Saturday, April 30, 2011

Losing My Religion

I grew up in a household that respected science and believed in the objectivity of the scientific method. Science was one of my strong subjects and I particularly enjoyed the romance of particle physics in college. However, the real-world problems of politics and the fun of rhetorical analysis pulled me away from the scientific enterprise.

Still, I had my religion. Science and the scientific method were objective, non-partisan, and neutral.
Over the last 20 years I lost my religion. Science began to look less objective.

I saw as an insider within the university how grant funding dictated the types of questions scientists asked.

I saw how the profession would occasionally act unethically by forcing graduate students into the position of low-paid laborers denied the opportunity to graduate by major professors who relied on their expert labor.

I also saw how chemistry departments dumped their research by-products in the environment at a certain prestigious mid-western university (this practice was supposedly discontinued but the pollution remains).

As public funding for universities dried up, the problem of grant money driving research became much worse. I saw in the social sciences how academics became business-people more interested in getting the next grant than any other priority and how these grants reflected political priorities that were biased, prejudicial, and class-biased.

Even worse, I saw how science was fundamentally corrupted by money and politics. Pharmaceutical research and testing by universities illustrate how science is corrupted by money. Recall that Ivy League child psychiatrists who was on the take for money from a large pharmaceutical company and returned the favor by coining new syndromes such as “biopolar disorder” that was best treated by the said pharmaceutical company’s drug.

Look also at the historical research record on the subjects of lead poisoning, the health effects of pesticides, the health effects of radiation. Industry and corporate sponsored university scientists denied for decades that lead paint could hurt children, that pesticides could produce birth defects and cancer, and that low-to-medium level exposures of radiation could cause cancer and birth defects.

Effects that occurred years after exposure or from years of low-level exposure were denied over and over again by industry scientists and by university scientists with grants that incentivized finding no effects.
Scientists were willing to deny effects and manipulate how they framed problems and how they interpreted results in order to bolster the legitimacy and neutrality of polluters.

Today scientists bemoan the scientific ignorance of the public. However, the public has good reason to be skeptical of scientific authority. The public has good reason to question the neutrality of scientific research. The public has good reason to be skeptical of the academic-industrial complex.

I still believe in the possibility and practice of good science. Good science isn’t neutral in its problem-solution frames. Good science seeks out problems that address human concerns and needs. Good science looks to understand and explain free of economically-based prejudices. Good scientists are willing to publish their findings and fight-back against those who deny them because they call into question relations of wealth and privilege and/or that discomfort corporate and government agendas.

Good science is losing ground because it is often not funded. However, the research scientists who persevere to help improve the human condition should be recognized and applauded.

Conversely, those of us who challenge scientific biases and prejudices should not cower or be concerned by those who deny our skepticism. We should not be cowed by those who would respond to our critiques by calling us ignorant or unscientific because we see long term implications whose patterns are rendered invisible by incentivized data manipulation and selective interpretation.

Government and industry paid scientists denied that nuclear testing in the 1940s and 1950s caused cancer.

Government and insdustry paid scientists denied that lead in the absence of extremely high levels of exposure could cause health and cognitive effects

Government and industry scientists have denied and manipulated data for personal gain.
see "How Drug Company Money Has Corrupted Psychiatry"

Links for Today

On bio-accumulation

On children's risk of cancer


  1. Don't forget tobacco and asbestos.

    Wherever there is competition and vested interests there will be liars and cheaters. It is (for now) simply human nature and scientists (and in particular) governments are no exception.

    Some say it wasn't until Sputnik that science education started getting serious (positive) attention in the US. Perhaps we need another Sputnik moment in this country.

    Carl Sagan's "The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark" really should be required reading for Freshman in high school. The ability to tell superstition and junk science from the real thing is a skill that is sorely needed.

    But comparing science to religion is, in my opinion, a bad analogy. While some scientific concepts are beyond the understanding of those us with average intellects the fact remains that good science is repeatable, falsifiable, and subject to peer review. Whereas religion is not.

    Science is process through which truths are uncovered. Questions are eventually answered. In religion the answer to many questions boils down to "because it's god's will", a wholly unsatisfactory answer for anyone with even the slightest bit of scientist in them.

    Sure science sometimes goes down false paths and dead ends. Certainly human nature can contribute to these missteps. But the scientific process, unless completely corrupted, will eventually uncover the truth.

    Convincing the general populace of that truth is a completely separate matter. There will always be those who believe the earth is flat, smoking doesn't cause cancer, or that man never went to the moon.

  2. This is something that both the average person AND the average scientist are incapable of understanding: There is no such thing as "Science." Huh? Vague abstractions do not exist. Only people and things exist. What people call "Science" is always people doing things. People lie. People cheat. People study the wrong things using the "scientific method." People mess up the scientific method. People have prejudices.

    Platitudes about "truth" ignore the fly in the ointment--people.

  3. very keen set of observations Anonymous


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