Day By Day

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Undermining the Authority of Science

Scientists are starting to wake up to the fact that their recklessness in making wild predictions and shaping their research to confirm political and ideological biases is starting to undermine their authority. There is a terrific article by Stuart Blackman in the latest issue of The Scientist reprising many of the observations I have been making for some years here on this blog. A few excerpts:
As physicist Niels Bohr once jokingly put it, “predictions can be very difficult—especially about the future.” Or as Joan Haran says, when scientists make predictions and promises they are entering “a realm of the imaginary.” So even if those predictions are based on science’s conventional territory of facts and data, they have as much to do with wishful thinking and social and political possibilities.

A single unexpected scientific discovery is all it can take to confound the most carefully considered of predictions by throwing open new worlds of possibilities or shutting down others.


The consequences of inflated expectations about what, and when, science can deliver may be felt by individuals, society, and by science itself. Harold Varmus’s expert panel on gene therapy reported that overselling of the science by scientists and their sponsors “threatened confidence in the integrity of the field and may ultimately hinder progress toward successful application of gene therapy to human disease.”


Predictions can also create a sense of haste and urgency that can impede cool, calm reflection on how to proceed at the policy level.


This is not only a waste of financial and legal resources, she says, but it serves to narrow social and scientific possibilities.


Trust in science is not bulletproof. How many expert assurances or warnings must turn out to be conspicuously wrong for the authority of science and scientists to be diminished? “I do very much worry for the soul of science should there be a backlash,” says Sarewitz. “And I can’t see any feedbacks into the system right now that would encourage communities of scientists to be more circumspect in their claims about what the future will look like.”
Check it out here.

The problem, of course, is much larger than Mr. Blackman recognizes. Scientists and journalists are guilty of far more than mere over-promising. Systematic misrepresentation of both the nature and the results of scientific inquiry has public policy consequences that can cripple or destroy lives, institutions, economies and entire societies.