Monday, May 12, 2014

Are Scientists More Objective and Rational than the Rest of Us?

No.  Not particularly.
In watching the new version of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos on TV, it was interesting to hear host and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson wax eloquently how science is based almost entirely on empirical evidence – seemingly unbiased observation and clear experiments – as opposed to the ideas of the majority of the people who are under the sway of religious dogma and mythology as well as other forms of groupthink. 

But then the show began to give hints that scientists could be every bit as biased as anyone else. There was the bit about Robert Hooke trying to take credit for some of Isaac Newton's work. And then there was the story about Robert Kehoe, a respected scientist who became an oil industry lackey who pushed the idea that lead in gasoline was not dangerously polluting the environment and was not being found in increasing concentrations everywhere. It took the stubborn persistence of another scientist, Clare Patterson, to get the truth out.

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a scientist, and I idealized scientists as having the very qualities Dr. Tyson seemed to first imply that they had. Of course, that was long before I entered academia.

I had heard about how cutthroat and vicious academic politics could be. I should have asked myself why that was. 

I didn’t think of scientists in terms of outsized egos, outsized greed, biased experimental designs that were being used to guarantee the results of an experiment before it was even done, the shunning of those with data that seemed to contradict conventional wisdom - with scientists finding ways to prevent such folks from getting their data published in “respectable” journals through the misuse of the peer review process, or by preventing them from getting funding for further research - the use of propaganda and marketing techniques to disseminate pseudo-scientific “facts,” and the powerful effects of political correctness gone amok on what scientists can and cannot say or propose to study.
How stupid could I have been to idealize these folks as somehow above all that? When I finally made it to academia, I got to witness all that up close and personal. But it was even worse that I thought. When I started doing research for my last book, How Dysfunctional Families Spur Mental Disorders, I was totally shocked by how far all this went. Many of the issues involved have been the subjects of previous posts on this blog.
I came across an article by Michael Specter in the New Yorker about how one prominent scientist, Pasko Rakic, had set the field of neurobiology back a full decade by refusing to believe a lot of data coming out that disproved the prevailing idea that sophisticated animals – and certainly humans – are born with essentially every brain cell they will ever have, and that no new neurons develop during adulthood.  

Pasko Rakic

Scientists who found this data were ignored, and some had to leave the field in frustration. It took the persistence of a willful female scientist named Elizabeth Gould to break through this scientific version of stonewalling.

Elizabeth Gould

The whole subject of scientific groupthink and misbehavior will be covered in a book I recently became involved with as a co-editor – the sequel to the book Pathological Altruism. (It probably will not be out for a couple of years).

One of the most egregious examples of political correctness stymieing science is at the heart of my understanding of self sacrifice in dysfunctional families: the work of E.O. Wilson on sociobiology and kin selection. I had once had a conversation with an evolutionary biologist who told me that only about 20% of evolutionary biologists believed in kin selection, but he strongly implied (without actually saying so) that this was due more to politics that to the science.

E.O. Wilson

As I later learned, I had guessed exactly what was going on in the field, but I had no idea it stemmed from an official published opinion piece from 1975! In reading my colleague Gregg Henrique’s book, A New Unified Theory of Psychology, I learned the following on page 166:

“…on November 13, 1975, a group of fifteen or so scholars, teachers, and students from the Boston, area (most notably among them were Wilson's Harvard colleagues, Stephen J. Gould and Richard Lewontin) formed a group called Science for the People and published a let­ter in the New York Review of Books that said that any applications of sociobiology to humans were to be condemned because they were too politically, dangerous. The letter linked examining biological bases of human behavior to Social Darwinism and Nazi Germany. Even hypotheses stemming from such ideas...

‘consistently tend to provide a genetic justification of the status quo and of existing privileges for certain groups according to class, race or sex. Historically, powerful countries or ruling groups within them have drawn support for the maintenance or extension of their power from these products of the scientific community. . .These theories provided an important basis for the enactment of sterilization laws.. .and also the eugenics policies which led to the establishment of the gas chambers in Nazi Germany.’”

Stephen J. Gould

OK. So because a scientific idea might conceivably be misused in the service of some fascist’s political agenda, we cannot talk about it?!? And one of my previous heroes, Stephen J. Gould, signed on to this? 

How ironic that ideological groupthink, which is itself a manifestation of the biological force of kin selection, is being used to intimidate those who would study kin selection.

Such objectivity. Such empiricism. Rational scientists who deal with nothing but actual evidence?  I’m sure glad that there are at least a few of them still out there.

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