GURUS IN WHITE COATS
Posted by Henry Bauer on 2007/12/03
I referred less than respectfully to “experts” both unnamed and named, in my “LIES” post of 2 December. Contributing in an important way to the HIV/AIDS mess is the uncritical adulation extended by media and (therefore) public to “experts” bearing the brand of medicine or science, who are wont to advertise their status by wearing white coats for photo-ops. I believe that a significant reason why HIV=AIDS continues to be accepted, despite all the evidence against it, is that media and public cannot conceive that authoritatively and officially promulgated views could be so wrong. So it’s good to be aware of rampant misconceptions that foster this state of affairs.
You should of course ask, what makes Bauer think he’s qualified to discuss misconceptions about science ?
In high school, I became captivated by science in general and chemistry in particular, and later taught chemistry and did research in electrochemistry for a couple of decades. I started to wonder about gaps in what science concerns itself with, and the role that heterodox claims play, and how to distinguish between real science and pseudo-science. So I switched from chemistry to the then-fledgling field of “science studies”, which incorporates approaches from history of science, philosophy of science, sociology of science, and other fields as well. What I learned is described at some length in several books (1, 2), which have detailed discussion and supporting citations for the assertions I’m going to make here and that are particularly pertinent to what goes on with HIV/AIDS. The most authoritative and comprehensive descriptions of all facets of scientific activity are by John Ziman (3).
I haven’t lost my fascination with science or my respect for science; it’s as noble and worthwhile an activity as human beings can aspire to (though not necessarily more so than some others). But I’ve learned that science can be only somewhat better than its practitioners and institutions, and that if those practitioners and institutions become sufficiently incompetent or corrupt, then the whole enterprise can let us down as much as can a corrupt commercial enterprise (an Enron, say) or a corrupt government (a Stalin, say). Science and medicine are not exempt, either, from being taken over by fads, fashions, and bandwagons that the experts approve right up until the moment that the bubble bursts, as with the financial bubbles that burst periodically. (On the latter, essential reading is J. K. Galbraith’s [1990/93] A Short History of Financial Euphoria.)
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Science is not infallible. It progresses by trial and error. Theories are never true in any absolute sense, they are just convenient temporary summaries of what has so far been learned. They are helpful as guides to further research, and that further work then brings modifications or total abandonment of the pre-existing theory that stimulated the work.
Scientists range widely in competence. Individual scientists are much more fallible than science as a whole, because facts don’t become part of “science” until there is reasonably wide agreement about them. Agreements are reached better and more reliably, the more honest and competent are the scientists who are involved. Conflicts of interest can be very damaging. Deliberate cheating is far from unknown, especially in recent times where the competition for grants and positions has become intensely cutthroat: presently the National Institutes of Health, the largest source of grants for research in biology and medicine, funds only about 1 in 5 grant applications (4)–and for young researchers, getting grants is usually necessary for job security and advancement.
There is no impersonal “scientific method” that automatically makes reliable whatever a researcher does. The “scientific method” consists of the interaction among scientists.
Medicine is not science. It’s related to science rather like engineering is related to science. It’s concerned with what works, not why it does.
Corollary: Medical doctors are trained to apply existing agreed-on knowledge, they are not taught to question it. Scientists are trained to question existing knowledge in order to contribute to correcting it and expanding it.
Caveat: Some MDs do become first-rate researchers.
Nevertheless, it is worth noting that a high proportion of HIV/AIDS researchers are MDs–for example, the statistically illiterate ones mentioned in the “LIES” post. Among those who question whether HIV = AIDS there is a high proportion of research-trained PhDs.
Institutions of medicine and science are not doctors or scientists. They are bureaucracies, whose primary aim is aggrandizement: increasing their own importance, their size, their status, their prestige. The media should be as searching of reports and press releases from institutions of science and medicine as they are of reports and press releases from commercial enterprises, government agencies, and political entities.
Administrators are not doctors and they are not scientists, even if they once were. Their primary role is to administer, to safeguard their territories, and that takes priority over caring for patients or furthering science. The media should be as searching of statements from administrators of science and medicine as they are of administrators or spokespeople for commercial enterprises or government agencies.
Scientists vary widely in competence. The greatest successes in science tend to come from single-minded obsessive work, so the most accomplished scientists are not necessarily the most intelligent, practical, judicious, or sensible. The winner of a Nobel Prize might make a good administrator–but probably not; or a good advisor on public policy–but often not.
Serendipity, luck, being in the right place at the right time with the right tools is a significant factor in success in science (5), just as in many other fields of human activity. The most brilliant success in science does not bespeak some overall inherent brilliance or even competence: Nobel Prize winners rarely win a second such Prize. An analogy might be the mutual-fund managers who top the rankings in a given year; they rarely repeat, because the insight that brought success was right just for a particular time and set of circumstances.
My distinguished friend Jack (I. J.) Good is fond of pointing out that geniuses are cranks who happen to be right, and cranks are geniuses who happen to be wrong: they are stubborn, obsessive, impervious to criticism. If their obsession is with something that turns out right, they are likely to be ranked as genius; if their obsession is with a phantom, they are likely to be remembered as cranks; see chapters 9 and 10 in (2) for illustrative examples.
There is no reliable guide to deciding beforehand or at the time, whether one’s interest is in a genuine phenomenon or an illusory one (6-8). So herds of researchers can be chasing what later turns out to have been a phantom: cancer-causing viruses, say, or vaccines against HIV. Some maverick claims are later vindicated, others not (6); some accepted “scientific truths” remain useful for a long time with relatively little modification, others suffer sudden, often unforeseen eclipse in a “scientific revolution” (9).
That science and medicine are replete with jargon and technicalities does not mean that they cannot be assessed by outsiders. Just as with politics, finance, or any other specialized activity, outsiders can judge whether statements are self-consistent, whether they offend common sense, whether questions are evaded rather than answered, whether promises or predictions come to pass. Media and public should treat doctors and scientists as human beings who happen to have some particular knowledge and abilities but who remain fallible even in their area of expertise. Media and public should be as skeptical of administrators and institutions of medicine and science as they are of company executives and commercial enterprises. If that had been the case with HIV/AIDS, then the bandwagon would not have been able to evade such issues as:
— What are the specific scientific publications proving that a positive HIV-test means that infectious virus is present?
— What are the specific scientific publications proving that HIV causes AIDS?
— What are the specific scientific publications proving that the proteins and genes taken to be the characteristic constituents of HIV are actually present in whole infectious particles of retrovirus?
— What was the basis for expanding the set of “AIDS-defining” diseases beyond the opportunistic infections and Kaposi’s sarcoma that caused AIDS to be identified and defined in the first place?
— How could something (HIV) spread in epidemic fashion when it is apparently transmitted sexually at an average rate of only 1 per 1000 acts?
And that, of course, hardly exhausts the possible list.
(1) Bauer (1992) Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method
(2) Bauer (2001) Fatal Attractions: The Troubles with Science
(3) John Ziman, especially Real Science (2000) and Prometheus Bound (1994)
(4) Daniel Greenberg, “So many labs, so little money”, Chronicle of Higher Education, 8 September 2006, B20.
(5) Paula E. Stephan & Sharon G. Levin (1992) Striking the Mother Lode in Science: The Importance of Age, Place, and Time
(6) Bauer (2001) Science or Pseudoscience: Magnetic Healing, Psychic Phenomena, and Other Heterodoxies
(7) Bauer (1984) Beyond Velikovsky
(8) Bauer (1986) The Enigma of Loch Ness: Making Sense of a Mystery
(9) Thomas S. Kuhn (1962/70) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,