Skepticism about science and medicine

In search of disinterested science

Posts Tagged ‘Science Court’

Optimal peer review for guiding public policy: A Science Court

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2019/01/29

“Peer review” is widely regarded as the mechanism by which science manages to produce impartial, unbiased, objective facts and interpretations. As with so many popular notions about scientific activity, this is very far from the truth [1].

Innumerable observers and practicing researchers have written copiously about the many things that are wrong with peer review [2]. Contemporary practices of peer review are only about a century old. They began simply as a way of assisting editors of journals to assess the merits for publication of manuscripts too specialized for the editorial staff itself it to render judgment. The need for such specialized advice was not unrelated to the enormous expansion of scientific activity that followed World War II, bringing an ever-increasing demand for space in scientific periodicals as well as ever-increasing competition between researchers for funding and for getting published as a necessary prerequisite for career advancement and resources for research.

At any rate, peer review in science is no more impartial, unbiased, or objective than is criticism of art, music, film, or literary products. One illustration of that: it is becoming quite common for journal editors to ask the authors of submitted manuscripts whether there are individuals who should not be asked to serve as peer reviewers because of their known biases or hostility against the authors. Another point: Peer reviewers are typically chosen because they work on much the same topic as that of the manuscript to be reviewed; thereby they are likely to be to some extent competitors or allies, conflicts of interest that ought to be disbarring.

Modern (post-16th-17th-century) science managed to progress and to succeed quite magnificently for several centuries without the current practices of systematic peer-review. The assessing of already published work through further research and commentary gave science the appearance and the effect of being eventually self-correcting. Note “eventually”: the trials and errors and that preceded correction, sometimes for very long periods indeed, were of concern only within the specialized scientific communities, they were not any problem for the wider society.

Nowadays, however, society in general and industries and governments in particular have come to look to contemporary science for immediate guidance to significant actions and policies. That makes the fact that peer review is not impartial or objective quite important, and indeed dangerous. The nature of scientific activity and of the scientific community is such that the consensus among those who happen to be the most prominent researchers in any given field comes to control what research gets funded, which results get published and which are suppressed, and what the media and the public and policy-makers take to be “what science says”.

Unfortunately, the history of science is far from widely known or appreciated, most notably the fact that the contemporary scientific consensus at any given time has almost invariably turned out, sooner or later, to have been flawed, in minor or major ways.

Ignorance of the history of science, together with the misguided view that any prominent contemporary scientific consensus can be safely relied upon to guide social and political actions on any matters that are technical, including matters of medicine and public health, have already resulted in widespread actions that have brought tangible harm on such issues as supposedly human-caused global warming and climate change [3] and the mistaken belief is that AIDS was caused by a novel virus that destroys the immune system [4]. The closest precedent for these contemporary mistakes seems to be the ideology of eugenics, which led to the forced sterilization of tens of thousands of Americans over a period of more than half a century.

Since peer-review is not effectively making science contemporaneously objective and reliable, on matters of social and political importance policymakers badly need some other way to counteract the bias and dogmatic single-mindedness of any contemporary scientific consensus. The only conceivable mechanism to that end would seem to be something like an Institution of Scientific Judgment, as Arthur Kantrowitz suggested half a century ago [5], a concept that has come to be described as a Science Court [6].



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

[2]  pp. 106-9 in [1] and sources cited there

[3]  “What everyone ought to know about global warming and climate change: an unbiased review”referring to “#16 A Summary” by Don Aitkin

[4]  The Case against HIV  and sources cited there

[5]  Arthur Kantrowitz, “Proposal for an Institution for Scientific Judgment”, Science, 156 (1967) 763–4.

[6]  Chapter 12 in [1] and sources cited there


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The Case for a Science Court

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2019/01/24

I mentioned the concept of a Science Court in a previous post on this blog: “Who guards the guardians? Who guards science?”

and I’ve mentioned it in a number of other places as well. Sometimes those mentions have brought comments on a variety of blogs. Some raised objections to the idea, unfortunately most commonly individuals who have not read my full discussion of the concept, which comprises the 20 pages of chapter 12 in my latest book, “Science Is Not What You Think”  (see reviews of it).

Obviously I cannot reproduce here the 20 pages of that book chapter. Here are the salient points:

Ø     Nowadays, science is almost universally taken as the ultimate authority on knowledge about the natural world

Ø     Media, pundits, policymakers, and governments accept as reliable knowledge what science says

Ø     “What science says” is taken to be the contemporary “scientific consensus”, the mainstream view, the view held by the contemporary elite group of experts on the given topic

Ø     The history of science is unequivocal, that any given contemporary scientific consensus has been quite often significantly mistaken

Ø     History also records that contemporary experts who dissented from the scientific consensus sometimes — though by no means always — turn out to have been closer to the truth and then the consensus was

Ø     Society at large, and policymakers in particular, would benefit from an impartial independent assessment of the evidence respectively for and against the contemporary consensus. The aim of a Science Court would be precisely to facilitate such an impartial independent assessment.

The need for such an institution is nowadays quite pressing because on a whole host of topics there is no substantive, open, public, debate between proponents and challengers of the contemporary consensus. Many of those topics are of little or no immediate practical public significance, say, what the mechanism is of the sense of smell, or what caused the extinction of dinosaurs, or some other matters discussed in my earlier book, Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth (2012) .

However, there are also some topics of prime human, social, political importance on which informed and qualified experts have offered strong evidence that the contemporary consensus is dangerously flawed: HIV/AIDS, human-caused global warming and climate change, the role of prescription drugs in preventive medicine. On those, the popular media illustrate well enough that official institutions accept the scientific consensus and dismiss all challenges as “denialism”, no matter how eminent are the challengers. Something like a Science Court would seem to be the only conceivable mechanism by which the consensus could be forced to confront openly and substantively the challenges to its hegemonic, dogmatically held, view.

In my chapter-length discussion, I consider also the following:

Ø     The formal structure, sponsorship, authority and powers of the Science Court

Ø     Staffing of the Court: permanent and also ad hoc as appropriate to each specific topic

Ø     The choice of advocates for and against, on each particular topic

Ø     The choice of which issues are to be considered by the Court

My chapter discusses the benefits the Science Court would bring on questions concerning prescription drugs, climate change, and HIV/AIDS. It also describes the history of the concept of a Science Court, which dates back half a century to qualms about the potential safety of generating power in nuclear reactors, when equally qualified experts were arguing both sides of the issue. In more recent times, several legal scholars have argued that a specifically Science Court would be of considerable benefit to the judicial system in general and as a whole, since that system is called on increasingly to decide cases in which central questions involve scientific evidence and the qualifications of expert witnesses.

The pressing need for a Science Court nowadays arises because the scientific consensus cannot be relied upon to deliver the benefits that “science” supposedly brings, namely, the best available impartial, objective, unbiased assessment of what is actually known, what “science” has established.

Science did indeed bring those benefits for the first several centuries of what is generally called “modern science”, beginning around the 16th/17th centuries or so with the Reformation and the subsequent Enlightenment. What has not yet been widely enough recognized is how different scientific activity is since the middle of the 20th century, by comparison with those earlier centuries of modern science. Those differences are described in considerable detail in chapter 1 of my recent book; in a nutshell:

The circumstances of scientific activity have changed, from about pre-WWII to nowadays, from a cottage industry of voluntarily cooperating, independent, largely disinterested ivory-tower intellectual entrepreneurs, where science was free to do its own thing, namely the unfettered seeking of truth about the natural world; to nowadays a bureaucratic corporate-industry-government behemoth in which science has been pervasively co-opted by outside interests and is not free to do its own thing because of the omnipresent conflicts of interest. Influences and interests outside science now control the choices of research projects and the decisions of what to publish and what not to make public.

Aspects of that change were noted by John Burnham in his book, How Superstition Won and Science Lost (1987), and by Jacques Barzun in his magisterial From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life (2000).

Science nowadays plays much the same societal role as the Roman Catholic Church did in Western Civilization before the Reformation and the Enlightenment. The Church had become corrupted through bureaucracy and self-interest and the dysfunctions that arise inevitably as a result of human failings when an activity becomes too big and too powerful. It became obvious that the Church’s policies and actions had grown seriously at variance with its founding ideals. The Reformation and the Enlightenment brought and demonstrated the benefits of empirical, rational, evidence-based, pragmatism in the search for reliable understanding, by contrast to taking for granted what the authorities said.

Today’s scientific activity has become similarly dysfunctional through growing too big and too influential; something like a Science Court is needed to bring society the benefits of empirical, rational, evidence-based, pragmatism in the search for reliable insights.


Please note that I am far from alone in noting the dysfunctions of contemporary science and medicine: consider the many books, articles, and reports listed in these bibliographies:

Posted in conflicts of interest, consensus, denialism, global warming, media flaws, medical practices, politics and science, prescription drugs, science is not truth, science policy | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

Where to turn for disinterested scientific knowledge and insight?

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/02/11

The “vicious cycle of wrong knowledge” illustrates the dilemma we face nowadays: Where to turn for disinterested scientific knowledge and insight?

In centuries past in the intellectual West, religious authorities had offered unquestionable truth. In many parts of the world, religious authorities or political authorities still do. But in relatively emancipated, socially and politically open societies, the dilemma is inescapable. We accept that religion doesn’t have final answers on everything about the natural world, even if we accept the value of religious teachings about how we should behave as human beings. Science, it seemed, knew what religion didn’t, about the age of the Earth, about the evolution of living things, about all sorts of physical, material things. So “science” became the place to turn for reliable knowledge. We entered the Age of Science (Knight, 1983). But we (most of us) recognize that scientific knowledge cannot be absolutely and finally true because, ultimately, it rests on experience, on induction from observations, which can never be a complete reflection of the natural world; there remain always the known unknown and the unknown unknown.

Nevertheless, for practical purposes we want to be guided by the best current understanding that science can afford. The problem becomes, how to glean the best current understanding that science can offer?

Society’s knee-jerk response is to consult the scientific community: scientific associations, lauded scientists, government agencies, scientific literature. What society hears, however, is not a disinterested analysis or filtering of what those sources say, because all of them conform to whatever the contemporary “scientific consensus” happens to be. And, as earlier discussed (Dangerous knowledge II: Wrong knowledge about the history of science), that consensus is inevitably fallible, albeit the conventional wisdom is not on guard against that, largely because of misconceptions stemming from an holistic ignorance of the history of science.

The crux of the problem is that scientific knowledge and ideas that do not conform to the scientific consensus are essentially invisible in the public sphere. In any case, society has no mechanism for ensuring that what the scientific consensus holds at any given time is the most faithful, authoritative reflection of the available evidence and its logical interpretation. That represents clear and present danger as “science” is increasingly turned to for advice on public policies, in an environment replete with claims of truth from many sides, people claiming to speak for religion or for science, or organizations claiming to do so, including sophisticated advertisements by commercial and political groups.

In less politically partisan times, Congress and the administration had the benefit of the Office of Technological Assessment (OTA), founded in 1972 to provide policy makers with advice, as objective and up-to-date as possible, about technical issues; but OTA was disbanded in 1995 for reasons of partisan politics, and no substitute has been established. Society needs badly some authoritative, disinterested, non-partisan mechanism for analyzing, filtering, and interpreting scientific claims.

The only candidate so far on offer for that task is a Science Court, apparently first mooted half a century ago by Arthur Kantrowitz (1967) in the form of an “institute for scientific judgment”, soon named by others as a Science Court (Cavicchi 1993; Field 1993; Mazur 1993; Task Force 1993). Such a Court’s sole mission would be to assess the validity of conflicting contemporary scientific and technical claims and advice.

The need for such a Court is most obvious in the context of impassioned controversy in the public arena where political and ideological interests confuse and obfuscate the purely technical points, as for instance nowadays over global warming (A politically liberal global-warming skeptic?). Accordingly, a Science Court would need complete independence, for which the best available appropriate model is the United States Supreme Court. Indeed, perhaps a Science Court could be managed and supervised by the Supreme Court.

Many knotty issue beside independence present themselves in considering how a Science Court might function: choice of judges or panels or juries; choice of issues to take on; possibilities for appealing findings. For an extended discussion of such matters, see chapter 12 of Science Is Not What You Think and further sources given there. But the salient point is this:

Society needs but lacks an authoritative, disinterested, non-partisan mechanism for adjudicating conflicting scientific advice. A Science Court seems the only conceivable possibility.


Jon R. Cavicchi, “The Science Court: A Bibliography”, RISK — Issues in Health and Safety, 4 [1993] 171–8.

Thomas G. Field, Jr., “The Science Court Is Dead; Long Live the Science Court!” RISK — Issues in Health and Safety, 4 [1993] 95–100.

Arthur Kantrowitz, “Proposal for an Institution for Scientific Judgment”, Science,
156 [1967] 763–4.

David Knight, The Age of Science, Basil Blackwell, 1986.

Allan Mazur, “The Science Court: Reminiscence and Retrospective”, RISK — Issues in Health and Safety, 4 [1993] 161–70.

Task Force of the Presidential Advisory Group on Anticipated Advances in Science and Technology, “The Science Court Experiment: An Interim Report”, RISK — Issues in Health and Safety, 4 [1993] 179–88

Posted in consensus, legal considerations, media flaws, politics and science, science is not truth, science policy, scientific culture, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

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