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21st century science:   Group-Thinking Elites and Fanatical Groupies

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/08/11

Science has been a reliable resource for official policies and actions for much of the era of modern science, which is usually regarded as having begun around the 17th century.

It is almost without precedent that a mistaken scientific consensus should lead to undesirable and damaging public actions, yet that is now the case in two instances: the belief that carbon dioxide generated by the burning of fossil fuels is primarily responsible for global warming and climate change; and the belief that HIV is the cause of AIDS.

Both those beliefs gained hegemony during the last two or three decades. That these beliefs are mistaken seems incredible to most people, in part because of the lack of any well known precedent and in part because the nature of science is widely misunderstood; in particular it is not yet widely recognized how much science has changed since the middle of the 20th century.

The circumstances of modern science that conspire to make it possible for mistaken theories to bring misguided public policies have been described in my recent book, Science Is Not What You Think [1]. The salient points are these:

Ø     Science has become dysfunctionally large

Ø     It is hyper-competitive

Ø     It is not effectively self-correcting

Ø     It is at the mercy of multiple external interests and influences.

A similar analysis was offered by Judson [2]. That title reflects the book’s opening theme of the prevalence of fraud in modern science (as well as in contemporary culture). It assigns blame to the huge expansion in the number of scientists and the crisis that the world of science faces as it finds itself in something of a steady-state so far as resources are concerned, after a period of some three centuries of largely unfitted expansion: about 80% of all the scientists who have ever lived are extant today; US federal expenditure on R&D increased 4-fold (inflation-adjusted!) from 1953 to 2002, and US industry increased its R&D spending by a factor of 26 over that period! Judson also notes the quintessential work of John Ziman explicating the significance of the change from continual expansion to what Ziman called a dynamic steady-state [3].

Remarkably enough, President Eisenhower had foreseen this possibility and warned against it in his farewell address to the nation: “in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite”. The proponents of human-caused-climate-changer theory and of HIV/AIDS theory are examples of such elites.

A crucial factor is that elites, like all other groups, may be dysfunctionally affected by the phenomenon of Groupthink.

Janis [4] showed in detail several decades ago how that phenomenon of Groupthink had produced disastrously bad policy actions by the United States. The same phenomenon of Groupthink can cause bad things to happen in other social sectors than the government. Recently, Booker [5] has shown how Groupthink has been responsible for creating the worldwide belief, shibboleth, cliché, that humankind’s use of fossil fuels is causing global warming and climate change through the release of carbon dioxide.

Commonly held ideas about science do not envisage the possibility that a scientific consensus could bring misguided policies and actions on a global scale. What most people know — think they know — about science is that its conclusions are based on solid evidence, and that the scientific method safeguards against getting things wrong, and that science that has been primarily responsible for civilization’s advances over the last few centuries.

Those things that most people know are also largely mistaken [1, 6]. Science is a human activity and is subject to all the frailties and fallibilities of any human activity. The scientific method and the way in which it is popularly described does not accurately portray how science is actually done.

While much of the intellectual progress in understanding how the world works does indeed stand to the credit of science, what remains to be commonly realized is that since about the middle of the 20th century, science has become too big for its own good. The huge expansion of scientific activity since the Second World War has changed science in crucial ways. The number of people engaged in scientific activity has far outstripped the available resources, leading to hyper-competition and associated sloppiness and outright dishonesty. Scientists nowadays are in no way exceptional individuals, people doing scientific work are as common as are teachers, doctors, or engineers. It is in this environment that Groupthink has become significantly and damagingly important.

Booker [5] described this in relation to the hysteria over the use of fossil fuels. A comparable situation concerns the belief that HIV is the cause of AIDS [7]. The overall similarities in these two cases are that a quite small number of researchers arrived initially at more or less tentative conclusions; but those conclusions seemed of such great import to society at large that they were immediately seized upon and broadcast by the media as breaking news. Political actors become involved, accepting those conclusions quickly became politically correct, and those who then questioned and now question the conclusions are vigorously opposed, often maligned as unscientific and motivated by non-scientific agendas.

 

At any rate, contemporary science has become a group activity rather than an activity of independent intellectual entrepreneurs, and it is in this environment that Groupthink affects the elites in any given field — the acknowledged leading researchers whose influence is entrenched by editors and administrators and other bureaucrats inside and outside the scientific community.

A concomitant phenomenon is that of fanatical groupies. Concerning both human-caused climate change and the theory that HIV causes AIDS, there are quite large social groups that have taken up the cause with fanatical vigor and that attack quite unscrupulously anyone who differs from the conventional wisdom. These groupies are chiefly people with little or no scientific background, or whose scientific ambitions are unrequited (which includes students). As with activist groups in general, groupie organizations are often supported by (and indeed often founded by) commercial or political interests. Non-profit organizations which purportedly represent patients and other concerned citizens and which campaign for funds to fight against cancer, multiple sclerosis, etc., are usually funded by Big Pharma, as are HIV/AIDS activist groups.

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

[2] Horace Freeland Judson, The Great Betrayal, Harcourt 2004

[3]  John Ziman, Prometheus Bound, Cambridge University Press 1994

[4]  I. L. Janis, Victims of Groupthink, 1972; Groupthink, 1982, Houghton Mifflin.

[5]  Christopher Booker, GLOBAL WARMING: A case study in groupthink, Global Warming Policy Foundation, Report 28; Human-caused global warming as Groupthink

[6]  Henry H. Bauer, Scientific Literacy and Myth of the Scientific Method, University of Illinois Press 1992

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

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