow publication or participation in scientific meetings (ix).

Science, in other words, is not at all what it used to be, and it is not what the popular view of it is, that common view having been based on what scientific activity used to be. It has not yet been widely recognized, how drastically science has changed since about the middle of the 20th century (x). Among the clues indicative of those changes are the spate of books since the 1980s that describe intense self-interested competition in science (xi) and the increasing frequency of fraud, again beginning about in the 1980s, that led to establishment of the federal Office of Research Integrity. That political correctness has surfaced within the scientific community is another illustration of how radically different are the circumstances of scientific activity now compared to a century ago and by contrast to the outdated conventional wisdom about science.

Political correctness began to pervade society as a whole during the same years as science was undergoing drastic change. The roots of political correctness in society at large may be traceable to the rebellious students of the 1960s, but the hegemony of their ideals in the form of political correctness became obvious only in the 1980s, when the term “political correctness” came into common usage:

The origin of the phrase in modern times is generally credited to gallows humor among Communists in the Stalin era (xii):

“Comrade, your statement is factually incorrect.”
“Yes, it is. But it is politically correct.”

That political correctness is in contemporary times a Left-ish phenomenon is therefore true to its modern origin.

How seriously political correctness corrupts science should be obvious, since it more than breaks all the traditional norms. Those norms are often summarized as universalism, communalism, disinterestedness, skepticism — taking for granted as well simple honesty and absence of hypocrisy. Nowadays what was taken for granted no longer applies. It is simply dishonest to assert that something has been proven beyond doubt when strong contrary evidence exists that is taken seriously by competent researchers. One cannot, of course, look into the minds of those who assert certainty where there is none (xiii), but among possible explanations, hypocrisy may be the least culpable.

Science cannot be isolated from the rest of society, so the incursion of political correctness into science is understandable. Moreover, what used to be the supposedly isolated ivory tower of academe is nowadays the very epicenter where political correctness breeds and from where it spreads. Whatever the causes may be, however, it is important to recognize how science has changed and that it can be corrupted by the same influences as the rest of society.

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i        Henry H. Bauer, Scientific Literacy and Myth of the Scientific Method, University of Illinois Press 1992; http://www.press.uillinois.edu/books/catalog/77xzw7sp9780252064364.html.

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

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

iv      Henry H. Bauer, “A politically liberal global-warming skeptic?”, 2012/11/25; https://scimedskeptic.wordpress.com/2012/11/25/a-politically-liberal-global-warming-skeptic.

v       Letter to President Obama, Attorney General Lynch, and OSTP Director Holdren, 1 September 2015; http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2015/09/19/letter-to-president-obama-investigate-deniers-under-rico.
The original pdf posted in 2003 at http://www.iges.org/letter/LetterPresidentAG.pdf is no longer there. The Wayback Machine says, “The letter that was inadvertently posted on this web site has been removed. It was decided more than two years ago that the Institute of Global Environment and Society (IGES) would be dissolved when the projects then undertaken by IGES would be completed. All research projects by IGES were completed in July 2015, and the IGES web site is in the process of being decommissioned”.
As of March 2017, however, a Google search for “Institute of Global Environment and Society” led to a website with that header, albeit augmented by “COLA”: http://www.m.monsoondata.org/home.html accessed 4 March 2017. Right-leaning Internet sources offer insight into this seeming mystery: http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2015/09/22/lead-climate-scientist-behind-obamarico-letter-serious-questions-answer/ and http://leftexposed.org/2015/10/institute-of-global-environment-and-society, both accessed 4 March 2017.

vi      http://www.dictionary.com/browse/politically-correct?s=t (accessed 4 March 2017).

vii     https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/politically%20correct (accessed 4 March 2017).

viii    https://web.archive.org/web/20131030115950/http://fbox.vt.edu/faculty/aaup/index4.html.

ix      Ref. ii, especially chapter 3.

x       Henry H. Bauer, “Three stages of modern science”, Journal of Scientific Exploration, 27 (2013) 505-13; https://www.dropbox.com/s/xl6jaldtx3uuz8b/JSE273-3stages.pdf?dl=0.

xi      Natalie Angier, Natural Obsessions: The Search for the Oncogene, Houghton Mifflin 1987; David H. Clark, The Quest for SS433, Viking 1985; Sheldon Glashow with Ben Bova, Interactions: A Journey through the Mind of a Particle Physicist and the Matter of the World, Warner 1988; Jeff Goldberg Anatomy of a Scientific Discovery, Bantam 1988; Stephen S. Hall, Invisible Frontiers: The Race to Synthesize a Human Gene, Atlantic Monthly Press 1987; Robert M. Hazen, The Breakthrough: The Race for the Superconductor, Summit 1988; David L. Hull, Science as a Process: An Evolutionary Account of the Social and Conceptual Development of Science, University of Chicago Press 1988; Robert Kanigel, Apprentice to Genius: The Making of a Scientific Dynasty, Macmillan 1986; Charles E. Levinthal,. Messengers of Paradise: Opiates and the Brain, Anchor/Doubleday 1988; Roger Lewin, Bones of Contention: Controversies in the Search for Human Origins, Simon and Schuster 1987; Ed Regis, Who Got Einstein’s Office: Eccentricity and Genius at the Institute for Advanced Study, Addison-Wesley 1987; Bruce Schechter, The Path of No Resistance: The Story of the Revolution in Superconductivity, Touchstone (Simon and Schuster) 1990; Solomon H. Snyder, Brainstorming: The Science and Politics of Opiate Research, Harvard University Press 1989; Gary Taubes, Nobel Dreams: Power, Deceit, and the Ultimate Experiment, Random House 1986; Robert Teitelman, Gene Dreams: Wall Street, Academia, and the Rise of Biotechnology, Basic Books 1989; Nicholas Wade, The Nobel Duel: Two Scientists’ 21-Year Race to Win the World’s Most Coveted Research Prize, Doubleday 1981.

xii     Jon Miltimore, “The historical origin of ‘political correctness’”, 5 December 2016, http://www.intellectualtakeout.org/blog/historical-origin-political-correctness; Angelo M. Codevilla, “The rise of political correctness”, Claremont Review of Books, Fall 2016, pp. 37-43; http://www.claremont.org/download_pdf.php?file_name=1106Codevilla.pdf.

xiii    Henry H. Bauer , “Shamans of Scientism: Conjuring certainty where there is none”, Journal of Scientific Exploration, 28 (2014) 491-504.

 

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“The scientific method” — it’s just not used, e.g. in Alzheimer’s Disease

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2014/07/17

Alzheimer’s disease is one of the dysfunctional knowledge monopolies mentioned in my book, Dogmatism in Science and Medicine  (pp. 108-9).

Decades-old dogma takes the cause of the disease to be the build-up in the brain of plaques of amyloid protein. However, a mass of actual evidence indicates that theory to be wrong: there have been “hundreds of experiments casting doubt on the neurotoxicity of amyloid”; drugs and vaccines that act against the plaque have been ineffective; amyloid injected into brains of mice caused no symptoms. Yet researchers find it very difficult to get their evidence for other causes of Alzheimer’s published or to get research support for their work.

Rationalizations that try to prop up the amyloid theory are feeble and far-fetched, as illustrated by a fairly recent paean to a “breakthrough”:
“New imaging shows Alzheimer’s unfolding in live brains” (Andy Coghlan, New Scientist, 18 September 2013):
“The two major brain abnormalities that underlie Alzheimer’s disease can now be viewed simultaneously in brain scans while people are still alive”. Amyloid plaque has been observable since 2005 by PET (positron emission tomography), but now one can also observe “tau tangles”, and “tau lesions are known to be more intimately associated with neuronal loss than plaques . . . . tau tangles accumulate first in the hippocampus — the brain’s memory centre — at a time when the plaques are already widespread. . . . Previous research has shown that the tangles rapidly kill neurons and trigger behavioural changes. . . . [The new] images suggest that the plaques are themselves harmless, but help to advance disease by spreading the tau tangles from the hippocampus to other brain regions” [emphases added].

Note first that “the scientific method” * that so many pundits still cite and believe in states that a theory is discarded when the evidence goes against it. Here, the mass of evidence against amyloid theory has not broken the grip of the dogmatic knowledge-monopoly. Even as it is acknowledged that tau tangles and not plaques are actually closely associated with loss of neurons, and that plaques were present “10 to 15 years before there are symptoms”, the amyloid theory is still paid obeisance by suggesting that amyloid plays an essential role by “spreading the tau tangles”.

But since plaque pre-dates symptoms by a decade or more, surely it makes more sense to infer that plaque “may be neutral or even beneficial, perhaps attempting to defend neurons that are under attack” since “some amyloid can be found in the brains of most people over 40”.

The New Scientist piece is based on Maruyama et al., “Imaging of Tau Pathology in a Tauopathy Mouse Model and in Alzheimer Patients Compared to Normal Controls”, Neuron, 79 [2013] 1094-1108; the “et al.” stands for 24 additional names. That article begins, “Hallmark pathologies of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) are extracellular senile plaques consisting of aggregated amyloid β peptide . . . and intraneuronal . . . pathological tau fibrils, while similar tau lesions in neurons and glia are also characteristic of other neurodegenerative disorders” [emphasis added].
Tau tangles, but not amyloid, are known to be associated with a number of neurodegenerative disorders. Where was the need to invoke amyloid rather than tau as a cause of Alzheimer’s in the first place?
Those who question established mainstream dogmas are routinely called “denialists” — “AIDS denialists”, “climate change denialists”, and so forth. In point of fact, it is typically the mainstream thatis truly denialist: evidence denialist. As Max Planck out it long ago, old theories die only as their proponents also pass away; science advances funeral by funeral.
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* See Scientific Literacy and Myth of the Scientific Method, University of Illinois Press 1992

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Scientism, the Religion of Science

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2014/06/09

Comparing unbridled, uncritical belief in Science to religious faith has been quite common.

The belief, faith, or ideology that science can deliver unquestionable certainty and that only science can answer all questions is called scientism.

Toward the end of the 19th century, Thomas Huxley practiced scientism quite overtly as he preached self-described Lay Sermons on behalf of the Church of Science [Knight 1986]. In more recent times, however, scientism has become recognized fairly generally as an unwarranted faith and its adherents do not usually bear public witness to it, dissembling usually by claiming only a rational adherence to observable facts — of course, “scientific” facts.
Nevertheless, common behavior and language use [Bauer 2001] reveal scientism to be a widespread, action-determining ideology; thus the phrase “scientific tests have shown” carries far more impact than “tests have shown”, implying that what is “scientific” is beyond doubt. Such honorific use of “science” or “scientific” is one of the marks of scientism listed by philosopher Susan Haack [2013/14]; other clues include aping the methods and approaches thought to characterize science; drawing sharp distinctions between science and “pseudo-science”; obsession with “the scientific method”; crediting science with the capacity to answer any and all questions; denigrating non-scientific modes of inquiry.

Comparisons of religion and science have largely focused on authorities and hierarchies, comparing scientific researchers to priests, and Scientific Establishments to Vaticans and other religious authorities. At least as significant in practice, though, for everyday matters including politics and social activities, is the similarity of the behavior of followers and acolytes of religion and the behavior of groupies and devotees of Science. Both accept their gurus’ pronouncements uncritically, unreservedly, in equally sheep-like manner, and both parrot those sayings without actual understanding of what they are talking about. Christian fundamentalists, for instance, profess the inerrancy of “the Bible” in blissful ignorance of the fact that there are many “Bibles” in many languages with many self-contradictions and mutual disparities. Environmental fundamentalists and left-leaning others describe global warming and its consequences in blissful ignorance of the pertinent facts, for instance that the greenhouse influence of carbon dioxide is much less than that of water vapor and about equal to that of methane, and that the official projections of future temperature are based on computer models that cannot explain the lack of warming during the last 15 years or so or the 7 or 8 cycles of changes over a range of 5-6°C during the last million years.

Human beings appear to crave certainty of understanding and have sought explanations of observable things and phenomena for as far back in time as we can see and infer. Knowledge about themselves led humans to interpret natural phenomena anthropomorphically, in terms of powers and actions of spirits and super-spirits. The numbers of supposed Gods decreased over time, by 3 or 4 millennia ago shrinking among most people to just one all-powerful Being.
Seeking certainty via “Science” has a shorter history, in particular the “modern” science that is less than a millennium old and which waged explicit battle against Christianity in Europe in the 18th century.
That Science really won that battle is demonstrated by innumerable accommodations that most religions have made with the sciences, in extreme cases by casting religion as “scientific creationism” or its alter ego of “intelligent design”. That the victory enshrined Science as a faith held irrationally was pointed out by John Burnham (How Superstition Won and Science Lost, Rutgers University Press, 1987).

In the human quest for certainty, religion and scientism are two incompatible extremes: both hold certainty to be attainable, but by distinct and incompatible means: in the case of religion via faith and revelation, in the case of scientism via empirical investigation. In both cases, perfectly sound logic is used to draw practical conclusions from the premises. The two extreme worldviews do not differ in rationality, only in the premises from which inferences and implications and applications are drawn.
The space between those two extremes is very sparsely populated, by people who recognize that certainty is not to be attained and who try to live in that “existential” state. Whether acknowledged or not — to themselves as much as to others—, most people hold one of those two extreme beliefs; that is to say, they act as though they hold one of those beliefs.

Those who do not hold one of those extreme beliefs are not much appreciated by those who do. Acolytes of a different religious faith are denigrated as non-believers, pagans, heretics, and have been persecuted sometimes to the point of death. Those who do not accept what the scientific authorities claim are denigrated as ignoramuses, pseudo-scientists, denialists, and are persecuted by sanctions on careers and reputations.

Yet the premises of both religious faith and of scientism are demonstrably doubtful, not to say untenable.

Religious believers hold a particular faith despite the fact that most other human beings disagree with their claims: Every religion is a minority religion. If the Jewish God is The One, then the Christian One cannot be, nor the Islamic One. Moreover, within each of those three umbrellas there are several sects in deadly opposition. Catholics and Protestants have engaged in mutual genocide, as have Shias and Sunnis. Yet acolytes of any given sect within any of the Big Three are somehow able to regard their own beliefs as the only really True One. Religious leaders and their followers manage somehow to ignore the significance of the fact that informed, intelligent people adhere with equal certainty to other faiths. They remain blissfully ignorant of issues fundamental to their premises and doctrines and guides to behavior.

Quite similarly, Scientific Establishments and their followers manage to be blissfully ignorant of their own history, which demonstrates that in the long run they are always proved wrong as “science” “progresses” via Scientific Revolutions as well as less dramatic but significant continual modifications. Scientific Establishments and their followers willfully ignore the lesson that those whom they denigrate as denialists may well turn out to be the secular saints of future Establishments. By ignoring substantive critiques by competent “denialists”, they remain blissfully ignorant of the flaws in their specific doctrines concerning, for example, the Big Bang, prescription drugs, global warming, HIV/AIDS [Bauer 2012]. No matter how often Establishments claim to be evidence-based, even perfunctory browsing in the research and review literatures reveals that the mainstream consensus on many issues of considerable public importance is at the least seriously flawed, at the worst quite untenable.

Public media, politicians, and official agencies all kowtow to Scientific Establishments, with the result that public policies are often seriously, even dangerously misguided.
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Bauer, Henry H., 2001: Fatal Attractions: The Troubles with Science, Paraview Press
Bauer, Henry H., 2012: Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth, McFarland
Haack, Susan, 2013/14: “Six signs of scientism”, Skeptical Inquirer; Part 1, 37 (Nov/Dec 2013) 40-5; Part 2, 38 (Jan/Feb 2014) 43-7; see also Defending Science—Within Reason, Prometheus, 2003
Knight, David, 1986: The Age of Science, Basil Blackwell

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From Dawn to Decadence: The Three Ages of Modern Science

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2012/12/03

[I’ve snitched my title from the book, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life — 1500 to the Present, Jacques Barzun’s cultural tour de force published in 2000. It happens to fit for what’s happened to science in virtually the same period. Hardly surprising, since science has played such a prominent role in Western society during these centuries.]

The popular view of science isn’t historically informed, but it is based on the past. It doesn’t recognize that the activity we call “science” has changed in important ways over the centuries, that it continues to change, and that today’s “science” is not at all like the popular view.
Much of the conventional wisdom about science reflects notions discussed a century or so ago and long abandoned by scholars of science, like “the scientific method”, thought up by philosophers trying to understand why science had been so successful. Popular icons of science also date to a century or so ago or even further back —Darwin, Einstein, Galileo, Newton. In reality, of course, most scientists are not at all like the famous few, but public discourse doesn’t have exemplary figures of what most scientists are like nowadays — technological analogues of Babbitt  or men in grey flannel suits, performing banal routines more than producing inspired creativity. Just about everything associated with science in the 21st century is significantly different from what it was a century ago, even half a century ago.

The First Age of Modern Science:
Curious Amateurs Seeking Authentic Knowledge

Historians are in reasonable agreement that modern science had its beginnings in about the 17th century, marked by such figures as Galileo and Newton, and such events as the founding of the Royal Society of London. Some discrete, isolated bits of science and even more bits of technological skill from earlier times were incorporated, but what historians call “The” Scientific Revolution of about the 17th century was the beginning of an integrated venture using both theorizing and experimenting, and sharing the results in a somewhat organized way so that something like a coherent community of knowledge seekers formed. The people involved were said to be doing “natural philosophy” — seeking to understand Nature. Some of them were clergy who wanted to do it in service to God, as a way of understanding his ways better, while others were doing it just because they wanted to, whether out of sheer curiosity or in the hope of finding materially useful things. The essential point is that they were amateurs, doing what they loved. Their direct aim, unsullied by external conflicts of interest, was just to understand how the world works.
In this first age of modern science, flaws stemmed purely from human characteristics. People naturally took pride in their discoveries and wanted to be recognized for making them, and to be acknowledged as having made them first, and they could be heavily invested in their own theories and believing themselves to be right and others wrong. So there were arguments, sometimes quite bitter, typically over who had priority for a discovery. But those arguments were not exacerbated by interests external to science and knowledge-seeking.
That first age of modern science has left its mark on the contemporary view. Many people imagine that scientists nowadays are just self-driven by curiosity, that discovering the truth is their only interest. That can be accurate for some scientists, but it isn’t overall: most scientists nowadays are employees doing what they’re paid to do, no doubt wanting to do honest work but influenced by a variety of conflicts of interest, whose consequences I’ll discuss below or later.

The Second Age of Modern Science:
Science as a Career

By the early 19th century, natural philosophy had accumulated a respectable amount of trustworthy knowledge about and understanding of Nature, enough to inspire confidence that even more could be learned in the future.
The term “science” was becoming used in something like its modern form; William Whewell is generally credited with first use of the term “scientist” in the 1830s. So the professional identity of scientist came into being, and the possibility of making it a career, a way to earn a living: at first primarily through teaching, doing research as a sideline, but soon also through carrying out applied research, beginning with the dye-stuff industry based on the synthesis of  new and better dyes to replace the earlier use of dyes derived, expensively, from plants. In the later 19th century Germany pioneered what have become “research universities” where the teaching of undergraduates tends to play a subsidiary role.
Now it became not just a matter of personal satisfaction to get there first and to be acknowledged for it and to be right while others were wrong, it was henceforth a way to succeed in practical terms, rising to better positions. Making great discoveries could even lead to high social status, for example being inducted into the British peerage like William Thomson who became the first Baron Kelvin, or Ernest Rutherford who became the first Baron Rutherford of Nelson (New Zealand).
During the first World War, Germany lost access to the previously imported nitrates needed for explosives as well as fertilizers, and Ernst Haber found out how to synthesize the needed chemicals from the atmosphere’s nitrogen. Many other fundamental discoveries turned out to have practical applications. Industrial scientists could sometimes benefit from making patentable discoveries. But, by and large, the rewards from being a scientist came from the satisfaction of doing the work and being able to earn a decent living from doing something interesting.
In this second age of modern science, from about mid-19th century to about mid-20th century, science was in many ways an attractive career, but it was not a path one would choose if seeking wealth or an entrée into the halls of power.

The New Age of Modern Science:
Money and Politics

The Second World War introduced the present age of science, in which research can lead to great wealth and to considerable influence on those who construct national and international policies. Science is thereby subjected to strong external conflicts of interest. The funding and control of research are enmeshed in bureaucracy and competing interests. The aims of research may be purely profit-seeking rather than truth-seeking. Applications of research may be determined by personal or private or corporate interests even to the exclusion of the public good. The distinction between “pure” science seeking basic understanding and “applied” science based on trustworthy fundamental knowledge has become largely meaningless as more research is funded by patrons interested only in profitable outcomes rather than new understanding gained.
Something like a perfect storm ensued as these changes coincided with an inevitable change from seemingly endless expansion of scientific activity to an essentially zero-sum game where the total resources available for research can no longer grow appreciably.
From growth to steady state:
Derek Price, ground-breaking historian of science, had recognized that every available quantitative measure of science had increased exponentially, doubling about every 15 years since the 17th century: numbers of articles published, numbers of scientific journals, numbers of people who could be called “scientists”. The ethos of scientific activity was consonant with that, an expectation that every promising avenue could be explored, every graduating potential researcher would find employment doing science, every new result could find publication. Increasingly insiders as well as outsiders would look to numbers as gauges of success: numbers of articles published, numbers of students mentored, and especially in the New Age of modern science, numbers of grants collected and total amount of money raised.
The reality Price also saw was that by about mid-20th century, developed societies were devoting something like 2-3% of Gross Domestic Product to science, broadly defined as “Research & Development” and funded by private, public, and corporate patrons. That proportion could not continue to grow exponentially, to ~5% in 15 years, ~10% in 30 years, and so on. Science had reached its limit of growth relative to the rest of society, and would have to adjust to a steady state: doing one thing would mean not doing another; the numbers of prospective researchers graduated should be the numbers needed to replace retiring researchers; no new journals would need to be established. Measures of success would need to be more qualitative than quantitative. The traditional ethos of scientific activity would need to be replaced by different criteria or characteristics.
Those changes are needed, have been needed for decades, but they have not yet occurred.
John Ziman, distinguished physicists turned STS scholar, detailed the necessary changes in ethos in Prometheus Bound (Cambridge University Press, 1994). The classic norms, whose definition is generally credited to Robert Merton, were that science was a universal public good characterized by disinterestedness and organized skepticism, to which Ziman added “originality”. These norms apply to something like the first age of science: curious people seeking understanding for its own sake, skeptical of new claims since experience had shown them to be fallible; Ziman’s addition of originality recognizes the value of creativity and progress.
In the second age, personal careerism and institutional interests sometimes interfered with disinterestedness or with organized skepticism; but in the third age, the new age, the norms of scientists’ behavior are entirely different. Ziman pointed out that research is now largely a matter of authoritative professional experts hired to produce wanted results, and the traditional universality of science is often subordinate to local demands.
What Ziman did not emphasize is that, under the new regime, the media and the public may be fed “scientific results” that are nowhere near as trustworthy as they used to be since they may be promulgated for institutional, bureaucratic or profit-making purposes, not because of a wish to disseminate genuine knowledge.
The enormous expansion in numbers of researchers has inevitably diluted their average quality, and the possibility of wealth and political influence has also brought a difference in the personalities of those who self-recruit into research. Increasingly science is being done not out of the inherent curiosity of disinterested knowledge-seekers; rather, as Gordon Tullock put it (The Organization of Inquiry, Duke University Press, 1966; reprinted, Liberty Fund, 2004), their curiosity is induced by offers of rewards.
The new zero-sum steady-state funding of research together with more potential researchers than the resources can support has had seriously deleterious consequences: cutthroat competition, dishonesty, and consequent unreliability of public pronouncements by researchers and their patrons or employers.
What the media and the public and the policy makers hear about matters of science has become untrustworthy to a dangerous degree, on such important matters as HIV/AIDS and global warming — see my Dogmatism  in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth, McFarland, 2012.

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Scientific literacy in one easy lesson

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2012/11/30

Scientific literacy is usually thought of as knowing what atoms and molecules are, and that the Earth is spherical and orbits around the Sun, and that we stick to Earth and the Moon sticks to Earth and the Earth sticks to the Sun because of the force of gravity, and that the Earth came into being about 4 or 5 billion years ago, and that the whole Universe came into being about 13 to 15 billion years ago, and that all living things are related to one another and descended from common ancestors; and so on and so forth. Scientific literacy is equated with knowing scientific facts and theories, in other words.
All those things can be very interesting, but they are largely irrelevant to the role that science plays in society. That role, however, is something that every citizen ought to understand, and most particularly those citizens who are in policy-influencing or policy-making positions. Scientific literacy ought to mean understanding what role science can properly play in the wider society.
Knowing scientific facts and theories need not be the same as believing them to be unquestionably true. In fact it shouldn’t be the same, yet all too often it seems to be. Being scientifically literate ought to mean having the tools to make rational decisions about the degree to which any given scientific fact or theory warrants belief — belief so strong as to warrant actions based on it. To that end, one needs to know something not so much about what science says but about how science is done. Here are some fundamental axioms of that sort of scientific literacy:

—>>  Science is produced by scientists. Therefore it is influenced by how scientists behave. Scientists are human beings: fallible, subject to conflicts of interest, and influenced or even constrained by their social and political environment. Science can therefore be reliable or unreliable, depending on circumstances.
Textbook examples of unreliable science are Lysenkoist biology in the Soviet Union and Deutsche Physik (Aryan, non-Jewish physics) in Nazi Germany. But conflicts of interest, dishonesty, systemic corruption (for example) can make science — what scientists produce — unreliable even in open, free, democratic societies.
—>> Science isn’t done by the so-called scientific method.
Many schools and many college-level courses in social science teach that science proceeds by posing hypotheses, testing them, and then rejecting them or keeping them as established theory. That “scientific method” seems like an entirely impersonal formula, capable of producing objective results; but even on its own terms, it takes little thought to realize that judgment needs to be exercised as to whether or not any given results do or do not support the hypothesis being tested. Preconceptions, conflicts of interest, and other quite personal matters enter into the forming of judgments.
The chief trouble, though, is that almost no science is done that way. Very few scientists ever do anything like that; for an extended illustration and examples, see my Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method (University of Illinois Press 1992). In a few areas of physics, or in planning protocols for experiments requiring statistical analysis, something like that “scientific method” is used, but not in most of science. If science in general were done that way, then every budding scientist would be taught that “scientific method”. They are not. I had acquired a chemistry Ph.D. before I had even heard of that scientific method — which I did from a political scientist.
—>>   However, most people do believe that science is done by the scientific method.  Since that procedure sounds so objective, impersonal, and reliable a way of attaining knowledge, most people generally assume “science” to be trustworthy, not significantly different from true. Scientists enjoy high prestige and their pronouncements are accorded the trustworthiness that “science” enjoys.
—>>   Science became regarded as trustworthy because of its perceived successes. It superseded religious authority with the triumph of Darwinism over Biblical creation: Darwin’s disciple, T. H. Huxley, preached sermons explicitly on behalf of The Church Scientific. By the end of the 19th century, science had become the touchstone of authentic knowledge (David Knight, The Age of Science: The Scientific World-View in the Nineteenth Century, Basil Blackwell, 1986).
To get a sense of just how powerfully persuasive scientific conclusions are nowadays, contemplate the different rhetorical impacts of “tests have shown” and “scientific tests have shown”; you might harbor doubts as to the first but surely not about the second.
—>>    Science does not and cannot deal in truth.
Science can describe how things are and how they behave. Why they do so is not observable, so any explanations are inferences, not facts. The misguided view that the scientific method delivers objective impersonal reliable knowledge obscures that.
The fact that any given theory can yield calculations that fit with what actually happens doesn’t mean that the theory is true or that the things it uses are what really exists. We can calculate planetary motions with exquisite accuracy using gravity theory, even as we nowadays don’t believe that gravity really exists, curvatures of space-time produce the illusion of gravity. We can calculate many things very accurately about electrons and atoms and molecules with the “wave-function” equations of quantum mechanics, but one can hardly believe that wave functions are real things, or that the “wavicles” we call photons, electrons , protons, etc., are actual things that have the properties sometimes of waves but sometimes of particles.
No matter how useful a theory has been in the past, it cannot be guaranteed useful in the future. The data we accumulate by observation cannot guarantee that future data might not seem contradictory; the fact that all Europe-observed swans had been white did not mean that all swans are white, as explorers of Western Australia discovered.
The misguided belief that science represents truth, which amounts to a religious-like faith in science, is called scientism.
—>>   Science is popularly thought to progress steadily. In reality, the history of science is one of trials and errors, periodic advances but also periodic discarding of earlier notions found later to be wanting.
Many people have heard of Thomas Kuhn’s description of scientific progress through scientific revolutions, which is readily interpreted as perpetual advance in step-wise fashion, revolutions as milestones of progress. What is not widely understood is that the revolutions — overturning of earlier views — are thereby also gravestones of a previous mainstream consensus.
Nor is any given scientific revolution necessarily permanent. Belief that light consists of particles or that it consists of waves alternated over the centuries, up to the latest view that it is something else, in a sense both or neither. That latest view may not be the last word.
—>>   Science as methodical and objective became readily confused with the even more misguided view that scientists behave methodically and objectively. Surveys have indicated that scientists are widely regarded as smarter, more intellectual, more capable of cold objectivity than non-scientists. First-hand acquaintance with scientists effectively disabuses one of such an opinion: religious views, conflicts of interest, cognitive dissonance (inability to recognize contradictory evidence) affect scientists as much as anyone else.
—>>   Science and thereby scientists are commonly thought to be always on the lookout for new discoveries, the more striking the better. The history of science, however, reveals that the most remarkable advances have almost always been strongly resisted when they were first claimed. The classic descriptions of this phenomenon are Bernard Barber, “Resistance by scientists to scientific discovery” (Science, 134 [1961] 596-602) and Gunther Stent, “Prematurity and uniqueness in scientific discovery” (Scientific American, December 1972, 84-93); more recent commentaries are in Ernest B. Hook (ed)., Prematurity in Scientific Discovery: On Resistance and Neglect (University of California Press, 2002).
Extensions of mainstream views, discoveries that do not require any modification of established theories, are surely welcomed; but the breakthroughs, the revolutionary claims, are almost always resisted or ignored, and become appreciated only by hindsight.

None of those points are controversial among those whose special interest is the nature of science, its history, and its role in society. But those specialists are a small and somewhat obscure breed, even within academe, and their specialty, STS, is still not widely known — see the ABOUT page of this blog.
A salient problem with contemporary national and international science policies is that the policy makers and the media and the general public have not yet learned that it is scholars of STS who should be consulted regarding science policy and controversies about scientific issues. Current practice is to take the advice of the experts in the technical disciplines, the scientists and the physicians and the engineers. But this amounts to believing the contemporary mainstream consensus to be unquestionably true, and history has shown that this is not warranted, the consensus might even be fatally flawed.
The understanding that STS offers should mediate between the experts and the policy makers. As war is too important to be left to the decisions of the generals, so nowadays science and medicine are far too important to be left to the decisions of the scientists and the doctors.

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