February 17, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Who Should Be Listening to Scientists?

“Stop Listening to Scientists?” is an unusual title for a letter to Science.1  In a commentary last week prompted by the recent scandals regarding climate change, Kevin Robert Gurney (Purdue) made a shocking exclamation: don’t listen to scientists.  Here’s how he began.

As a climate scientist and a contributing author to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, my heart always warms when I hear policy-makers refer to doing what “the science dictates,” as President Obama did in his remarks toward the end of the U.N.  Climate Change Treaty negotiations in Copenhagen, Denmark.  However, after the first-hand experience of the rapid crash of the Copenhagen meeting, I have changed my thinking: World leaders, please stop listening to us!  I don’t say this because I have lost faith in the verity of scientific results or the projected warming and subsequent global damages.  I say this because international policy-makers are adhering too rigidly and too literally to recommended concentration thresholds and emissions targets, and it is crippling the international policy process.

He followed this with some recommendations: try incremental changes instead of deal-breakers, lower the rhetoric, loosen commitments, prioritize, be satisfied with imperfect agreements, and “Leave aside the near-obsessive need to benchmark everything against the 2°C target.”  The scientific guidelines have become “ossified deal-breakers,” he argued, letting the perfect become the enemy of the good.
    So it’s clear Dr. Gurney was using a little shock talk as an attention-getting rhetorical device when he told us to stop listening to scientists.  But look at some other things scientists have been saying recently.  Maybe his advice was better than he knew.

  1. No free willy:  For his inaugural article to the National Academy of Sciences, Anthony Cashmore, a biologist at University of Pennsylvania, told them they have no free will.2  Apparently, he said this of his own volition, and they used their free will to elect him into the academy.  Or was he one of the elect?  Maybe it was his chemical destiny to tell the Academy they consist of “mechanical forces of nature,” who only employ free will as a “useful fiction” and operate under the “illusion of responsibility.”
        Cashmore further argued that a mistaken belief in free will is behind our criminal justice system.  Criminals are not responsible for their behavior, he said, but should be incarcerated only for pragmatic reasons.  “It is the author’s contention that a belief in free will is nothing other than a continuing belief in vitalism—something biologists proudly believe they discarded well over 100 years ago.”  Dr. Cashmore did not produce any lab results or scientific evidence to back up his belief.  Near the end, he said: “Finally, I would like to make the following point….”  But who was speaking?  Isn’t a mechanical force of nature pointless?  Should his mechanical audience choose to listen, even if they could?
  2. Hunting aliens:  Gary Ruvkun, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, is hunting for aliens.  Space.com reported that he has an alien DNA detector he wants to use on Mars.  Reporter Michael Schirber said, “The idea isn’t too crazy,” where “too” is the operative word.  His search for extraterrestrial genomes (SETG) appears poised to be as successful as the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) has been.  Schirber quoted another scientist thinking the project is a little premature, given that no biomass has been found yet.  Meanwhile, Ruvkun is out calibrating his instrument on the acid runoff from a volcano in Argentina. 
  3. Defining life: come again?:  A Dutch scientist has come up with a new definition for life.  Life, says Gerard Jagers op Akkerhuis of Wageningen University, is a hierarchy of operators.  Space.com tells about his concepts of “hypercyclic neural network” and operators with “first-next possible closure.”  Reporter Clara Moskowitz admitted, “If all this is a little heady, the scientist says he understands the idea is complex and may take some getting used to.”  After all, “Biology is often called the study of life, yet in the history of the field, experts have never agreed on just what, exactly, life is.”  One colleague has already taken issue with Jagers op Akkerhuis’ definition: “This theory and definition will confuse our biological issues even more by their circularity of reasoning,” he said.  “Recognizing something as living depends on criteria derived from known, recent living systems; a bean is a bean because it is bean shaped.”  That started an argument.
  4. Play find the storyteller:  Three scientists in Canada disputed a letter-writer to PNAS3 who complained about their use of “convergent evolution” and neutral drift (instead of natural selection) to explain similar rare traits in some unrelated protozoans.  They responded in PNAS4 with the following retort:

    The conventional route taken by most molecular biologists is to explain complexity by positive selection.  However, we should not dismiss the purely neutral origin of complex systems like editing without evidence.  Indeed, the absence of a working model for the origin of editing through positive selection renders the neutral model even more appealing, because it is liberated from the need to justify such an absurd molecular system with “Just-So” stories.

  5. Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride:  How does an amphibian hop around the world?  By developing “toadness.”  In her Evolution feature for Science Feb. 5,5 Elisabeth Pennisi explained, “‘Toadness’ a Key Feature for Global Spread of These Amphibians”  And what is toadness, one asks?  It’s warty skin, internal fat, ability to survive dryness, and several other traits.  They didn’t all come from the same family tree, she explained; “Instead, this quintessential ‘toad’ form has emerged multiple times on multiple evolutionary branches.”  Convergent evolution came to the rescue again, along with a new word toadness, to explain how these unique amphibians “emerged.”  Presumably, this provides understanding: “Knowing what kind of toads spread in the past should help us understand which ones will survive if accidentally transported into a new environment,” the article explained; i.e., “which taxa are likely to become invasive,” whatever that means (see 10/05/2009).
  6. Tree trouble:  Two recent articles in Science illustrated the problem that evolutionary biologists have discerning phylogenetic trees in a forest of data – and dealing with their own biases.  W. P. Hanage, in “The Trouble with Trees,”6 didn’t quite have the stomach for Jan Sapp’s new book, The New Foundations of Evolution On the Tree of Life.  It was too non-Darwinian for him.  Nevertheless, he acknowledged debates and disputes that remain active today, and at least joined scientists to the human race: “We all carry with us intellectual baggage and preconceptions from not only our own experiences but also those of our friends, colleagues, and mentors.”
        Terry Harrison, in “Apes Among the Tangled Branches of Human Origins,”7 revealed that much of the hype about human evolution is based on poor and contradictory data.  Despite the hubbub over Ardipithecus last year, no clear line of descent is discernible.  The confidence of his first sentence in the concluding paragraph is quickly swallowed up with doubt:

    As paleontological exploration intensifies across Africa, our knowledge of hominoids in this critical time period will steadily grow.  Rather than just a few relictual evolutionary strands surviving to the end of the Miocene and giving rise to modern hominine lineages, as was previously thought, ape diversity in Africa during the late Miocene looks very bushlike.  The relationships between Ardipithecus and earlier hominids will remain enigmatic until the quality of the fossil evidence from the late Miocene of Africa improves, but this will eventually prove critical in resolving its affinities to later hominins.  The important questions then become: Where did Ardipithecus and the other early hominin contenders come from?  Are they truly members of the hominin lineage, or simply apes among the tangled branches that constitute the basal hominine bush?

    It appears that hominine is making its appearance in the confusing mix of paleoanthropological terms.  It’s instructive to compare the above paragraph with what scientists and journalists were saying last October (10/02/2009), when Bruce Alberts (editor of Science) proclaimed that Ardi proved that “Darwin was certainly right,” National Geographic said, “Oldest Skeleton of Human Ancestor Found,” and the BBC News called Ardi “An ancient human-like creature that may be a direct ancestor to our species.”

The stories above, taken from reputable scientific sources, do not support the belief that scientists have an edge on truth or good sense.  Nowhere is the ability of science to provide understanding more questionable than in the field of psychiatry.  The ability of one group to call another group abnormal represents power in any culture.  Who’s calling whom crazy?  Do scientists do any better than politicians in figuring out what is normal and what is perverse?  Be very worried.
    After a decade of work, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) is coming out with the 5th edition of a highly-influential document, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V).  It’s a book Greg Miller and Constance Holden in Science call “the most influential book in psychiatry,”8 because it determines how the mentally ill are diagnosed – and what “mental illness” means in the first place.  Additionally, “it also sways how insurance companies decide which conditions to cover, how pharmaceutical companies design clinical trials, and how funding agencies decide which research to fund.”  That’s power.
    Naturally, some people getting labeled in this “controversial” exercise are not happy.  Example: “Among a number of new proposals that seem likely to cause a stir are a diagnosis of ‘prepsychotic risk syndrome’ applicable to young people and a redefinition of autism spectrum disorders that would eliminate Asperger’s syndrome, which many consider a mild form of autism.”  The authors are also introducing new concepts, such as “dimensions,” to “reflect varying degrees of symptom severity and the overlap among disorders.”
    That word disorder is also coming under fire.  There’s “hypersexuality” disorder “a diagnosis with no clear limits.”  At what point does your sex urge pass the line of normal and become hyper?  Could a person claim he has hypersexuality syndrome, and appeal to Anthony Cashmore’s thesis (above) that he has no free will or responsibility for it?  Here’s one to set off another round of protests: “gender identity disorder.”  Hey, some will say, It’s not a disorder; we’rejust normal people caught in the wrong-sex body.”  Observers will recall that homosexuality used to be termed a disorder till the gay lobby achieved enough political power to make it impolitic to consider it abnormal.  Will the benign term “dimensions” avoid creating new stigmas?  “Dimensions also allow disorders to be deconstructed into components that can be addressed separately, such as the depression that accompanies many disorders,” Miller and Holden explain.  “This approach acknowledges that ‘pure’ disorders are rare, and comorbidity is the norm….”  Some psychiatrists, though, see this as nothing more than word play.  The word comorbidity sounds pretty morbid itself.  And the oft-used word “syndrome” can take on a life of its own.  Try it: think of some mental trait you have, and call it “[your last name] syndrome.”  With enough political clout, you might obtain millions of dollars to research it and find a cure. 
    Some psychiatrists don’t like this book.  “I’ve always been uncomfortable with the idea of producing one large book that changes everything,” one said.  There are concerns that much of the work has been done behind closed doors.  There are worries that some of the authors have financial ties with pharmaceutical companies.  And how reliable is it to try to diagnose complex conditions without recourse to assumptions or causes?  That’s the approach the APA has taken since the 1970s: just list the symptoms; don’t say what causes them.  That leads to classification problems.  If you have four of nine symptoms for depression, are you depressed, or not?  If nothing fits your profile, do you feel better when lumped into the term “not otherwise specified” (NOS)?  The practice of labeling lists of symptoms is fraught with political pressure and scientific dilemmas.  If your adolescent child is diagnosed as having “prepsychotic risk syndrome,” will he or she be given powerful antipsychotic drugs?  Should a person with “hypersexuality disorder” be given a pill or a sermon?  How will the new diagnoses affect criminal justice?  Andrew Cashmore doesn’t think psychiatrists should be allowed in a courtroom.
    While psychiatrists are trying to sanctify the new list of diagnoses with clinical trials and testable procedures, there are real fears of misdiagnoses and “‘false epidemics’ of mental illness caused by more expansive diagnostic criteria” that could result from this book.  The average patient gets only 15 minutes with a psychiatrist to figure out what – if anything – is wrong.

1.  Kevin Robert Gurney, “Stop Listening to Scientists?”, Science, 12 February 2010: Vol. 327. no. 5967, p. 780, DOI: 10.1126/science.327.5967.780-a.
2.  Anthony Cashmore, “The Lucretian swerve: The biological basis of human behavior and the criminal justice system,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, advance online publication, February 8, 2010, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0915161107.
3.  Speijer, D (2010) “Does complexity necessarily arise from selective advantage?” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 107:E25.
4.  Keeling, Leander and Lukes, “Reply to Speijer: Does complexity necessarily arise from selective advantage?”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, advance online publication, February 9, 2010, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0911933107.
5.  Elisabeth Pennisi, “Evolution: ‘Toadness’ a Key Feature for Global Spread of These Amphibians,” Science, 5 February 2010: Vol. 327. no. 5966, p. 633, DOI: 10.1126/science.327.5966.633-a.
6.  W. P. Hanage, “Microbiology: The Trouble with Trees,” Science, 5 February 2010: Vol. 327. no. 5966, pp. 645-646, DOI: 10.1126/science.1185784.
7.  Terry Harrison, “Anthropology: Apes Among the Tangled Branches of Human Origins,” Science, 29 January 2010: Vol. 327. no. 5965, pp. 532-534, DOI: 10.1126/science.1184703.
8.  Greg Miller and Constance Holden, “Psychiatry: Proposed Revisions to Psychiatry’s Canon Unveiled,” Science, 12 February 2010: Vol. 327. no. 5967, pp. 770-771, DOI: 10.1126/science.327.5967.770-a.

Who are scientists?  They are people.  They are human like the rest of us.  Why should we trust their opinions more than those of others, then?  Is it because of their training?  Their methods?  Their political power?  Like the churchmen of medieval times, scientists strut about with presumptive authority and speak with little fear of criticism from outsiders.  But the word “scientist” did not exist till 1832.  Science did not become a career profession till later, and only took on its institutional status in the 20th century.  Science is a bandwagon too small for the people wanting to ride its reputation.
    Like members of any class of human beings, whether musicians, construction workers, politicians, lawyers, realtors, athletes, or whatever, scientists include the good, the bad, and the ugly.  We should no more trust the pronouncements of a scientist a priori because he or she wears the label than we should clap for the generic musician regardless of talent.  A scientist’s pronouncements should be valued based on the evidence – not position.  We would hope that scientists have learned to be epistemically modest and committed to logic, precision (via mathematics), and careful observation, just like any reasonable human being should be.  But as the above stories show, there are some clowns in white lab coats.  Better an honest country parson than a scientist using a PhD as a pretext for saying dumb things.
    Let’s put the shrinks on the couch.  How should we classify these stories?

  1. Logic derangement syndrome: espousing a self-refuting proposition.
  2. Paranoid delusion disorder: imagining non-existent friends or enemies.
  3. Cyclic jargonia: arguing in circles with fancy words.
  4. Fictitious projection: using a just-so story to accuse someone else of telling just-so stories.
  5. Transcendental verbalization: believing that inventing words leads to understanding.
  6. Divination psychosis: persistent visualization of shapes and signs in uncooperative data.

No one doubts that there are severely disturbed people who need help, but it wasn’t that long ago when totalitarian dictators put the sane ones in the asylum.  Righteous, honest people in Stalin’s Russia (the ones who were not outright murdered) were given mind-altering drugs and brainwashing to try to cure them of their psychiatric disorder of believing in God.  It was intuitively obvious to the perpetrators that anyone who did not accept the regime was crazy by definition.  It happened.  It could happen again.  Many Darwinists today treat anyone who disagrees with Charlie as de facto insane.  Some of them write scholarly papers in scientific journals alleging such things.  Then they turn right around and speak of complex life “emerging” from nowhere by chance.  The have delusions of aliens emerging from primordial seas.  They envision universes exploding into existence without a cause.  They shoot at their feet with self-refuting beliefs.  Who is calling whom crazy?
    We must always be on our toes to prevent the cultural normalization of insanity.  Kipling said that part of being a man (a rational creature, by extension), is keeping your head while everyone around you is losing theirs.

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