The scientific establishment is inherently conservative and sets a high bar for the acceptance of new ideas, which allows for the efficient allocation of resources to fund research that makes sense and is worthwhile pursuing. Of course, like all human affairs this is not a perfect process, and sometimes the scientific establishment has rejected ideas that turned out to be true (although sometimes rightfully so), but what is the alternative? Should we have a system where every scientist with a new idea gets funded to pursue it? We can’t do this because resources are limited. The ideas of scientists are judged by the scientific establishment, which is made up of the immediate peers of scientists plus institutions, funding agencies, and the rest of the scientific community. And many of these ideas get rejected. In fact, I believe one important function of the scientific establishment is not so much accepting the right ideas but rather rejecting the wrong ones. Most scientists think that the acceptance of false ideas as true is more harmful than the rejection of true ideas as false. In this sense the scientific establishment is the keeper of the virtue of science because it protects science and society at large from ideas or claims that are wrong, fraudulent, or just plain stupid. Let’s look at some notable false ideas rejected by the scientific establishment.
Stefan Marinov (1931 - 1997) was a Bulgarian physicist who often advocated contrarian ideas in science. He strongly argued for the reality of perpetual motion machines which would yield free energy, and against mainstream scientific theories such as the theory of relativity. Marinov’s experimental results were never replicated and his views were never accepted by most scientists. Towards the end of his life even he found evidence that a perpetual motion machine he had built did not work and that a physical law that he had criticized was correct after all.
The American molecular biologist Peter Duesberg (1936 - ) performed pioneering work in how viruses can cause cancer, but when the HIV virus was identified in the 1980s as the cause of Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS), Duesberg refused to accept this, and he started publishing articles opposing the idea. Duesberg began gathering supporters which ended up forming a sizeable and vocal group that developed some political, social, and media clout. The group considered that AIDs was not caused by the HIV virus but by other factors that could include drug use, sexual behavior, malnutrition, inadequate sanitation, or hemophilia. Among the AIDS denialists were individuals of note such as Nobel Prize winning scientist Kari Mullis and National Medal of Science winning scientist Lynn Margulis. Thanks to the scientific establishment, these erroneous ideas were not accepted and the identification of the HIV virus and the acceptance that it caused AIDS permitted the development of tests and therapies. The sad exception was South Africa where the government bought into the arguments of the AIDS denialists delaying antiviral treatments to people suffering from AIDS which led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands.
Paul Kammerer (1880 - 1926) an Austrian biologist who strongly advocated a theory opposite to Darwinian evolution called Lamarckism. This theory posits that organisms can pass to their descendants traits that they acquire during their lives. To buttress his arguments he famously presented the results of an experiment where he forced toads that normally mate on land to mate in the water. He reported that over two generations the toads developed black pads on their feet (nuptial pads) which provided more traction for the process of mating in the water. He stated that these pads were an acquired trait that proved his views. However, it was discovered that the pads had been created by the injection of ink into the feet of the toads. Kammerer acknowledged the finding, but claimed he was innocent of the forgery. Other have tried to reproduce Kammerer’s experimental results, but were not successful. The scientific establishment never accepted his ideas.
In 1988 the French scientist Jacques Benveniste (1935-2004) published an experiment that seemed to lend credence to the concept of homeopathy in which extremely diluted solutions are claimed to have effects even though no trace of any solute is present. A team sent by a science journal to Benveniste’s lab could not replicate the experiment under rigorous conditions and other scientists have not been able to replicate the results either. Alleged homeopathic effects have also been claimed to have been detected by the Nobel Prize winning scientists Brian Josephson and Luc Montagnier, but attempts to validate their claims have failed. The scientific establishment does not accept the occurrence of homeopathic effects or homeopathy to be a valid science.
In 2020, the journals Lancet and New England Journal of Medicine published articles that claimed that the drug hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) did not have effects against COVID-19 and in fact was harmful to human patients. Many scientists read the articles and spotted several problems that were communicated to the editors of the journals and the authors of the articles. The articles were then retracted. Despite the criticisms, this affair demonstrated that the scientific process worked. Error was detected, addressed, and corrected. On the flipside, the claim that HCQ works against COVID-19 has been pushed by doctors such as Vladimir Zelenko, scientists such as the Yale epidemiologist Harvey Risch, and groups such as the Front-Line Doctors, but so far HCQ has not been found to work as a single agent or when combined with antibiotics against COVID-19 in the best designed studies, or to have antiviral effects against the COVID-19 virus. When it comes to HCQ the scientific establishment has been able so far to discard false claims both for and against HCQ.
The foregoing are but a very tiny fraction of the ideas that have been evaluated, questioned, and discarded by the scientific establishment. Thanks to the scientific establishment, society is not mired in error, wasting resources on nonsense, and isn’t flooded with quack cures and ineffective therapies. That is part of what the scientific establishment has done for you.
The image from Alpha Stock Images by Nick Youngson is used here under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) license.
Power to the people was a slogan used in the United States during the sixties and beyond intended to be an exhortation to free the people from the oppression of the establishment. Although the slogan was originally political, it has been applied to many areas of human endeavor where there are institutions controlling an activity that many people would rather not have anyone control. The process of passing a certain amount of control from the establishment to the people has played out throughout modern history in many areas and is still doing so. Let me give you three examples.
The first example is beer. In the United States after prohibition was repealed in 1933, the majority of beer brewing was carried out by large brewing companies, and brewing your own beer at home was illegal. The situation began to change in 1978 when President Jimmy Carter signed a bill that made brewing beer at home legal. Another bill that had been signed in 1976 by President Gerald Ford had decreased the beer tax on small breweries. This set the stage for many home brewers to enter the beer brewing business as “craft brewers”. The process was further empowered by the state-by-state wave of legalization of brewpubs which started 1982. In 1979 there were 90 breweries in the US and by 2019 there were 5,301 breweries, of which 5,234 were craft breweries that accounted for more than 25% of sales in the 116 billion US beer market. Many people agree that when it comes to beer, giving the people the power to make and sell their own beer has been a positive development.
A second example is music. Up to the year 2000 six major record labels held a monopoly on the music business. To hear music, people had to listen to the radio, buy records, tapes, or CDs from a distributor, or pay to go to a concert if you lived close enough to a concert venue. Whether a band made it or not depended on whether they were “discovered” by record companies. With the advent of the internet all this changed. People began to download or share music for free with services like those offered by Napster and the many imitators that it spawned, which cut significantly into the profits of record companies and record stores. Musicians started posting their music and their concerts online, gaining followers through social media, and developing and managing their own business brands selling merchandise. Today these independent musicians are part of an industry worth more than one billion dollars which is still growing.
A third example is literature. The big publishing houses had always held a monopoly on which authors got published. They acted like gatekeepers, deciding who was worthy of being published and who wasn’t. With the advent of the internet, self-publishing platforms arose that allowed people who became known as “indie authors” to bypass publishing houses and take their literature directly to an audience. Today these self-publishing authors account for more than 30% of electronic book sales and 17% of print book sales.
The same trend that we have witnessed in the areas of beer, music, and literature have also spread to other areas wrestling power away from the traditional players and giving it to the people. I certainly believe this is a positive development, but what happens when that development extends to reality?
During the last few years we have witnessed a denigration of journalists and traditional news outlets. Piece after piece of investigative journalism has been labelled "fake news" regardless of the validity of the evidence presented. Alternative news outlets have sprung up that promote baseless conspiracy theories to which millions of people have flocked, and an increasing number of people also get their news from questionable social media sources. We have seen the rise of “alternative facts”, and the disregard for truth has become so dire that the Oxford Dictionary in 2016 labelled “post-truth” as the word of the year. This term is intended to describe a situation where facts have become less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal beliefs.
The above phenomenon is not just limited to journalists and news outlets, but it has also affected science and scientists, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people believe that scientists are beholden to powerful interests and therefore are not to be trusted. These people get their science from alternative sites that promote contrarian scientists rejected by the scientific establishment or from social media accounts that disseminate biased science views. We have ended up with a significant segment of the population believing that COVID-19 is no worse than the flu, that masks are not effective, that hydroxychloroquine is effective against COVID-19, and that the COVID-19 vaccines are unsafe. These people who have not taken the virus seriously have served as incubators for the pathogen, and because the more a virus spreads, the more it mutates, this increases the likelihood that more infectious variants will arise that may even be resistant to current vaccines to a certain extent. There are some viral variants that have originated in the United States.
I mentioned the cases or beer, music, and literature as examples where taking away power from the institutions and giving it to the people has been something positive. Beer, music, and literature connoisseurs may decry this process lamenting that the standards for good beer, music, and literature have been degraded. However, what constitutes good beer, music, or literature is in the end a subjective opinion. That, however, is not the case with reality.
Reality exists independent from us and our beliefs. Reality is not an opinion. Alternative realities are not realities, they are fictions. If the glass is filled to half of its volume with a liquid, that is a fact. There is no alternative way to view this reality. Saying anything different is at best a mistake and at worst a lie. We can discuss at length whether the glass should be viewed as half full or as half empty, but that is an interpretation of the reality which is something entirely different. Some persons will argue that differences in the perception of reality by people are to be expected. However, these differences in the perception of reality are only valid if they have a high degree of correlation to the reality. If you are walking towards the edge of a cliff, regardless of the way you perceive reality, you have to be able to identify that what’s ahead of you is the edge of a cliff. If you don’t, you will get hurt or die.
Taking away power from those that report on or discover reality and giving it to the people is not a positive development if the people make up, believe, and promote false realities. This is how we end up with global warming, 911, and COVID-19 severity denial, creationism, vaccine hesitancy, skepticism about the 2020 election, chemtrails, the flat Earth, and QAnon.
Musical note image by ruhbastard, foamy beer glass image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images, book image by OpenClipart-Vectors, and fist image by Tchekele, all from pixabay, are free for commercial use and have been blended into one image.
The general public believes that successful scientists are those who discover something important or propose a new theory that explains things that no one could explain before. However, this belief leaves out a critical detail. How is it decided whether the discovery is valid or the theory is right? After all, maybe the scientists made a mistake in the observations and/or experiments that the discovery is based upon, or maybe the scientists missed some crucial details when formulating the theory. Who decides if this is the case? The answer is: their peers.
The work of scientists is evaluated by their peers. These are scientists who are also experts in the field. Successful scientists are not just those who make discoveries and propose new theories. Successful scientists are those who convince their peers that the discoveries they made are valid and that the theories they proposed are right. The peers of a scientist are what constitute the most immediate branch of the so-called “scientific establishment”. Success in science is convincing the scientific establishment that you are right.
In this sense the scientific establishment is the keeper of the virtue of science. If you want to get your ideas accepted and the old ideas thrown out, you have to convince other scientists that you are right. Many of these scientists are going to evaluate your ideas and even try to reproduce your observations and/or experiments, and if they don’t think your ideas make sense, or they don’t obtain the same results, or make the same observations, you will get nowhere. And the more revolutionary your ideas are, the harder it is to convince the scientific establishment. This is because science is very conservative and the bar to overturn established scientific knowledge is set quite high.
Because of the above, the scientific establishment sometimes rejects new ideas that are true. I have already mentioned the cases of Carlos Finaly who proposed that mosquitoes transmitted Yellow Fever, Alfred Wegener who proposed that that continents move (Continental Drift), and of Stanley Prusiner who proposed the existence of a new infectious agent (Prion) made up only of protein. These scientists had to persevere for a long time against resistance and often outright hostility from their peers to get their ideas accepted. However, for every visionary that is given a hard time by their peers and nevertheless succeeds, the scientific establishment rejects hundreds of others that most of the time are just individuals who propose an idea that turns out to be wrong and even sometimes individuals who turn out to be frauds.
When a scientist is rejected by the scientific establishment what happens next depends on the individual scientist. Some scientists are unconvinced by the objections to their ideas and keep on fighting to get accepted. Others admit that their ideas were not so great after all and move on to developing other ideas. Still another group of scientists may quit research altogether and go into other areas where their scientific training allows them to make a living. Nevertheless, all these scientists share one characteristic. They are all willing to be judged by their peers. They understand that their success relies in convincing other scientists that they are right. All these scientists, whether they make it in science or not, accept the role of the scientific establishment as the ultimate arbiter of what is accepted or not.
However, a new option has opened up for scientists in modern times, and that is taking your case to “The People”. This option works best if your particular area of research has captivated the attention of the public, and especially if it has become politicized. The individuals that exploit this option claim that the scientific establishment is beholden to powerful interests, and because their ideas go against those interests, they are being unfairly attacked and rejected by their peers. These scientists normally peddle their grievances to segments of the population that for one reason or another are opposed to the scientific establishment. The beauty of this approach is that, 1) the general public is not qualified to judge the quality of a scientist’s ideas in a complex field of research, and 2) you will always find a lot of goodwill among people if you are perceived to be battling their favorite boogeyman.
If the scientists taking their case to "The People" are savvy in public relations and communication, they can develop a large following of individuals who will attend their lectures, buy their books and other products, and even make donations to promote their cause. Scientists that are successful in taking their case to "The People" have bypassed the checks and balances of science and are free to promote any idea regardless of its scientific validity. Far from this being an innocuous activity, capturing the imagination of people with wrong or unproven ideas can have dire consequences.
For example, I have mentioned the case of the scientist Peter Duesberg who back in the 1980s opposed the finding that the HIV virus causes the disease AIDS, and that antiretroviral drugs were required to treat AIDS patients. Duesberg developed a very vocal following of scientists and non-scientists who were dubbed the AIDS denialists. This group and their ideas was shunned by the scientific establishment, but they succeeded in convincing many people among which was the South African president Thabo Mbeki who delayed the introduction of anti-AIDS drugs into South Africa leading to hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths.
Another example I have mentioned is the case of the British scientist Andrew Wakefield who in 1998 published an article where he alleged a link between the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. The article was widely publicized by the media, and many parents concerned about the issue refused to vaccinate their children leading to an increase in the rates of the diseases and several deaths. It was eventually found that Wakefield had modified the patients’ medical histories and the article was retracted due to scientific misconduct. Numerous studies have not found any links between autism and vaccines. Wakefield lost his license to practice medicine in the United Kingdom, and moved to the US where he acquired a large following and helped spawn the modern antivaccination movement which has created the dangerous situation of vaccine hesitancy.
So be highly skeptical of scientists that take their case to “The People”. These individuals have been rejected by their peers for a reason. It is very likely that their ideas are wrong. If you follow them, you do so at your own peril.
The image, which is not related to the topic of this post, is a free download from pixy.org, and is in the public domain.
I have been posting on social media about the COVID-19 pandemic, and I have encountered a series of misconceptions that people have about doctors, scientists, and the scientific establishment, so let me address them in this post.
Doctors and non-physician scientists have been trained in the methods and ways of science, so in that sense they are both scientists, but with one important distinction. The goal of doctors is to save and improve the lives of their patients, and that is even more so during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the goal of scientists is to figure out what drugs and treatments actually work. Scientists need time to carry out research, but most doctors often don’t have time. The patient is sick NOW and may die, so what do we do? That is the question doctors have to answer in a hurry. When dealing with a disease that has many unknowns such as COVID-19, doctors often have to improvise. This is why doctors have (within reason) freedom to treat their patients as they see fit in consultation with them, although this freedom is regulated by the law, and may be restricted further if the doctor belongs an institution or organization that adheres to certain policies.
While doctors and scientists understand that this freedom to deal with a patient’s illness is necessary, both doctors and scientists also understand that, barring some drug or treatment that is exceptionally effective, any treatments doctors come up with can only be validated by well-designed clinical trials. In fact, the majority of doctors will modify their treatments based on the results of clinical trials. Observational studies, where patients are sorted into treated and non-treated groups in a retrospective fashion, are highly prone to biases and cannot substitute for randomized trials. The authors of any such study will state as much when discussing the limitations of their study. This fact is widely accepted by the medical and scientific communities. However, when treating patients doctors deal with situations that often go beyond the mere effectiveness of a drug. For example, if a patient is strongly convinced that a worthless drug will help him or her, the doctor may choose to prescribe the drug anyway (if it is safe) just to exploit the placebo effect.
So next time you hear somebody not trained in science or even some doctors and some scientists say things such as, “Doctor’s know best.” or “We don’t need randomized trials.” or even “We don’t need any trials.”, remember that they represent a minority of all the doctors and scientists who know what works best and how.
Now let’s deal next with the scientific establishment.
The scientific establishment has been getting a bad rap lately. A series of individuals and groups have gone to the press and social media to claim that the scientific establishment has aligned itself with the interests of pharmaceutical companies to promote their expensive and dangerous drugs or vaccines while rejecting cheap alternatives like hydroxychloroquine (HCQ). They allege that the scientific establishment has known for more than a decade that HCQ works against viruses like the one that causes COVID-19. They allege that the scientific establishment was involved in designing the HCQ trials with high toxic doses on purpose so the negative results could be used against the drug. They allege that the scientific establishment was responsible for the publication of articles based on fraudulent data against HCQ in top journals to give the drug a bad name. And finally they allege that those who reject HCQ are complicit in the murder of tens of thousands of Americans!
I have addressed several aspects of these arguments before, so I will only do a brief recap here. The evidence for HCQ having activity against a virus similar to COVID-19 was very preliminary, and turned out to be misleading (see below). Of all the drugs submitted for approval to the FDA, only 14% are approved, and the same trial that found no effect of HCQ (the Recovery Trial) found an effect of steroids, which are cheap generic drugs. Why would this be the case if the scientific establishment is a puppet of big pharma? The HCQ trials were designed with those high doses to favor HCQ, which was considered to be a weak antiviral (now we know that HCQ has no antiviral activity against COVID-19). And those articles based on fraudulent data were retracted. Error was detected, addressed, and eliminated. This is how science should work.
I have not addressed the “thousands of deaths” argument before, so I will devote a few sentences to it. Someone honestly convinced about the effectiveness of a therapy and concerned about the lives of patients may use this argument sincerely. However, this argument is a double edged sword, because it is a common subterfuge employed by quacks as a form of emotional blackmail to get worthless therapies or products approved without scrutiny. Many doctors and scientists upon hearing this argument will immediately adopt an adversarial or at least unsympathetic position, because the assumption is that you don’t have the science that it takes to back your claims. So it is not a good idea to use it. When addressing the scientific establishment, you are better served using the common language of evidence, facts, and science.
The scientific establishment fulfills an important role in science. The scientific establishment is the keeper of the virtue of science. It protects science against fraud and error. It protects science against dangerous, unproven, or just merely stupid ideas. It protects science against the “unreasonable men”. The scientific establishment is conservative and sets a high bar for the acceptance of evidence. While the scientific establishment has made mistakes in rejecting ideas that were true (although sometimes rightfully so), the overall effect of the scientific establishment is a positive influence upon science.
But who or what is the scientific establishment? Critics of the scientific establishment tend to equate it with the leaders of scientific institutions who have the power. This is not true. While the scientific establishment has centers of power, it is made up of millions of voices, each contributing to the debate at different levels and vying to be heard. The scientific establishment is the combined effect of the scientific community. From those scientists who work in labs, to those who perform clinical trials. From those scientists who perform research to those who teach and communicate science to society. From those scientists who advise the heads of government, to those who criticize them, and those who criticize the critics. Although the scientific establishment contains a vast marketplace of ideas, it has a tried and true method to discern which ideas are true and which are not: the scientific method. And one of the things on which the vast majority of scientists agree is that they are unwilling to yield to any pressure that involves compromising this method.
Image from Pixabay by Peggy_Marco is in the public domain.