Attacks on Science

Science – the use of evidence to build an understanding of the ways in which the worlds and the people, animals and other species live and work within these worlds – is critical for mankind. It saves lives, it helps us coexist with other species, it helps us sustain our environment and biodiversity, it helps us understand and navigate space, oceans and land, and it enables discovery.

Science is not about establishing truth, though occasionally it stumbles on some (gravity, for example). Science is about providing a current understanding (which can have a very high degree of probability) of something based on evidence. For example, we used to understand that disease was caused by “rotting organic matter which produced miasma that affected the blood” until science was able to demonstrate that germs caused disease, something we are beginning to now see is only part of the “truth”. We used to believe that the earth was the centre of the universe until we came to understand that the earth, as a planet, revolves around the sun and that our solar system is just one of thousands of such systems. Science uses evidence to build theories and understanding which are tested and challenged all the time. This is how science progresses.

Those who disagree with current scientific theories, such as the current models from neuroscience about the plasticity of the brain or theories from physics about sub-atomic particles, are representatives of the true nature of science. They are not “denialists” or “dissenters” – they are scientists with a different view.

Take the link between extreme weather events and climate change as an example. Some scientists are clear that there is a link between climate change and extreme weather events, yet the dominant view of science is that the link has not yet been established. Different groups use either the same evidence or some of the same evidence and additional evidence to come to different conclusions. This is to be welcomed rather than attacked. Those who attack climate change sceptics and want them imprisoned or debarred from practice are the enemies of science – true denialists. Science is a broad church in which many apostles flourish.

But there are clear attacks on science. These occur when access evidence on which certain scientific conclusions are reached which have major implications for public policy, health or education and which have been publicly funded are not made available to third parties for independent examination by the scientist who collected them. This is a “denial of evidence” attack on science. – without peer review of actual data, a theory cannot be independently verified.

A similar attack occurs when a Government  – in this case the Government of Canada – decides to close access to a library, which contains a vast array of original data sets on which many scientists depend. Or when a government – in this case the Government of Canada – decides to no longer collect the long-form census data, thus denying social scientists and others access to data on which their scientific work depends. Or when evidence relating to the efficacy of a drug or treatment is withheld because it either showed no significant difference between the drug and a placebo, or had negative results (see here for Ben Goldacre’s critique of this practice).

A second kind of attack on science occurs when scientific findings have to be altered to meet political or commercial expectations. The International Panel on Climate Change Summary for Policy Makers makes subtle changes to a document initially prepared by scientists such that it no longer correctly reflects the nuances of the science it purports to describe. The Bush administration was also known to “adjust” findings to suit their agenda.

A third kind of attack occurs when scientific funding only goes to those pursuing a particular theory and is denied to those pursuing alternative explanations for an area under study.  This occurs in  many fields, most notably in physics and in climate science.

A fourth kind of attack occurs when scientists whose views differ from the mainstream are vilified and attacked not just by their peers (a form of science cannibalism) but by politicians and the media (goading) just for being different. While some sceptical views are clearly deviant – for example the idea that standard childhood vaccines “cause” autism or that homeopathy is an effective treatment for cancer – and are not supported by the available evidence, as several meta reviews of the available evidence demonstrate, a scientist conducting honest studies who makes their data freely available to others has a right to explore such a view.

A final kind of attack on science is when science is corrupted by financial gain. China in 2014 will outspend the US in its investments in scientific research – spending $465 billion. What is interesting is that there are some 50 cases of corruption now being prosecuted in the Chinese courts – cases against scientists. Indeed, as Guilford observes, given the amount spent, it is surprising that so little outcomes have resulted. But, the financing of science can corrupt in ways other than just plain theft – it can also impact what it is that scientists find, as has been the case in some studies of drugs and their efficacy.

So, should we be concerned about the state of science? Yes. Are there obvious ways we can act to improve the state of science? Yes – we need to do much more to educate scientists on the nature of science as a practice and the nature of their professional responsibilities as scientists. While scientists are well trained in method, they are not well trained in ethics or the philosophy of science. This is a serious gap. Much more needs to be done to ensure that our scientists understand their social, ethical and legal responsibilities.

By Stephen Murgatroyd -