Day By Day

Monday, July 11, 2005

The Corruption of Science -- some thoughts

Another reason to be wary of all those "studies" that are trumpeted almost daily in the media.

AP reports:

Allegations of misconduct by U.S. researchers reached record highs last year as the Department of Health and Human Services received 274 complaints - 50 percent higher than 2003 and the most since 1989 when the federal government established a program to deal with scientific misconduct.

Chris Pascal, director of the federal Office of Research Integrity, said its 28 staffers and $7 million annual budget haven't kept pace with the allegations. The result: Only 23 cases were closed last year. Of those, eight individuals were found guilty of research misconduct. In the past 15 years, the office has confirmed about 185 cases of scientific misconduct.

Research suggests this is but a small fraction of all the incidents of fabrication, falsification and plagiarism. In a survey published June 9 in the journal Nature, about 1.5 percent of 3,247 researchers who responded admitted to falsification or plagiarism. (One in three admitted to some type of professional misbehavior.)

Read it here.

We are besieged constantly by those who tell us to put our faith in "science" but it becomes ever more difficult to trust what "scientists" say. The problem is particularly acute in the social and medical sciences, but no field of investigation is immune to creeping, and sometimes rampant, corruption.

Science is a human activity, pursued by human beings, subject to human failings. That it includes self-correcting mechanisms becomes less and less important in an age of media saturation where new "truths" are being proclaimed almost daily. And, the fact that those "truths" are tentative and subject to constant revision in the light of new knowledge makes them a problematic base upon which to construct state policy. Those politicians who urge us to defer to scientific, rather than popular, opinion or moral and economic considerations are building their temples on shifting sands.

The myth of scientific objectivity must be exploded. Scientists justify their position based on the presumption that they embody objectivity and disinterested judgment -- that they represent, in the words of Louis Menand, a "community of competence." However it has become increasingly clear that science, as practiced these days, is far from objective and that scientific authorities are anything but disinterested, and, given widespread corruption, their claims to competence are ever more suspect.

Given these conditions it is not surprising that more and more people are willing to challenge or ignore the dictates of scientific authority. If, as Carl Sagan has argued, we live in a "demon haunted world," we should note that scientists themselves have contributed much to its creation.


Most criticism of modern science has focused on the horrors perpetrated in its name by statist regimes in the past century. Those are certainly horrendous and should give us pause. What I am pointing out here is that the problems are far more general and that critiques apply with equal force, if perhaps less horrifically, to liberal regimes.

This is not to say that we should ignore scientific opinion -- far from it -- but to suggest that it must be balanced by other sources of authority, the most important being the opinion of the public itself.

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