Scientists Behaving Badly

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The discussions following my two last posts about climate change opinion shifts and about an anti-science coalition have made it clear that one of the reasons people distrust science is that “Science” fails to speak with one voice.  There are definitely forces from the outside of Science that erode trust, but there are also internal issues.

The problem is that Science will not ever “speak with one voice.”  Scientists often have different opinions about a given topic.  Often that simply represents a healthy part of the scientific process.  When I hear someone say, “scientists don’t even agree about this!” I want to say, “you don’t know many scientists, do you!”  We are trained to questions assumptions and scrutinize analytical methods.  We are taught how to spot artifacts and how to come up with alternate hypotheses.  Some scientists get a little aggressive about this (there is usually at least one curmudgeon in every department).

There are definitely some topics that are so complex that it is impossible to be 100% sure about conclusions.  There are questions that are not amenable to running a controlled experiment.  These are all factors that make a topic like climate change so controversial.  These are legitimate reasons for the lack of a single “answer from science.”

All the above said, there are plenty of examples of scientific disagreements that arise from what can only, honestly be called bad science. Doing science well is non-trivial.  It requires a good deal of mental rigor and comprehensive information acquisition.  If we scientists are honest we all have to admit that we can fall short of the ideal “scientific method” at times.  Trust in “Science” ultimately means trusting “Scientists” and thats sometimes where the trouble starts.  There are 5 main ways that I can think of that scientsts can “behave badly.”  Maybe you can add some more.

Drive-by Science

Many fields of science are moving so fast today that it is even difficult to keep up with your own area, let alone others.  That is why it bothers me to see scientists share “scientific” opinions about topics they might not really understand.  Its not that a smart scientist can’t do the scholarship to understand another field – they can and do, but not all of them.   Evolution is a frequent problem here.  Someone will post a list of scientists that say they don’t buy into Darwinian Evolution and it will be populated with a bunch of non-biologists.  The critical sphere for the current evolution discussion is deep into molecular genetics.  To keep up with the pace of knowledge in that area is a daunting task.  To flip that illustration upside down, I was at a plant molecular genetics conference a year ago struggling to understand the cutting-edge presentations.  I was there to talk about the issue of climate change and how these scientists could contribute to both greenhouse gas reductions in ag and to helping crops adjust to coming climate changes.  At the end I was asked to be on a panel asked to make summary statements about the conference.  I was totally impressed with what these scientists were doing, but I felt the need to chide them on a “drive-by.”  Several speakers made comments that were negative about the chemicals used in agriculture which would be fine if they knew what they were talking about.  But it was obvious that they were just sharing the outdated image of crop protection chemicals that is held by the population as a whole.  There are actually very few scientists in other fields that are up-to-speed about pesticide safety, but there are a great many who feel free to make a “drive-by” comment on the issue.

Agenda Science

I read a paper this week where researchers planted virus resistant squash and regular squash.  They observed that the beetles in the field favored feeding on the much healthier plants (smart beetles!).  The beetles spread a bacterial disease and so there was more of that disease on the virus resistant plants.  Their conclusion was that the GM crop had enhanced susceptibility to the bacteria.  You can be sure that this assertion will find its way into the anti-GMO myth network without the needed perspective.   The classic case for Agenda Science is Dr. Arpad Pusztain who genetically modified a potato with a lectin from the Snowdrop flower (a known toxin) and then fed them to rats. He said this demonstrated that GMOs could be dangerous. Dr. Pusztain became a hero to anti GMO activists, but he certainly didn’t contribute to science with this experiment which simply demonstrated that if you do something obviously unwise, you end up doing something obviously unwise.

Non-contextual Science

A classic example here is a list of the “Ten Riskiest Foods…” based on food poisoning incidents by crop put out by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.  There is a blog that is widely read in the fresh produce community called the Perishable Pundit where Jim Prevor does an excellent job of critiquing the non-contextual science of that CSPI report which was uncritically picked up in the popular news.  Highlights include the fact that the list is not at all corrected for per capita consumption so something like oysters that are not widely consumed but often contaminated are lower than leafy greens or eggs that are consumed on a large scale.  Potatoes are #5 in the list even though food safety incidents with potatoes come from other ingredients in improperly stored potato salad.  This is just irresponsible pseudo-science.  Many somewhat scientific publications talk about the total pounds of pesticides applied to a crop or within a region and do so in the framework of risks.  Since different pesticides differ in toxicity or other attributes by several orders of magnitude, this is essentially meaningless information.  There was a white paper published by Doug Gurian-Sherman of the Union of Concerned Scientists supposedly showing that GMO crops did not lead to any real gains in yield.  What Doug used was data from academic researchers.  Commercial experience has been quite different and there have also been major geographic shifts in corn planting that have to be considered.  This is also a prime example of Agenda Science and Cherry-picking science.

Cherry-picking Science

There is a recent case where a researcher who wanted to make the case that there has been a global cooling trend chose 1998 as the starting point for “recent.”  1998 was a very hot year so this made the trend look negative.  If the starting point was chosen a few years earlier, the “cooling trend” disappears.  Commercial entities are always tempted to only show the better results, but academics can end up doing it to support a particular theory that needs support to continue getting grants.  Lots of games can be played with statistics. None of this is good science.

Orthodoxy Science

Most scientists do their work and interact with their colleagues and everyone gets along fine even if there are disagreements.  Unfortunately, certain topics have become very emotional and there can be a tendency to lose patience with scientists who are significant outliers from the consensus.  The classic example is Evolution vs Intelligent design.  This ends up in an argument about what is really science and what is not.  I won’t try to settle it here (as if I could), but there have been times when the majority fell into the trap of letting the outlier achieve victim status and generate a degree of notoriety that isn’t helpful.  There are also famous cases where a minority opinion eventually prevailed.  Continental drift seemed too far fetched at first, but now it is well established.  A universe with a finite life was once unimaginable, but now the 15 billion year estimate is mainstream.  I  certainly don’t claim that this sort of transition will happen in this case of intelligent design or climate change, but still, patience is helpful and its always alright to simply say, “ok, show me data.”

For climate change the implications of whether this is real or not are so huge that it is hard not to get emotional about it.  I think both sides need to acknowledge the stakes and see if there are civilized ways to proceed.  It may be too late; however, because the broader population is getting so polarized on the subject.  I think we should worry less about the debate about “if” and “why” and focus more on devising strategies that would simultaneously address other issues about which there is no controversy – things like security issues and the extremist education and armament machine funded by our oil addiction.

So, I’ve put out a challenge on the “anti-science” side and now one on the internal science side.  Both contribute to the declining trust that society has for the science that has done so much to improve our lives and which is so critical for our future.  I’m still looking for solutions

Lab coats image from Plutor

You are welcome to comment on this site or to email me at feedback.sdsavage@gmail.com

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