Skepticism about science and medicine

In search of disinterested science

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From uncritical about science to skeptical about science

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2020/12/31

Science has been so successful at unlocking Nature’s secrets, especially since about the 16th century, that by the early decades of the 20th century, science had become almost universally accepted as the trustworthy touchstone of knowledge about and insight into the material world. In many ways and in many places, science has superceded religion as the ultimate source of truth.
Yet in the 21st century, an increasing number and variety of voices are proclaiming that science is not — or no longer — to be trusted.
Such disillusion is far from unanimous, but I certainly share it [1], as do many others [2, 3], including such well-placed insiders as editors of scientific periodicals.
How drastically different 21st– century science is from the earlier modern science that won such status and prestige seems to me quite obvious; yet the popular view seems oblivious to this difference. Official statements from scientific authorities and institutions are still largely accepted automatically, unquestioningly, by the mass media and, crucially, by policy-makers and governments, including international collaborations.
Could my opinion be erroneous about a decline in the trustworthiness of science?
If not, why is it that what seems so obvious to me has not been noticed, has been overlooked by the overwhelming majority of practicing researchers, by pundits and by scholars of scientific activity and by science writers and journalists?

That conundrum had me retracing the evolution of my views about science, from my early infatuation with it to my current disillusionment.
Almost immediately I realized that I had happened to be in some of the right places at some of the right times [4] with some of the right curiosity to be forced to notice the changes taking place; changes that came piecemeal over the course of decades.
That slow progression will also have helped me to modify my belief, bit by bit, quite slowly. After all, beliefs are not easily changed. From trusting science to doubting science is quite a jump; for that to occur quickly would be like suddenly acquiring a religious belief, Saul struck on the road to Damascus, or perhaps the opposite, losing a faith like the individuals who escape from cults, say Scientology — it happens quite rarely.
So it is natural but worth noting that my views changed slowly just as the circumstances of research were also changing, not all at once but gradually.
Of course I didn’t recognize at the time the cumulating significance of what I was noticing. That comes more easily in hindsight. Certainly I could not have begun to suspect that a book borrowed for light recreational reading would lead a couple of decades later to major changes of professional career.

Beginnings: Science, chemistry, unquestioning trust in science

I had become enraptured by science, and more specifically by chemistry, through an enthusiastic teacher at my high school in Sydney, Australia, in the late 1940s. My ambition was to become a chemist, researching and teaching, and I could imagine nothing more interesting or socially useful.
Being uncritically admiring of science came naturally to my cohort of would-be or potential scientists. It was soon after the end of the second World War; and that science really understands the inner workings of Nature had been put beyond any reasonable doubt by the awesome manner in which the war ended, with the revelation of atomic bombs. I had seen the newspaper headlines, “Atom bomb used over Japan”, as I was on a street-car going home from high-school, and I remember thinking, arrogantly, “Gullible journalism, swallowing propaganda; there’s no such thing as an atomic bomb”.

Learning how it was a thing made science seem yet more wonderful.

The successful ending of that war was also of considerable and quite personal significance for me. By doing it, “science” had brought a feeling of security and relief after years of high personal anxiety, even fear. When I was a 7-year-old school-boy, my family had escaped from Austria, in the nick of time, just before the war had started; and then in Australia, we had experienced the considerable fear of a pending Japanese invasion, a fear is made very real by periodic news of Japanese atrocities in China, for instance civilians being buried alive, as illustrated in photographs.
Trusting science was not only the Zeitgeist of that time and place, it was personally welcome, emotionally appealing.

The way sciences were taught only confirmed that science could be safely equated with truth. For that matter, all subjects were taught quite dogmatically. We just did not question what our teachers said; time and place, again. In elementary school we had sat with arms folded behind our backs until the teacher entered, when we stood up in silent respect. Transgressions of any sort were rewarded by a stroke of a cane on an outstretched hand.
(Fifty years later, in another country if not another world, a university student in one of my classes complained about getting a “B” and not an “A”.)

I think chemistry also conduces to trusting that science gets it right. Many experiments are easy to do, making it seem obvious that what we’ve learned is absolutely true.
After much rote learning of properties of elements and compounds, the Periodic Table came as a wonderful revelation: never would I have to do all that memorizing again, everything can be predicted just from that Table.
Laboratory exercises, in high school and later at university, worked just as expected; failures came only from not being adept or careful enough. The textbooks were right.

Almost nothing at school or university, in graduate as well as undergraduate years, aroused any concerns that science might not get things right. A year of undergraduate research and half-a-dozen years in graduate study brought no reason to doubt that science could learn Nature’s truths. Individuals could make mistakes, of course; I was taken aback when a standard reference resource, Chemical Abstracts, sent me erroneously to an article about NaI instead of NOI — human error, obviously, in transcribing spoken words.

Of course there was still much to learn, but no reason to question that science could eventually come to really understand all the workings of the material world.

Honesty in doing science was taken for granted. We heard the horror story of someone who had cheated in some way; his studying of science was immediately canceled and he had to take a job somewhere as a junior administrator. Something I had written was plagiarized — the historical introduction in my PhD thesis — and the miscreant was roundly condemned, even as he claimed a misunderstanding. Individuals could of course go wrong, but that threw no doubt on the trustworthiness of Science itself.

In many ways, scientific research in Australia in the 1940s and 1950s enjoyed conditions not so different from the founding centuries of modern science when the sole driving aim was to learn how the world works. In the universities, scientific research was very much part of the training of graduate students for properly doing good science. The modest needed resources were provided by the University. No time and effort had to be spent seeking necessary support from outside sources, no need to locate and kowtow to potential patrons, individuals or managers at foundations or government agencies.
Research of a more applied sort was carried out by the government-funded Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, CSIR (which later became a standard government agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, CSIRO). There the atmosphere was quite like that in academe: people more or less happily working at a self-chosen vocation. The aims of research were sometimes quite practical, typically how better to exploit Australia’s natural resources: plentiful coal, soft brown as well as hard black; or the wool being produced in abundance by herds of sheep. CSIR also made some significant “pure science” discoveries, for example the importance of nutritional trace elements in agricultural soils [5] and in the development of radio astronomy [6].

In retrospect the lack of money-grubbing is quite striking. At least as remarkable, and not unrelated, is that judgments were made qualitatively, not quantitatively. People were judged by the quality, the significance, the importance of what they accomplished, rather than by how much of something they did. We judged our university teachers by their mastery of the subjects they taught and on how they treated us. Faculty appointments and promotions relied on personal recommendations. Successful researchers might often — and naturally— publish more than others, but not necessarily. Numbers of publications were not the most important thing, nor how often one’s publications were cited by others: The Science Citation Index was founded only in 1963, followed by the Social Sciences Citation Index in 1973 and the Arts and Humanities Citation Index a few years later. “Impact factors” of scientific journals had begun to be calculated in the early 1970s.

So in my years of learning chemistry and beginning research, nothing interfered with having an idealistic view of science, implicitly “pure” science, sheer knowledge-seeking. For my cohort of students, it was an attractive, worthy vocation. The most desired prospect was to be able to work at a university or a research institute. If one was less fortunate, it might be a necessary to take a job in industry, which in those years was little developed in Australia, involving the manufacture of such uncomplicated or unsophisticated products as paint, or the processing of sugar cane or technicalities associated with brewing beer, making wine, or distilling spirits.

The normal path to an academic career in Australia began with post-doctoral experience in either Britain or the United States. My opportunity came in the USA; there, in the late 1950s, I caught my first glimpses of what science would become, with an influx of funds from government and industry and the associated consequences, then unforeseen if not unforeseeable but at any rate not of any apparent concern.

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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]    Critiques of Contemporary Science and Academe
https://mega.nz/file/NfwkSR7S#K7llqDfA9JX_mVEWjPe4W-uMM53aMr2XMhDP6j0B208
[3]    What’s Wrong With Medicine; https://mega.nz/file/gWoCWTgK#1gwxo995AyYAcMTuwpvP40aaB3DuA5cvYjK11k3KKSU
[4]    Insight borrowed from Paula E. Stephen & Sharon G. Levin, Striking the Mother Lode in Science: The Importance of Age, Place, and Time, Oxford University Press, 1992
[5]    Best known is the discovery that cobalt supplements avoided “coast disease”, a wasting condition of sheep; see Gerhard N. Schrauzer, “The discovery of the essential trace elements: An outline of the history of biological trace element research”, chapter 2, pp. 17-31, in Earl Frieden, Biochemistry of the Essential Ultratrace Elements, Plenum Press, 1984; and the obituary, “Hedley Ralph Marston 1900-1965”; https://www.science.org.au/fellowship/fellows/biographical-memoirs/hedley-ralph-marston-1900-1965
[6] Stories of Australian Astronomy: Radio Astronomy; https://stories.scienceinpublic.com.au/astronomy/radio-astronomy/

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