The state execution of science

I finally got round to reading Scientocracy, (eds. Patrick J. Michaels and Terence Kealey). It’s only nine months old and already outdated by COVID-19 – or rather, thoroughly vindicated by the rapid descent into censorship of all but official government policy on what “the science” says, despite the clear and demonstrable failure of the predictive models most governments are still following.

The book is about the baleful effects of the increasing government funding of science over the last fifty years or so, which has produced perverse incentives throughout the scientific community, suppressed innovation, and, most importantly, allowed low-quality science to dominate public life for decades, at great human and economic cost. It was written by a number of highly qualified authors in various fields.

I feel vindicated by the book because I’ve been concerned about the large number of fields in which I’ve been made aware of the difference between the myth of science as a sure path to truth, and the reality that, like all human activity, it is highly prone to corruption, self interest, and state control. I first realised this nine years ago from reading about how the first generation of Neo-darwinists gamed the system to make their position the only acceptable one and marginalise their opponents. By achieving that monolithic consensus they actually held back science to the present day, as well as making it a quasi-religious self-contained belief system like Marxism, Psychoanalysis or Critical Race Theory.

Since then, it seems that whatever field of science I look at has its fair share of “consensus forcing” and suppression of heretical dissent. This has been to some extent the case at least since Huxley and the nineteenth century secularisation of science. Scientocracy shows how such problems have become magnified out of all proportions now science has become the province of universities and other institutions (such as as regulatory bodies and research bodies) that are dependent on state funding.

It corrupts science by politicizing it, corrupts politics by encouraging totalitarianism under the banner of science’s “infallibility,” and corrupts society by creating a whole series of essentially religious myths serving the ends of political (and consequently also corporate) control. Examples of the last are the succession of apocalyptic predictions from overpopulation to global warming and mass extinctions, and most recently the imposition of disastrous lockdowns with the excuse of a factually rather mundane new virus, thus fostering mass paranoia in the service of some as yet poorly defined “reboot” of society. As far as can be seen so far, the reboot seems to have a lot in common with jackboots.

One interesting chapter in the book is by a working scientist who wondered, early in his career, about the original basis for the now universal “linear response,” no threshold, assumption in radiation and toxicology, ie that if a big dose of X-rays or particulates kills 50% of subjects, 1/50 of that dose will kill 1%. This assumption has led to what is known as the “precautionary principle” which is used to estimate deaths in cities from diesels (and so get them demonised), or theoretical deaths from a Chernobyl or Mile Island accident (causing the actual deaths of elderly and sick people as you move them away unnecessarily) etc.

The linear response has become a basic axiom of all public science, whereas previously it was assumed from general experience that all dangers had a safe threshold: because a 200mph tornado kills a hundred people it does not follow that a 2mph wind will kill one, and the whole of pharmacology works on the basis of using low doses of poisons to cure disease.

To his surprise, he discovered that the fundamental science to justify the linear response wasn’t there at all. Nobody had ever checked its validity, in the whole scientific literature. As he researched this fact, it emerged that it all arose from the influence of Hermann Muller, the geneticist who got the Nobel Prize for discovering the mutagenic nature of high radiation in fruit flies.

He believed, on inadequate grounds, in the no-threshold principle. His own team’s experiments suggested he was wrong, but he ignored the results either from zeal for his own theory or from professional defensiveness. Because of his powerful position, his team and their circle, such as the editor of Nature, followed suit, though their own correspondence reveals that many of them knew they were peddling bad science. They justified their suppression of contrary results, as some scientists do today, by saying that exaggerating or suppressing evidence was acceptable and necessary for the greater cause, whatever that was.

Note the circularity of this in, say, COVID-19. The government and its scientists feel they need to instill fear in the public to gain their compliance with measures to beat a deadly virus. Scientific evidence suggesting it is not, after all, that deadly would reduce that fear. Therefore all such evidence must be suppressed by fair means or foul (non-publication in journals, expulsion from learned societies, censorship by social media and the press, character assassination, and even greater exaggeration of the contrary position). These tools are political, not scientific – and when the politics involved is the power of the state and a compliant press and corporate sector over science itself, the classical scientific method is effectively dead.

It is likely that Muller’s belief in the mutagenic power of low radiation doses was necessary to maintain his theory that radiation was the driving cause of the mutations behind evolution. He needed low natural doses of radiation to be able to power the evolutionary process, or his work on fruit-flies would only be “of some interest” rather than Nobel Prize stuff that helped explain all life on earth. Nowadays he might have said that admitting the possibility of a threshold would be exploited by anti-evolutionists: but if the theory is more important than the evidence, it is actually a cult.

A more positive motive, though, might be the post-Hiroshima hatred of nuclear weapons and their risk to humanity. Accepting a safe level of radiation might encourage the warmongers to treat nuclear conflict lightly.

Both of those motives, however, must be seen as ideological commitments (to evolutionary explanations and to world peace), and they were combined with the normal human wish to defend his own theories, and more venal self-interest in maintaining his kudos and his generous funding. The quality of the science, though, was not the determinant at all, as the extensive professional opposition to his position at the time shows, documented in the book.

As is far too common when a field is dominated by a few, Muller’s influence was employed to suppress the publication of counter-evidence, and even to discredit the motives of rivals (it happens routinely with climate science, heterodox views on evolution, polar bear science, barrier reef science – anywhere, in fact, where there is public interest and a powerful scientific hegemony and/or political capital invested).

When it came to seeking advice on the risks of nuclear testing and leakage, not only was Muller an obvious and logical choice, but the politicians (with their own non-scientific agendas) packed the committees with supporters of his theory. So the result in favour of the linear theory was a foregone conclusion.

Once US government policy, thus backed by Nobel Prize science, became fixed, the rest of the world necessarily followed suit, as one by one did even those scientific societies and universities originally opposed to the theory. Their very existence increasingly depended on government funding, which would not be forthcoming for institutions or researchers challenging the new paradigm. Nobody is keen on pursuing unemployment and professional character assassination by bucking the trend, and whatever they tell you, most scientists are not exceptional in this regard. “It is more blessed to be average than right.” Before long, then, linearity became a fixed dogma, beyond questioning and taught in every school as fact.

That is how the famed “scientific consensus” actually works. I suspect that is so in every case, judging from the range of scientific disciplines in which I’ve encountered it, from string theory (where multi-government money pays for Hadron Colliders) to government dietary guidelines (another couple of chapters in Scientocracy). Real science doesn’t do consensus, but truly independent scientists have become a rarity – you need a PhD, tenure, grant money, peer review, and publication in prestigious journals, all of which depend on toeing the line. And if you don’t, and you end up arguing your mistreatment in court, you will be bankrupted long before the universities or the government (witness the case of Peter Ridd in Australia currently).

In Muller’s case, apart from the unarguably beneficial effect that it led to the nuclear test ban treaty, the linear theory also made nuclear energy irrationally anathema to environmentalists and, eventually, to the public and to governments conditioned by decades of doomsday stories. It cost health services billions in over-precautions in radiology, instilled unwarranted fear over natural radon in Cornish houses, and so on, down to banning luminous paint on alarm clocks. (I remember a radiation scare at school, when an inspector’s geiger-counter went off the scale because of the lavish luminous paint on an old cadet-force telephone exchange unit: I challenge you to find even one serving soldier, let alone cadet, who ever got cancer or radiation poisoning from field telephones in the Royal Signals.)

The same linearity principle soon spread to the whole assessment of new substances and processes (via the recognition that chemicals, too, can cause mutations in high dosage). It is even nowadays simply assumed that substances that can cause cancer in huge doses in rats should be banned altogether, although where research has been done rather than modelling (remarkably seldom for such an important subject) the commonest “dose-response” curve is not linear at all, nor even linear after some threshold, but U-shaped. Low doses of almost anything tend to do us good (even radiation, by stimulating the immune system), and only in doses seldom encountered do most agents begin to cause harm.

Fifty years of scientific, political and public inertia need to be overcome before that belated basic science begins to budge the effects of the rather ignoble motivations of Muller and the politicians, though the false conclusions they reached continue to have major influences on everything from medical treatments to mining. You have to change the culture not just of scientists, but of non-scientific administrators on public bodies, activists, the press, and the people who have been fed the falsehoods as “settled science” from school textbooks onwards. And you can’t do that without some powerful people having to admit they’ve been wrong all these years, when it’s easier just to carry on as before. Especially if you run the show.

It even seems likely that the “precautionary principle” underlies the irrational prevalent belief that there is no acceptable level for COVID-19 – only total eradication can prevent its being a looming danger to us all, whatever it costs to other lives and the economy.

I was interested, after I started this post, to hear an interview with a UK pathologist who blames the precautionary principle, by name, for the disaster of lockdown in just this way.

And so Hermann Muller’s poor science (as much culpable manipulation as excusable human error) is indirectly behind the current economic and societal crisis we are experiencing. But then so is society’s religious belief in science as “pure knowledge,” rather than as a human activity requiring eternal vigilance to prevent such evils, like all other human activities. Until that religious belief in Science™ is shaken, we are doomed to many more instances of politics ruining science.

Unfortunately, as the authors of Scientocracy warn, disillusion with this situation is likely to cause the rejection of science itself, which would be tragic for us all. A number of dissidents to the official COVID line, and other “party-line science” have also warned of this likelihood. Party-line scientists themselves, especially in America, bemoan the public distrust of science without understanding that they themselves are its cause.

What is needed is the abandonment of that whole conceptual framework of being “pro” or “anti” science. It is as harmful as being “pro” or “anti” religion. I believe that biblical Christianity is true, and that Islam, paganism and Melanesian frog-worship are false. Even if you yourself are not a Christian, you ought to agree that “religion” is not one monolithic thing, but a braod category containing a mixture of true and false things which, like the true and false things in politics, need to be discerned by each individual.

Unfortunately, we cannot absolutely guarantee that our religious beliefs are true, though many religious beliefs can be falsified. Historically, the worst option has been religion in the hands of the political powers. In that case there is an enforced consensus which we can conveniently accept at low social cost, but it will invariably be a false religion. The wise man will refuse the consensus when he finds it false, even though it may cost him dear, and even though he recognises that he himself may be wrong.

We need to take the same questioning attitude to all science. Though we have largely forgotten it, that is actually the basis of the scientific method. “Nullius in verba” exposes “scientific consensus” as scientific heresy. Many scientists, as well as many lay people, treat “consensus science” as if it were gospel truth. But not all religion is gospel truth.

And that’s just one chapter of this excellent book!

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
This entry was posted in History, Philosophy, Politics and sociology, Science. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The state execution of science

  1. Peter Hickman says:

    Whilst accepting the general tenor of your excellent post, I will not surprise you by challenging just one statement:
    “Low doses of almost anything tend to do us good (even radiation, by stimulating the immune system), and only in doses seldom encountered do most agents begin to cause harm.”
    Did you really mean that? As GPs we both encountered many harmful adverse drug reactions (ADRs).
    “The burden of ADRs on the NHS is high, accounting for considerable morbidity, mortality, and extra costs. Although many of the implicated drugs have proven benefit, measures need to be put into place to reduce the burden of ADRs and thereby further improve the benefit:harm ratio of the drugs.”

    When I was a medical student I heard Ivan Illich speak at St. Mary’s Hospital, London.
    Subsequently I read his book “Medical Nemesis”.
    He/it was an early introduction for me to the need not to accept consensus as gospel, and to always ask questions. I have continued thus.
    A few books that I have subsequently read and found similarly challenging:
    “Bad Science” by Ben Goldacre
    “Doctoring Data” by Dr Malcolm Kendrick
    “The Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine” by James Le Fanu.

    Thanks for the post and for the book recommendation.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Peter, I was stating a general principle, of course (hence “tendency”): given a hypersensitive immune system, one aspirin can kill you. But that’s not the same as overdosing on the stuff, which will reliably kill everybody, and it’s the “dose-response” curve that was the issue with ionisation in Muller’s time and particulates now.

      I heard a toxicologist doing a reductio ad absurdum on diesel particulates by working out from the data just how much of them an entire lifetime lived in a heavily polluted city would put in you. It was (if I remember) something less than the toxic dose of the most poisonous substances known to man.

      There’s a good video out there from a radiation expert speaking to doctors, too, on the data versus the mythology of nuclear exposure. Even now, to a cold war baby like me raised on doomsday scenarios, it’s hard to realise that if Cuban missiles had led to a nuclear war, by now life would probably have returned to normal, at least as far as radiation, if not politics, was concerned (though not for my friend the ex-Vulcan pilot, who says he was fully prepared for nuking Moscow and not returning, if necessary).

      I have Bad Science, and Le Fanu’s book is still on my Amazon wish list. I think it’s easy to endorse the “consensus” view of science if you’re not in science, or are a scientist working safely and uncritically within a paradigm. But it’s hard to see how they miss the inevitable pitfalls – for a society when science becomes fixed dogma, and for them if they ever find themselves on the wrong side of the kind of Stalin/Lysenko situation that stifling independent thought makes inevitable.

  2. Robert Byers says:

    In science,in politics, in all life, its about who imposes thier will on whom. In science its about conclusiuons. So indeed forceful people use power to impose conclusions. the early evolutionists oving through a elite upper class did this with evolution before any accepted it or cared from the history i read. the answer is always freedom and our forms of government to protect our freedoms and thus obedience to differences in conclusions. then someone gets thier way by democratic means or other contracts about who gets thier way.
    In many of your threads its all about freedom and stopping freedom. so the fight is not for freedom but to enforce the freedom we, in the anglo-American world uniquely, already possess. We have the weapons and tools. just once again another dan fight like our ancestors.

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