Society

The Corruption of Science

Many are the ways in which the powers that be obstruct and obscure our paths to knowledge.

by Dr Nancy Swanson

A fully referenced version of this article is posted on ISIS members website and is otherwise available for download here.

Say it in Latin for God

We need only look at the historical record to know that those who crave power have seized upon the belief system of the people in order to manipulate and control them. All good ideas start out well enough but, sometime after gaining wide acceptance, they inevitably become corrupted.

Those who ruled the Roman Catholic Church used it as a tool for absolute control of the masses. People who did not fall into line were threatened with excommunication, doomed to burn in hell forever. If they fell too far out of line, they were burned alive on the grounds of heresy.

One method of control was to use Latin for mass. The entire structure was formed around a language that the people did not speak, read or write. This forced people to have a go-between, a priest, to intervene with God on their behalf. Ostensibly God only understood Latin.

The great crime committed by Galileo Galilei was not so much what he said, but that he insisted on saying it in Italian, the language of his people, rather than the language of the scholars and priests [1]. Kepler and Copernicus had already published much of what Galileo espoused. But they did it in Latin and therefore did not incur the wrath of the church. Apparently you could say pretty much anything so long as very few understood what you were saying. Not only was Galileo excommunicated, his book was banned, he was placed under house arrest for life and he was forced to recant.

The science priesthood & peer-review against heresy

Today, people have an unshakable faith in science. Newspaper articles often start with, “Scientists say…,” without ever actually naming the “scientists” as if the word is coming down from on high through the scientific priesthood. When involved in a debate, people often resort to, “The science says…,” or “What does the science say?” to support their argument. Science, it seems, is the Ultimate Authority. People believe that science can give us truth. We are told that we cannot trust ourselves, we must bow to the higher wisdom of science: [2] “We need to know that instinct is no substitute for the neutral evaluation of a hypothesis.” Otherwise intelligent people say this as if such things as absolute truth and “neutral evaluation” actually exist.

Somehow we have come to a place where scientific theories and data are completely ignored unless they have been published in a peer-reviewed, scientific journal. As if getting a handful of other scientific priests to agree somehow grants holiness to the idea [2]: “…a zealous truth-seeker’s work upon hearing a new theory should be to research legitimate peer-reviewed journals to see if the theory is true.” It can then be used to beat people over the head, to sue people in a court of law and to persuade governments to enact or redact laws and rules.

It is worth mentioning here that the first paper on the laser (known at that time as an optical maser) was rejected by the editor of Physical Review Letters because it was [3] “just another maser paper.” It’s difficult to get an idea published that goes against the current dogma.

The system of scientific publication has been in place for a few hundred years. It makes it impossible for anyone who is not a member of the scientific priesthood to be heard. It also makes it nearly impossible for even a member of the priesthood to be heard if her ideas are considered scientific heresy.

Science was ripe for takeover by the power-hungry: the people have absolute confidence in it and the information can be tightly controlled with a system already in place. The scientific priesthood already controlled the science that was allowed to be done and the flow of information. All that was needed was to establish dominance over the scientific priesthood.

This was accomplished by controlling the research funding and the publication process. A scientist cannot work without funding, nor will he remain employed if he cannot publish his findings. Funding and publication have become the metrics of success in science. If you were to want a particular line of scientific inquiry suppressed, you could cut funding, interfere with the publication process, or discredit the scientist(s).

Corporate takeover of science

Instances of the takeover and manipulation of science abound. The chemical/biotechnology corporations serve as a prime example. They figured out that science is the religion of the day, and taking control of science is to take control of people. They have used every means at their disposal to suppress scientific enquiry. They hire scientists and give money to academic institutions to fund research. They install people in key government positions at every level [4]; actively lobby congress and use their influence to coerce other nations to accept their products. They place editors on scientific journals, controlling what does and, more importantly, what doesn’t get published [5]; even to the extent of having published articles retracted that they see as damaging to their agenda, expunging the results from the public record and paving the way for expansion [6].

Meanwhile the people, not being conversant in scientific language and largely unable to decode the scientific literature (it might as well be in Latin), are dependent on a go-between, a translator. The corporations dress up their scientific priests in white coats and have them deliver the message they want the people to hear. They repeat the dogma over and over using key phrases like “science-based” and “anti-science.”

Permit me a small digression. In a chiropractic office that I once patronized, all of the chiropractic doctors wore white coats. The only reason I, a scientist, ever wore a white coat was to avoid getting my clothing stained. But my chiropractor was hardly in danger of being blood-spattered, so one day I asked her why she wore the white coat. She informed me that it was required by the management because people listened and obeyed if she wore a white coat whereas they didn’t if she did not. White Coat = Authority.

If the people hear voices dissenting from the scientific priesthood, the corporations immediately send out their scientists to harass and discredit the other scientists. Their methods, results, and even their credentials are called into question. Many have been denied tenure, lost their funding and even their jobs after publishing results casting doubt on the wisdom of genetic engineering. This has created a climate of fear within the scientific community and confusion without. The vast majority of scientists who are willing to speak out are either retired or of retirement age. They have nothing to lose. This is all too reminiscent of the historical relationship between the Pope, the kings & queens, the bishops & priesthood and the people.

If people intuitively reject the idea of eating genetically engineered food, liberally sprayed with poison, they are damned as irrational, unscientific and ignorant. Many people still believe that Roundup is safe enough to drink, as claimed by the company.

DDT

Based on a 1947 video [7], drinking and eating pesticides seems to be one of Monsanto’s favorite marketing tools. In the video, an entomologist is sent to an African village to try to convince the people to spray dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT) all over the village to kill the mosquitoes and prevent the spread of malaria. But the Africans aren’t buying it. The entomologist calls for a bowl of porridge, proceeds to spray DDT all over it and then eats a few bites. The Africans are still not buying it. Why? Because they haven’t been indoctrinated into the dogma that scientists are the high priests with sole access to the truth. The truth is obvious to them: if DDT kills the mosquitoes, it can kill them too. And they were right.

Dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane was developed as a synthetic insecticide in the 1940s. Rachel Carson highlighted the dangers of DDT in her 1962 book Silent Spring. Carson used DDT to tell the broader story of the disastrous consequences of the overuse of pesticides. Not surprisingly, her work attracted outrage from the pesticide industry. Her credibility as a scientist was attacked, and she was derided as [8] “hysterical.” It took ten more years before the Environmental Protection Agency issued a ‘cancellation order’ for DDT in 1972.

One would think the issue had been resolved, but just this year the banning of DDT was hailed as a [9] “frenzy of misguided environmental zeal” and “Carson’s book is riddled with fallacies and deceit.” Another editorial states [10], “The 1972 U.S. ban on DDT … is also responsible for a menticide [the systematic effort to undermine and destroy a person’s values and beliefs] which has already condemned one entire generation to a dark age of anti-science ignorance, and is now infecting a new one. The lies and hysteria spread to defend the DDT ban are typical of the irrationalist, anti-science wave which has virtually destroyed rational forms of discourse in our society. If you want to save science—and human lives—the fight to bring back DDT…” The author also accuses Carson of scientific fraud, lies and deceit. Both authors invoke their scientific priest, J. Gordon Edwards, as the Voice of Authority.

This is a typical example of the tactics employed: accuse the opposition of fraud, lies, deceit, ignorance, irrationality, anti-science heresy and insinuate that science (the current system of values and beliefs, i.e. religion) must be preserved at all costs or we will all be thrown into the dark ages where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

In the same year that DDT was banned, its maker presented us with glyphosate, the weed-killer so safe we can drink it. A pattern emerges. Who knows how long it will take to ban glyphosate and genetically engineered crops? If we do manage it, what will they give us next? We need a sea-change.

Abuse of science

Whenever concern for the health and well-being of the beings on this planet, or the planet herself, come into conflict with corporate interests, scientific debate devolves into imbecility. Scientific data are sorted, interpreted and re-interpreted to fit any argument in much the same way as words taken from the Bible. Each side in the debate quotes from their pet scientist as the Authority and accuses the other of anti-science heresy.

Scientific data were never meant to be used in this way. Philosophers of science have carefully laid out the limitations of knowledge that can be gained through the scientific method [11, 12] (Philosophy and Science, SiS 61). Unfortunately most people, including scientists, are blissfully unaware of this. There is nothing in science that can be proven true. Nothing.

I am not saying we should do away with science. I am quite a fan of the carefully applied scientific method and the information that can be gleaned, so long as no harm is done in the process. I am also a fan of electronic gadgets. But science needs to be taken down from this pedestal, this religious fervor as The Final Authority. As a religion, science is quite deficient.

It is past time to recognize and accept the limits of science and scientific knowing. It is past time to stop relying on external authority of any kind. We are our own authority. There are other ways of knowing. When I focus inward in contemplation, it is clear to me that our planet is a vast, interwoven web of cooperation at all levels. We are ignorant enough to think that we can control and disrupt this web without limit or consequence. I can only hope that, should we continue this course of feeble-mindedness, we destroy ourselves before we succeed in destroying all beings on this planet.

Editor’s Addition:


Rupert Sheldrake – The Science Delusion

23 Comments

  1. This is precisely the paranoid thinking which allows our politicians to tell us that climate change is not happening.

    1. No, this is the thinking that tells us why the politicians tell us Climate Change isn´t happening, and why many scientists don´t lift a finger in opposition. James Hansen, and the scientists in the UN IPCC are themselves commendable, and also noteworthy for how they are in supportive contexts. The Union of Concerned Scientists and Physicians for Social Responsibility are two groups that point out how most scientists are not members, and are otherwise dependent upon corporate employment and influence. Al Gore said it well when he pointed out how opinions are affected by paychecks.

  2. Dr Swanson sets up a straw man in this article which bears no relationship to the science that I have been engaged in for thirty years. If it is true that “Today, people have an unshakable faith in science”, why do so many of them believe in astrology, homeopathy, or other types of magical thinking?

    Most scientists who I know are aware of the limits of science in answering a wide range of questions, and they also know that even when science does provide a useful set of tools for answering a question, then variability and uncertainty mean that the answer is only provisionally “true”.

    Anyone can publish a paper in a scientific journal (it costs nothing except your time to publish) – you just need to have done some work that answers a question about the natural world by using evidence and logic. Dr Swanson states that “When I focus inward in contemplation, it is clear to me that our planet is a vast, interwoven web of cooperation at all levels.” Evidence? Logic? Who needs ’em!.

    1. Presumably we will become better at permaculture if, like Dr Swanson, we “focus inward in contemplation.” Or, if that fails, I suppose we could always try to understand a bit of biology and soil chemistry by reading the peer-reviewed literature?

  3. What passes for science today has often been corrupted. People who claim to be scientists often do not practice the scientific method. But I have confidence in the scientific method.

    It is unfortunate that what is called “science” is so often controlled by large organisations (corporations, universities and government bodies). Too often they have vested interests (whether they be financial, political or other) that can lead to the corruption of their science. But that corruption really is by not following the scientific method.

    I think this is highly relevant to permaculture, as permaculture needs to learn from this. Permaculture should be using the scientific method as part of the process. The seeds of it are already in permaculture – observing, interacting, learning from nature – I see the parallels to the scientific method.

    But more than that, permies should be conducting science. We can only benefit from rigorously following the scientific method and sharing our results and what we’ve learnt (including through permaculture blogs, journals, books and other places). The world needs more normal people who do (actual) science and stop relying just on so called scientists.

    Disclaimer: there is still lots of valid science being done by scientists at large institutions. I’m just pointing out that there is also a corruption of so called science that can often occur.

    1. Some aspects are the same as what happened in America with Hemp in the early 1900’s. When a newspaper baron who had purchased massive forested lands to supply paper for his newspapers. After discovering Hemp, an annual crop could become a threat to timber industry. The newspapers spread propaganda & their political friends demonized hemp with its cousin marijuana. To which it is still 75+ years later treated like something dangerous! Only recently have they began to be accepted for some of their positive uses.

  4. This article is below the quality of Permaculture Research Institute, since it clearly involves no ‘research’ of any sort. While it has some valid observations, it begins with false history, ends with a philosophically dubious position, and throughout is neither circumspect nor helpful. Despite the stereotypes, bigotry, and gossip in the last century about the Catholic church, Galileo was not in any way persecuted for his scientific discoveries– he was excommunicated for his theological theories, not scientific ones. Further, science has flourished under the catholicism (Brother Gregor Mendel and Father Georges Lemaitre are just a few obvious examples). This article makes paranoid connections where there are none, makes broad, sweeping, baseless accusations, and perpetuates myths that causes divisions within society. And, it doesn’t help or inspire anyone towards permaculture.

  5. I was initially crestfallen to see this article posted here, until I read the thoughtful comments from readers. (Not the usual experience of comments sections!)

    Let’s please distinguish between science as a set of institutions, and science as a collection of techniques for systematic inquiry. The institutions of science are – of course – shaped by the political-economic and cultural forces that shape all our social institutions – some worse than others, and some just more subtly.

    Science as systematic inquiry is basically a collection of techniques for overcoming our built-in cognitive biases. Humans are naturally fantastic at some kinds of pattern recognition, and terrible at others. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases

    We have to be strategic and methodical, using the right conceptual and material tools, in order overcome those biases. This kind of science takes place inside scientific institutions, and in communities and with people that have never been anywhere near academia or formal training.

    The resources (knowledge, technology, money) that are concentrated within those institutions, however, make it possible (or much much easier) to answer some kinds of questions. In a People’s Science perspective, we owe it to our desire for a better world, and to our movement, to appropriate those resources for our own collective use.

  6. I agree with Rafter. You have to separate the scientific method from institutional practice. The peer-review method of doing science is in good health. What is not healthy is the growing dependence of big science on big money and the growing privatization of knowledge for the sake of profits.

  7. Dear Editors: This article has lots of references to footnotes, but no actual footnotes. Can those be added please? I’m especially interested in the source for, “They place editors on scientific journals, controlling what does and, more importantly, what doesn’t get published [5];”. Thank you!

  8. As a tool, the scientific method is very useful at solving some problems and gaining a better understanding of the world that we live in.

    Objectivity of the observation and investigation is a crucial component of the scientific method in order to minimise bias.

    However, this objectivity is compromised by the simple fact that an employee or a person having the need to continually apply for funding grants walks a difficult line between that objectivity and the needs of their employer or donor.

    It is a conundrum – in that it is a problem that has no solution. But until that issue is faced up to and addressed by the scientific community, they lack credibility in both fact and perception.

    1. Chris – are you really saying that every scientist “lack[s] credibility in both fact and perception” because they “need to continually apply for funding grants”? The whole point of scientific method(s) (and yes, there are more than one of them) is that they take ordinary, fallible and biased humans like you and me and filter our ideas about the natural world through a sieve of reason. Is the result perfect? Hell, no! But it’s as close to objectivity as most of us are ever likely to get. Of course funding can influence what a scientist looks at and how he/she reports the results. But if you look at the range of different funders (governments, industries, charities and other NGOs) its rather hard to see how all of them are conspiring to corrupt science in the same way.

  9. Hi Mark. All of the points that you raise are fair and reasonable. You are correct in that objectivity is a relative concept and is unlikely to ever be achieved in the real world.

    However, over the past few decades, there have many instances where scientists have accepted funding from industry sources and then publicly expressed support for dubious products and/or thoughts. The support was clearly aligned with commercial gain for both the scientists and the industry sources.

    The public aren’t stupid and the perception of those situations is that scientific opinion can be purchased. Therefore in the eyes of the public, that perceived objectivity is diminished – whether it is or not is irrelevant, because in this case it is the perception that is important. The scientific community does not operate in a vacuum and all of those funding sources you mentioned are ultimately derived from the public. I would suggest that the scientific community is incapable of solving this conundrum, because it is my opinion that there is no answer to this.

    In fact, if the scientific community were really honest with themselves, they’d address the further problem in that they have no obligation to work in the general public interest. Many other professions have to accept the limitation that they have an ethical obligation to the general public. These limitations are established for that professions benefit.

    Commercial interests are well aware of these problems within the scientific community and happily exploit them for their own ends. It is not a good look.

    1. Chris – what you’ve said in your most recent post is also mostly fair and reasonable. There are clearly documented instances of “regulatory capture” and of individual scientists behaving in a corrupt way. My main point is that this, demonstrably, isn’t a problem that afflicts the majority of science or scientists, and that scientific methodologies provide a means for calling out such practices (e.g. by finding that a toxicity study on a pesticide can’t be repeated or that positive results publication bias has occurred for a medicine). However, it’s also important to note that a correlation between being paid by an industry source and then expressing “support” for products made by that source does not necessarily imply a causal link. If a company pays me to look at the environmental safety data for one of their products and I find that it complies with all the regulatory requirements, am I “supporting” their product in a corrupt way?

      Although perception may not be reality, I agree that the results of perception can become a reality. Public distrust of science may be an example of this. It turns out that this type of distrust is remarkably hard to shift, even if there is clear evidence to refute a false perception. The usual response of scientists is to say (rather patronisingly) that the public need to be “educated”. However, irrespective of the amount of investment in honestly collating evidence and uncertainty, and presenting this in a concrete form, decision-makers and other stakeholders also need to be prepared for the rejection of this information by at least some members of the public. This is because once a person’s mind is made up about fundamental values they will often use only the evidence that supports their position, ignoring the evidence that does not (Tait J. 2001. Pesticide regulation, product innovation and public attitudes. J Environ Monitor3:64N-69N). Under these circumstances, the provision of more evidence and “education” may simply help to increase the distance between polar points of view and, unfortunately, the darker arts of public relations and political lobbying (by both industry and green NGOs) are likely to be more influential.

      “Science” covers such a wide field of human endeavour that a single set of ethical codes (such as a science-based version of the Hippocratic oath) would probably be so bland as to be useless. However, individual professional societies do develop such codes for particular scientific disciplines – take a look at this example from the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry: https://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.setac.org/resource/resmgr/about_setac/code_of_ethics.pdf?hhSearchTerms=%22code+and+conduct%22.

      Certainly more could be done, but this looks like a good start, doesn’t it?

  10. Hi Mark. Yes, of course you are correct when you state: “this, demonstrably, isn’t a problem that afflicts the majority of science or scientists”. I agree entirely with your observation. Unfortunately, however, it is a problem for the profession as a whole in that over the past few decades, public perception has shifted. The darker arts of public relations have used a few rogue individuals during that time in order to drive a wedge into the public perception and it was a very effective strategy.

    Generally, the scientific community have responded to these rogue individuals by rebutting them on a point by point basis in the belief that this would be a sufficient response. They relied on their superior expertise, when the general public could not tell the difference between the experts. I would suggest that this is an inadequate response and as a strategy it further diminishes credibility.

    I’ll tell you a little story to try to highlight the difficulties of that response by the scientific community. You may not be aware, but I live on an organic farm in the SE corner of Australia. This year has been notable for the extreme weather records that have been continuously broken. Summer was bad, but today, a week before the official start to winter, I was outside working in a t-shirt it was that warm. This May has been the warmest here since official records began 140 years ago. So, you don’t need to convince me that global warming is happening as it is part of my day to day existence. However, for quite a while now there has been and still are dissenting scientists (who use that title to general expertise regardless of their individual specialisations) to discredit the theory of global warming.

    The response to this situation by the scientific community has been rebuttal of those statements by the rogue scientists or an attempt to discredit them. Yet, at the same time scientists also make dire pronouncements on global warming and seek funding for further studies. Also, there is the very real difficulty posed by jet setting to remote locations on the planet for symposiums, presentations and general talk fests by the scientific community.

    The average punter in the street is not stupid, and they see all of these actions and wonder why they should take any action themselves, given that the experts aren’t. So, they seek shelter in confirmation bias and disregard any messages from the scientific community that don’t gel.

    Yet, here at the organic farm, extreme and record breaking weather events are playing out.

    As to your comment about: “does not necessarily imply a causal link”. I agree, but in this case it is my opinion that it is the perception that is important and perhaps it is here that we disagree.

    Your assertion that: “I find that it complies with all the regulatory requirements, am I “supporting” their product in a corrupt way?” Apologies, but this is a legal argument and nothing else. The unasked question is does the regulatory requirements reflect good Earth stewardship practices? The answer may fall into the yes / no / maybe categories. Incidentally as an interesting side issue, the scientific method(s) is / are very poor at addressing issues in relation to quality and here you have touched on one example.

    Yes, the public perception issue is hard to shift because scientists may fail to walk the talk. It really is that simple. If you look back over the global warming example, you have to wonder why if IPCC pronouncements are so dire, why would contributing scientists then jet set off to remote locations for a symposium given the inherent carbon emissions of that travel? It is impossible to have it both ways, but that is in the nature of human desires.

    The code of conduct for members of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry is an excellent start. Such memorandums of behaviour can pointed to, should any members step out of line and the hammer can then fall on them. As I said previously, such statements are a public declaration of the standards expected of those members and it is a protection for that profession as much as it is for the public. It is a shame it is not more all-encompassing.

    It would be much more fun to discuss such matters over a home brew! Cheers. Chris

  11. That’s funny, when I do some internal reflection, I realise that I’m a fibre optic cable! Futhermore, since Dr Swanson doesn’t want anyone to be objective about it, you cannot prove me otherwise.

  12. A long time ago when I was a student I was strongly encouraged not to believe something just because it is written in a book or in a scientific journal. To make real progress you should first of all validate all your starting points and then move on. The true scientist is basically skeptical. This way the wheat is eventually separated from the chaff.
    Unfortunately most of the population has a tendency to believe any thing they hear or read in the public domain. With the internet even the village idiot gets a microphone. I have just read a report from the US that “scientists” have discovered that solar panels will drain all the suns energy and the sun will go out in a couple of hundred years. The “research” was apparently commissioned by Haliburton. This would probably make sense to the old lady who thought that daylight saving would fade the curtains.and she gets to vote.
    To see where the real problem lies check out what former PM John Howard has to say on climate change https://resources.news.com.au/files/2013/11/06/1226753/906885-howard-speech.pdf. A politicians ego is more important than the future of the planet.
    I have this theory that if the public is bombarded with good news stories about how many people are making great progress and money out of alternate energy and the deniers are idiots then we would see progress. Most people are followers. They want to be on the winning side. The people with vested interest in global warming have been more proactive in pushing the idea that scientists are nerdy losers or conspirators.

  13. The Rupert Sheldrake TED talk attached to this article gets to the philosophical heart of the issue more clearly than Dr. Swanson’s article – highly recommended. The questions of corruption and corporate capture are perfectly legitimate ones for anybody who truly appreciates the value of the scientific method and doesn’t want to see it perverted by dogma or greed.

  14. Layers of incompetence, corruption and arrogance abound in all our organizations. Many of the negative comments here prove that many still trust science, politics and Corporations.

    A scientist once said “the data and the mathematics can be manipulated to prove anything”. He was responding to a question asked by a journalist referring to ancient global structures that all share the same mathematical proportions and alignments. He claimed these were all just coincidence. (just like the formation of the ultra-complex universe and all living things!)
    Thank you Dr Nancy Swanson, very interesting view point, your comparison is undeniably true.
    It is interesting that “science” claims to know how the universe was formed…but yet does not even understand what is happening within our own solar system i.e. from NASA.GOV “Puzzling X-rays from Jupiter”. Just one example of a long list.
    Science has worked hard as a result we are ruining our planet.
    Nuke melt downs, toxins, plastic in oceans ect…

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