Earlier this year, the UK government's chief scientist, John Beddington, delivered a speech in which he urged his audience of 300 government scientists to be "grossly intolerant" of "pernicious" and "fatuous" "pseudoscience". Clearly, Beddington was outraged by people claiming to speak in the name of science but who are promoting views that he regarded as dangerously erroneous. This broadside resulted in two contributions to the correspondence column of Nature. The first was by Professor Andy Stirling, who last year contributed a science policy commentary to Nature. Stirling was not comfortable with the issues highlighted by Beddington as pseudoscience.
"In this he included: scepticism of genetic modification technology; "illegitimate" advocacy of environmental precaution in response to unknowns; and suggestions that science is subject to morality. This approach is a rejection not just of irrational denial but of entirely reasonable social scepticism concerning science itself. [. . .] Open publication, peer review, experimentation and critical respect for evidence help promote reasoned argument. But rational scepticism is as important outside as inside the social practices of science. Hence the motto of Britain's Royal Society, 'Nullius in verba': take nothing solely on authority - even from scientists."
Does the "weight of consensus" trump "rational scepticism"? (image here)
The other correspondence was written by Professor Brian Wynne, who was also alarmed by the use of the term "pseudoscience" to describe those who were challenging government science on certain policy issues. Wynne also contributed to the pages of Nature last year when he reviewed a book that documented ways in which scientific uncertainty has been manipulated to undermine evidence that supported regulation. The review was not altogether favourable. Wynne explains that the book is incomplete: "it does not examine other areas, such as genetically modified organisms, in which grounds for doubt have been downplayed rather than amplified by powerful players to the same deregulatory ends". He would like to see discussion of "how science can be led to overreach itself in arbitrating public facts, meanings and norms". Regarding the Beddington speech, Wynne writes:
"However, none of the growing range of public issues involving important scientific questions can be reduced, as Beddington did, simply to "science" or "pseudoscience". [. . .] What policy advisers anoint as 'science' for intended public authority always embodies unstated policy-related commitments, including presumptions over the defining questions. Such social questions in public science should be recognized and debated openly. Scientific knowledge should inform public issues, not define them."
The following week, Beddington replied. "Andy Stirling and Brian Wynne call respectively for a democratic approach to scepticism and for recognition that scientific evidence often forms only part of complex decisions. I agree with them on both counts". When pressed, scientists will agree on principles, but it is not unusual for substantial differences to persist in their analysis of the issues. This is where the attainment of a "consensus" status is important, for this sways the decisions of policy makers.
"Of course it is true that advancement is attained through criticism, scepticism and debate. But my point was that there can sometimes be a thin line between healthy scepticism and a cynical approach that ignores or distorts inconvenient evidence. Where significant consensus exists on an issue, this has not always been made obvious; also, tokenistic opposing views can be presented in a way that exaggerates their support. Clearly, the role of scientific evidence in decision-making must be considered in the wider political and social context. However, I make no apology for demanding that the fundamental evidence and weight of consensus in such cases is set out in a proper and fair way."
Unfortunately, the matter of "consensus science" was not discussed further, but it is obviously a key issue for policy makers and science advisors. The drive to achieve a "consensus" often becomes a social and political battle, rather than the healthy convergence of thinking within the science community. The way things have developed makes "consensus" a problem for the science community, because dissenting voices are sidelined and debate is squashed (for more, go here).
Consensus science has become a big issue for all concerned with Origins. For many, the debate is over - the consensus has spoken. Some will say: there is no controversy. They regularly ask: where are the peer-reviewed papers supporting your views? These attitudes spill over into the arena for policy-making in education. Words like "pernicious" and "fatuous" and "pseudoscience" are commonplace. But what we are witnessing is the same fundamental problem: an uncompromising rejection of rational scepticism on these issues reinforced by personal worldviews that allow no deviation from the philosophy of naturalism.
This year has seen some high profile cases of bigotry and intolerance in the world of science. The science community in general appears to be in a state of denial about these cases of blatant trampling on academic freedom and liberty of conscience. The first of these cases relates to the astronomer Martin Gaskell who was the leading candidate for the founding director of a new observatory at the University of Kentucky. Although there is evidence that he was judged the best candidate, he was turned down because of his Christian beliefs and willingness to use the word "creation" in discussions. Although he explained he is a theistic evolutionist, this was not enough to turn away suspicions that his scientific judgment could be swayed by irrational factors. In January of this year, the university authorities agreed an out-of-court settlement to avoid the charge of religious discrimination being considered. For further comment see here. This did not stop some scientists thinking that Gaskell should have been turned down because of his Christianity. For an example, see Richard Dawkins' comments here.
A second example concerns the mathematician Granville Sewell, whose paper "A Second Look at the Second Law" was accepted by Applied Mathematics Letters in January 2011. However, as a result of fierce protests from people who cannot bear to see ID scholars publish in refereed journals, the paper was withdrawn at the last moment by the editor. After some exchanges, the journal apologised to Dr Sewell and provided some financial compensation. For further comments on this case, go here and here.
A third case concerns a group of geologists participating in annual meetings of the American Geophysical Union and the Geological Society of America. They have given lectures, presented posters, and even led a field trip. The reason why this has generated much heat is that the group members are Young Earth Creationists. They have chosen to participate in professional activities rather than stand outside like exiles from the geological community. The reactions of mainstream geologists have been mixed. A plea to keep these people out of the meetings appeared in EOS, the magazine of the AGU. The YEC geologists were described as "the enemies of science" and the call was for the professional societies to "enforce objective acceptance guidelines" based on "high scientific merit" (with YEC geology defined as being "devoid of scientific merit"). For a blustering report by someone who was at this Fall's meeting, go here. Steven Newton wrote, in New Scientist, that Creationist "infiltration" of scientific conferences seems outrageous, but banning them would do more harm than good. One wonders whether this counsel will prevail or whether those baying for strenuous efforts to keep them out will be successful.
The most recent case to note is that of David Coppedge who worked at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) as a system administrator. His employer first demoted and then terminated his employment. Apparently, Coppedge's "crime" was to share pro-intelligent design videos with coworkers. He was first forbidden to talk with colleagues about these issues, which he complied with. However, he was then terminated for "pushing religion". For more on this, go here. A legal action is under way because California's Fair Employment and Housing Act forbids employers from taking adverse action against an employee because of the employee's religious expression or affiliation. Since NASA is publicly funded, US citizens are able to influence this situation - for advice, go here and here.
These four recent cases show that all in not well in the science community. The entrenched attitudes captured in the film "Expelled" are still with us. Intolerance, bigotry and posturing is found not only in origins issues, but in many other areas of science. There are many indications that we need to lay again some foundations for science, because instead of following the evidence wherever it leads, far too many scholars are protecting their own patch and portraying as pseudoscience anything that does not fit into their personal agenda.
Intolerance: retain healthy scepticism, by Andy Stirling
Nature, 471, 305 (17 March 2011) | doi:10.1038/471305a
Intolerance: science informs, not defines, by Brian Wynne
Nature, 471, 305 (17 March 2011) | doi:10.1038/471305b
Intolerance: UK chief scientist responds, by John Beddington
Nature, 471, 448, (24 March 2011) | doi:10.1038/471448d
Whose foot in the door? by Paul S. Braterman and John W. Geissman
EOS, Transactions of the American Geophysical Union, 92(18), 153 (3 May 2011)
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