Day By Day

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Crisis of Scientific Authority

It's not just in climate research that science has been corrupted. In the field of evolutionary biology an ideological bias against group selection has distorted scientific investigation for half a century. David Sloan Wilson describes the situation this way:
Even groups of people, left to their own devices, will be prone to biases that depart from reality to serve their collective interests. Science isn't natural. It is a cultural invention that must be carefully maintained to work properly. When science functions as it should, it does indeed result in objective truths upon which everyone can agree. As far as I am concerned, there can be no higher calling than to be a scientist.

What happens when science doesn't work as it should? Such is the case for the controversy over group selection, which began with Darwin, became prominent during the 1960's, and continues to fester at all levels of scientific discourse, from the pages of scientific journals such as
Nature to popular science blogs. Thankfully, scientific conflicts no longer result in torture and death, as they once did and as political conflicts still do. Nevertheless, the word heresy appears disturbingly often in the annals of the group selection debate and proponents of group selection have risked scientific death in the form of rejected articles and grant proposals, lost job opportunities, and all-around social exclusion. Most of all, the group selection controversy is still plagued by historical revisionism. There is not even a basic consensus on what happened, least of all in textbooks, and many accounts read embarrassingly like patriotic histories, complete with black-and-white villains and heroes.
Sound familiar? All that is missing is Al Gore.

The trouble with the idea that natural selection operates on groups [rather than individuals, species, or genes] has in the past been used to justify all sorts of noxious practices such as racism, imperialism, eugenics, abortion, even genocide and therefore there has been a strong bias against asserting it as a legitimate interpretation of Darwinian principles. Feelings run strong, just as they do in climate research, and the outcome seems to be the same -- scientists lose their objectivity and scientific authority is undermined.

For a fascinating discussion of the problem see the following bloggingheads dialogue between Wilson and Razhib Kahn.

And there is a similar process of corruption taking place in medical research. I have blogged about it here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. And for a more general comment see here.

The essential element of Progressive ideology is the belief that there exist "communities of competence" organized in such a matter as to ensure that members are qualified [a credentialing process] and scrutinized [peer review] and regularly informed [through national organizations and professional publications] so as to guarantee the quality of their product -- objective expertise. But it is increasingly apparent that for some time the institutional safeguards that are supposed to guarantee objectivity have failed to work effectively.