Monday, October 12, 2009

The Grand Science Conspiracy

Here's a multiple choice question.

Which of the following is most closely associated with the view that science is just a big conspiracy driven by money and profit, and scientists and scientific journals actively suppress dissenting but valid alternative viewpoints?

a) Anthropogenic Global Warming Deniars
b) The Creationist/Intelligent Design Movement
c) The Anti-Western Medicine/Anti-vaccine Movement
d) All of the Above

If you chose "d) All of the Above", you are correct. Perhaps this result isn't a surprise to many of you, but it's only recently become obvious to me. Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) deniers argue that there is big money in global warming research and politics, so much so that the scientific and political establishment is more interested in self preservation than in the truth. The creationists argue that there are mounds of evidence against evolution and in favor of an intelligent designer (a.k.a. God), but the science conspiracy will not allow the evidence to see the light of day. Those opposed to western medicine believe that drug companies are in the business of keeping you sick so that they can continue to profit from their products, and that the scientists and doctors are in cahoots with these companies. It's all the same argument, only the names have been changed.

What is even more interesting than the common thread tying these seemingly different groups together is trying to understand why such an argument--essentially an ad hominem attack against science itself--seems to be gaining popularity. The simple answer is that the argument works. At least some buy into this. But, why is that? What makes this argument work?

Based on my experience, I'd like to suggest that the anti-science argument works for one simple reason, which may seem a tautology. Those that are ignorant of science and ignorant of the scientific process are highly susceptible to arguments that prey upon their ignorance. Ignorance breeds, sustains, and reinforces ignorance. First off, let me be clear that I use the word ignorance to mean lack of knowledge and not as a pejorative term. Having dispensed with that definition, let me also be clear that ignorance of science and ignorance of the scientific process are two distinct concepts. By ignorance of science, I mean ignorance of the facts and theories that have resulted from the application of science. Ignorance of the scientific process means a lack of knowledge or understanding of how science is applied in order to determine those facts and theories.

Those who are ignorant of science are susceptible to the science conspiracy argument, because to such individuals, alternative but bogus explanations of the natural world can appear as reasonable or even more reasonable than the scientific explanation. Those peddling the science conspiracy story are appealing to the common sense of the ignorant. If you didn't know that the Earth was spherical, it may seem quite logical that it is indeed flat. However, armed with data from space or data taken from a ship or airplane that circumnavigate the world, commons sense clearly dictates that the Earth is not planer but rather spheroidal. Common sense is based upon our preexisting knowledge. If you lack knowledge in a particular area, your common sense is apt to steer you wrong.

Turning specifically to global warming for a moment, the position that Carbon Dioxide is just a very small volume fraction of the atmosphere, and that changes in concentration of such a minor gas couldn't possibly have global impacts, may be intuitively appealing to those ignorant of radiative transfer through gases and ignorant of climate dynamics and feedback. Since the majority of the public falls into the category of scientific ignorance about the physics behind anthropogenic global warming, it only takes a small fraction of the public to buy into this before there are substantial numbers of ignoramuses (ignorami?) holding beliefs supported only by faulty intuition. Science, by the way, has the specific property that it can override intuition and common sense in favor of evidence.

To make matters worse, intuitive fallacy spreads as a meme. It is entirely one thing to have a belief (true or not) based solely on intuition or common sense. It is another thing entirely to spread that belief from a false position of authority or expertise. With the exception of a few scientists, all of the active AGW deniers fall into this category. Indeed, with few exceptions, all of the active AGW proponents also maintain their position without actually understanding the physics behind the question. For example, Al Gore, well known for his position in support of limiting CO2 emissions, almost certainly does not understand the physics behind his position. He is simply a messenger, parroting the scientific consensus, but acting as if he is an expert. Mr. Gore's position may very well be correct, but his behavior is as egregious as those with no expertise arguing that AGW does not exist. The important difference between the two camps is that one side is at least consistent with the overwhelming scientific consensus that has been established by those that do actually understand the physics.

The upshot of all this is that the public (and I lump politicians and all other non-expert groups into this) has no business debating the veracity of AGW. Similar to a court case, the plaintiffs simply have no standing. Armchair AGW deniers will argue about the temperature record, about satellite-derived data, about the variability of paleoclimates, about the influence of the solar cycle, and on and on, but not a single one is familiar with scientific literature on the subject, let alone capable of understanding the literature should it be delivered to their doorstep. Likewise, the armchair AGW supporters will defend their position with an equal level of ignorance.

The odd thing is that there seems to only be a few areas in which the ignorant feel capable and comfortable with projecting their false authority and expertise. For example, it's probably not common for the passerby to argue with the engineering architect about how to design a sky scraper. It's not common for the mechanically inept to assert a diagnosis and repair protocol for their automobile engine. It's perhaps even less common to see a public argument break out over the finer points of quantum mechanics, string theory, or the progress on a grand unified field theory. On the other hand, when it comes to weather and climate, or medical science, or evolution, a surprising number of the completely ignorant that have never read a single scientific paper on the subjects suddenly become self-professed experts. What drives this? Why are these few areas subject to the onslaught of the ignorant masses while the rest remain unscathed? The reason, I suspect, is because the ignorant either have a horse in the race, which is to say the outcome has a direct bearing on their life or livelihood in some manner, or because they have developed a rationalization to compensate for their ignorance in an area that permeates their life.

Weather permeates our life. We are immersed in it from the day we are born until the day we die. It impacts what we do and when we do it. Occasionally, the weather can be destroy and kill. As humans, it is on our nature to try and make order out of the disorder. Not too long ago, gods were invoked to rationalize weather. Most (but not all) humans have moved beyond that. Still, unless your a meteorologist, the scientific underpinnings of weather and climate are as opaque as they were to the ancient Greeks. Yet, because of it's daily impact, there is a necessity for the ignorant to develop their own internal coping mechanism--something by which they can use to deal with the reality of the weather. In their own minds, the ignorant have developed a model of how the atmosphere works, based on their own experience, faulty intuition and the memes acquired from the other ignorant. In their own mind, the ignorant are experts.

Adding to this false sense of expertise is the occasional spectacular failure of a weather forecast. To some, this would indicate that the underlying science is faulty (it's not), rather than the forecasting method (human or computer). The next illogical leap, which is common to AGW deniers, creationists, and anti-medical science is that because the current science paradigmappears to fail (it doesn't in reality) their hypothesis must be correct. This is essentially the false dilemma logical fallacy. Creationists attempt to disprove evolution thinking that it therefore means their position, that God did it, is therefore proven. Wrong. The anti-western medicine establishment tries to discredit medical science thinking that it somehow implies quackery is valid. Wrong again.

Like weather, illness and disease are part of our daily lives. Not too long ago, maladies were thought to be the result of demons or a mysterious ether. Science now understands the origin of most disease, but the biological underpinnings are once again opaque to the majority of the public unfamiliar with the fields of biology, microbiology, immunology, and biochemistry. Homeopathy or a Claude Bernard-ish biological terrain idea at the expense of L. Pasteur is intuitively appealing.

I'll go even further in the situation of the anti-medical establishment in saying that science is, oddly enough, what has allowed the anti-science meme to multiply. Memes, like pathogens must not be so lethal that their hosts die before transmission. By itself, the anti-medicine faction is lethal. Without vaccination (such as small pox or polio or diptheria or countless other diseases) many of us would die before we were old enough to reproduce. The same holds true in the absence of antibiotics. Residents of the developed world rarely suffer from food-borne illnesses, because of pasteurization and the understanding that refrigeration greatly reduces the growth rate of bacteria. It is western medicine, by mitigating diseases overall, that allows anti-western medicine ignorance to flourish. In a world without vaccines, the anti-vaccination crowd wouldn't have a leg to stand on. The consequences of going without vaccination, antibiotics, and drugs would be obvious and the meme would die out, in some cases quite literally as the anti-vaxers drop dead from any number of preventable diseases.

When faced with a question that requires expertise to answer, there are really only two reasonable and rational options. The first is to personally acquire the knowledge needed to answer the question. This is not always practical, and in some cases, individuals are simply not capable of acquiring such knowledge, because of for example, extensive and complex mathematics. The other option is to defer to the consensus of those that are experts. Notably, arguing for or against something as a non-expert is not a reasonable or rational option. In many cases, this means deferring to the scientist. This is hard to do if you also have a distrust of the scientific process due to ignorance.

The distrust of the scientific process can run deep, and is often based on ignorance about how the process works. To wit, I reproduce an entry from an acquaintance on Facebook:

The data that you are pointing to was determined by organizations that get their funding from those who don't want people to understand how the body functions and heals. The kind of scientific research that would show the lies and false trail of vaccinations will never be financed because those who have that kind of money don't want the data made available. Your 'The whole point of science' is a didactic that ignores the nature of the scientific community which is totally at the direction of those who fund it, people who rarely know or care about anything beyond their own limited field which has consciously been separated from the larger picture so that one hand never knows what the other is doing.
He later goes on to say...

I find you very naive and that naivete supports the agendas that allow science to be governed by money and power rather than pure research. If people with your intelligence would really question the pablum that we are fed by even scientific journals, there would be a much accelerated evolution towards discovering what we are really about on this planet in this incarnation.

It's very clear that this individual is completely unfamiliar with how science works and the scientific process that he has created in his mind is one that should be distrusted. Never mind that he apparently has no distrust of the very same scientific process that led to the production of the inventions that allow him to type on his computer and post entries on Facebook!

Let me dissect these quotes starting from the top. While the origin of data is sometimes interesting in determining whether it might in fact be genuine or fabricated in some way, or in determining what the error bars may be (all measurements are subject to error), the origin of the data is otherwise unimportant. Likewise, the origin of the funding that supported the production of the data is unimportant. Valid data cares not from whence it came or who paid for it. If the data is valid, it should be reproducible. So, you can't just throw out data just because it was produced by your opponent. If you suspect the data is faulty or has been tampered with in some way, you should repeat the experiment. In fact, even if you believe the data is valid, the experiment should be independently conducted to test for reproducibility. These are fundamental tenets of modern science, and studies that attempt to verify previous findings are funded and conducted on a routine basis.

Beyond the origin of data, the individual in question believes that there exists other data, yet to be discovered or obtained, that would "show the lies and falsehoods". Now, this statement in itself is illogical. If the data has not yet been obtained, then how could he possibly know what it would show? Let's accept for the moment the fallacious idea that such studies are being intentionally suppressed by the scientific conspirators. Is it not possible that the results from such studies, should they ever be conducted, might actually support vaccinations? Or might they be unequivocal? Are not these outcomes also possible? In the true scientific process, such possibilities are allowed. Apparently not for this individual though. In his mind, the scientific process is suppressing information that he already knows will support his position, despite there being a complete lack of such information available.

Now let me address the issue of the suppression of science. There is no doubt that throughout the ages scientific progress has been hindered by politics (and I lump religion into politics here), sometimes even internal conflict between individuals within the scientific community. That we even know that such hindrances have taken place points to the power of the scientific process. Science will eventually win out over attempts to suppress information or discredit valid hypotheses. If this were not the case, we would not be aware of the history of such attempts, but would instead be mired in a tangle of unworkable and inconsistent information leading to nowhere. If indeed such a grand science conspiracy is taking place (it is not) then it will eventually self correct. That is again, a fundamental tenet of science. Ultimately, the truth, as determined by evidence, will prevail.

Is the science community "at the direction of those that fund it"? In some ways, yes, but not as implied by the comment above. Most of my funding comes from NASA. When I write a research proposal, I am obligated to propose research that is relevant to the funding agency. My research proposals are focused on planetary science, and not on the reproductive behavior of tropical amphibians. The former is relevant to NASA and the latter is not. Other agencies fund the latter. However, within the confines of planetary research, I can propose a virtually unlimited number of ideas for study. Further, it is not NASA that decides whether these proposals are funded, but my peers. NASA has little control over what specific research topics are funded. Rather, it is the scientific community that decides.

Now, our anti-vaxer might declare, "Aha! You see! The science community will never select research proposals that would turn their careers on their head!" I often sit on the other side of the proposal table; that is, I review potential proposals. From this vantage I see a broad range of proposals. Some seek to further research along an accepted line of inquiry. Otherwise explore new uncharted waters. And, others specifically seek to test or challenge existing thinking. In every case, these proposals are evaluated on their scientific merit and their impact potential. Are the scientific questions valid? Is the methodology of answering the questions appropriate? Are the results likely to make a substantial contribution in advancing knowledge? It should go without saying that a proposal that seeks to undermine a well established line of thought often has a battle ahead. However, the outcome of such proposals is not predetermined. One need only scan the daily scientific press releases to find studies that have produced surprising results or that have dramatically changed or upset the status quo. So, there are countless, almost daily examples of research proposals that do, in fact, turn people's careers on their heads. I've seen some of these proposals and I've recommended them for funding. I currently have a proposal under review that, if selected, will change the way we think about Saturn's moon Titan. I hope it gets selected, but if it doesn't, it won't be because of some conspiracy that just doesn't want the truth to get out.

Let me further state that scientists, once they digest a bit of crow, relish in being proven wrong. There is nothing more exciting than finding a new, fresh, and wide-open avenue for scientific inquiry. If there were quality proposals for studies that had the potential to upset the medical world, they would be funded. And the data from such studies would be openly welcomed. This is what scientists do and it is what drives them to do what they do. To suggest otherwise shows a deep ignorance of the scientific process.

Has science become increasingly specialized? Without a doubt. There was a time, perhaps just a couple of hundred years ago, when a single mind could hold every bit of scientific knowledge accumulated throughout history. But knowledge feeds upon itself and grows at an exponential rate. The body of scientific knowledge is now so great that it is impossible for a single mind to contain. To some extent, information technology has helped with this. I need not fill my mind with science that is irrelevant to my topic of study, but the data can be stored for retrieval, if needed. Furthermore, I can now quickly find virtually any published study on a topic of interest through a search of electronic databases, and such a search allows me to identify work across a broad set of disciplines that are potentially relevant to mine. Are there connections between disparate or even related scientific fields that have yet to be identified. Of course! Any credible scientist is constantly scanning the literature to try and put the pieces of the scientific puzzle together. In some cases, entire research programs are established specifically to bring together two or more different fields to attack a problem.

Let's explore the second half of the quote. The first sentence is just pure bullocks (and setting aside the ad hominem attack--a sure sign of an otherwise weak argument). Again, I base this on evidence to the contrary. I do pure research. It is not governed by money or power. Period. Even so, what is so inherently wrong with the concept of research for profit? Would we be where we are today without such motivation? Again, the origin or motivation behind scientific data is irrelevant. Data is data. Data obtained for profit is just as good as data obtained for free.

As a working scientist, I was not aware that I was being "fed" information from journals. Our anti-vaxer apparently view scientific journals, as he does science, as a sort of intelligent organism carefully plotting and scheming to release only selected data that supports a particular viewpoint. He fails to recognize that there is no such entity as "the journal". Journals are simply the mouthpiece of the individual scientists. This is not to say that journals are not big business. They most certainly are, much to the dismay of the scientists that produce the information. But the money being made is on the publication side, not on the science side. Journals are for scientists and are run by scientists. The articles that appear in journals are subjected to the peer review process. Scientists are not "fed" by the journals. It's quite the opposite. The journals are "fed" by the scientists. So, once again, we have complete ignorance about how the process works.

I won't go much into the "incarnation" mentioned at the end of the quote, other than to say that he clearly seems to know why we are here, and if only science would conduct his experiments, and collect his data, it would all become clear. This is in direct opposition to the scientific process that claims to know nothing in advance of the experiment. What our anti-vaxer is ultimately proposing is that we do science his way. Unfortunately, that would require not doing science at all.

I asked repeatedly for positive evidence to support his position. I stated that he must have some facts or evidence available to him from which he has based his opinion. To believe so strongly, he must surely have a foundation for his belief. Each time, in response, I got nothing but attacks on my person or on the scientific process. I can only conclude that his position is based not on positive evidence, but on the notion that science is wrong and the scientific process is corrupt.

Beyond the ignorance of the scientific process demonstrated in the above quote, it is ironic that a non-scientist, fearful and ignorant of science, and totally and utterly clueless about the scientific process has the hubris to tell a working scientist about science, how science works, how science has it all wrong, how the scientist has it all wrong, and how he knows the answer. In doing so, he aptly demonstrates why he should be completely ignored as the result of his brilliant display of ignorance on the subject. I wouldn't trust a mechanic that claims the internal combustion engine is powered by gremlins, and I give no more thought to criticisms of science from someone that demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of how the scientific process works. I'm perfectly willing to listen to opposing arguments, but they must come from a position of knowledge.

Such hubris is exhibited across the board by those opposed to western medicine, to AGW, and to evolution. They, the non-experts, are the experts. They know! Science has it all wrong! They can't provide any evidence though, because of the science conspiracy.

When you are both ignorant of science and ignorant of the scientific process, you become ultra-susceptible to the anti-science memes. It is no coincidence that those who publicly reject AGW, western medicine, or evolution posses an ignorance of both science and the scientific process. And, rather than provide positive evidence for their position, they instead blame the opposition and criticize the process. If the scientific process is so bad, perhaps they have another method for determining the truth? How can you find faults with the process and then at the same time try to claim it is a valid method of exploration for your view, if only the proper experiments would be conducted? The creationists have a convenient way around this: they already now the truth, as given in the bible. It seems those opposed to western medicine and AGW already know the answer, ableit without a holy text, but just as dogmatically. In the meantime, the science community has an open mind and is willing to change their opinion, based on evidence, as demonstrated countless times in the past.