Should Big Science Blame the Public for Mistrust?
Look at what Big Science is doing. Then ask if
the public is right to be wary of their claims.
Science, if by the word we mean the objective pursuit of truth about nature, is valued almost universally—and should be.
Big Science (institutionalized science), though, is something else entirely.
Big Science refers to the powerful academic deans, journal editors and lobbyists who presume to “speak for science” to the public. While pretending to value “science” according to its pure meaning, they repudiate it by censoring whoever expresses skepticism about the “scientific consensus” on any given issue.
Scientific consensus is a myth propagated by Big Science. We often quote the late novelist Michael Crichton who told Caltech students in January 2003, “There is no such thing as consensus science. If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period.” True science welcomes debate and discussion among anyone who seeks objective truth about nature and has evidence to support it.
Big Science as Prostitution
Big Science is not a term we made up. Biologist J. Scott Turner wrote a scathing rebuke of Big Science this week, adding the word “Cartel” to the end of it (see Evolution News, 18 Aug 2022). In his article “How to Go After the Big Science Cartel and Actually Win” at RealClearScience.com on August 17, Turner exposed the outrageous spending on “indirect costs” that universities charge as part of government funding. He advised US Senators to focus their cleanup on “the powerful interests in universities, foundations, academic publishers, and governments, known as the Big Science Cartel (BSC).” Those “indirect costs” attached to funding bills often amount to 50% of the funds, and are used for “institutional flim-flammery and administrative mischief,” Turner alleges.
My advice: impose a 10% cap on indirect costs rates for all federally funded research. That would cut off the oxygen to the parasitic elements of the Big Science Cartel, and force universities to cut their massive administrative bloat. The savings might even allow more money to flow to actual scientific research. While you’re at it, encourage state legislatures to impose the same limits on universities operating in their states.
And ignore the predicable shrieks about the end of science. What you will be ending is the weaponized politics that is now masquerading as science. Then, there might be a chance of actually making a difference.
On June 19, 2020, Turner had written a penetrating critique of Big Science for the Heritage Foundation that is worth reading. In Science and the Decline of the American Academy, he traces the rise of the Big Science Cartel since World War II, and the corrupting influence of government funding. The graphs of funding allocations in his article are shocking.
When I began my research career, scientists still enjoyed a modicum of freedom of thought and autonomy. No more: Seventy years of massive federal support have taken two of the glories of our civilization—science and the academy—and made them shallow, doctrinaire, and corrupt. Our society is paying a dear price for this, and will continue paying it for many years.
Big Science today is as far removed from real science as a corrupt union boss is from a real plumber who does honest work. Are the purveyors of institutional flimflam entitled to public trust? They shriek about public mistrust of science, but there might be good reasons for it. Keep Turner’s criticism in mind as you read.
Undeserved Chutzpah in Big Science
Overconfidence bolsters anti-scientific views, new PSU study finds (Portland State University, 19 July 2022). This article perpetuates the myth of consensus, and whines about the peons who don’t go along with what scientists proclaim on matters like “climate change, nuclear power, genetically modified foods, the big bang, evolution, vaccination, homeopathic medicine and COVID-19″ (see the Association Fallacy in the Baloney Detector). Nick Light, a professor of marketing (!), thinks that the problem of overconfidence exists in the public, not in academia.
“Human opposition to scientific consensus is an extremely important topic. For many years, smart people thought that the way to bring people more in line with scientific consensus was to teach them the knowledge they lacked,” said Nick Light, a PSU assistant professor of marketing. “Unfortunately, educational interventions haven’t worked very well.”
For the life of him, Light cannot see the light that maybe the problem is with Big Science. Like many others in the BSC (which we can also call the Big Science Consensus), Light thinks that knowledge should only flow one way: from scientific elites to peons.
While blindly following the consensus isn’t generally recommended, if anti-consensus attitudes create dangerous situations for the community, “it is incumbent on society to try to change minds in favor of the scientific consensus.”
The message: ‘Believe what you are told about Darwinism! Believe the consensus on climate change! Submit! Obey!’ That is his attitude. Maybe he should re-read Michael Crichton’s speech. And maybe instead of lecturing peons from his exalted B.S. platform, he should humble himself and listen more. Maybe he should ask why the BSC feels it necessary to condemn and censor all opposition to Darwinism.
Knowledge overconfidence is associated with anti-consensus views on controversial scientific issues (Science Advances, 20 July 2022). This is Nick Light’s paper, which the BSC proudly published. And yet professor Light uses the Dunning-Kruger effect for support, not knowing that it has been debunked (25 Sept 2021). And he thinks it is anti-science to doubt “the validity of evolution as an explanation of human origins” that Big Science forces into the ears of impressionable students from kindergarten to PhD without allowing any critical thinking.
So who is being overconfident? Who is anti-science on some matters? Look at Prof. Light’s cheap throwaway paragraph about philosophy of science:
Conforming to the consensus is not always recommended. Plato and Galileo both refused to conform, and this helped them to drive society to higher levels of philosophical and scientific understanding, respectively. However, if opposition to the consensus is driven by an illusion of understanding and if that opposition leads to actions that are dangerous to those who do not share in the illusion, then it is incumbent on society to try to change minds in favor of the scientific consensus.
Is that it? A lot has happened in philosophy of science since Plato and Galileo (and the Galileo Affair is often distorted by Big Science). Is Light really that oblivious to issues of groupthink in Big Science? What does he say about the BSC’s “indirect cost” scandal? Is he aware of the dangers and harm caused by consensus in the past? Yes, people should critically examine claims made by non-scientists selling snake oil recipes, but some of those come from Big Science itself. Let him come up to speed on the philosophy and history of science before lecturing the public about “knowledge overconfidence.” And if he thinks that his brain is the product of an evolutionary Stuff Happens Law, that is hardly likely to inspire public trust.
Experts Don’t Always Give Better Advice—They Just Give More (Association for Psychological Science, 15 July 2022). These psychologists found that top performers don’t always give the best advice; they just dish out more of it. Does that apply to “experts” in Big Science?
Deserved Shame in Big Science
Rethinking the retraction process (Science Magazine, 18 Aug 2022). The smug editor of Science, H. Holden Thorp, Mr. Big Science himself (19 July 2020), has some egg on his face. “High-profile examples of scientific fraud continue to plague research,” he begins, and admits that his own journal has published fraudulent papers. The retraction process, though, is beset with failures of detection, conflicts of interest, fears of litigation, and potential harm to scientists and their institutions.
Maybe Thorp should use evolution to solve this crisis. He believes in it, doesn’t he? He thinks it created his mind. So why not wait a few million years for a mutation to cause integrity to emerge and get naturally selected. Thorp would never want to preach the Ten Commandments (“Thou shalt not bear false witness”), would he? Why, that would be unscientific.
The myth of meritocracy in scientific institutions (Science Magazine, 18 Aug 2022). This is a book review of a work by two leftists in academia who think that STEM programs (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) are biased against underprivileged and marginalized groups. But look at the subtitle of the review: “Inaccurate ideas about objectivity and merit perpetuate biases and inequality in academia.” Is that limited to biases about today’s cultural fads?
The Human Element in Science
Fake research can be harmful to your health – a new study offers a tool for rooting it out (The Conversation, 18 Aug 2022). What? Fake research? Flimsy data? Can it be? But wait; how can we be so sure that this lady, Lisa Bero (U of Colorado), is free of bias herself? She’s a Big Science insider. She and her colleagues think that “systematic reviews” can root out bias in fake research:
Our study provides some important ideas about how to spot medical research that is deeply flawed or fake and should not be trusted.
Perhaps. Solomon taught that a plurality of advisors helps plans succeed (Proverbs 15:22). But any systematic review is performed necessarily by humans. Its reliability is limited by the integrity of the humans who designed the process and operate it. If bias intervenes, a systematic review might reject good research.
One researcher’s artifact is another’s result (Washington University in St. Louis, 8 Aug 2022). This is an interesting little piece involving the philosophy of science, showing that human judgment enters into the so-called scientific method. Who decides when an “artifact” in the data is irrelevant? What is meant by artifact?
“Experiments are where the rubber of science hits the road of the world,” Craver said. “Is there a principled way to say, this is good data and that is bad data? If there is no basis for that judgment, then at the place where the rubber is supposed to be hitting the road, there’s a tremendous amount of slippage. This is a crucial question in understanding the epistemology of science: how can science purport to tell us something about the world?”
Transparency practices at the FDA: A barrier to global health (Policy Forum, Science Magazine, 4 Aug 2022). It’s a very depressing thing when organizations that were created to do good end up doing the exact opposite. This is a sad tale about how lack of transparency at the FDA and the World Health Organization (WHO) led to big blunders in handling the COVID-19 pandemic. The very institutions created to promote global health actually set up barriers to global health! Some of it was due to ineptness, some to procedural straitjackets, and some to conflicts of interest in “the modern global pharmaceutical ecosystem.” People died.
Open science is facing headwinds (Phys.org, 15 Aug 2022). Openness and transparency are supposed to be understood as fundamental values of science. The Europeans, with some American support, paid attention to a Declaration for Open Science and Research (Finland), 2020-2025. So why is open science facing headwinds, as Risto Löf of the University of Eastern Finland alleges? There are many reasons: loss of income by journal publishers, desire for fame by discoverers, and inertia among them.
“Open science must be a natural part of university research and education right from the beginning of studies. It must be internalized as a principle of operation, and not as something superficial that is remembered if and when convenient,” Ari Muhonen says.
There’s that “must be” phrase twice. That’s a morality term. But achieving open science is easier said than done. “Who owns open data?” the article asks. Because science is always mediated by fallible human beings beset with selfish interests, open science remains a “vision” only partially seeing progress as it sails against the headwinds.
Update 9/01/2022: Wesley Smith writes about this subject at Evolution News, “How Political Ideology Has Undermined Scientific Credibility, 1 Sept 2022.
Here’s some advice in closing. Trust good data. Evaluate solid evidence. Listen to claims with an open mind and critical thinking. Be willing to correct your own misconceptions and biases, if the evidence and logic demand it. “Test all things; hold fast that which is good” (I Thessalonians 5:21).
Because we were created in the image of God, he gave us humans the ability to explore, think, and understand, even if it is through a dark glass in this life and subject to bad judgment due to sin. Science has brought us many blessings and conveniences; it should not be dismissed lightly.
But if anybody wants you to accept the consensus just because Big Science says so, it’s OK to give the appropriate ASL sign. Then say, “Show me your evidence, and no Baloney.”
Recommended Resource: the “Science Uprising” series of short videos from the Discovery Institute.