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Anti-Science in Light of Personal and Professional Responsibility. Part II.

In my last blog, I discussed Orac’s definitions of the terms anti-science and deniers and suggested a third category for people who make claims yet refuse to defend them—cowards. In this blog I want to continue this theme, and expand on some concepts, in addition to examining the motivation behind large, influential groups, specifically the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Despite frequently stating or implying how smart they, as scientists, are, many scientists use fallacies and are unversed in critical thinking. I take issue with post-modernism occasionally in this blog and much post-modernism nonsense comes from sociology departments. But I must admit that recently I have been very impressed with certain sociologists and sociology departments that are teaching and practicing critical thinking. I wish that scientists in general were as skilled at thinking critically as some of the sociology majors and sociologists I have recently encountered. Sadly, as a rule, I have not found that to be the case. For example, as Orac pointed out some people reject certain scientifically tenable positions based on ideology. These people are not anti-science or stupid but they are thinking uncritically. In the final analysis, there is little difference between being anti-science and refusing to think critically. You come to the wrong answer whether you deny the importance of science or confirm the importance of science while denying the importance of critical thinking.

Lets take the issue of using animals in research as an example. The AAAS gave an award to Drs. Jentsch, London, and Ringach and stated that: “the use of animals has been and continues to be essential not only in applied research with direct clinical applications in humans and animals.” Pretty straightforward. The AAAS is one of the largest scientific organizations in the world and claims to be “an international non-profit organization dedicated to advancing science around the world by serving as an educator, leader, spokesperson and professional association . . . [serving] some 262 affiliated societies and academies of science, serving 10 million individuals.” The AAAS has an office in Washington DC and exerts influence over the scientific agenda of the US and abroad. Moreover, the AAAS interacts with all major research universities if not all universities. When the AAAS speaks, people in government listen.

The AAAS is not merely a biological science organization. It represents, and has members from, the science disciplines of engineering, physics, geology, anthropology, chemistry, mathematics, meteorology and so on. So when the AAAS says that the results from animal models translate directly to humans, they have the backing of essentially the entire scientific community, broadly defined. Right? There is certainly evidence that they do. No university, or academic or professional society, has, to the best of my knowledge, disagreed with the AAAS regarding their contention that animal models are predictive modalities for human response to drugs and disease. I do not hear from anyone in the physics community objecting to this position on the grounds that animals and humans are examples of complex systems and hence extrapolation between two such systems should be suspect just based on the characteristics of complex systems. Nor do I hear the evolutionary biology community questioning the AAAS position based on the fact that animals and humans have evolved to fill different niches and that evolution has resulted in the same trait being accomplished by different mechanisms. I have not heard evolutionary biologists discussing the problems with extrapolation that should be expected to occur in light of species differences like differences in genes, gene regulation, gene expression, gene networks, pleiotropy, alternative splicing and so on. I have not encountered articles from the medical societies expressing that they are up in arms about the extremely poor record of animal-based research in predicting human response, in translational research, or in basic research. So there is a prima facie case to be made, indeed a very strong prima facie case in my opinion, for the position that the entire scientific establishment supports the AAAS position. I disagree with the position, yet I cannot really explain my antagonists’ stance based on lack of scientific expertise or lack of critical thinking skills (although there may be a portion of both present in some of the people who remain silent).

Once again, however, there are some niggling concerns about the AAAS position. First, the pharmaceutical industry is speaking out, and speaking out quite loudly, saying that animal models cannot predict human response. As this industry is arguably the one where the application of animal-based research is most falsifiable and where the most applications are attempted, this should give one pause. Second, representatives from the AAAS and or their affiliated societies and universities will not defend the science undergirding their position in a public venue, such as the scientific literature. They will not debate this issue against me in any form or fashion. When a science organization that purportedly exists to: “Foster education in science and technology for everyone,” refuses to participate in what can only be described as science education on a very important topic, that too should give one pause. Third, as it happens, there is a lot of money involved in the animal-based research industry.

As I have stated before, animal-based research brings in billions of dollars to US universities. This is not the money that the researcher uses to perform the research. This is “overhead” money that the president or dean can use for whatever he sees fit. Overhead charges for animal-based research range from ~30% to 800% depending on the research institute. That means if a researcher needs $250,000 for her project, she must apply for $500,000 (assuming a 100% overhead charge). That money can be used for whatever purpose the university decides. In all times, but especially these financially challenging times, universities depend on that money. Challenging the source of that cash will not be productive for one’s career advancement. (Clinical research, on the other hand, comes with no overhead charges for the university, which explains the emphasis on animal-based research in universities.)

Scientists, including physicians and veterinarians, have an unfortunate history of not always representing truth and ethics. The physicians and scientists of Nazi Germany, the Tuskegee and, more recently in the news, Guatemala, syphilis studies come immediately to mind. Anyone who questions the fact that scientists can be as corrupt as anyone else need only read Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. The subtitle of Merchants of Doubt is How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, and that is what the book is about. Many scientists, very respected scientists, have lied in order to advance a political agenda and or for money. Some even do so under the guise of representing science. This gets us back to Orac’s distinction between deniers and those who are truly anti-science. This is the classification to which I added the category, cowards. I stand by that addition but there is more to the story.

Oreskes and Conway go on to list some of the reasons scientists in general allow nonsense to slide by without objection. They list, among others, lack of courage, fear of being misinterpreted by other scientists, the specialization of knowledge, little taste for controversy, lack of communication skills or an outright lack of respect for scientists who do attempt to communicate science to the general nonscientific public, an unwillingness to risk appearing less than objective, naiveté, and fear of censure. All of these are consistent with my experiences both in the animals in research controversy and in science in general. This is not a flattering portrayal of the scientific community, but I am certain that it is a true one.

Again, going back to Orac’s deniers versus anti-science, in addition to cowards perhaps there are yet another two categories. 1. The self-serving, who would gladly use whatever means available for their advancement but who, for whatever reasons, find themselves in the field of science and therefore use science for their purposes. 2. The shruggies, as Orac, Novella, and others refer to them. Jones: “Shruggie (noun): a person who doesn’t care about the science versus pseudoscience debate. When presented with descriptions of exaggerated or fraudulent health claims or practices, their response is to shrug. Shruggies are fairly inert, they will not argue the merits (or lack thereof) of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) or pseudoscience in general. They simply aren’t all that interested in the discussion, and are somewhat puzzled by those who are.”

The shruggies deserve a category of their own as well as a unique form of contempt, but I will not dwell further on them as I want to explore the differences between the self-serving and the cowards.

I grant that it will be difficult to distinguish between the self-serving and the coward but allow me to point out some of the differences even if they may not be amenable to observation. The self-serving know that they are wrong. They refrain from challenges because they know they are wrong and do not want to lose the rewards that accompany their position, for example their salary or prestige, by being publically exposed. The self-serving are not stupid and tend to be part of the in crowd. They are usually popular, know the inside jokes, and know very well how the game is played. The coward may or may not fully realize he is scientifically incorrect because he is afraid to even examine his own position honestly. The coward fears everything including truth. There is no way he will ever analyze why he has the position. The coward refrains from challenges because he is a coward. No other justification needed. The self-serving individual is not a coward; he just doesn’t want the gravy train to end. If he can rig the fight so he cannot lose, then he will gladly fight. If the coward could get beyond his cowardice he might turn into a self-server or he might become honest. The self-server will never change.

Each will use anything to excuse their lack of accountability. “I am scared the animal rights people will kill me.” Which is said while writing polemics under their own name and giving lectures and publically debating ethics. “I am the almighty scientist and need answer to no one.” Which is said while defending science as self-correcting and pure. “I have thoroughly addressed this.” Which is said regarding a 5-minute encounter on CNN or a round table discussion with 5 other participants or after an unchallenged (because a challenge was not allowed by the journal) diatribe has been published in the scientific literature.

When you combine all of the above you can easily understand why the argument from authority is a fallacy (see my blogs Argument From Authority. Part I, Part II and Part III) and why large, powerful organizations stay large and powerful and are able to make a prima facie case for whatever they wish. Very few will challenge the powerful, though the reasons vary considerably, even when the positions they present are nonsense. If there is money involved, large powerful organizations will find a way to get some of that money for themselves and, once they have succeeded, will use their prestige and power to maintain the status quo. Read Respectful Insolence and Science-Based Medicine if you think this situation is unique to the nonsense regarding animal models. Quackery in many forms is being embraced by America’s leading university-based medical institutions in order to make a buck. (Perhaps the only good thing about this situation is that scientists such as Orac cannot claim that academic medicine would never stoop so low as to promote nonsense for money. Such claims have been made, historically.)

I find the following to be good rules for life.

  1. Vested interest groups, like companies in general, exist to make money. Period.
  2. If it involves money, it can be, and probably has been, corrupted.
  3. Vested interest groups cannot be trusted to police themselves.
  4. The scientific method is the best method we have of discovering truths about the material world.
  5. Sound bites are inadequate to explain and or understand complicated or complex things. This includes most of science.
  6. Without critical thought, all is lost. 


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