The Corruption of Science


I happened across a very interesting essay today on the corruption of science, by an author who is a physicist and philosopher. This caught my eye because I taught methods for many years to graduate students, and tried to impart to them that while science can be placed in the service of truth, that it could also be placed in the service of whoever paid for it. Science was "conventional," in the words of Thomas Kuhn, and thus there were always social constraints on scientific findings--even social constraints on scientific questions.

While it was an uphill battle to teach this a couple of decades ago, modern controversies such as the COVID pandemic and climate advocacy has made it fairly clear to those who viewed scientists as being unbiased that that is an unrealistic assumption. "Fake news" and "disinformation" surround us on all sides, and we are now accustomed to ask ourselves what axe a source has to grind before listening to what it has to say. We feel to ask the funding sources of entities that used to be considered about the fray, such as the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Indeed, we now see that "you can buy anything in this world for money," even your own facts.

This corruption is not new--remember poor Galileo forced to recant his ideas that the earth revolved around the sun and not vice versa--but it has taken on new form. The author discusses how modern scientists are selected for qualities different from earlier days; in the late 20th century, "Scientists became scientist-bureaucrats: savvy institutional players adept at getting government grants, managing sprawling workforces, and building research empires."

That an unholy alliance between the savvy bureaucrats and the government would eventually come to pass is predictable. As the author ntoes, "Increasingly, science is pressed into duty as authority. It is invoked to legitimise the transfer of sovereignty from democratic to technocratic bodies, and as a device for insulating such moves from the realm of political contest. Over the past year, a fearful public has acquiesced to an extraordinary extension of expert jurisdiction over every domain of life. A pattern of “government by emergency” has become prominent, in which resistance to such incursions are characterised as “anti-science”. But the question of political legitimacy hanging over rule by experts is not likely to go away. If anything, it will be more fiercely fought in coming years as leaders of governing bodies invoke a climate emergency that is said to require a wholesale transformation of society."

Massive gatekeeping is required to pull this off. But the internet makes that difficult. More from the author: "Now, science is primarily organised around “knowledge monopolies” that exclude dissident views. They do so not as a matter of piecemeal failures of open-mindedness by individuals jealous of their turf, but systemically . . . Journalists, rarely competent to assess scientific statements critically, cooperate in propagating the pronouncements of self-protecting “research cartels” as science."

The exclusion of dissident voices is something that is usually handled in-house, through what is supposed to prevent that very thing from happening: the blind peer-review process. The author reminds us of the "climategate" episode in 2009, when climate scientists stonewalled the requests of those wishing to see their data: "The climate research cartel staked its authority on the peer review process of journals deemed legitimate, which meddling challengers had not undergone. But, as Gurri notes in his treatment of climategate, “since the group largely controlled peer review for their field, and a consuming subject of the emails was how to keep dissenting voices out of the journals and the media, the claim rested on a circular logic”. One can be fully convinced of the reality and dire consequences of climate change while also permitting oneself some curiosity about the political pressures that bear on the science, I hope. Try to imagine the larger setting when the IPPC convenes. Powerful organisations are staffed up, with resolutions prepared, communications strategies in place, corporate “global partners” secured, interagency task forces standing by and diplomatic channels open, waiting to receive the good word from an empaneled group of scientists working in committee. This is not a setting conducive to reservations, qualifications, or second thoughts. The function of the body is to produce a product: political legitimacy." (emphasis mine)

So how does it work? According to the author, "In the internet era of relatively open information flows, a cartel of expertise can be maintained only if it is part of a larger body of organised opinion and interests that, together, are able to run a sort of moral-epistemic protection racket. Reciprocally, political lobbies depend on scientific bodies that are willing to play their part. . . In this way, epistemic threats to institutional authority are resolved into moral conflicts between good people and bad people." And once you are a "bad" person, you can be banned and de-platformed without "democratic sensibilities" being offended.

Historians will look back and say that the politicization of science was one of the nails in the coffin of our civilization, I fear.