Conspiracies to suppress, manipulate and distort information undoubtedly occur. Society needs to be vigilant to guard against deception. An increasing number of alleged conspiracies are being covered by the media, all reflecting in some way on the integrity of politicians, or business leaders or the scientific enterprise. Conspiracy theorists are skilled in appealing to emotion, phrasing allegations in a provocative way, and promoting their own reconstructions of events so as to capture the imagination of the public. Ted Goertzel's essay on this theme sounded some alarm bells when it provided four recent examples:
"Conspiracy theorists - some of them scientifically trained - have claimed that the HIV virus is not the cause of AIDS, that global warming is a manipulative hoax and that vaccines and genetically modified foods are unsafe."
The problem I have with this is that these cases are all examples of dissent within science, whatever else may be said about associated conspiracy theories. My purpose here is not to align myself with all these dissenters (although in two of the cases I find myself at variance with the apparent consensus), but to defend the legitimacy of dissent within science. It is vital for the health of science that dissenters have the opportunity to probe, to question and to challenge the theoretical framework of the science relevant to their case, and to test all theories by reference to empirical data. The danger I see in Goertzel's analysis is that legitimate dissent is marginalised and treated as the product of conspiracy theory. The consequence is that science is damaged because reasoned arguments of dissenters are re-categorised as "emotional appeals, unsupported allegations and unverified speculations".
In Goertzel's analysis, conspiracy theorising is a rhetorical device employed for a variety of cultural, political and personal reasons. To develop the thesis, he finds it "useful to think of conspiracy theorizing as a 'meme', a cultural invention that passes from one mind to another and survives, or dies out, through natural selection". The effect of this definition of the issues is to exclude the conspiracy theorising meme from scientific discourse: a form of demarcation.
My concern is that Goertzel's four main examples of contemporary conspiracy theorising are, as a consequence, excluded from discussion in the world of science and relegated to political, economic and sociological forums. The first of these examples is the relationship between the HIV virus and AIDS. In 2008, Duesberg and colleagues published a paper incorporating their dissenting views in the journal Medical Hypotheses. So strong was the hostile reaction to this paper that the Editor, who personally carried the responsibility for reviewing manuscripts, was given notice of dismissal by Elsevier (the publisher of the journal) unless the peer review process followed a more conventional format. This ultimatum was resisted by the Editor and the entire Editorial Board. According to ScienceInsider (May 17th 2010), "Bruce Charlton, the editor of the controversial journal Medical Hypotheses, was fired last week by publisher Elsevier for refusing to overhaul the review procedures at the journal. Now, a majority of the 19-member Editorial Advisory Board seems set to quit as well." The intervention reveals a variety of influences that are alien to scientific discourse. Those opposed to the Duesberg message are not addressing his arguments but are engaged in a power-struggle to prevent dissenting views being published. For Professor Charlton's parting words, go here.
Case two is anthropogenic global warming. At least, in this instance, Goertzel recognises that both sides have been alleging conspiracies!
"In the realm of science, the 'climategate' scandal that has dogged the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit (CRU; Norwich, UK) has seen the word conspiracy thrown about on both sides of the argument. Climate change 'sceptics' have accused Professor Phil Jones of conspiring with his collaborators to manipulate climate data and the scientific literature, while supporters of the CRU have pointed out that the hacking of the e-mails and the selective, pejorative quoting of their content was a conspiracy to discredit the scientific evidence for climate disruption."
It is worth noting that the two groups of scientists interpret the data in different ways and both claim that the other side is involved in conspiracy theorising. At very least, this ought to sound alarm bells in the minds of all who value the health of science: the priority is to promote evaluation of the scientific arguments, not to close ranks with the consensus and to treat the dissenters as pariahs who have betrayed their scientific training by bowing to vested interests. Goertzel sides with those who think that some of the scientists have been over-enthusiastic and have made mistakes, but also that the link between global warming and human activities (of burning fossil fuels) is robust.
"Climate science is heavily dependent on complex statistical models based on limited data, so it is not surprising that models based on different assumptions give differing results. In presenting their data, some scientists were apparently too quick to smooth trends into a 'hockey stick' model that fitted with their advocacy concerns. Several different groups of well-qualified specialists have now been over the data carefully, and the result is a less linear 'hockey stick' with a rise in temperature during a 'medieval warm period' and a drop during a 'little ice age'. But the sharp increase in warming in the twentieth century, which is the main point of the analysis, is still there."
This appraisal is not shared by the dissenters, who point to far deeper and more fundamental issues. The most important of these is, in my opinion, the strategy of using peer review and editorial control to reinforce the "consensus" position. This is highlighted by Andrew Montford (The Times Higher, 25 March 2010), who wrote: "Among the most serious allegations to emerge in the wake of the leaked emails is that CRU scientists tried to "nobble" scientific journals that accepted papers from sceptics. There are suggestions in the emails that as many as four different journals may have had their normal procedures interfered with."
It is not difficult to find people who have been adversely affected. Here is a statement from Dr Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen, who was editor of one of the above-mentioned journals. "My interests are purely academic, professional and political. I am interested in the value and misuse of the peer review process. The negative attitudes of the IPCC/CRU people to my often sceptical journal have harmed it." There have been several formal enquiries that have cleared the relevant climate science leaders of unprofessional conduct, but many of us are mystified by these outcomes. The unethical practices revealed in the emails seem to be so blatant. The clearest and most sensible peer-reviewed comment on the debacle, in my opinion, comes from Stanley Trimble, professor of geography at the University of California at Los Angeles.
"Having said that, I must add that Climategate is, in my view, the greatest science scandal in my lifetime. Beyond any scientific implications are the implications of the behavior of the East Anglia scientists and their correspondents - suppressing information, denigrating those who don't agree with them, trying to deny others access to scientific journals, questioning motives, and conniving to disfellow skeptical colleagues. These are the earmarks of zealotry. While maybe not illegal, they are most certainly unethical. Civilized people, much less scientists, just don't do those things - but then, apparently they do."
In similar vein, comments could be made to show that Goertzel's other major examples (vaccines and genetically modified foods) originate as dissent within science and consequently the issues deserve to be addressed within science. Undoubtedly, all these controversies affect public policy, so it is not surprising that politicians, economists and advocacy groups become involved. The desire for consensus should be regarded as a threat to science, because it inhibits the freedom of scientists to debate issues. Yet, this desire for consensus is where Goertzel leads us:
"Decision-makers and the general public are best served when scientists specializing on an issue can reach a reasonable degree of consensus, making clear the limits to their knowledge. If scientists cannot do this, surely it is too much to expect politicians or journalists to do it. But efforts to define a consensus are vulnerable to attacks by conspiracy theorists that portray them as mechanisms for suppressing dissent and debate."
Goertzel's view of science puts emphasis on its progressive nature. One a trend is established, the presumption is made that the science is closing in on reality. Such thinking leads to skepticism about the possibility of scientific revolutions and to minimizing the importance of these revolutions in the history of science.
"Efforts to reach consensus on important questions have been discouraged by the influence of philosophers of science who emphasize conflicting research programmes, paradigm shifts and scientific revolutions. While these events do occur in the history of science, they are exceptional. Most sciences, most of the time, progress with an orderly, gradual accumulation of knowledge that is recognized and accepted by specialists in the field. Opposition rooted in religious or ideological concerns is acceptable as part of the democratic political process, but it need not prevent scientists from reaching a consensus when one is justified."
The problem I find with this is that consensus should not be a goal, but it may be a spin-off resulting from the application of the scientific method. It may be desirable for making public policy, but that should not dictate the way scientists operate. Those of us who warm to Thomas Kuhn's analysis of 'normal science' and 'scientific revolutions' have no problem with progression within a paradigm, but we infer that this points to internal consistency rather than realism.
The design paradigm gets a brief mention in Goertzel's paper - in the context of the "advocacy meme" (there are two sides to every question and each side is entitled to equal time to present its case). "George W. Bush famously suggested that students be taught both evolution and "intelligent design" theories so that they could judge which had the most convincing argument." Significantly, Goertzel refers to the sound-bite of a political leader rather than a scientist. But here too, the issue should not be reduced to the conspiracy theory format. There are scientific issues, as Dr Stephen Meyer has shown, concluding that there are "pedagogical, legal and scientific case for exposing students to the scientific controversies that exist about the key claims of neo-darwinism, including the claim that the selection-mutation mechanism can fully account for the appearance of design in biological systems." These controversies are discussed in the textbook Explore Evolution (2009).
My greatest concern about Goertzel's paper is that the scientists representing the consensus position are viewed through positivist glasses. Consequently, they pursue objective information and analysis; they don't have emotional attachments to their theories; they don't make unsupported allegations about those who might differ from them; they do not indulge in unverified speculations. These are cardboard scientists who do not exist in the real world. Sociologists of science ought to know better. What we need in all these contested areas is a greater willingness to engage with those who differ from us; an openness to challenging our own favoured ideas; and a willingness to follow the evidence wherever it leads.
Conspiracy theories in science
EMBO reports, 11(7), July 2010, 493-499 | doi:10.1038/embor.2010.84
First para: Conspiracy theories are easy to propagate and difficult to refute. Fortunately, until a decade or so ago, few serious conspiracy theories haunted the natural sciences. More recently, however, conspiracy theories have begun to gain ground and, in some cases, have struck a chord with a public already mistrustful of science and government. Conspiracy theorists - some of them scientifically trained - have claimed that the HIV virus is not the cause of AIDS, that global warming is a manipulative hoax and that vaccines and genetically modified foods are unsafe. These claims have already caused serious consequences: misguided public health policies, resistance to energy conservation and alternative energy, and dropping vaccination rates.
Climategate: If The Science Is Solid, Why Stoop?
Stanley W. Trimble
Academic Questions, (March 2010) 23(1): 54-56 | doi 10.1007/s12129-009-9149-z
Preface: I must preface my remarks by saying that I believe that there has indeed been climate warming over the past few decades and I believe that human action may be one of the causes. While Climategate may bring into greater question some of the work underlying climate warming, it decidedly does not disprove it.
Tyler, D. Scientific Consensus is sleep inducing, ARN literature Blog (9 June 2010)
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