Discover more from Henry’s Substack
How many official “science”-based beliefs are wrong?
How many official “science”-based beliefs are wrong?
The title of this posting is something like a rhetorical question, since it presumes that at least some official assertions are wrong. As a sort of “proof of that concept”, I offer the widespread practice of supposedly eugenic sterilization during much of the 20th century, when many tens of thousands of Americans were sterilized under the supposedly science-based belief that certain undesirable behavioral traits were hereditable.
In point of fact, I do believe that quite a number of generally accepted official assertions supposedly based on sound scientific evidence are in fact mistaken; chiefly but not only on medical matters.
A popular shibboleth holds that science is self-correcting. The partial truth in that is that most scientific advances have in the first instance been wrongly judged to be mistaken and resisted, sometimes quite vigorously, by the contemporary mainstream, the scientific consensus; yet with the accumulation of further evidence, over time the valid claimed advances gained acceptance and became the new mainstream consensus . Much more frequently, indeed routinely, early mistakes were just, over time, corrected without much fuss.
That was during times when science was a rather academic, “ivory tower” pursuit without major direct influence on commerce or politics or social interactions in the wider society. Those circumstances changed during the course of the 19th century, at first rather slowly; but the Second World War marks a turning point, since which time science-based beliefs have become supremely important in every aspect of society: of course in warfare, but also in every type of commercial activity and very much in medicine.
Very substantial interests, institutional as well as personal, are nowadays strongly vested in practices purportedly based on “science”. Governmental, institutional, commercial self-interests are not invariably compatible with acknowledging truth. Scientists themselves suffer inevitable conflicts of interest between truth-seeking on the one hand and on the other, producing what their patrons or employers want and building their own careers. All the powerful interests that now provide resources for research and thereby control it are so vested in contemporary practices that mistaken science-based beliefs no longer self-correct: the Establishment cannot afford to admit being mistaken .
Consider, for example, what stands in the way of letting the general public know that HIV does not cause AIDS . Several large drug companies would find their stock value plunge enormously; the Nobel-Prize Committee would have more egg in its face; the National Institutes of Health would look far and wide, but without success, for possible scapegoats to shoulder the burden of the mistake and its grievous consequences for untold millions of people — not to mention tens of billions of dollars not just wasted but actually used to administer poisonous drugs to people who were harmed more than benefited.
Such a scenario is literally inconceivable.
In the 20th century, mistaken science-based “eugenic” sterilization just slowly faded away without any official acknowledgment or excusing. That is how policies and actions based on mistaken “science” are likely in the foreseeable future to be “ corrected”, if one can call it that — ending not with a bang but with a quiet, unheard whimper .
Under present circumstances, official scientific beliefs are based simply on a contemporary mainstream consensus, with no mechanism or protocol available to question publicly the soundness of that consensus.
Whistleblower lawsuits now make it possible to correct matters where illegalities are involved; but there is no avenue for independent, authoritative, arbitration when someone recognizes that official actions are based on a mistaken scientific mainstream consensus. No matter how often repeated, one cannot repeat often enough Michael Crichton’s  wise words:
“Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough. Nobody says the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. Nobody says the consensus is that the sun is 93 million miles away. It would never occur to anyone to speak that way”.
The present legal system is altogether incapable of dealing with questions where scientific technicalities are the decisive issue; as Antonin Scalia put it — a jurist willing to deal with any judicial issue — “I'm not a scientist. That's why I don't want to have to deal with global warming, to tell you the truth” . The problem is that the mainstream consensus in the scientific community is the only resource presently available to the legal system. For example, in judging whether an individual is properly qualified to be an expert witness, of course that consensus will always automatically disallow dissidents, no matter how highly qualified they might be — as with Peter Duesberg and many other like-minded experts in the case of HIV.
Modern society desperately needs some way to avoid such harmful public policies and practices as “eugenic” sterilization and administering anti-HIV drugs. Policymakers need to be made aware when a mainstream scientific consensus is not universally accepted, but there is currently no mechanism to ensure that. Needed is the possibility for effective whistle-blowing on specifically scientific issues. The cases of eugenic sterilization and HIV/AIDS demonstrate that current social controls, be they self-regulation within the scientific community or the legal system or governmental institutions are able effectively to distinguish bad science from good.
That need for independent, unbiased, arbitration when scientific experts are not totally unanimous was recognized long ago when the experts were disagreeing vigorously over the potential safety of generating power by means of atomic reactors. Arthur Kantrowitz  proposed an Institution of Scientific Judgment to advise policy makers of the probabilities associated with the pros and cons; later discussions of the concept usually refer to such an Institution as a Science Court.
I have discussed elsewhere  in detail the not-inconsiderable problems in establishing such a system. But the pressing need for it should be obvious, since the only supposed safeguard against error within the scientific community is “peer review”. As most scientists themselves understand, however, peer review is heavily biased in favor of the status quo: proposed publications and new proposals for research are inevitably judged in the light of supposedly established knowledge; contradictory results do not usually get published ; in everyday language: peer review is an “old boys’ network”. Establishing an Institution of Scientific Judgment could be seen as making peer review more diverse, inclusive, and equitable: qualities nowadays generally held to be highly desirable.
Quite a number of topics call for unbiased judgment as between mainstream beliefs and minority dissent. Several mentioned in my 2012 book are primarily of academic interest only: Big-Bang cosmology; who the first Americans were; continental drift; the mechanism of smell; string theory; dinosaur extinction. But there are also several of great public importance — HIV/AIDS, global warming, “cold” nuclear fusion; as well as in medicine, quite a few major concerns: the danger of second-hand tobacco smoke; the causes of Alzheimer’s disease, and of schizophrenia and other “mental” conditions; the efficacy of anti-depressants; the use of mercury in vaccines and dental amalgam. The public could surely benefit from an unbiased, independent review of those health questions. The need for such adjudication or arbitration is illustrated by the campaign for “evidence-based” medicine , which was founded because so much standard medical practice is not based on good evidence. More on that in a later post.
But the most prominent current topic on which established official opinion goes egregiously far beyond what they evidence shows is the matter of allegedly human-caused global warming and climate change. That topic illustrates several points of general applicability:
The mainstream consensus is effectively an hegemony
The general public and the policy makers do not realize how uncertain is the basis for the mainstream consensus
Anyone who seeks to do research relating to climate must accept the mainstream consensus
The executive summaries of official reports are not an unbiased summary of the technical sections of the reports
Media reporting simply parrots official statements, there is no investigative journalism
Dissenting voices are able to get published only in politically right-wing outlets, whereby the mass media are able to insinuate unreliability just by referring to that fact.
 Bernard Barber, “Resistance by scientists to scientific discovery”, Science, 134 (1961) 596-602.
 Science Is Not What You Think: How It Has Changed, Why We Can’t Trust It, How It Can Be Fixed, McFarland 2017
 For the evidence, see The HIV=AIDS Blunder, 23-6-18; https://henryhbauer.substack.com/publish/posts/detail/129251121?referrer=%2Fpublish%2Fposts
 Plagiarising T. S. Eliot, “his is the way the world ends, Not with a bang but a whimper”; from The Hollowe Men.
 “Aliens Cause Global Warming”, Caltech Michelin Lecture, 17 January 2003
 Arthur Kantrowitz, “Proposal for an Institution for Scientific Judgment”, Science, 156 (1967) 763-64
 Chapter 12 in 
 C. Morais, “A milestone for the Journal of Controversies in Biomedical Research”, Journal of Controversies in Biomedical Research, 5 (2019) 1–3; https://doi.org/10.36255/jcbmr.2019.36
 Oxford Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine; https://www.cebm.ox.ac.uk