Skepticism about science and medicine

In search of disinterested science

Posts Tagged ‘fallibility of science’

Who guards the guardians? Who guards science?

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/06/24

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? This quotation attributed to Juvenal describes the inescapable dilemma as to how societies can be governed .

Today’s guardian of reliable knowledge is science. It is the acknowledged authority on the natural world, on what exists in the world and on how those things behave. Most governments accept as reliable, as true for all practical purposes, whatever the current scientific consensus is: on matters of health, the environment, the solar system, the universe. The mass media, too, accept that scientific consensus; and that largely determines what the general public believes, “what everyone knows”.

Nowadays in that category of “what everyone knows” there are literally innumerable things; among them that the universe began with a Big Bang; that ghosts and Loch Ness Monsters do not exist; that HIV causes AIDS; that hypertension causes heart attacks and strokes; that carbon dioxide released by burning fossil fuels is causing climate change and bringing more frequent and more extreme and more damaging events like hurricanes; etc., etc.

But what guards against the scientific consensus being wrong?

Nothing and nobody.

That really matters, because the history of science is crystal clear that contemporary science, the contemporary scientific consensus, has almost invariably been wrong until further progress superseded and replaced it.

That steady improvement over the centuries gave rise to a comforting shibboleth, that “science is self-correcting”. At any given moment, however, the scientific consensus stands possibly uncorrected and awaiting future “self”-correction. One cannot justifiably assert, therefore, that any contemporary scientific consensus is known to be unquestionably true. It is not known with absolute certainty that the universe began with a Big Bang; that ghosts and Loch Ness Monsters do not exist; that HIV causes AIDS; that hypertension causes heart attacks and strokes; that carbon dioxide released by burning fossil fuels is causing climate change and bringing more frequent and more extreme and more damaging events like hurricanes; etc., etc.

Nevertheless, contemporary society treats these and other contemporary scientific consensuses as true. This amounts to what President Eisenhower warned against: that “public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite” [1]. Science can indeed mislead public policy, as when tens of thousands of Americans were forcibly sterilized in the misguided belief that this improved the genetic stock [2]. Science is far from automatically or immediately self-correcting [3].

I’ve wondered how Eisenhower could have been so prescient in 1960, because the conditions that conduce to public policies being misled by science were then just beginning to become prominent: the massive governmental stimulation of scientific activity that has produced today’s dysfunctional hyper-competitiveness, with far too many would-be researchers competing for far too few reliably permanent positions and far too little support for the resources that modern research needs [4]. Moreover, the scientific consensus is guarded not only by the scientists who generated it, powerful societal institutions are vested in the correctness of the scientific consensus [4]: It is virtually inconceivable, for instance, that official bodies like the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, the World Health Organization, and the like would admit to error of the views that they have promulgated; try to imagine, for example, how it could ever be officially admitted that HIV does not cause AIDS [5].

Reflect on how you formed an opinion about — Big-Bang theory? Loch Ness Monsters? Ghosts? Climate change? … etc. etc. Almost always it will not have been by looking into the evidence but rather by trusting someone’s assertion.

Who has the interest, time, and energy to study all those things? Obviously we must take our beliefs on many matters from trusted authorities; and for a couple of centuries the scientific consensus has been a better guide than most others. But that is no longer the case. The circumstances of 21st-century science mean that society needs guardians to check that what the scientific consensus recommends for public policy corresponds to the best available evidence. On many issues, a minority of experts differs from the scientific consensus, and it would be valuable to have something like a Science Court to assess the arguments and evidence pro and con [6].

I’ve had the luxury of being able to look into quite a few topics because that was appropriate to the second phase of my academic career, in Science & Technology Studies (STS). Through having made a specialty of studying unorthodoxy in science, I stumbled on copious examples of the scientific consensus treating, in recent times, competent minority opinions well within the scientific community with the same disdain, or even worse, as that traditionally directed towards would-be science, fringe science — Loch Ness Monsters, ghosts, UFOS, and the like.

In Dogmatism in Science and Medicine [7], I pointed to the evidence that the contemporary scientific consensus is wrong about Big-Bang theory, global warming and climate change, HIV/AIDS, extinction of the dinosaurs, and more, including what modern medicine says about prescription drugs. The failings of the scientific consensus in modern medicine have been detailed recently by Richard Harris [8] as well as in many works of the last several decades [9]. That the scientific consensus is wrong about HIV and AIDS is documented more fully in The Origin, Persistence and Failings of HIV/AIDS Theory (McFarland, 2007). Why science has become less believable is discussed in [4], which also describes many misconceptions about science and about statistics, the latter bearing a large part of the blame for what’s wrong with today’s medical practices.

But my favorite obsession over where the scientific consensus is wrong remains the existence of Loch Ness “Monsters”, Nessies. It was my continuing curiosity about this that led to my career change from chemistry to STS, which brought many unforeseeable and beneficial side-effects. My 1986 book, The Enigma of Loch Ness: Making Sense of a Mystery [10], showed how the then-available evidence could be interpreted to support belief in the reality of Nessies but could also be plausibly enlisted to reject the reality of Nessies. However, the book’s chief purpose was to explain why seeking to “discover” Nessies was not a sensible task for organized science.

Now in 2018 quite proper science, in the guise of “environmental DNA”, has offered a good chance that my belief in the reality of Loch Ness “Monsters” may be vindicated within a year or so by mainstream science. I plan to say more about that soon.


[1]  Farewell Address to the Nation, 17 January 1961
[2]  “Bauer: Could science mislead public policy?”
[3]  Science is NOT self-correcting (How science has changed — VII)
[4]  Science Is Not What You Think — how it has changed,
why we can’t trust it, how it can be fixed
(McFarland, 2017)
[5]   “OFFICIAL!   HIV does not cause AIDS!”
[6]    For a detailed history and analysis of the concept of a Science Court,
see chapter 12 in [4]
[7]    Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth (McFarland, 2012)
[8]    Richard Harris, Rigor Mortis — How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions (Basic Books, 2017)
[9]    What’s Wrong with Present-Day Medicine, a bibliography last updated 17 April 2017
[10]  The Enigma of Loch Ness: Making Sense of a Mystery, University of Illinois Press, 1986;
in Cassette Book format, RC 25592, narrated by Richard Dorf, 1988;
U.K. edition, Stirling (Scotland): Johnston & Bacon 1991;
re-issued by Wipf & Stock, 2012


Posted in conflicts of interest, consensus, funding research, global warming, media flaws, medical practices, peer review, politics and science, prescription drugs, resistance to discovery, science is not truth, science policy, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

%d bloggers like this: