The Stifling of Science 1/20/19

By Richard E. Bleil, Ph.D.

Science is under assault on several fronts today, some of which might surprise you, others that will not. The current political climate is the most recent problem. Some years ago, Al Gore directed a film called “An Inconvenient Truth”, which delineated what he viewed as a serious threat to our climate. Today, global scientists are predicting that the “tipping point” to global disaster is about twelve years away, meaning that without significant changes, the damage will be irreversible around 2030.

As it turns out, the title of Al Gores film is as prophetic as the film itself. Today we are caught in a struggle between those companies that have embraced clean energy and reducing their carbon footprint and those afraid of change. As it turns out, those companies moving to “green technology” are discovering that it is lucrative, with long term savings paying for the initial investments and more. On the other hand, we have oil and coal companies, who have accumulated a good deal of wealth over the years. Unfortunately, rather than investing these funds into new and emerging markets, they’ve instead spent a good deal of it on political favors and lobbyists.

Today, we have an administration that has made no efforts to show its support of outdated and dangerous industries as well as its disdain for science. The administration has appointed former lobbyists and CEOs of oil and coal corporations into positions to oversee departments of science, dismissed scientific reports from their own internal sources, and has passed legislation that is contrary to the findings of scientific communities. These actions have empowered their base, thereby heating up not only the debate on whether or not science is to be believed, but outright hostility towards science as well.

Another source of antipathy towards science, of course, is religion, but today this source has been empowered by the growing movement of “natural healing”. The Dalai Lama said “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change.” This is a refreshing embrace of science, as opposed to religions that insist that the world is only about two thousand years old and ignoring evidence of evolution because it’s counter to their literal interpretation of the Bible. This is kind of old news, but an outcropping of this anti-science bias comes in the form of “anti-vaxxers”.

While some of the movement towards “natural” foods is based on at least some sound arguments, too much of this movement has been based on poor arguments of people claiming to be experts on questionable credentials. Companies selling pesticides and herbicides are often blamed for causing health problems, and there seems to be some support for this claim, although not to the extent that many people claim. These arguments have extended to the concept that vaccinations cause problems, which ride on the back of claims such as those against these chemical companies.

Such arguments, however, ignore legitimate science, and put false claims and outdated information ahead of science. The “experts” claiming harm from the vaccinations either have no credentials, or often are proven to have falsified them. All too often, these people are using fear mongering to promote some form of product, and these products are often not regulated. The result of this fear mongering is a growing number of parents refusing to vaccinate their children. Science demonstrates that since the rise of this movement, serious diseases that were epidemic proportions in the past, and almost eradicated, are making a comeback.

By ignoring the science behind vaccination, these parents, whether they are aware of it or not, are creating hostility towards science. I can search the web and find proof for just about any theory that you like but not from legitimate sources. The children of these parents are seeing the controversy in which they are embroiled, and, no doubt, are seeing the arguments both for and against vaccinations. In these arguments, they see their parents ignoring legitimate science sources in favor of pseudo-science. As these children grow up, they are likely to follow the lead of their parents and learn to seek sources to support their beliefs, rather than examine their beliefs in the light of legitimate scientific studies that might challenge them.

One of the most annoying ways that science is stifled, however, is from within science itself. This might seem surprising, but it’s unfortunately all too true. On of the first steps in scientific research is a literature search, and the final step is publication. To understand the issue, though, it is important to realize that the most important scientific publications are controlled by the professional scientific organizations.

This is significant, because the publications controlled by these organizations are “peer reviewed”, meaning that every article published has been reviewed by at least a few experts in the field, all of whom agree that the article is worthy of publication. The authors and the reviewers do not receive any form of compensation outside of the honor of being published, and sometimes have to pay to get their article published even after the peer review.

One of the key features of an article that the reviewers will look for is the literature search. This literature search must be given in a bibliography, and must be done using “legitimate” peer reviewed sources. This means that the literature search must be done from journals from professional scientific organizations. Unfortunately, these organizations have priced these journals in such a way that only large research organizations can afford to have access to them.

By pricing the journals essential for research to be published in their journals blocks out small institution scientists and amateur scientists from the ability to get their work published. This is a form of elitism. As I took a position in higher education, it was in a small college with the primary focus on teaching as I this is my personal proclivity. At the time (as now, if I’m being completely honest with myself), I had desires to continue my research. Unfortunately, I never had access to the journals necessary to be taken seriously as a scientist.

With all of these sources of bias, both outside and inside of science, one has to wonder what the future of science might look like. It is time to take science more seriously at the risk of serious health and potentially death in the future of the human species, just as it is time to re-examine control of scientific findings at the risk of elitism within science itself.

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