Scientists Behaving Badly

Lab coats


The discussions following my two last posts about climate change opinion shifts and about an anti-science coalition have made it clear that one of the reasons people distrust science is that “Science” fails to speak with one voice.  There are definitely forces from the outside of Science that erode trust, but there are also internal issues.

The problem is that Science will not ever “speak with one voice.”  Scientists often have different opinions about a given topic.  Often that simply represents a healthy part of the scientific process.  When I hear someone say, “scientists don’t even agree about this!” I want to say, “you don’t know many scientists, do you!”  We are trained to questions assumptions and scrutinize analytical methods.  We are taught how to spot artifacts and how to come up with alternate hypotheses.  Some scientists get a little aggressive about this (there is usually at least one curmudgeon in every department).

There are definitely some topics that are so complex that it is impossible to be 100% sure about conclusions.  There are questions that are not amenable to running a controlled experiment.  These are all factors that make a topic like climate change so controversial.  These are legitimate reasons for the lack of a single “answer from science.”

All the above said, there are plenty of examples of scientific disagreements that arise from what can only, honestly be called bad science. Doing science well is non-trivial.  It requires a good deal of mental rigor and comprehensive information acquisition.  If we scientists are honest we all have to admit that we can fall short of the ideal “scientific method” at times.  Trust in “Science” ultimately means trusting “Scientists” and thats sometimes where the trouble starts.  There are 5 main ways that I can think of that scientsts can “behave badly.”  Maybe you can add some more.

Drive-by Science

Many fields of science are moving so fast today that it is even difficult to keep up with your own area, let alone others.  That is why it bothers me to see scientists share “scientific” opinions about topics they might not really understand.  Its not that a smart scientist can’t do the scholarship to understand another field – they can and do, but not all of them.   Evolution is a frequent problem here.  Someone will post a list of scientists that say they don’t buy into Darwinian Evolution and it will be populated with a bunch of non-biologists.  The critical sphere for the current evolution discussion is deep into molecular genetics.  To keep up with the pace of knowledge in that area is a daunting task.  To flip that illustration upside down, I was at a plant molecular genetics conference a year ago struggling to understand the cutting-edge presentations.  I was there to talk about the issue of climate change and how these scientists could contribute to both greenhouse gas reductions in ag and to helping crops adjust to coming climate changes.  At the end I was asked to be on a panel asked to make summary statements about the conference.  I was totally impressed with what these scientists were doing, but I felt the need to chide them on a “drive-by.”  Several speakers made comments that were negative about the chemicals used in agriculture which would be fine if they knew what they were talking about.  But it was obvious that they were just sharing the outdated image of crop protection chemicals that is held by the population as a whole.  There are actually very few scientists in other fields that are up-to-speed about pesticide safety, but there are a great many who feel free to make a “drive-by” comment on the issue.

Agenda Science

I read a paper this week where researchers planted virus resistant squash and regular squash.  They observed that the beetles in the field favored feeding on the much healthier plants (smart beetles!).  The beetles spread a bacterial disease and so there was more of that disease on the virus resistant plants.  Their conclusion was that the GM crop had enhanced susceptibility to the bacteria.  You can be sure that this assertion will find its way into the anti-GMO myth network without the needed perspective.   The classic case for Agenda Science is Dr. Arpad Pusztain who genetically modified a potato with a lectin from the Snowdrop flower (a known toxin) and then fed them to rats. He said this demonstrated that GMOs could be dangerous. Dr. Pusztain became a hero to anti GMO activists, but he certainly didn’t contribute to science with this experiment which simply demonstrated that if you do something obviously unwise, you end up doing something obviously unwise.

Non-contextual Science

A classic example here is a list of the “Ten Riskiest Foods…” based on food poisoning incidents by crop put out by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.  There is a blog that is widely read in the fresh produce community called the Perishable Pundit where Jim Prevor does an excellent job of critiquing the non-contextual science of that CSPI report which was uncritically picked up in the popular news.  Highlights include the fact that the list is not at all corrected for per capita consumption so something like oysters that are not widely consumed but often contaminated are lower than leafy greens or eggs that are consumed on a large scale.  Potatoes are #5 in the list even though food safety incidents with potatoes come from other ingredients in improperly stored potato salad.  This is just irresponsible pseudo-science.  Many somewhat scientific publications talk about the total pounds of pesticides applied to a crop or within a region and do so in the framework of risks.  Since different pesticides differ in toxicity or other attributes by several orders of magnitude, this is essentially meaningless information.  There was a white paper published by Doug Gurian-Sherman of the Union of Concerned Scientists supposedly showing that GMO crops did not lead to any real gains in yield.  What Doug used was data from academic researchers.  Commercial experience has been quite different and there have also been major geographic shifts in corn planting that have to be considered.  This is also a prime example of Agenda Science and Cherry-picking science.

Cherry-picking Science

There is a recent case where a researcher who wanted to make the case that there has been a global cooling trend chose 1998 as the starting point for “recent.”  1998 was a very hot year so this made the trend look negative.  If the starting point was chosen a few years earlier, the “cooling trend” disappears.  Commercial entities are always tempted to only show the better results, but academics can end up doing it to support a particular theory that needs support to continue getting grants.  Lots of games can be played with statistics. None of this is good science.

Orthodoxy Science

Most scientists do their work and interact with their colleagues and everyone gets along fine even if there are disagreements.  Unfortunately, certain topics have become very emotional and there can be a tendency to lose patience with scientists who are significant outliers from the consensus.  The classic example is Evolution vs Intelligent design.  This ends up in an argument about what is really science and what is not.  I won’t try to settle it here (as if I could), but there have been times when the majority fell into the trap of letting the outlier achieve victim status and generate a degree of notoriety that isn’t helpful.  There are also famous cases where a minority opinion eventually prevailed.  Continental drift seemed too far fetched at first, but now it is well established.  A universe with a finite life was once unimaginable, but now the 15 billion year estimate is mainstream.  I  certainly don’t claim that this sort of transition will happen in this case of intelligent design or climate change, but still, patience is helpful and its always alright to simply say, “ok, show me data.”

For climate change the implications of whether this is real or not are so huge that it is hard not to get emotional about it.  I think both sides need to acknowledge the stakes and see if there are civilized ways to proceed.  It may be too late; however, because the broader population is getting so polarized on the subject.  I think we should worry less about the debate about “if” and “why” and focus more on devising strategies that would simultaneously address other issues about which there is no controversy – things like security issues and the extremist education and armament machine funded by our oil addiction.

So, I’ve put out a challenge on the “anti-science” side and now one on the internal science side.  Both contribute to the declining trust that society has for the science that has done so much to improve our lives and which is so critical for our future.  I’m still looking for solutions

Lab coats image from Plutor

You are welcome to comment on this site or to email me at [email protected]

  1. Connie

    I heard a radio report on the squash/beetles that came to a different conclusion.

    The report I heard talked about the law of unforeseen consequences. It talked about the reason the beetles attacked the GMO squash is because they prefer healthy plants and the non-GMO squash was being attacked by the virus the GMO was trying to prevent. So it looked liked the non-GMO was repelling the beetles, when in actuality it was just natural selection.

    In other words, it was just coincidence that the GMO squash got the beetles and the non-GMO didn’t. If they ran a test in which both species were healthy, they would easily find that both GMO and non-GMO were attacked.

  2. Bobby B.

    I think that most of your examples can be attributed to social/political/religious persuasions and to money. Yeah, I know it’s a simplistic sort of logic, but everyone’s opinions – even scientists – are shaped largely by his core beliefs. And anyone who says that he has no interest in money is lying. Sure, he may want the money to fund a nobler cause (i.e. continuing critical research) and not for personal gain, but the need for the dollars is an undeniable driver. How many environmental bogeymen exist just to keep the grant money flowing?

    Had the climate change scientists chosen to present their beliefs in a non-dire, non-Al Gorish death and destruction manner that was immediately seized upon by the United Nations IPCC as a way to redistribute wealth, then maybe cooler heads would be prevailing. However, polarization became an inevitability as soon as they (and their representative groups) chose scare mongering as the proper path to spread their message. It may be too late to negotiate a realistic, middle-ground solution since each side has so much at stake.

    As far as our oil addiction funding extremist education and an armament machine, that has become a popular argument that is easily refuted. History teaches that the conflict between western civilization and what we now call extremists existed long before any oil addiction issues. The Middle East and Europe had the Crusades to deal with hundreds of years ago. Thomas Jefferson contended with the Barbary Pirates shortly after the birth of the United States. BTW, learning to deal with his enemy is the reason Jefferson owned a Koran. Even though blaming oil for the lines that are currently drawn in the sand is convenient, it is a matter of historical fact that those lines were drawn long before any black gold was tapped.

  3. Steve Savage

    Bobby B,
    The conflict is certainly old, but that still does not make is inconsequential to pump billions of dollars a year into the hands of your enemies. You seem to be against “wealth transfer” in other instances. Why not this one?

  4. Bobby B.

    Nice try.

    Personally, I wish that the US relied more heavily on domestic oil production and supplemented that with small purchases from friendly nations. Aside from that, buying oil is not what I would classify as a “wealth transfer.” Oil is a tangible commodity that is purchased because it has been assigned a monetary value. One party exchanges its cash for a product that the second party possesses. Whatever the recipients of the cash do with it after the transaction is technically their business. In the early days of Middle East oil, the West may have been able to invade these countries and just take the commodity at gunpoint. However, Western beliefs regarding private property rights dictated that the landowners get their cut of the mineral rights. The technologies, the equipment and the manpower for many years were foreign to the oil rich nations, but they still got a lion’s share of the revenues simply because they occupied the land. I believe that it was the correct moral arrangement. However, I also think that it has proved itself a misguided effort at gaining favor with centuries old enemies that will probably never like us; simply for religious differences. Either way, money was exchanged for a measurable product and cannot technically be considered a “wealth transfer” even though it has arguably created a vicious circle.

    The United Nations IPCC now seeks to monetarily penalize developed nations for having used massive amounts of fossil fuels and creating this global “problem” that they are selling as the ruin of mankind. Polar bears, sinking islands and Al Gore’s award-winning movies are the preferred marketing ploys to facilitate the transfer from rich to poor. Not to be left out, the Arabic nations are currently petitioning the United Nations for bail-out money should the demand for their oil decline further as a result of the UN’s upcoming meeting in Copenhagen and the possibility of Henry Waxman’s bill becoming US law. It seems that they fear an instant return to being poor nomads should the world shun a drop of their oil. Should they not have done something with all those trillions of dollars to prepare for the day when their product became worthless? After all, the environmentalists have been warning about peak oil and oil’s decline for decades. Should the developed world be expected to pay a second time for a commodity long since expended? If so, it is pure wealth transfer because the payers will be given nothing in exchange by the payees. And contrary to the feel-good Robin Hood economics involved, the booty robbed from the rich will do nothing to improve the plight of the world’s poor. Polar bears will still fail at their attempts to swim across the oceans. Low level islands and coastlines will continue to erode into the sea. Tyrants and despots will remain empowered over helpless people. The only positive might be a decline in Al Gore’s popularity. Wealth transfers generally punish many and help few. The one being pushed on behalf of the planet is simply an attempt to create two classes of people in every nation across the world; a rich ruling class and a poor subject class.

  5. Teru Wong

    Quote, “The problem is that Science will not ever “speak with one voice.” Scientists often have different opinions about a given topic.”

    It may not a healthy situation as you have stated. A given topic on ecology (that directly leads to our extinctions) is one of them. Law of physics cannot be violated. Nothing can travel faster then light. Space migration is (only a dream) not a solution. Technology failed to unite science (knowledge) ever again.

    You see people wearing white coats giving you a name card from an institution. Ones will never question their authority. This is the major problem of science nowadays. You see e=mc2. You will not ask, “Light does not have MASS. It produced by burning any particle. In the meantime, it is necessarily not linear. It diversified through travelling different media. Instead, its directions was a sphere (3D-minesional). So what the hell with scientists’ ideas of space migrations? The distances in-bewteen each galaxy is an obstacle FOREVER.”

    One must understand the ecology (life cycle) of the Earth can no longer be substained. We are still in a Stone Age because of our ingorance to environmental friendly designs in the urban-planning. Meanwhile, we have to gather all our resources in restoring the ecology (e.g. massive projects carried out worldwide to simulate the orginal life cycle of the Earth, applications of new technology to replace the old methods of productions & consent from the United Nation to compensate the cost of developing countries for slowing/stopping their urbanizations).

  6. Doron

    Thank you for your blog. I agree with your synopsis.
    I once read that the world is the way it is today because fools are so sure of themselves and wise men so full of self doubt.

    Unfortunately the fools amongst us have turned “science” into a cross between religion and a political party. On the one hand there are the “believers” on the other, the “skeptics” and the classic “deamonisation” process has now kicked in.

    As you say, if the general public understood more about the scientific process they would realise that such polarising discourse is both unhelpful and fundamentally dangerous as it flames the base human instintcs that have lead to most of the intractable problems in our societies.

    It is our responsibility as “real” scientists to dispassionately articulate the nature of our processes and explain the inevitable encroachment of basic human nature that pollutes it.

    Above all, as a specie we must learn to live with uncertainty and accept that we cannot know everything for certain and that there is nothing wrong with that.

    The inherent arrogance of the ignorant masses in assuming that there must be a black and white answer to everything is precisely the mind set that has delivered us such glorious periods in human history as the Spanish Inquisition and the Holocaust (to name but 2).

    There is noting wrong with expressions such as “I don’t know”, “I’m not certain” and “on the balance of probabilities”…they are honest expressions.

    We can always rely on our politicians and religious leaders to exploit our collective need for certainty and tribal defenses…we need our scientists to breath life into our intellect.

    Current trends in the debate disturb me greatly and I can only hope that those amongst us dedicated to clear thinking and rationale debate are not completely drowned out by the 15 second sound bites and hyterical activists.

  7. Steve Savage

    Good points about being able to say what we don’t know. When my son was little he would say, “I can’t know” when he meant don’t know, but I think the former is often what we have to say about certain scientific questions. The arrogance to see no ambiguity is a pervasive feature of our hyper-partisan culture (I’m pretty sure that is)

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