Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Science skepticism is growing–for one good reason

Science skepticism is growing, and for one very good reason: Science and the bureaucratic state do not mix.

Scientists in recent years have been getting so devoted to sucking off the public tit that public trust of public science is rapidly and deservedly diminishing.

The usual narrative in the science-communication literature [suggests Mises Institute’s Peter Klein] is that public skepticism toward "science" is rooted in ignorance and fear, that it reflects scientists' failure to engage the public with lively and convincing stories. But what if scientists deliberately mislead the public, for careerist, pecuniary, or other reasons?

If they do, and when they increasingly do, then public skepticism must jutifiably increase.

The latest story on point here is the lead found in Flint, Michigan’s town water supply, and the story around its concealment – a scandal only exposed at great personal expense by a scientist from out of state with no public connection to local authorities (because all the local ‘scientists’ had other loyalties.

That scientist too says “public science is broken.”

I am very concerned about the culture of academia … and the perverse incentives that are given to young faculty. The pressures to get funding are just extraordinary. We’re all on this hedonistic treadmill — pursuing funding, pursuing fame, pursuing h-index — and the idea of science as a public good is being lost.
    This is something that I’m upset about deeply. I’ve kind of dedicated my career to try to raise awareness about this. I’m losing a lot of friends. People don’t want to hear this. But we have to get this fixed, and fixed fast, or else we are going to lose this symbiotic relationship with the public. They will stop supporting us. …
    In Flint the agencies paid to protect these people weren’t solving the problem. They were the problem. What faculty person out there is going to take on their state, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency?
    I don’t blame anyone, because I know the culture of academia. You are your funding network as a professor. You can destroy that network that took you 25 years to build with one word. I’ve done it. When was the last time you heard anyone in academia publicly criticize a funding agency, no matter how outrageous their behavior? We just don’t do these things.
    If an environmental injustice is occurring, someone in a government agency is not doing their job. Everyone we wanted to partner said, Well, this sounds really cool, but we want to work with the government. We want to work with the city. And I’m like, You’re living in a fantasy land, because these people are the problem. …
    What these agencies did in was the most fundamental betrayal of public trust that I’ve ever seen. When I realized what they had done, as a scientist, I was just outraged and appalled.
    I grew up worshiping at the altar of science, and in my wildest dreams I never thought scientists would behave this way. The only way I can construct a worldview that accommodates this is to say, These people are unscientific. Science should be about pursuing the truth and helping people. If you’re doing it for any other reason, you really ought to question your motives.
    Unfortunately, in general, academic research and scientists … are no longer deserving of the public trust. We’re not.


  1. "Scientists in recent years have been getting so devoted to sucking off the public tit/" I have got new for you, this has been going on since WW2.

    What has changed is 1) the expansion of the definition of "science" beyond the "traditional", empirical physical science, 2) the creation of a state funded "scientific nomenklatura", along Soviet models, 3) the capture of 1 and 2 by the Establishment left, and 4) the growth of Scientism in our culture.

    All of this is the creation of the Left, but certainly Establish "Right", if these enablers of the Left can be termed that, also are involved.

    We should be thankful that there actually is enough awareness in the public at large to question this. Science has reduced itself to another special interest group, and a particularly hypocritical and expensive one. This is best demonstrated by the AGW cultists, but they are, no irony intended, the tip of the iceberg.

  2. If science proved a phenomenon that required action from governments around the world, would you accept it?

    1. Please explain to me how science--a method for discovering facts about the world around us--can dictate global politics. Please explain how individual innovation, grass-roots or corporate actions, and the like can be necessarily precluded from being a solution to a problem. Note that neither inconvenience nor government regulations are acceptable here; science doesn't care about either.

    2. You've got it the wrong way round; it's politics that determines how people interpret science. That's why you can predict with almost 100 percent certainty what someone thinks about climate change if you know their political views.

      How can individual or corporate actions be precluded from being a solution to a problem? Easy: individuals & companies are focused on the short term. A multi-generational problem like climate change requires a solution from governments, which is anathema to those on the right.

    3. Do you admit that your hypothetical--science proving something that requires action from around the world--is entirely make-believe?

      Let's make it simple: Please suggest something--anything--that is remotely possible (say, keep it this side of Star Trek in terms of technological possibility) that would REQUIRE action from GOVERNMENTS around the world.

      Your "preclusion" is laughable, and clearly demonstrates (as if your opening paragraph left any room for doubt) that you are projecting onto others the fallacies in your own thinking. But I'm willing to be convinced. I won't even ask you to prove that it's impossible for individuals to think in terms of multi-generational solutions, though your argument certainly is open to exactly that criticism. I have a different issue with your argument, though, one that should prove more entertaining: Please prove that governments are not composed of individuals. If they are, than your argument is self-contradictory--governments are composed of individuals, who cannot individually or in arrogate, focus on anything other than the short term (if they could, corporations could). If governments are NOT composed of individuals, you'll have to demonstrate what they ARE composed of.

    4. Governments can't focus on the long term because they are composed of individuals? What a load of drivel. I'd point out how the motives & priorities of governments are different than that of companies but I'm sure you're already of this.

      Your argument is facetious and as weak as Gerry Brownlee's will to stick to a diet.

  3. Science has been tied to government before WWII. And the limitations of "traditional" physical sciences simply don't cover the range of phenomena that can be explored via rigorous observation and testing. Science is applicable to any system with consistent rules of cause and effect, as science is, fundamentally, a method for discovering those rules.

    I would agree, however, that science is facing some major problems. Government financing is demonstrably costly--universities which have abandoned seeking government grants had MORE money to devote to research, precisely the opposite of what the Socialist dogma demands we accept. There is an inherent view that science must necessarily be funded by the government, so deeply entrenched that few researchers even question it these days. When discussing potential areas of investigation the question of funding is ALWAYS grants, nearly universally from state or federal agencies.

    There's another problem that's more insidious: applied research is presented as "lesser". The ideal is someone working on a question with no obvious practical consequences--"basic" research. This limits our vision of what constitutes a scientist to academics, with all the problems inherent in that. I was fortunate enough to be enthralled by a field of study that still has a robust community of non-academic practitioners; try being a physicist in your spare time and you'll see how deeply this entrenchment is! ("Entrenchment" is a term loaded with implications in evolutionary biology, by the way...)

    A second problem is that we've stopped focusing on good research, and started focusing on popular research. I've heard people say--and they were serious!!--that only high-impact factor journals were worth reading or publishing in. IF has nothing to do with quality of work; only individual researchers can determine that (quality is often inconsistent within a single paper--the data could be high quality with the conclusions utter bilge, for example). IF is merely a complicated way of determining popularity. In theory popularity in science should relate to quality, but in practice it's tied to what field you're in (medicine has the highest IF, physics second) and who you are (Jablonski will get a higher IF in a given publication than I will, just due to name recognition). This undermines the entire concept of science and essentially turns it into fad-driven popularity contests.

    The issues in Flint are...complicated. I've not read too much about it, but I've read enough to know that part of it comes from relatively recent changes in government-issued safety regulations (which is itself a problem).


1. Comments are welcome and encouraged.
2. Comments are moderated. Gibberish, spam & off-topic grandstanding will be removed. Tu quoque will be moderated. Links to bogus news sites (and worse) will be deleted.
3. Read the post before you comment. Challenge facts, but don't simply ignore them.
4. Use a name. If it's important enough to say it, it's important enough to put a name to it.
5. Above all: Act with honour. Say what you mean, and mean what you say.