A science reporter lists several reasons why scientists are about as trustworthy as bankers.
The Science and Technology Editor at The Conversation, Akshat Rathi, should know about scientists. Not only does he hold that prestigious editorial position, he has a PhD in organic chemistry from Oxford University as well as a Bachelor of Technology in chemical engineering from the Institute of Chemical Technology in Mumbai. Rathi doesn’t trust the opinions of scientists to be right any more than he trusts other fallible professionals, judging from his latest column on The Conversation, entitled, “Scientists falter as much as bankers in pursuit of answers.” He also has help from a Nature article that found serious flaws in that paean of scientific reliability, peer review:
Here we show that even when scientists are motivated to promote the truth, their behaviour may be influenced, and even dominated, by information gleaned from their peers’ behaviour, rather than by their personal dispositions. This phenomenon, known as herding, subjects the scientific community to an inherent risk of converging on an incorrect answer and raises the possibility that, under certain conditions, science may not be self-correcting.
Here are some of Rathi’s reasons for keeping scientists off their pedestals:
- One of the reasons is that, once a hypothesis becomes widely accepted, it becomes very difficult to refute it, which makes it, as Jeremy Freese of Northwestern University recently put it, “vampirical more than empirical – unable to be killed by mere evidence.”
- … as humans, scientists try to be rational but remain stuck on certain views in the face of contrary evidence.
- … some scientists make up data to further their careers.
- … the “publish or perish” culture forces scientists to consciously or unconsciously gravitate towards results that support their conclusions.
- … the peer review system does not always live up to its high aims.
- Subjectivity wins.
- Scientists are subject to a “herd mentality.”
Rathi ends by quipping that the Nature article itself might be an example of herding.
His list is interesting but incomplete. He might have added the observation by C. S. Lewis that there is not one thing represented by “science” but “only particular sciences, all in a stage of rapid change, and sometimes inconsistent with one another.” We should not be looking for “scientific” truth, he said, but rather logical truth. Write in and tell us other reasons for being wary of scientific claims. Let’s use the sacred cows of science for hamburger rather than for worship.