The Knowledge Wars

An extract from “The Knowledge Wars”


THE POWER OF SCIENCE rests in scepticism. Rigorous critique is built in to the scientific method. All human beings operate on a spectrum of acceptance through doubt to outright denial, especially when it comes to unfamiliar and, perhaps, inconvenient new findings. The breadth and depth of our critique is likely to reflect the nature and extent of our direct experience and formal education. And we are not necessarily consistent in the way we apply such sceptical thinking.

An astute but conventionally religious lawyer who pleads as an advocate or sits as a judge will hold to deep beliefs that could not possibly withstand the type of scrutiny that should apply in a court of law. Formally religious or not, we choose to adhere (often very uncritically) to more forward-looking or conservative viewpoints, depending on our background, experience, wealth and position in the world and even, perhaps, on the ways our brains work. There is some evidence from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) that, when presented with a set of probing questions, the amygdala in the lower brain (involved in memory, decision-making and emotion) will tend to light up preferentially in those with a more conservative mindset versus the higher brain frontal cortex (reason and projection of future con- sequences) in liberals. But any scientist should be very sceptical of such a feel-good view of how the ‘progressive’ versus ‘conserva- tive’ brain works!

Wherever working scientists might be on some conservative to liberal spectrum in their broader lives (most are obviously open to new ideas), a central characteristic of effective researchers is critical thinking. The first question is always, ‘Where’s the evidence?’ Followed by, ‘How sound is the evidence?’ Then, if those tests are passed, ‘Has the evidence been interpreted correctly?’ And, as there is an inevitable penalty for publishing something that turns out to be wrong, that spotlight of scepticism will be shone most brightly on the output from a perceptive researcher’s own laboratory.

Additional to that, many experiments in the biomedical area now require the integration of findings from a diversity of com- plex measurement systems. If the originators of the data do not apply the type of rigour and critical-thinking skills that ensure the validity of their findings and enable them to present their results in an accessible way, there is an increasing possibility that others will be unable to support their analysis. That results in anger and disillusion, and does nothing for the reputations of the authors.

Formulating conclusions on the basis of data rather than on a consensus view or common sense is a tough discipline. To steal just a little from the US sci-fi writer Robert A Heinlein (The Moon is a Harsh Mistress), science is a harsh mistress! That’s why effective scientists who move into some other activity are often, like mili- tary officers who leave the force early, very successful. Both groups have learned to make rapid, evidence-based judgement calls that allow them to function successfully under demanding and not nec- essarily predictable conditions. While the automatic reaction of the law may be to refute an alternative view that is not based in precedent and/or attitudes prevalent in the broader community, the only good question in science is, ‘Does this contribute to some reproducible solution and/or illuminate an underlying truth?’ And it has always been the case that the truth can be very inconvenient, which creates a big social problem if those who are inconvenienced are wealthy, powerful and incapable of thinking outside a self-referential world view.

All young scientists are raised to live in a culture of constant scrutiny and critique, first as a consequence of the back and forth dialogue with other students and laboratory colleagues, then in regular formal and informal meetings with their supervisor(s). From the outset of their research involvement, they will also be required to present their ideas and results at regular lab or departmental meetings. The latter can be a terrifying experience for a first timer, especially as at least a few senior faculty members in any good research environment will consider it a duty to sharpen the analytical and presentations skills of junior colleagues before they are thrown to the wolves of the broader scientific community. With changing social mores, such critiques may be delivered a little more gently than might have been the case in the past, but an amiable yet devastating analysis can be just as telling. Science is not for the faint-hearted!

Anytime you fly anywhere internationally, in Europe or the United States, you will likely see a few young people (students, postdocs and junior faculty) lugging long cardboard tubes containing carefully prepared presentations that will be pinned up for a few hours in a poster session at some scientific meeting. That may sound a bit primitive in the era of PowerPoint and videos, but this is a way of ensuring conversation between people who are upright and awake rather than dozing in a darkened lecture theatre. The owner of the poster will be required to attend (with others) at a set time and stand by their work to explain, and perhaps justify, their experiments, results and conclusions to any participant who just happens to breeze up and show some interest. Perhaps their questioner will be a student from another laboratory, or maybe an established star who is a member of the US National Academy of Sciences.

The more active and outgoing young investigators will spot influential people whose work they respect and drag them over to look at their presentation. Anonymity and success in science do not go together! Despite differences in age and experience, the fact that these interactions generally come across as an exchange between equals is one of the great things about the research culture! Real status is in the data and ideas, not in the perceived eminence of this or that protagonist.

Apart from such individual contact at a poster plus wine and cheese session (combined to loosen people up a little and ensure attendance), the meeting organisers may have selected some of the poster topics for ten-minute PowerPoint talks in a two-hour workshop attended by much greater numbers of people than are likely to stand around and look at a poster. The story (and the data that supports the conclusions) will be challenged by any audience member who cares to walk up to the microphone and make a point. Some questioners will be probing specific issues raised by the fact that they have what seem to be different results: often that’s best resolved by getting together afterwards to compare notes. Much of the best communication at any scientific meeting comes from unexpected conversations. That’s why we make every effort to ensure that young scientists can attend such events.

Not uncommonly, both ingénues and established researchers giving longer talks in symposia will have the experience of defending their findings and interpretations against onslaughts from those who may legitimately be described as ‘combative confrontationalists’ (CCs). Perhaps the CC just hates a whole area of speculation (maybe with good cause), or makes a practice of detailed nitpicking. Some CCs just can’t resist an open microphone, feeling a compelling need to demonstrate their presence. That can be very tedious if they insist on dominating a brief question time in a way that is basically unhelpful. A good session chair will cut them off and suggest that they chat afterwards with the presenter, which is what most who want to probe some issue of substance will do anyway.

From what I’ve seen, the dedicated scientist CC is a not uncommon figure in the public discussion of anthropogenic climate change. And, as is often the case for such personalities, they find it difficult to back down if they are eventually shown to be in error. That switch in positions, which is a perfectly legitimate move for anyone working in a complex area of science, becomes an even bigger problem for established CCs if their interpretation supports some powerful vested interest or reactionary media organisation and they have been outspoken public critics. They can find themselves stuck at a particular point in a multifaceted and evolving debate in a way that would never be the case if they were just getting on with the science, taking the latest findings on board and interacting with colleagues who understand that the level of certainty about anything can advance or retreat. Once a scientist starts to interpret all evidence in the light of an announced and ‘authoritative’ (or dogmatic) public position and joins the dubious world of the protagonist opinion-maker, they are, in fact, lost!

Dealing effectively with public critique, whether well founded or misinformed and unfair, is part of the training for those who must learn how to present and defend a case to an unfamiliar audience. Even a sympathetic questioner can be a bit scary. Though he was just trying to help, a great friend, the, tall northern European virologist Fritz Lehmann-Grube, could seem terrifying as he held his hand behind his ear (Fritz was partially deaf from firing an anti-air- craft gun as boy soldier in the Second World War) and, with a strong German accent, shouted an innocent enquiry at some poor beginner. And, when faced with an appropriate criticism or novel interpretation, there’s always the out: ‘We didn’t think of that, but it’s a good experiment.’ Communication within science is an ongoing conversation. Building a reputation depends on how intelligently critiques are refuted or, if valid, incorporated in future strategies.

The level and acuity of any robust sceptical view will, of course, operate most effectively within the realm of what the critic knows best. An insider will be cognisant of where the technical difficulties and conceptual traps lie and, indeed, where the bodies of past mistakes and misinterpretations are buried. Once we move outside our own specialty, though, we rely much more on trust and on the publicly available insights of others who are close to the work.

Where the perceived need to engage with particular findings from a very different field can become challenging is when, as individuals, we try to grasp what is going on in a technically unfamiliar area where we are not working with (or talking to) close colleagues who command that breadth of expertise. It’s a big plus to be located in a substantial university with a spectrum of informed specialists. That’s one reason why modern research universities are so important, as many key areas of investigation now go across a whole range of the old conventional science disciplines.

Global warming, for example, is likely to have serious, and perhaps lethal, consequences for many complex life forms and ecological systems, but physiologists, infectious disease specialists, botanists, ornithologists and ecologists will normally have little training in the physical sciences central to the core climate science disciplines of oceanography, glaciology, meteorology, atmospheric physics and so forth that inform us about where we are heading with the greenhouse gas issue. Looking at research papers from such unfamiliar areas in high-quality generalist journals (like Nature, Science and the Proceedings of the United States National Academy of Sciences) we assume that the authors will have obeyed the basic rules of measurement and avoidance of bias, and that their overall findings and conclusions must have satisfied the critical scrutiny of peers. Even so, being unfamiliar with the basic technology, we will likely miss the subtleties and may find it hard to put any particular piece of work in perspective without the help of someone who is more across the field in question.

As a consequence, in order to gain a decent grasp of what’s being said, we may need to go to an informed synopsis presented, say, in the news and views section of a journal like Nature. These editorial summaries are generally written by young PhD scientists who, perhaps after completing three to six years of postdoctoral training, have decided that running a research group is not a long- term option for them; instead they have made a transition into the world of professional publishing. Some are driven by the fact that they love writing at least as much as they enjoy doing science (unusual for most young researchers), while others may be motivated by the desire to encompass and communicate a broader view in an important area of intellectual endeavour rather than in sustaining the narrow focus characteristic of the individual in-depth research investigator. Such people attend every substantial scientific meeting in their area of interests, go to all the talks and are expert at asking perceptive questions of those who present novel findings. Having superimposed the role of journalist on the skills and discipline learned from the apprenticeship of science training, they are highly sceptical and, though invariably polite, are equipped with well-honed bullshit detectors!

The other means of broader summary and scrutiny used by many top research formats that may not have the deep pockets to employ a number of specialist editorial commentators is to invite competitors to write an accessible overview of some particularly spectacular piece of work that may appear further on as a detailed research article in the same issue of the journal. Apart from anything else, it provides a way of acknowledging a major researcher who is prominent in the field but did not have the good fortune to make this particular breakthrough. The use of ‘competitor’ in this context means that the authors of the commentary and the primary research paper likely work at a different institutions and compete for a limited pool of grant funding, though they may actually be good friends who maintain a high level of mutual respect. Still, there’s an edge, an inevitable tension, because major credit in science always goes to those who get there first. Do we have any real friends in science? Maybe at a social level, but we can’t allow friendship to obscure judgement of the evidence that’s presented and the claims made as a consequence!

Beyond that, for researchers working in a large university, there will generally be a broad range of departmental and institutional seminar and lecture programs that are open to scientists who are interested ‘outsiders’. Then key senior figures will often deliver widely advertised public lectures that give broader overviews. Anyone can walk in off the street and attend. And, for the professionals, even if it isn’t possible to follow all the detailed analysis presented by someone working on a topic that is far from our own area of expertise and who uses very different language and technologies, the way that people structure a formal presentation, together with the culture of robust questioning and reasoned response that goes on after the formal delivery, will generally seem very familiar to anyone with experience of one or other science subculture.

The basic rules of science, and thus the behaviour patterns of scientists, are shared across the breadth of the new knowledge business. In all my fifty-plus years as a researcher, I’ve yet to interact with an area of science different from my own where I felt that the field had somehow come to be dominated by fakes, deliberate deceivers, rigid zealots and cash-for-comment crooks! That’s a very different experience from what we sometimes hear on talk back radio or encounter in newspapers! On the other hand, some hyped areas of the applied medical sciences (aspects of stem cell and gene therapy) and fashionable topics like virtual reality can at times come across in the media as more like sci-fi than anything embedded in evidence-based reality.

There are also prominent scientist sceptics who strut their stuff to the broader community. Some physicians and researchers are, despite the broad consensus across the cardiology field, sceptical about the widespread use of statins to counter cardiovascular disease. People are increasingly medicated with these drugs, so that sceptical voice will, and should be heard. One problem can be that instead of reading or hearing some reasoned, balanced discussion of the various issues, the topic will be presented to broader public view as a televised confrontation between diametrically opposed ‘experts’, with the emphasis being further weighted to follow a predetermined narrative favoured by the producer and/or interviewer. Beyond that, we may see a debate between non-scientist celebrities who embrace alternative viewpoints, at which point the debate can become theatre of the absurd.

This may be a good entertainment strategy, but it’s a disaster when it comes to probing real content. A favoured media device is to promote the position of a courageous and beleaguered minority who are at odds with conclusions reached by the stodgy and self-serving majority. The journalistic justification can be the need for balance, but it is hardly honest reporting when the dramatic advantage of presenting some heroic underdog position outweighs any thought of getting across what might actually be true. It can also backfire badly if the persecuted minority figure turns out to be delusional. Perhaps the saddest part of this is that it can reflect profound, deliberate, ignorant cynicism and intellectual laziness on the part of the media people involved.

Indeed, there are a few situations on record where the majority science-based view does turn out to be wrong. In general, that’s usually sorted out within the science community before it attracts major public attention. If the issue is one that can be readily researched, the accepted view will inevitably change fast as new data comes in. And if you do encounter an unlikely opinion from some ‘expert’ in a newspaper or hear them on TV, it’s now (as discussed in appendices A to C) fairly easy to use online resources to check out their credentials. Ethical journalists and public com- mentators, or their researchers, should surely take the trouble to do this before they push some seemingly controversial view- point! Of course, that’s not going to happen if the opinion sage is wedded to a particular political agenda that requires them to sound off from a position of loud, deliberate ignorance.

Prominent in the public debate about science are those professional researchers who are sceptical about the whole case for anthropogenic global warming or, more commonly, believe that the danger of continuing to release massive amounts of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide CO2, methane CH4) into the atmosphere has been greatly overstated. Because such views support the vested interests of the immensely powerful fossil fuel industries with their enormous coal and/or oil reserves, any sceptical view arguing that it’s okay to keep mining and burning this stuff (the primary source of CO2 and CH4) will be widely publicised. Such climate change sceptics are sometimes accused of going to the dark side, of being complicit with power from the motivation of personal profit. Perhaps, but so long as they have a track record in the field their critique merits careful scrutiny and their data-supported publications will be treated seriously by informed researchers until, and if, there is evidence to the contrary.

Still there are some situations that should ring alarm bells. One to watch out for is the character I think of as the ‘conflicted naysayer’. If, in looking online, you find that a prominent climate change sceptic has close ties to the mining industry and serves, for example, on governing boards for fossil fuel extractors and the like, it does raise the issue of how objective such a person’s views could be. We all operate in the context of friends, colleagues and a broader social milieu, and are likely to be influenced accordingly. Money can also be a factor.

I am also wary of any scientist who refers back constantly to old findings. Across very active areas of climate science and the medical sciences, the net consequence of the massive input of continually acquired data is that the perceptions of the active and involved researchers who continue to probe key issues are constantly being refined. Extraordinary new and spectacular insights in biology are coming from the combination of evolving analytical and statistical approaches in ‘breaking’ areas like epigenetics. For climate science, where many of the basic questions do not vary all that much though the technology (and thus the scope and quantity of the data) is ever improving, the effect can be to increase the level of certainty for some predictions, or to downplay previously emphasised trends that look less obvious as new information comes to hand. A classic example from oceanography is that our insights into ocean surface dynamics have been massively increased by recently available satellite technology that adds the measurement of wave height to wave frequency. With other major weather systems—for instance, the southern monsoons—it seems that the dedication of more resources rather than any revolution in approach could greatly improve understanding.

The consequence of this continuing refinement of what we know is that, if some argument published years back is still valid in a very active area of ongoing investigation, we should expect to see it supported by regular updates (in research papers and reviews) based in new and more comprehensive data sets. On the other hand, any early overstatement or wrong interpretation will likely be absent from the recent literature. Erroneous, or misstated scientific conclusions often have something in common with old soldiers, in that ‘they never die but just fade away’, and are forgotten.

Unfortunately, some scientific controversies that should quietly slide from view can be seized on by contrarians (like lawyers) in love with the old rather than the new. I’ve had the experience of being sent a list of 1500 references that were supposed to refute recent findings by active climate scientists. After looking closely at the very few that were obviously research papers and seemed to be less than five years old, I found that those with some appearance of being substantial had often been misinterpreted as being negative and were simply reporting the usual back and forth that we expect for any dynamic area within science. Most of the others were data-less reviews, unsubstantiated opinion, or peer-reviewed articles that were ten or twenty years old and thus, without recent confirmation, of only historical interest.

Another thing to be aware of when engaging with scientist sceptics is whether, while they may have had substantial prominence in the field in question, they are retired old guys who are long out of contact with the active research community. Such individuals may be very experienced debaters and look impressive from the biography aspect, having served as a director of this or that, or being members of some national academies of sciences, but we all age. In general, if prominent, senior and retired people support the majority view of younger colleagues who are still involved at the coal face and are part of the active discussion in the field, they are probably worth listening to as they can often put a research area, or set of findings, in an interesting historical and intellectual context. On the other hand, if they are diametrically opposed to the conclusions reached by more recent researchers, it could just be that they are out of touch, miffed by the fact that those with different expertise are moving into ‘their area’, or suffering from relevance deprivation.

That may seem a harsh judgement, but any senior and respected scientist who does have doubts about current interpretations should have no problem resolving these issues in discussion with younger colleagues. Most active researchers will be delighted to talk with a well-known figure who has had some major influence on their field, even if it was way back. And differences between those with varying levels of contemporary understanding and expertise are best handled within the specialist scientific community, not on the opinion pages of newspapers. As Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Planck said, ‘Science advances one funeral at a time,’ and he was by no means the first to come to that conclusion. It’s not necessary for retired scientists to be entombed but, if they can’t support those currently active in the field, the onus is on them to either play dead when it comes to the popular media or talk their objections through with those who are still looking at new data.

A further variant of the sceptic personality that can emerge from within the ranks of senior, eminent scientists is what I think of as the ‘professional controversialist’. Even within our own broad field of science we will not, no matter how good we are, make every significant discovery. Especially if an area is complex and the details are not easily resolved, playing to the negative will always give the eminent protagonist an automatic position. With the accolade of a Nobel Prize I could, for example, become a flag- waver for the fossil fuel industries by taking a strong, seemingly cogent and consistent position against the majority conclusions of climate scientists. On the other hand, by coming out in support of the climate scientists, what I say will (and should) be of marginal interest as there are plenty of better-informed people who can argue that case in the public arena.

As a research biologist, it also bothers me that some of the more credible, scientifically active sceptics who believe that the dangers associated with high greenhouse gas levels have been grossly exaggerated are fundamentalist Christians who do not believe in evolution. That should give any thinking person cause to pause, as biology makes absolutely no sense in the absence of natural selection and evolution. Even so, biology is not their area of expertise, and that doesn’t mean that what they are publishing in the climate science area is wrong, but it does raise questions concerning their overall intellectual integrity and clarity of mind. Religious fundamentalists put man at the centre of the universe, while the findings of climate and environmental scientists empha- sise that our wellbeing depends ultimately on what happens in nature, a point that King Canute made some years back via his well-known experiment on commanding ocean tides!

It also seems strange to me that, while the extreme climate change deniers have the backing of the extraordinarily wealthy fossil fuel (oil, gas and coal) companies, major media organisations like Fox and News Corp, and extreme right political parties, that in no sense seems to diminish their sense of grievance that they are being unfairly treated and unjustly ignored. Apparently they still crave acceptance by the scientific community. We all make choices, and the path and character of the genuine sceptic versus the public denier is both clear and obvious to other researchers, no matter what their area of interest.

It’s not difficult to distinguish the legitimate sceptic from the embedded denier. The genuine scientist sceptic will be as eager and motivated to scrutinise new data and grapple with emerging hypotheses as any other investigator. Both should, in fact, be directing their efforts to find out what is real and true. True sceptics will be engaging with the active research community, listening, arguing and publishing their analysis in peer-reviewed journals. Those who are in denial will, on the other hand, react immediately by trying to refute or dismiss novel findings. If forced to do so, they will trawl through the science literature trying to find something, indeed anything, that contradicts the case being made. When they do publish in popular formats, that’s an easy pattern for even the amateur science sleuth to spot.

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