Leading Horses to Water

Ancient Greeks began the way of thinking originally known as natural philosophy but which we now call science.  Science emerged as we know it during the Renaissance, in an age dominated by fear, superstition, injustice, and brutality.  In other words, pretty much like the present.  These musings are aimed at explaining how science works, and how science can serve even nonscientists in their efforts to make sense of the world.  I can try to explain things but it’s up to you to decide whether or not you wish to drink from these waters.

#22 - Conspiracy Among Scientists?

American Heathen:  aired: 29 September 2012

The topic of global climate change continues to be in the news, so I’m discussing it again.  A while back, I offered the opinion that it was absurd to even entertain the notion that hundreds of global climate change scientists (as represented by the IPCC consensus) have been engaging in a conspiracy to promulgate scientific ideas and results known to be wrong, purely for personal gain.  I described how funding for science really works and why the safeguards against misuse of those funds for personal gain make it impossible for most of the scientists participating in global climate change science to add significantly to their income by promoting this alleged conspiracy.  There is no plausible reason for such a cabal to exist.  If there’s any chance for a conspiracy to push bad science onto the public, it’s most likely in the private sector, where backing for global climate change deniers supports a small number of vocal scientists (most of whom are not global climate change scientists!) who may be benefitting from that backing.  Recently, one of the more credible deniers actually reversed his stance and now believes the scientific consensus.

But precisely how and why is a widespread conspiracy among scientists such an unlikely situation?  One argument against such a conspiracy is something you’re either going to trust me on, or you won’t.  In my experience, virtually all of my scientific colleagues are working long and hard to figure out what’s going on in the natural world.  The very idea of intentionally producing false results is for all practical purposes, unthinkable to most of us.  Why would we promote ideas we know to be wrong?  Yes, there are a few isolated individual cases of scientific fraud discovered every year.  And the penalty for perpetrating scientific fraud is swift and irrevocable:  a complete and utter loss of credibility for the likely short duration of one’s subsequent scientific career following the revelation of a scientific fraud.  Publishing incorrect results, using flawed methods, drawing inappropriate conclusions - these errors happen unintentionally all the time.  Errors and mistakes eventually are discovered and corrected.  There’s no serious penalty for making inadvertent or even stupid errors.  But to mislead intentionally is both unforgivable and difficult to prove.

We scientists make no claim to being perfect, although the egos of some of us are fragile enough to find it difficult to admit mistakes.  We make mistakes all the time, so our peer-reviewed publications are not filled only with truth, but include errors and misconceptions of all sorts.  Science works on the principle of an evolving consensus about the workings on the natural world;  it’s a process that can never end with the achievement of some immutable “truth”.  Science simply doesn’t recognize the concept of immutable truth!  The consensus is always provisional, subject to review by any one of us, and subject to revision when the evidence forces us to abandon earlier notions that proved to be inadequate or inaccurate.  However, anyone who would deliberately mislead colleagues by publishing results known to be incorrect would be ostracized instantly from the scientific community forever, regardless of any other institutional or judicial punishment. 

I talked about the peer review process a while back.  It’s not perfect, but if someone attempts scientific fraud, a serious challenge to that fraud is peer review.  Any bogus results stand a good chance of being discovered during peer review and fraudulent  findings are likely to be detected and rejected before ever being published in a scientific journal.

However, even if someone seeking to publish false results somehow manages to slip it past peer review and publishes a result that contravenes the consensus, that work instantly becomes a target for those in the scientific community who continue to believe in the correctness of the consensus.  The standard of evidence for a major change to the consensus is set very high – as the saying goes, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence!  It’s likely deliberately bad science would be challenged even if it were to be published.  Just being published in a refereed journal is not like papal imprimatur!

Despite the likely reaction to challenging the consensus, each of us must make a name for ourselves within the profession by proposing changes to the consensus.  If all you can contribute as a scientist is “Me, too!” to the consensus, then your career will be pretty much undistinguished.  Proposed changes to the consensus run the gamut from wholesale revolution (like Einstein’s Theory of Relativity) to minor changes regarding some esoteric point.  If someone were to propose a major paradigm shift within the consensus, their work would be run through a gauntlet of challenges from other scientists.

Now try to imagine literally hundreds of scientists conspiring to promote something they actually know to be a scientific falsehood.  The very idea of such a thing is well beyond being ridiculous.  How could such a cabal be kept secret?  What would be the point of doing it?  How and why would hundreds of scientists endanger their scientific careers for a cause that could not offer them some enormous benefit to compensate for taking such a risk?  It’s one thing for a particular scientist to take what amounts to an incorrect position on some topic – this actually happens all the time, of course!  But to engage hundreds of others in an effort to lead the science down a path known to be incorrect?  Utterly and absolutely preposterous!  It would be an enormous, simultaneous betrayal by hundreds of individuals of everything that led them to become scientists in the first place.  Sadly, some well-known scientists have attacked global climate change science with exactly the accusation that it’s a gigantic conspiracy to perpetuate bad science for personal gain.  To disagree is one thing, but to impugn the motives of hundreds of colleagues is quite a leap!  It can be argued that it’s a major ethics violation to make such an accusation without extremely compelling evidence.  No one has yet done so.

Among the things that attracted me to a career in science was the recognition that an absolute commitment to professional integrity is the sine qua non of science.  Deliberate falsehood is anathema!  Being wrong is no problem, but being deliberately wrong is nothing less than unforgivable!  No true scientist could participate in such a conspiracy.  Perhaps some small number of individuals might be able to rationalize doing so, but a successful conspiracy involving the majority of global climate change scientists is simply not possible.  Only a nonscientist could entertain such an idea!

When you hear such things in the media, reject them for the utter nonsense they are!

Science is not a religion but rather a tool for those who wish to think for themselves about the natural world.  Its primary characteristic is its willingness to entertain questions from those who wish to obtain believable answers.