One: the corruption of science
At some stage in humanity’s history, we began to value the truth over received wisdom. Received wisdom bound us together, and the truth was sometimes uncomfortable. Nevertheless, the ideal of truth won out because the benefits of knowledge far outweighed the benefits of conformity.
The tool to decide what is true in the world is science. Some wrong ideas were easy to overturn – crocodiles did not arise from rotting logs, fossil shells on mountains were not the result of a great flood, and male and female children did not receive their father’s genetic contribution from his left and right testis respectively (or was it the other way around?). Other questions such as the nature of matter were rather harder to solve. For a scientist, finding the right answer was the prime motive. Actually being right was supposedly relegated to a matter of no consequence. Someone proved you wrong? Thank them politely for expanding the space of human understanding. Your experiment didn’t work? Publish the null result and design a new one.
The ideal of science was never lived up to by all scientists. Maybe it was never lived up to by any scientist, not completely. Scientists are only human; but even if no one could reach that ideal, it was there, a guiding light in the darkness to strive towards. That light is still there, and it always will be. But there are increasing forces pulling scientists away from the narrow way that leads to truth.
That may seem like the expansive grandiose arm-wave of an isolated intellect that thinks the rest of the world is irrational. One of us is wrong, and the most parsimonious answer for a casual observer is that it ain’t the world. Some of us may recognise incipient conspiracy ideation in ourselves, yet harbour a longstanding sense of unease: there is something wrong in the world of science. Just occasionally an article is published that gives its reader a chance to take the red pill, and for a time at least see the world for what it really is. We are blessed that three such articles recently arrived almost at once.
The first is “How science has been corrupted” by Matthew Crawford, May 3rd 2021 (UnHerd).
There is a disconnect, Crawford says, between our idealised understanding of science and the reality of science, between our naïve picture of an individual scientist and science as conducted by institutions. We trust science because it is neutral, and because no wrong answer in science can persist for long. It is precisely because science is the “disinterested arbiter of reality” that it is also a “powerful instrument of politics.” Some results are popular, and some are not. To enable science to project the authority that politics wants to use it for, science has to become something it is not. Faith in science is declining, and the “most reprobate among us are climate sceptics, unless those be the Covid deniers.”
The present regime is an “unstable hybrid of democratic and technocratic forms of authority.” The official way to harmonise popular opinion with science is through education: we are given the tools to check everything we are told. But science is too wide and too deep for any one person to grasp even a small fraction of, so that even the smartest and most widely read of us have to take science mostly on trust. We are told what to think via what Crawford describes as a “distributed demagogy of scientism.” I might disagree with this terminology, but see his point. If “follow the science” has a hollow ring to it, it’s because science doesn’t lead anywhere, or at least it isn’t supposed to. Science might be “if A then B”, but it may have become “if A then B, therefore we must do C.” The course of action chosen is not science, it’s politics. Politics should be democracy (I certainly think so), which means the course of action should be decided democratically.
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 course of the pandemic we have had “government by emergency”, resistance to which is characterised as “anti-science.”
…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. We need to know how we arrived here.
So how did we arrive here? Crawford cites Martin Gurri in blaming the internet for knocking over the first domino. The internet is a great thing. An internet search replaces in an instant what might have been a day of toil in a library only 30 years ago. It also enables people with fringe views to find one another, whether or not those fringe views have any basis. The internet, by its nature, has led to a collapse in authority across the board, and that includes the authority of science. Now the mistakes of experts are laid bare, and in consequence, people are less likely to defer to those experts, seeing them not as infallible knowledge titans, but as imperfect humans who might not have the ideal of science at the forefront of their motivations 100% of the time.
Now, science is primarily organised around “knowledge monopolies” that exclude dissident views.
That is certainly a statement that many climate sceptics would recognise. And of course, just in case there are outsiders who disagree, we can always redefine what peer review means. Actually peer review is not the panacea we hope it might be even before it has been redefined: reviewers are colleagues who let papers sail by, or they are competitors who erect roadblocks. Neither option works for science. Here Crawford talks of Climategate, and (citing Gurri again) the way peer review was controlled by a cartel to keep dissenters out, while also claiming that very peer review as the bedrock of their authority. In other words, the authority of peer review is based on circular logic.
Journalists, rarely competent to assess scientific statements critically, cooperate in propagating the pronouncements of self-protecting “research cartels” as science.
Climate sceptics will recognise this statement too. It is obvious to a sceptic having a little knowledge about the climate that journalists often lack a basic understanding of what they are writing about.
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.
This statement is interesting: as you might guess, I disagree. It seems that having argued that climate alarm might be based on unstable foundations, Crawford is still willing to accept the argument from authority that we’re all doomed. But he notes that the IPCC is designed to produce political authority – an official stamp of approval for potentially draconian measures that bypass democracy.
Next Crawford turns to moralism, and again this is a topic that climate sceptics will recognise. Disagreement with policy, rather than being an acceptable contest of ideas, instead becomes a matter of good vs evil, them and us, in-group and out-group. Greta Thunberg is described as the “ideal victim-sage,” able to inject the necessary moral urgency into the flagging Cause.
The inane, untroubled by fact, but earnest remarks of celebrities strengthen the hand of activists, who in turn lead campaigns to silence and censure dissidents who are acting as conduits of “disinformation.” Institutions who refuse to bend the knee are “placed under a moral receivership” until they inevitably cave. Once the institution has distanced itself from the dissident/cancelled them, they are forgiven. Then said institution cravenly affirms the goals of the activists in public statements.
There is a “logic of escalation” that increasingly limits acceptable topics of enquiry, aligning them with activists’ goals, all of which is presented as a drama “restoring scientific integrity.” In reality of course, this has nothing at all to do with restoring scientific integrity. It is all about stifling awkward questions and unwanted answers so that the approved policy can plough forwards.
Weakened by the uncontrolled dissemination of information and attendant fracturing of authority, the institutions that ratify particular pictures of what is going on in the world must not merely assert a monopoly of knowledge, but place a moratorium on the asking of questions and noticing of patterns.
Our behaviour is controlled by moral panics. If asked, in full possession of the facts, we would often choose a quite different course to that being decided for us. (Net Zero, I’m looking at you.) Popular opinion is dragged after The Science by scientism, so that the technocrats can decide what to do, and the deluded public think it is upon their instruction. My opinion of the public in general is probably unfair, but I think our fellow citizens have a fixed idea about climate change that is as thin as a piece of paper: they know we are doomed, but they are unlikely to know what percentage of the atmosphere is the carbon dioxide that is dooming us. (I suspect the average estimate would be about a hundred times on the high side; Crawford cites the survey of July last that showed a sizeable chunk of our friends and neighbours thought that “6-10% or higher” of the population had died of Covid-19 as a pandemic version of the effect.)
Now that we have victims, we have someone we can stupidly claim to be “standing with.” Such posturing is another piece of armour to deflect criticism.
There follows a discussion of the pandemic and the success of government by terror:
The spectacular success of “public health” in generating fearful acquiescence in the population during the pandemic has created a rush to take every technocratic-progressive project that would have poor chances if pursued democratically, and cast it as a response to some existential threat. In the first week of the Biden administration, the Senate majority leader urged the president to declare a “climate emergency” and assume powers that would authorise him to sidestep Congress and rule by executive fiat. Ominously, we are being prepared for “climate lockdowns”.
Two: overturning the pandemic origins paradigm
The second article, one that illustrates many of the problems that Crawford identifies, is Nicholas Wade’s The origin of COVID: Did people or nature open Pandora’s box at Wuhan? I first saw this in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (5th May 2021), but apparently it first appeared at Medium. This meticulously researched and scrupulously disinterested article assesses the evidence for natural or artificial origins of Covid-19. Wade does not state unequivocally that Covid-19 was created in a lab, but presents an avalanche of evidence that it did. The natural origin hypothesis, in contrast, has little support… and yet for more than a year, it has not only been the prime explanation, its alternative was not considered even plausible. What happened?
My memory of the beginning of the pandemic as seen through the media is of an initial focus on the wet market. We knew that viruses had leapt from bats to humans via an intermediate host before. In my imagination, wet markets were a close approximation to hell on Earth, so I had no difficulty in putting the two ideas together to make Covid-19 a product of animals kept in squalid and cruel conditions. The fact of the nearby Wuhan Institute of Virology and its research on coronaviruses soon offered an alternative hypothesis. Again my memory may be faulty but I recall an article indicating that the virus was natural, not artificial, which seemed to scotch the idea. Perhaps I should have borne in mind that “artificial” has a variety of meanings. A greyhound is faster than a wolf in a sprint: but is it natural or artificial? Wade notes that the natural origins theory was vigorously promoted from the start by two influential publications. The first was in the Lancet:
“We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin,” a group of virologists and others wrote in the Lancet on February 19, 2020, when it was really far too soon for anyone to be sure what had happened. Scientists “overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife,” they said, with a stirring rallying call for readers to stand with Chinese colleagues on the frontline of fighting the disease.
“Overwhelmingly conclude,” as well as being nonsense, has to me a ring of climate science about it. The authors condemned the “conspiracy theories” of the alternative hypothesis. Only now are people realising that one of the authors of the Lancet piece, and according to Wade its originator and drafter, was rather invested in turning the natural origins theory into a paradigm. That author, Peter Daszak, had funded coronavirus research at the Wuhan lab. Having your own creation escape and wreak havoc is not good PR, as Baron Frankenstein discovered. Perhaps Frankenstein should have got together with some gentleman scholars and penned an article decrying the “conspiracy theories” that the monster originated in a lab. And declared no competing interests, as Daszak did. But I digress.
The second article discussed by Wade was in Nature Medicine on March 17th 2020. Kristian G. Andersen and colleagues showed that Covid-19 was “not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.” Well, they couldn’t be clearer than that. Well, actually they could, because later on the word “improbable” creeps in: if laboratory manipulation is improbable, it is clearly still possible. The reasons they asserted that Covid-19 was natural now sound like a failure of logic: (i) the spike protein is a good fit for the human cell, but it is not perfect, so it cannot be artificial; and (ii) the DNA backbone of Covid-19 was not in a laboratory catalogue, so it cannot be artificial. Both fail for obvious reasons.
At this point Science rides in and corrects things – or it does in an alternate universe. In our universe:
The Daszak and Andersen letters were really political, not scientific, statements, yet were amazingly effective. Articles in the mainstream press repeatedly stated that a consensus of experts had ruled lab escape out of the question or extremely unlikely.
Wade’s opinion is that this was dangerous ground for other virologists to tread if they had any concern about the chance of success of their next grant application. Too, the sub-community of virologists interested in gain-of-function research – i.e. the bunch most qualified to opine on the lab-leak theory – were probably a tad nervous about explaining the research they had engaged in for years and its suddenly-obvious attendant risks for fear that a portion of blame would be directed their way. Meanwhile the media opposed the lab-leak idea automatically, just because it was supported by Donald Trump:
“Anthony Fauci just crushed Donald Trump’s theory on the origins of the coronavirus”CNN, May 5, 2020
I won’t go into the detail of all the evidence for the escape of a souped-up virus in Wade’s article here. There is plenty of it, and to me it is compelling; I cannot recommend Wade’s article highly enough. What follows is instead a mere bullet-point list of the evidence for the lab-leak theory:
- No traces of Covid-19 progenitors in environment
- Known gain-of-function research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases via Daszak’s EcoHealth Alliance
- Lax biosecurity measures (described as equivalent to a dentist’s surgery); previous examples of escapes
- 100 bat coronaviruses collected by “Bat Lady” Shi Zheng-Li working at WIV
- Shi earlier reported creating a chimera
- Bat caves where Shi collected coronaviruses 1500 km from Wuhan; Wuhan already too cold by September for horseshoe bats to be active; their range 50 km
- No documented evolution of adaptation from intermediate host to human host (as found in SARS)
- Covid-19 “well adapted to humans from its first appearance”
- Limited genetic diversity indicating a single source rather than a population of virus
- No intermediate host identified after nearly 18 months
- Furin cleavage site (FCS) making virus very well adapted to human cells unlikely to have evolved by chance; of all beta coronaviruses, only Covid-19 possesses an FCS; a history of adding FCS to viruses as part of gain-of-function research, including by Shi; unusual codon sequence indicating potential lab origin of FCS
- If there was no intermediate host but Covid-19 passed straight from bats to humans, it would still be well adapted to bats, but it is poorly adapted to bats.
- Reports of 3 WIV workers hospitalised with symptoms consistent with Covid-19 in November 2019
- Chinese history of denying everything; silencing whistleblowers; covering up mistakes; not allowing WHO team to see lab books/ interview WIV staff
- Daszak on WHO team
- WHO conclusion that lab-leak “extremely unlikely” not conforming with evidence
Circumstantial, but again, to my mind, in totality, compelling.
The story of Covid-19 does chime with Crawford’s opinion about the corruption of science. Here we have an answer that was probably wrong, but once it became the “approved” answer, it rapidly excluded all others. Once the narrative had been shaped by the scientists, the media slavishly followed along. Dissent was stifled. Donald Trump’s view naturally polarised things, so that if you didn’t like Trump, you couldn’t like the lab-leak theory either. Other aspects of the pandemic exemplify other parts of the corruption theory: moralism, with every challenge to control measures treated as good vs evil (as if there was not a balance point somewhere). I hope you noticed Wade’s reference to “consensus” as reported in the media too.
In light of ongoing investigations into the origin of COVID-19 and in consultation with public health experts, we will no longer remove the claim that COVID-19 is man-made or manufactured from our apps. We’re continuing to work with health experts to keep pace with the evolving nature of the pandemic and regularly update our policies as new facts and trends emerge.Facebook statement on May 26, 2021 (via WUWT; I don’t have Facebook, nor will I ever)
New facts and trends…? This sounds awfully like when a theory becomes popular, they’re going to stop censoring it?
Does it matter that our understanding of Covid-19’s origins was probably wrong, and that competing theories were excluded from public discourse? The obvious answer to that is a firm Yes because the next pandemic might come from the same source, and who knows, it might be worse than Covid-19. It might even leave Earth a derelict planet.
Three: something fishy in fish behavioural science
Finally, there’s one more loose thread I need to tease out of the tapestry of modern science before I go. This is the third of the trio of articles: the May 6th 2021 piece by Martin Enserink in Science: Does ocean acidification alter fish behavior? Fraud allegations create a sea of doubt. Enserink discusses the ongoing saga of suspicious, and in one case definitely fraudulent, fish behaviour studies. These centre around James Cook University, infamous in sceptic circles for cancelling Peter Ridd after his uncollegiate remarks about their reef science. They also have a climate change angle, because they relate to the effect of increasing CO2 concentrations on fish behaviour.
Now, if you were going to predict the properties of a fraudulent scientific paper, which of the following would you pick? Eye-catching or dull? Top journal or obscure journal? Result or non-result? Going the “right” way or the “wrong” way? A call for action or with no societal implications? A young researcher or one nearing retirement? Requiring elaborate experimental setup, or easy to replicate? Requiring long tedious hours of accurate recording, or easy to obtain a result quickly?
You will have heard of Oona Lönnstedt, or at least you’ll be familiar with her “work,” a paper about microplastics and fish behaviour that was published in Science in 2016. Lönnstedt was a young researcher who had obtained her PhD at JCU. Moving to Uppsala University, her research switched from reef fish to Baltic perch. Her Science paper showed that perch larvae swallowed microplastics, which affected their behaviour, making them more likely to be a meal for bigger fish.
[Josefin] Sundin, also at UU at the time, says she immediately thought the paper was “a total fantasy.” She and [Fredrik] Jutfelt had spent time with Lönnstedt at a Baltic island research station, but had never seen a study on the scale described in the paper.
Sundin and colleagues blew the whistle, but
…a UU panel dismissed the request for an investigation in a terse report and berated the team for failing to discuss its concerns with Lönnstedt and Eklöv in a “normal scholarly discussion.”
Shades of Peter Ridd’s uncollegiate behaviour there. However, the evidence piled up, and the paper was pulled in 2017. This I think was the outside world’s first notification that there might be shenanigans going on in the world of fish behavioural science, but insiders had been suspicious of the carbon dioxide/behaviour results for quite a time. Regarding the microplastics study,
The brazenness of the apparent deception shocked Jutfelt. “It really triggered my skepticism about science massively,” he says. “Before that paper, I could not understand how anyone could fabricate data. It was inconceivable to me.” Now, he began to wonder how many other papers might be a total fantasy. The experience also taught the group that, if they were ever to blow the whistle again, they would have to bring a stronger case right from the start, [Timothy] Clark says.
The JCU CO2/fish behaviour work of Philip Munday and Danielle Dixson that spawned headlines like “Ocean acidification can mess with a fish’s mind” and was included in AR5 took a screeching turn in 2020. Clark et al’s effort to replicate the study was
…a stellar example of research replication that cast doubt on extraordinary claims that should have received closer scrutiny from the start.
Not everyone agreed. The Clark team were described as an “odd little bro-pocket”, whatever that is; their motivations were described as not scientific, but sadistic.
Where the original work had found astounding changes in fish behaviour with elevated CO2, the meticulous Clark replication effort found none.
What few researchers know is that in August 2020, Clark and three others in the group took another, far bigger step: They asked three funders that together spent millions on Dixson’s and Munday’s work—the Australian Research Council (ARC), the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), and the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH)—to investigate possible fraud in 22 papers.
That’s 22 papers. There looks to have been a bit of cut’n’pasting going on, for where raw data are available, there are duplicated blocks of numbers.
The statements [by former colleagues] about Munday’s lab don’t contain concrete fraud accusations, but those about Dixson do. One former colleague became “slowly more suspicious,” especially about the fluming studies, and began to monitor them covertly. The testimony contains text messages and photos of lab notebooks that appear to show Dixson did not spend enough time in the lab for one particular study and could not possibly have produced the data she reported.
Research on the effects of elevated CO2 on fish behaviour are apparently showing a strong “decline effect”: after initial huge effect sizes, subsequent work shows effects that fade over time. This would be unsurprising if a large chunk of the original data were made up.
What does this episode tell us about science today? Like Jutfelt, I find it hard to stomach that some researchers might be prepared to make up data. But there are clearly “scientists” who are prepared to do just that, to in effect lie to the public about nature. As to their motivations, they are obvious enough: they want eye-catching results in top journals that will enable them to carve out successful careers and rake in large grants. Of course the likely culprits are the young, who have yet to establish themselves; the results they fake have to be “important” enough to warrant publication in top journals; and you can bet your bottom dollar that the results mean that things are “worse than we thought” – whether that be because of climate change or pollution. It tells us that peer review is incapable of catching fraud at the initial stage, and that whistle-blowing is unwelcome in universities, which naturally have a conflict of interest. It tells us that replication is vitally important, even though the priorities of grant-awarding bodies are otherwise.
A final perhaps surprising opinion: faked results probably match what the researchers think they would obtain if they could be bothered to do the work properly.
Taken together, these three articles show that while science might be perfect, scientists are humans. They exist in a world where they are competing with others, where they have hopes and fears, where there are preferred cultural narratives, a world where the media soon latches onto an approved theory, where striking results can be more important than true results, where insecurity might lead to temptation, where politicians rely on them as a source of authority, where consensus is given too much importance, where ethical behaviour can bring them trouble and where it might be better to walk on by when they suspect malpractice rather than getting involved.
Science can save us from the next pandemic, if we want it to.
Featured image: NASA; headline: The Sunday Times, 30th May 2021