Skepticism about science and medicine

In search of disinterested science

Posts Tagged ‘credibility of science’

Can science regain credibility?

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2020/12/09

Some of the many critiques of contemporary science and medicine [1] have suggested improvements or reforms: among them, ensuring that empiricism and fact determine theory rather than the other way around [2]; more competent application of statistics; awareness of biases as a way of decreasing their influence [1, 2, 3].

Those suggestions call for individuals in certain groups, as well as those groups and institutions as a whole, to behave differently than they have been behaving: researchers, editors, administrators, patrons; universities, foundations, government agencies, and commercial sponsors of research.

Such calls for change are, however, empty whistling in the wind if not based on an understanding of why those individuals and those groups have been behaving in ways that have caused science as a whole to lose credibility — in the eyes of much of the general public, but not only the general public: a significant minority of accomplished researchers and other informed insiders have concluded that on any number of topics the mainstream “consensus” is flawed or downright wrong, not properly based on the available evidence [4].

It is a commonplace to remark that science displaced religion as the authoritative source of knowledge and understanding, at least in Western civilization during the last few centuries. One might then recall the history of religion in the West, and that corruption of its governing institutions eventually brought rebellion: the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the enshrining of science and reason as society’s hegemonic authority; so it might seem natural now to call for a Scientific Reformation to repair the institutions of science that seem to have become corrupted.

The various suggestions for reform have indeed called for change in a number of ways: in how academic institutions evaluate the worth of their researchers; in how journals decide what to publish and what not to publish; in how the provision of research resources is decided; and so forth and so on. But such suggestions fail to get to the heart of the matter. The Protestant Reformation was seeking the repair of a single, centrally governed, institution. Contemporary science, however, comprises a whole collection of institutions and groups that interact with one another in ways that are not governed by any central authority.

The way “science” is talked and written about is highly misleading, since no single word can properly encompass all its facets or aspects. The greatest source of misunderstanding comes about because scientific knowledge and understanding do not generate themselves or speak for themselves; so in common discourse, “science” refers to what is said or written about scientific knowledge and theories by people — who are, like all human beings, unavoidably fallible, subject to a variety of innate ambitions and biases as well as external influences; and hindered and restricted by psychological and social factors — psychological factors like confirmation bias, which gets in the way of recognizing errors and gaps, social factors like Groupthink, which pressures individuals not to deviate from the beliefs and actions of any group to which they belong.

So whenever a claim about scientific knowledge or understanding is made, the first reaction that should be, “Who says so?”

It seems natural to presume that the researchers most closely related to a given topic would be the most qualified to explain and interpret it to others. But scientists are just as human and fallible as others, so researchers on any given subject are biased towards thinking they understand it properly even though they may be quite wrong about it.

A better reflection of what the facts actually are would be the view that has become more or less generally accepted within the community of specialist researchers, and thereby in the scientific community as a whole; in other words, what research monographs, review articles, and textbooks say — the “consensus”. Crucially, however, as already noted, any contemporary consensus may be wrong, in small ways or large or even entirely.

Almost invariably there are differences of opinion within the specialist and general scientific communities, particularly but not only about relatively new or recent studies. Unanimity is likely only over quite simple matters where the facts are entirely straightforward and readily confirmed; but such simple and obvious cases are rare indeed. Instead of unanimity, the history of science is a narrative of perpetual disagreements as well as (mostly but not always) their eventual resolution.

On any given issue, the consensus is not usually unanimous as to “what science says”. There are usually some contrarians, some mavericks among the experts and specialist researchers, some unorthodox views. Quite often, it turns out eventually that the consensus was flawed or even entirely wrong, and what earlier were minority views then become the majority consensus [5, 6].

That perfectly normal lack of unanimity, the common presence of dissenters from a “consensus” view, is very rarely noted in the popular media and remains hidden from the conventional wisdom of society as a whole — most unfortunately and dangerously, because it is hidden also from the general run of politicians and policymakers. As a result, laws on all sorts of issues, and many officially approved practices in medicine, may come to be based on a mistaken scientific consensus; or, as President Eisenhower put it [7], public policies might become captive to a scientific-technological elite, those who constitute and uphold the majority consensus.

The unequivocal lesson that modern societies have yet to learn is that any contemporary majority scientific consensus may be misleading. Only once that lesson has been learned will it then be noted that there exists no established safeguard to prevent public policies and actions being based on erroneous opinions. There exists no overarching Science Authority to whom dissenting experts could appeal in order to have the majority consensus subjected to reconsideration in light of evidence offered by the contrarian experts; no overarching Science Authority, and no independent, impartial, unbiased, adjudicators or mediators or interpreters to guide policymakers in what the actual science might indicate as the best direction.

That’s why the time is ripe to consider establishing a Science Court [8].

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[1]     CRITIQUES OF CONTEMPORARY SCIENCE AND ACADEME 
WHAT’S WRONG WITH PRESENT-DAY MEDICINE

[2]    See especially, about theoretical physics, Sabine Hossenfelder,Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray, Basic Books, 2018

[3]    Stuart Ritchie, Science Fictions: How FRAUD, BIAS, NEGLIGENCE, and HYPE Undermine the Search for Truth, Metropolitan Books (Henry Holt & Company), 2020

[4]    A number of examples are discussed in Henry H. Bauer, Dogmatism  in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth, McFarland, 2012

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

[6]    Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press, 1970, 2nd (enlarged) ed. [1st ed. was 1962]

[7]    Dwight D. Eisenhower, Farewell speech, 17 January 1961; transcript at http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/eisenhower001.asp

[8]    Chapter 12 in Henry H. Bauer, Science Is Not What You Think: How It Has Changed, Why We Can’t Trust It, How It Can Be Fixed, McFarland, 2017

Posted in conflicts of interest, consensus, fraud in science, media flaws, medical practices, peer review, politics and science, resistance to discovery, science is not truth, science policy, scientific culture, scientists are human, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

 
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