Suppression of Science Within Science

I wasn't as surprised as many others were, when it was revealed that climate-change "researchers" had discussed in private e-mails how to keep important data from public view lest it shake public belief in the dogma that human activities are contributing significantly to global warming.

I wasn't particularly surprised because just a few weeks earlier I had spoken at the Oakland Rethinking AIDS Conference about the dogmatism and strong-arm tactics that are rampant in a seemingly increasing range of fields of medicine and science. PowerPoint presentations of most of the talks at the Conference are available at the Conference website. Here's a slightly modified, more readable, text version of my own talk. The theme in a nutshell:

For several centuries, modern science was pretty much a free intellectual market populated by independent entrepreneurs who shared the goal of understanding how the world works. Nowadays it's a corporate enterprise where patents, pay-offs, prestige, and power take priority over getting at the scientific truth, and the powers-that-be have established knowledge monopolies.

I had met Peter Duesberg in person only at the Conference, but I had been quite familiar with him from many videos. What had always stuck in my mind was his expression of surprise, astonishment, sheer disbelief, as he told what happened to him after he questioned whether HIV could be the cause of AIDS:

I had all the students I wanted . . . lab space . . . grants . . . . elected to the National Academy. . . . became California Scientist of the Year. All my papers were published. I could do no wrong . . . professionally . . . until I started questioning . . . that HIV is the cause of AIDS. Then everything changed.

What happened then was that he got no more grants; his manuscripts were rejected without substantive critiques, just that "everyone knows that HIV causes AIDS"; Robert Gallo, who earlier had talked of Duesberg's distinction as a leading retrovirologist, now publicly called him dishonest on scientific matters. Defenders of the mainstream view have even held Duesberg responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of South Africans and have described him as the moral equivalent of a Holocaust denier.

What had Duesberg done to bring about that radical change?

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Absolutely nothing. He was doing science just as before: gathering data, documenting his sources, making his analyses, presenting his conclusions for comment by others. Of course Duesberg was surprised that suddenly he had gone from lauded leading scientist to discredited crackpot.

Of course Duesberg was surprised, because his experience of suddenly being sent beyond the pale was obviously an aberration. Science isn't like this. Science is done by the objective self-correcting scientific method. Peer review is impersonal and impartial. Arguments are substantive, not ad hominem. This experience must be unprecedented, unique.

Or, perhaps, shared just by other AIDS Rethinkers, because questioning that HIV causes AIDS is just too outrageous, and quite justifiably it puts AIDS "denialists" outside the norms of scientific behavior and discourse. You wouldn't find anything like this in other, more normal fields of medicine or science.

Well, actually, you would. You do. Duesberg and AIDS Rethinkers are not alone in this. Duesberg's experience is not unique, it's even far from unique.

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For example, there's The Skeptical Environmentalist (Cambridge University Press, 2001) in which Bjørn Lomborg discussed global warming and pointed out, documented by >500 mainstream source-references, that Kyoto-type policies would not reduce warming enough to avoid such major consequences as sea-level rises. Therefore it makes sense to devise adaptations that will be needed in any case, a much better investment than trying to reduce global CO2 emissions.

A rather unremarkable economic argument based solidly on calculations from mainstream data.

So Lomborg was surely just as surprised, astonished, disbelieving, as Duesberg had been, to find that his scholarly discussion placed him beyond the pale of civilized scientific discourse. The Chair of the International Panel on Climate Change asked, Where is the difference between Lomborg's view on humans and Hitler's? An Australian columnist agreed: Perhaps there is a case for making climate change denial an offence – it is a crime against humanity after all. An American environmentalist seconded the notion, writing that there should be "war crimes trials for these bastards – some sort of climate Nuremberg."

Of course those comments were not made in the scientific literature, which doesn't countenance that sort of character assassination. Or so one might hope. Hope in vain, it turns out, because a book review in Nature (414: 149-50) held that Lomborg's text employs the strategy of those who . . . argue that gay men aren't dying of AIDS, that Jews weren't singled out by the Nazis for extermination. . . .

So global-warming denialism is as much beyond the pale as AIDS denialism. Except that – and perhaps you've noticed – Duesberg has never denied that AIDS exists, he just has a different explanation for what caused it. And Lomborg doesn't deny that global warming is occurring, he doesn't even question that human activities are contributing significantly to it, he is just making a cost-benefit argument.

Of course, both HIV/AIDS and global warming are matters that involve not just science but public policy and large public expenditures. You wouldn’t find anything like this in a pure science like astronomy or cosmology, would you?

Yes, you would. Yes, you do.

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Take cosmology and the Big-Bang theory of the origin of the universe. Halton Arp was a respected, senior American observational astronomer. He noticed that some pairs of quasars that are physically close together nevertheless have very different redshifts. How exciting! Evidently some redshifts are not Doppler effects, in other words, not owing to rapid relative motion away from us. That means the universe-expansion calculations have to be revised. It may not have started as a Big Bang!

That's just the sort of major potential discovery that scientists are always hoping for, isn't it?

Certainly not in this case. Arp was granted no more telescope time to continue his observations. At age 56, Halton Arp emigrated to Germany to continue his work at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics.

But Arp was not alone in his views. Thirty-four senior astronomers from 10 countries, including such stellar figures as Hermann Bondi, Thomas Gold, Amitabha Ghosh, and Jayant Narlikar, sent a letter to Nature pointing out that Big Bang theory

  • relies on a growing number of hypothetical . . . things . . . never observed;
  • that alternative theories can also explain all the basic phenomena of the cosmos
  • and yet virtually all financial and experimental resources in cosmology go to Big-Bang studies.

Just the sort of discussion that goes on in science all the time, arguing pros and cons of competing ideas.

Except that Nature refused to publish the letter.

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It was posted on the Internet, and by now hundreds of additional signatures have been added – just like what happened with the letter the Group for Rethinking AIDS had sent to Nature, Science, the Lancet, and the New England Journal of Medicine, all of which had refused to publish it.

At a mainstream conference on "Outstanding questions for the standard cosmological model" – there was not even a mention of the stunningly outstanding question of those anomalous redshifts. So the non-Big-Bang cosmologists organized their own separate meeting – again, like AIDS Rethinkers, or like those who question the mainstream dogma about how to cope with global warming.

For some reason, non-Big-Bang cosmology is as much beyond the pale as AIDS "denial" which isn't denial or global warming "denial" which isn't denial.

Then there's that most abstract of fundamental sciences, theoretical physics. The problem has long been, How to unify relativity and quantum mechanics? Quantum mechanics regards the world as made up of discrete bits whereas relativity regards the world as governed by continuous, not discrete, fields. Since the mid-1970s, there has been no real progress. Everyone has been working on so-called "string theory," which has delivered no testable conclusions and remains a hope, a speculation, not a real theory. Nevertheless, theoretical physicists who want to look at other approaches can't find jobs, can't get grants, can't get published. (Read Lee Smolin, The Trouble with Physics.)

You begin to wonder, don't you, how many other cases there could be in science, where a single theory has somehow captured all the resources? And where competent scientists who want to try something different are not only blocked but personally insulted?

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Well, there's the matter of what killed off the dinosaurs. Everyone knows that the dinosaurs were killed off 65 million years ago when an asteroid hit the Earth. Everyone knows that, that is, except the paleontologists, whose specialty this sort of question is supposed to be.

The asteroid theory had been developed by Luis Alvarez, Nobel Laureate in physics, and his son Walter, a geologist. Paleontologist Dewey McLean had earlier developed a detailed theory based on volcanism – it had long been known that tremendous volcanic activity, the "Deccan Traps," had occurred at the relevant time.

Do you think Alvarez engaged McLean in civilized, substantive discussion?

Or would you be surprised to hear that at a conference, Alvarez said to McLean in private: "I'll wreck your career if you persist." And Alvarez did indeed contact McLean's university and tried to block McLean's promotion – I know that for sure because I was Dean of Dewey McLean's College at the time.

Of course, there's always been resistance to change in science, as in other human activities. But this degree of suppression of minority views and the use of gutter language and character assassination makes it seem like a new phenomenon. At least it has seemed so to the people who have found themselves suddenly ejected from mainstream discourse and resources.

Arp, Duesberg, Lomborg, McLean and other "denialists" of various mainstream theories are surprised because it isn't supposed to be like that in science. Lomborg doesn't know that "AIDS denialists" are treated rather like "global warming denialists." Arp doesn't know that AIDS and global warming "denialists" have it even worse than those who question the Big Bang. McLean doesn't know that "denialists" about AIDS, Big-Bang, and global warming also have their careers threatened. Everyone who experiences personally this sort of thing imagines it's a unique experience, because science isn't supposed to be like this.

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But science nowadays IS like this: Disagree with the conventional contemporary scientific wisdom and you won't get grants, won't get published, will be compared to Holocaust deniers.

And it really wasn't always this way. Nowadays "science," "pure research," has become cutthroat in the extreme, and there's much corner-cutting and sheer dishonesty in science. For example, NIH newsletters routinely name specific individuals who are being barred from seeking grants for some specified period because of some act of dishonesty.

There was no need, in the good not-so-old days, for a federal Office of Research Integrity – a designation that George Orwell would have relished. But now we do have such an Office, and at colleges there are Centers for Research Ethics, and publishers put out journals like Accountability in Research – there's a burgeoning young academic industry devoted to telling scientists how to behave properly.

That's what science has come to. Genuine science, the search for better understanding, has been hijacked by self-interest and vested interests and is now captive to knowledge monopolies and research cartels: A single theory exerts dogmatic control over grants, publications, jobs, promotions.

WHY?? How did this happen?

In a follow-up piece, I'll describe how we arrived at this New World Order in Science.

December 17, 2009