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Point of View : Sep 1, 2008 (Vol. 28, No. 15)

Undermining Scientific Credibility

Scientists Need to Step Up and Defend Their Turf—Now
  • Alan McHughen

Science is the knowledge of Nature and the pursuit of such knowledge. Scientists are generally held in high regard by laypeople. It is, after all, a noble and rewarding calling. Scientists span the political spectrum, come from every nation and race, and subscribe to any religious creed (or none).

The nonpartisan nature of the study of Nature has engendered the support of people worldwide, with scientists accumulating considerable political capital due to this broad spectrum of high regard. Unfortunately, most scientists, particularly those in academia, are politically naïve and unaware of the power of the wealth amassed. It is thus not surprising that others with less noble motives are arrogating the political capital rightly belonging to science and scientists.

Pseudoscientists come with various agendas—political, religious, and industrial are common examples. On the extreme left wing, when the overt political agenda fails to convince sufficient voters in the usual democratic exercise of elections, science is presented to gain support for the now-covert political agenda.

The typical guise here is any number of popular but scientifically questionable green or sustainable environmental initiatives. While there are certainly plenty of scientifically legitimate environmental issues, the left-wing pseudoscientists infiltrate easily, and readily convince the masses of the scientific credibility of their cause.

When the burning issue turns out to be wrong or grossly overstated, the credibility thieves slink back into the shadows, while science and legitimate scientists suffer the loss of credibility and respect. Meanwhile, legitimate environmental threats are pushed aside, and the thieves plan their next steps, financed again by inappropriate withdrawal of scientists’ political capital.

On the extreme right wing we find the religious pseudoscientists, who also illegitimately withdraw from the bank of scientists’ political capital in asserting what they call science to support what should be left to faith. Nowhere is this more evident than in the contentious debate of biblical creationism under the pseudoscientific guise of intelligent design.

The mere fact that this issue is under popular debate and even litigation proves that at least some people are convinced by the scientific content argued by the pseudoscientists representing a covert religious view. Of course many people hold beliefs in the absence of supporting evidence and even in the face of compelling counterevidence—that is, after all, the basis for religious faith.

Even many legitimate scientists hold religious beliefs, delegating and limiting their scientific beliefs to the natural world and their religious faith to the supernatural. But that is different from, and does not legitimize, the deceiving of people seeking scientific evidence before adopting beliefs.

For example, when family theme parks present “scientific evidence” purporting to support the notion that people walked the Earth with dinosaurs nearby, people are tricked into believing something that should be taken on religious faith as true scientific evidence contradicts the notion. This dishonesty undermines science, certainly, but also faith, as religious faith should stand on its own; it does not require the support of purloined and manipulated scientific evidence.

The industrialists also arrogate science when they present pseudoscience to sell questionable products. Nowhere is this more evident than in the healthfood market where organic foods are marketed and sold to naïve consumers based on the claimed superiority of the products. Food supplements and herbal remedies in reality are, at best, benign placebos or, at worst, malignant uncontrolled drugs of unknown purity and batch-varied potency.

Healthfood purveyors have convinced consumers that “science is on our side,” manipulating public support while shilling sales. Again, the price—loss of public credibility—is eventually paid when the scam becomes apparent, and not by the thieves responsible, but by the legitimate scientists who develop products with attributes backed by real and meaningful scientifically sound data.

In all these cases, thieves are squandering the political capital that properly belongs to the community of legitimate scientists. So far, the thieves have become wealthy, advanced their political agendas, and now enjoy an unearned status. Real scientists, the ones who have earned the social status and political capital, are too naïve to recognize that they are being robbed. The common assets are being stolen, eroded, and polluted from various sources claiming science as their own. When will real scientists start defending their property?