Bad science, Part I: Authoritah


Okay. Deep breath. There’s a post I’ve been wanting to write for a long time, but every time I start I get so worked up about the issue and I have so many words I can’t sort through them. Every time I have given up. This time, I was almost to the end when I hit some unknown combination of buttons and accidentally erased more than half of what I’d written. But I think this time I will make it through to the end…

(This got really long, so I’m breaking it up into parts.)

I want to say at the get-go that I’m trying as hard as I can to spell out my thoughts clearly. Not because I am underestimating your intelligence. Far from it! If you read this blog you are clearly a person of wisdom, discernment, and excellent taste! But I don’t want to assume that you already know my thoughts, let alone agree with them. Writing your thoughts and cherished beliefs–I mean, not just stating them, but explaining them–to someone who has never met you and can’t see your facial expression or hear your tone of voice is really difficult. I have discovered that through bitter experience. So I’m trying not to assume any prior knowledge, as if you just stumbled on this blog and this is the first post you’re reading (which it might be).

In other posts I’ve alluded to the fact that I used to be a science educator and used to do scientific analyses in an R1 (does its own research) university. In a lab and everything! I ended up leaving that path, first because I realized I was not interested in just measuring stuff, but in wrestling with questions about meaning and human subjectivity. I went humanities, in other words. Second, because my mom got sick and I had to take care of her, and my nascent academic career disappeared in a cloud of smoke.

I make no claim that the herbalism I practice is science-based. That is, I do incorporate scientific findings and will share them with you when relevant; and I do base my practice on empirical (but subjective) observation–but I personally am not conducting a controlled study. But this doesn’t mean I stopped being interested in science. Nor does it mean I forgot how science works or stopped associating with practicing scientists.

Because I love what science actually is (I’ll return to that in a minute), I get really incensed when I see it being misused.

Specifically, I’m referring to the use of “science” to establish and enforce an epistemological and ideological hegemony. To be completely clear, what I am saying is this: over the course of my adult life I have seen the concept of “science” co-opted by thought police who want to enforce conformity in the general public–determining what questions can be asked, whether and how they can be discussed, and using rhetorical tricks and misdirection to discredit opposing voices.

Now I know it might sound like I’m making some crazy conspiratorial claim here. Stay with me and you’ll see it’s nothing so glamorous.

I am not the only person noticing this. Currently, the protesting voices are coming from the fringes–not from mainstream society–but there are more and more of them. It’s time for me to add my voice to the chorus. If every person adds their grain of sand, in time they make a mountain. But whether my grain of sand adds much to the pile is irrelevant–a person’s character is obvious from their values, and this misuse of “science” in the attempt to quash free inquiry and free speech goes against everything I believe in and care about.

I believe in critical thought, and that if you’re not thinking critically you’re wasting your human brain. I understand that it’s often difficult to look beneath the surface explanation of things, especially when we really like the explanation we’re being given, but making the attempt is not only good for the developing your cognitive skills but is also a moral virtue. Moreover, we need to turn that probing eye on ourselves and our own society, to put them under the microscope, and never accept something as truth just because someone told us so. In particular, we must always ask whether what we’re being told is a statement of fact or an ideological belief or philosophical premise being packaged as fact. I don’t care whether the claim is that Yahweh is the one true god, or that there is no god, or that the two-party system is the best form of governance, or that such-and-such war is justified, or that you need to detox your liver, or that science is the best way to investigate the universe. The metric for truth is not whether we agree with it, whether it makes us happy, or whether it’s convenient. In fact, we need to beware anything that feels easy and comfortable because that is where blind spots develop.

I think it should go without saying–though I’m saying it anyway–that scientific materialism is the dominant paradigm in modern Western society, and has been for about 200 years. We give science ultimate explanatory authority. Previously, Christianity and the Church held that role, and although there are still a small minority who look to Christianity for answers, their day is long past. It was already getting shaky in Henry VIII’s time. But it’s still a long way from being really threatened. When was the last time you heard a talking head report sincerely the good news that Jesus has appeared miraculously in a tortilla? Not in your lifetime. The fact that creationism is increasingly being packaged as “creation science” shows how desperate people are to reconcile what they want to believe in–Christian theology–with what they kind of believe in spite of themselves and think everyone else believes–science.

Yet there has been much hand-wringing and arm-waving, as well as snarky mockery, lately about people being “anti-science” and “science-deniers,” and it’s true that cracks are beginning to appear in science’s credibility. What’s got scientists and science fans so defensive? Basically, people are starting to question and in some cases even dispute their authority. Take for example this blog post by Dilbert creator Scott Adams, who writes:

“So you have the direct problem of science collectively steering my entire generation toward obesity, diabetes, and coronary problems. But the indirect problem might be worse: It is hard to trust science.

Today I saw a link to an article in Mother Jones bemoaning the fact that the general public is out of step with the consensus of science on important issues. The implication is that science is right and the general public are idiots. But my take is different.

I think science has earned its lack of credibility with the public. If you kick me in the balls for 20-years, how do you expect me to close my eyes and trust you?

If a person doesn’t believe climate change is real, despite all the evidence to the contrary, is that a case of a dumb human or a science that has not earned credibility? We humans operate on pattern recognition. The pattern science serves up, thanks to its winged monkeys in the media, is something like this:

Step One: We are totally sure the answer is X.

Step Two: Oops. X is wrong. But Y is totally right. Trust us this time.”

(Emphasis and link are in the original.) Adams isn’t dumb and he isn’t a “science denier.” He understands that science is a “’mostly wrong’ situation by design that is intended to become more right over time. How do you make people trust a system that is designed to get wrong answers more often than right answers?” Indeed! By definition scientific findings can never be conclusive; it’s always a work-in-progress. So how did science ever come to be granted so much authority as the arbiter of truth?

The picture gets even murkier. John Michael Greer elaborates:

“Especially but not only in those branches of science concerned with medicine, pharmacology, and nutrition, the prostitution of the scientific process by business interests has become an open scandal. When a scientist gets behind a podium and makes a statement about the safety or efficacy of a drug, a medical treatment, or what have you, the first question asked by an ever-increasing number of people outside the scientific community these days is ‘Who’s paying him?’ …

From influential researchers being paid to put their names on dubious studies to give them unearned credibility to the systematic concealment of “outlying” data that doesn’t support the claims made for this or that lucrative product, the corruption of science is an ongoing reality, and one that existing safeguards within the scientific community are not effectively countering. …

Not that many years ago, all things considered, scientists didn’t have the authority or the prestige, and no law of nature or of society guarantees that they’ll keep either one indefinitely. Every doctor who would rather medicate than cure, every researcher who treats conflicts of interest as just another detail of business as usual, every scientist who insists in angry tones that nobody without a Ph.D. in this or that discipline is entitled to ask why this week’s pronouncement should be taken any more seriously than the one it just disproved—and let’s not even talk about the increasing, and increasingly public, problem of overt scientific fraud in the pharmaceutical field among others—is hastening the day when modern science is taken no more seriously by the general public than, say, academic philosophy is today.”

(I’ll have more to say on academic philosophy and science next time.)

Nothing upsets a scientist more than telling her that her work is irrelevant, but a close second is finding her work misrepresented in the popular media. How often have I seen scientists raging about how the spin put on their research is going to mislead people? Or gloating over how uninteresting some rival’s findings are once you discount the spin? But a recent (scientific!) study shows that most of that spin actually comes from the scientists themselves, or from the universities where they work. Scientists have to compete for funding, and bigger results get bigger grants, so there is a lot of pressure to exaggerate the significance of results. Greer again:

“These days, in any field where science comes into contact with serious money, scientific studies are increasingly just another dimension of marketing.”

In short, there are a lot of reasons why people are starting to reject scientists’ a priori authority and are getting pissed that their every challenge is dismissed as ignorance, stupidity, or conspiracy theory. It’s kind of sad in that in its early days, modern science was a challenge to hegemony and ideological oppression–but now it has become its own tool of oppression. But in the long view, you see that over and over through history.

Particularly concerning, to me, is the fact that scientific authority is used not only to promote scientific findings as accurate and truthful, but how it is used to bully and shut down discussion. Thought- and speech-policing is a bad, bad sign of deeper and darker social and political problems.

A list of things we're not allowed to talk about.

Shhhh… A list of things we’re not allowed to talk about.

Although in principle nothing is off-limits for scientific investigation, and nothing can be discounted until thoroughly investigated, above you see a list of things a scientist is not allowed to investigate or seriously discuss. To do otherwise is to lose all credibility (and thus funding). As far as science fans are concerned, all that is necessary to discredit an opponent is to accuse them of pseudoscience (even when the label, as in some of the items on this list, is inaccurate).

Why are these particular topics off-limits?

Because they relate to aspects of human life that are generally very meaningful, where people are most likely to stand up to authority and say the emperor has no clothes on. For example: 8 out of these 25 items (32%) relate to health and healing; 5 of 25 (20%) directly relate to religion; and a conservative count of 18 out of 25 (72%) pertain to the possibility of the existence of non-material phenomena or experiences. You know, the kinds of things that massively effect people’s quality of life. People don’t like being shut out of the discussion on topics that are important to them.

Most importantly, I think people are starting to see the man behind the curtain. They are starting to recognize that many claims which are in fact ideological (belief-based) are masquerading as science in order to ride the wave of scientific authority. So things that for a long time were accepted as natural, self-evident, and true are now being challenged. The reason that the topics on the above list are verboten is not because they have any inherent conflict with science–it’s because they conflict with materialism, the metaphysical proposition that underlies science as it’s currently practiced.

This takes us into philosophical territory, which will be the topic of my next post.

EDIT: Just one week after I published this post, an article about “Big Science Frauds” was published in The New York Times.

Every day, on average, a scientific paper is retracted because of misconduct. Two percent of scientists admit to tinkering with their data in some kind of improper way. That number might appear small, but remember: Researchers publish some 2 million articles a year, often with taxpayer funding. In each of the last few years, the Office of Research Integrity, part of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, has sanctioned a dozen or so scientists for misconduct ranging from plagiarism to fabrication of results.

The article goes on to point out that it isn’t just a matter of a few dishonest scientists. Scientists want to publish in more prestigious, and therefore more competitive, journals such as Science and Nature. But the high-profile journals actually retract more papers than the less-prestigious ones. Maybe the editors of big-name journals are more conscientious (but then why are mistakes being made in the first place?); or are scientists are cutting corners to make their articles more competitive? The article’s conclusion is so perfect, I’m just going to quote it:

Economists like to say there are no bad people, just bad incentives. The incentives to publish today are corrupting the scientific literature and the media that covers it. Until those incentives change, we’ll all get fooled again.

Science’s crisis of authority continues…


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