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Scientific truth and its real enemies today

The scramble for funds and the pursuit of relevance make us all losers.
Javier Cuadros | 25 July 2014
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Arguably, scientists are one of the professional groups most concerned with truth. Scientists are people in search of the truth about something. Some of them, when asked about the natural world out there, will deny objective reality, asserting that we can only perceive phenomena which we translate into working models that allow us to interpret them coherently. However, this position is adopted only when reflecting about the scientific method, never when using it. When at work, scientists act on the basis of a reality outside their heads that they want to grasp.

True, they are conscious of the complexity of such reality and know that their work will need to progress by steps of increasing approximation to the objective reality they want to understand. They realize that the intermediate steps do not represent the whole truth, but they are convinced that they are getting closer to it by following that specific path. Scientists believe that they are grasping fragmentary aspects that, put together, will generate a more complete understanding of the reality investigated.

The approach to reality is now very frequently through models, in which the essential elements of a problem and the way they interact with each other are hypothesized and then calculations are used to test how the model predicts the known facts. Sufficiently tested models are used to predict future events. No one thinks that models represent the entire reality under study but their authors sincerely believe that they capture sufficient elements of it and with sufficient fidelity to be a true representation, even if simplified, of the object under study.

Public confidence in scientific truth

Many non-scientists also perceive science as a profession intimately linked with truth. Large sectors of the public think that the ultimate truth is scientific. They consider spiritual, cultural and artistic aspects as fundamentally depending on education, personal inclination and individual interpretation. Other fields such as politics, law or economics are considered to be concerned with group interests and riddled by procedural devices used freely for manipulation, with little room left for a foundation on objective facts and values. Political “truth” is created by the opinion of the majority.

Therefore, science is viewed by many as the only source of objective truth. Some recognize that such truth has a limited bearing on their own lives, but they see the benefits of scientific discoveries and they are contented that these are at least soundly anchored in reality. Others see the physical world as the only reality and they naturally take a more enthusiastic view of science as giving access to this reality and as the most authoritative guide of human activity.

Scientists and self-interest

As a scientist, I do believe that my effort is directed towards understanding and describing objective realities, and that my job can be defined as finding truth in the natural world. I think that scientists have a remarkable track record of being genuine and trustworthy in this search for truth. However, as in every human activity, the risk exists of letting dishonesty creep in for personal gain.

The most universal temptation for scientists in this respect is attachment to their own ideas. When interpretations have been established and published, the authors may find it difficult to accept them as erroneous in view of new facts or new insights. If the interpretations had a very novel character, were popularized in the media and made their authors conspicuous in their field, the difficulty of acknowledging them as erroneous or obsolete as work progresses becomes greater.

This temptation becomes stronger if the scientists have acquired a high-ranking position among colleagues and their institutions, and if, as a result, they lead large and expensive scientific projects, acquiring decision making roles in scientific policy and influencing the allocation of large amounts of funds for research. Once in the limelight, it is very difficult for scientists to admit that the ideas that launched them into high-visibility positions are actually wrong or inaccurate. But more serious threats to scientific honesty come from outside science, when political forces try to use it as an instrument.

Global warming: scientific fact, or political consensus?

The increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide since the beginning of the 20th century has been interpreted as the cause of rising global temperatures recorded during the same approximate period. Whether or not this is actually the case, the present official consensus about it is not founded on scientific evidence but on political interests. I have argued the issue elsewhere. There has been no time to reach such a certain conclusion on such a complex scientific issue.

Let us remember that the evidence was declared to be conclusive back in 2001. Considering that it was in the late 1980’s that the issue became prominent and the target of numerous studies, this is a world-record time for reaching a definitive solution to such an involved question. Since then, official voices have reiterated the conclusion, proclaiming an overwhelming and constantly increasing evidence for man-made global warming.

There have been voices that have pointed out possible or real flaws in the studies and even contradicted the official position, but they have been swiftly sidelined by political authorities and the media without any visible scientific argumentation. Rather, the dissenting voices have been presented as suspect characters in the pay of private interests. The unfolding of the story does not bear the mark of a scientific development but of a political campaign.

Science has been used and truth has been put aside because of political interests that later cascaded into financial interests. Environmentalists have acquired tremendous power in national and international institutions. Political parties have jumped at the opportunity to benefit from a cause engendering so much popular support. The media have benefited from feeding this passion. Multi-million dollar businesses have been created trading with, literally, hot air.

This propaganda machine also affects science. Scientists working on fields having a bearing on climate or the carbon cycle are under tremendous pressure to align with the official position out of fear of being stigmatized. Beyond this, there are so many funds earmarked for climate studies that scientists presently or potentially benefiting from them are tempted to help to prolong the situation. If they can push their interpretations here or there, their results may produce yet another scare that will call for further funds and studies that will secure their future. At the same time, scientists can feel perfectly safe about such tactics because the pressure from the official man-made global warming position shields them from scientific criticism.

“Relevant science” and the scramble for cash

There is one more subtle way in which lack of veracity creeps in into the scientific profession. In the present financial climate complete honesty becomes more difficult because scientists at work may be defending not just their ideas but their own survival. Competition for research funds is ever increasing as more and more people pursue a career in science. And yet there has been a very significant reduction of available funds – drastic in some countries – which means that scientists are frustrated because they lack the funds to carry out their research.

But a more important problem arises as institutions place greater weight on financial aspects when evaluating scientists. This means that the amount of money that scientists secure for their own research, from private hands or the taxpayer, is now a very important element in their evaluation at the institutions where they work, whereas the more traditional yardstick of scientific publications and their impact in their fields are becoming less important. Consequently, scientists without sufficient financial support do not progress in their careers and may even lose their jobs.

Parallel to this phenomenon, there has been an increasing involvement of non-scientists in the distribution of research funds. Funding agencies have become bigger, hosting larger numbers of staff with no training in science and with little understanding of science, how it works and how it delivers. The agencies are fostering the idea that scientific research should be “relevant”, that is, it should generate knowledge that can be used immediately for the benefit of society. There is a tremendous error in this conception because the really relevant science, the discoveries that have changed our lives forever, have been driven, in the overwhelming majority of cases, exclusively by the curiosity of the scientists and in contexts totally alien to problem-solving. This is obvious to whoever may care to carry out a historical survey of scientific discoveries, but managers of research funds fail to see it.

Untruthful science makes us all losers

Scientists are now asked to indicate in their research proposals how their science will be “relevant” to society: what will be the benefits for industry, business, medicine, the environment…? The question misses the point because the important issue in the minds of the scientists is to understand better the workings of nature. For this very reason the question about “relevance” does not often have an answer, or not yet. Scientists are then forced to look for connections between their studies and possible applications. They stretch their imagination to find subtle links between their future results and pervasive problems that their studies, they say, will soon help to solve or alleviate, while not believing a word of it. In other words, they make statements that they know are not true. They do it in order to be able to enter the game of securing funds.

The scientists that review the research projects for the funding agencies also realize that these claims are too farfetched to be of value, but they allow a degree of dishonesty because the funding agencies are placing a useless, “irrelevant” requirement in their application procedures.

At this point, the scientist’s honesty is damaged. The person in search of truth about nature departs from truth in order to be allowed to carry out this task. But the temptation may go beyond this because the very job of the scientist may be at stake. When producing their results, scientists may have in mind future opportunities of funding and decide to colour their data in the way most favourable for their future work.

A system that fosters dishonesty at some stage of its operation is likely to foster it also at later and more crucial stages. The link between science and truth may become more flexible in the future, and all of us will be the losers.

Javier Cuadros is an Earth Scientist working in London, UK.

MORE ON THESE TOPICS | climate change, funding, science
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