The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Apr 27, 2008

Eppur si muove

While fraud and falsehood in science are known (and have even been limned on these pages), another fight to be fought by champions of the truth is that against the suppression of scientific results by ideology and special interests. Almost any ideology one can think of has had reasons to prevent streams of research, or quash findings contrary to a perceived common interest. In this post, I point out a few instances.

This is directly inspired by Nanopolitan's post on a study of the Genome Variation in India as reported by the Telegraph. One of the findings was that many Hindu caste groups are more closely related to Muslims in their geographical area than their caste fellows in other parts of the country. Unfortunately, though, the researchers declined to list the names of these castes, no doubt worried about a potential backlash against (and possible conflagration of) their laboratories.

Religion, as ever, provides the longest tradition of suppression of science. The quote that titles this post is the famous one attributed to Galileo who, after being forced to recant his support for the heliocentric theory of the Universe and its consequence that the Earth moves around the Sun, is said to have muttered, And yet it does.

In John Kelly's The Great Mortality, he discusses the early theories of contagion and the plague. Among Muslims, the idea of contagion was somewhat suspect. If God willed who survived an epidemic and who perished in it, it was futile to ascribe the spread of the disease to any vector. The disease existed in the population, erupting into virulence at various times, and some lived while others died. Ibn-Khatimah, who lived in Granada in the 12th century, knew that his ancestors had long held the idea of contagion, but he preferred to play it down as a supposition of the Arabs in their ignorance, that is, before they became Muslims. However, Ibn al-Khatib, a fellow Spaniard and a more courageous scientist, categorically stated that contagion was firmly established by experience, research, mental perception, autopsy and authentic knowledge of fact. In 1374, when a lynch mob murdered al-Khatib, one of the accusations against him was his disregard of Islamic teaching during the plague. 1

The orthodoxy sometimes ignores its own precepts. Had the fundamentalists recalled that science, in the view of the Prophet Muhammad, was a wordly matter and thus best left to its experts, they might have not been so keen to attack its practitioners. In this Islamics blog article is a telling passage:
It was reported in a hadith that a group of people came to the Prophet (saw) asking him about the pollination of dates. He instructed them not to pollinate the date palms themselves since the wind may carry the seeds. That year there was no harvest; they informed him of this, and he told them, "You know best regarding your worldly affairs," referring to scientific research.
More recently, as is well known, we have the raging war between Creationism and Evolution for the hearts and minds of children in the US (and, indeed, in the UK, hitherto considered secular enough to avoid this sort of nonsense).

Interestingly, the Entertaining Research blog points out that even in India, where really there should not be any dogmatic opposition to evolution, there are no references either to the word or Charles Darwin in national textbooks. [Update: Correction! This is not entirely true: the national education board's textbooks do cover the material, but as there are state boards and there is no standardisation across them, not all textbooks have this coverage.]

Monopolies like to restrict the availability of technical and scientific skills: only those belonging to the cartel are allowed to practise. John Kelly mentions the institution of the college of physicians in Paris in the 14th century, which aimed to keep the practice of medicine among its licensed members. At the top of this organisation - all men, by the way - would be university-trained physicians, experts in internal medicine. Beneath them would be surgeons (untrained but skilled owing to experience) who could treat wounds, fractures, skin disorders and the like; barber surgeons, a paramedical staff, who were allowed to handle bleeding, cupping, cutting hair and pulling teeth; the apothecaries, who would specialise in one condition, say hernias. Beneath all these were the large numbers of unlicensed operatives - midwives and herbalists and healers - whom the college was determined to stamp out. A legal case in 1322 against one healer, a gifted medic named Mme Felicie, resulted in the affirmation of the college's plea. Felicie had cured several people who had had no relief by the ministrations of the college's physicians, but this was ignored, and she was convicted and barred from practising her empirically gained techniques again. 2

Self-censorship occasioned by feelings such as good taste or good judgement results in scientists either not entering controversial fields of research, or not commenting on matters of public utility even if they are qualified to do so. As reported in this paper by Brian Martin 3:
70 senior Australian environmental scientists [...were asked], among other things, "Do you believe that scientists may jeopardise their career prospects or research funding success by speaking out on environmental issues?" More than half replied "yes" and less than one in five replied "no," the rest being unsure.
Social mores are one thing. Political correctness is another. It has become well-nigh impossible to conduct responsible research on the effect of genes on intelligence, or on the variation of intelligence among various populations, or on if gender has any bearing on aptitude or achievement in various disciplines. Even if I leave aside the tenuous notion of intelligence, I would be very surprised to find that research such as this - that Ashkenazi Jews overdeveloped their brain power by the same process of natural selection that rendered them vulnerable to strange and rare genetically transmitted diseases 4 - is repeated for other communities (particularly, if the result is that they underdeveloped their brains for whatever reason). And we all recall the brouhaha that arose after Lawrence Summer's query on whether there was an innate reason for the preponderance of males in scientific research (particularly in the hard sciences), and if there was a reason other than social effects for this to occur.

Sometimes, the status quo becomes so solidly entrenched that no amount of disputation seems to dislodge it. Consider the story of fluoridation of water. For most of the modern era, fluoride in water was considered a poison and aimed to be removed. Extensive evidence was available on the deleterious effects of fluoride on human bone structures, but for some reason, an influential panel of dentists and dental companies - touting the ostensible benefit to human teeth - were able to push through legislation in several countries mandating the fluoridation of the public water supply in the 1950s. Since then, despite the strong efforts of many scientists to overturn this legislation, it has held fast. This paper (PDF alert!) discusses the ways and means of this struggle, and remarks 6
On 6 May 2003 the US Environmental Protection Authority sponsored a scientific debate on fluoridation in Washington DC. The ‘anti’ case was presented by Professor Paul Connett [who proved that the cumulative effect of fluoride is what causes skeletal problems, among other things]. But, despite sending invitations to many prominent pro-fluoridation doctors and dentists, the EPA could find no-one willing to present the pro-fluoridation case at the ‘debate’. In Australia and New Zealand, pro-fluoridation authorities have also refused to debate Professor Connett and other scientific opponents of fluoridation. This suggests that proponents are maintaining fluoridation by political power and influence, rather than by open, rational, scientific argument and evidence.
Politics, ah, politics. The Dubya administration is notorious for its selection of "tame" experts into positions of influence and authority; scientific credentials in general are considered secondary to loyalty. For instance, this article 5 says
When Torsten Wiesel, a Nobel laureate in physiology and medicine, was rejected by Tommy Thompson's office as a candidate for the advisory board of the Fogarty Center at the NIH, the director of the center was told by an official from the Department of Health and Human Services that Wiesel had "signed too many full-page letters in The New York Times critical of President Bush." Indeed, the government makes no apology for the use of criteria other than scientific competence in its appointment policy. According to the report in Nature, a spokesman for the DHHS has asserted that, in addition to competence, a diversity of gender, race, geography, and political opinion is a valid goal of appointments to scientific advisory boards.
This may not be as bad as it sounds were the administration then to allow the results of their stooge panels to be publicised, even if the news is not what it wants to hear. But, of course, that doesn't happen either:
In order to demonstrate that abstinence-only programs were effective, the Bush administration instructed the Centers for Disease Control not to follow the actual birth rate for participants in an abstinence-only test program, but only their attendance and attitudes toward the program. In order to hide the effectiveness of condom use in preventing HIV infection, the CDC was directed to emphasize condom failure rates in its educational material. Finally, the National Cancer Institute was directed to post a claim on its Web site that abortion promotes breast cancer although a large study had shown no connection between them.
In Communist times, science had to be filtered through an ideological prism. This article (PDF alert!) by William Happer discusses 7, among other things, the destruction of Soviet biology and genetics under Trofim Lysenko:
the Communists paid attention when young Trofim Lysenko declared that the genetics of Mendel’s peas and Morgan’s fruit flies was incorrect and simply a capitalist plot to exploit the peasants and working class. Lysenko believed that environmental factors determined the performance of plants and that acquired characteristics could be inherited. Having unmasked the evil Western myth of gene-based inheritance, Lysenko promised almost instant improvements in agricultural production.

Lysenko’s origins —— a peasant background, and little education —— helped him avoid the hatred of the Soviet authorities for the intelligentsia. He first became famous in 1928 by claiming that a series of simple steps, within reach of any farmer, produced markedly improved yields of wheat. All that was necessary was “vernalization” —— soaking winter-wheat seed in the fall, burying it in sacks under the snow, and planting it in the spring like ordinary spring wheat. This was all a fraud, supported by corrupted experiments and falsified statistics.
Interestingly, Happer himself had been a victim of political thuggery in the scientific process. As a Republican holdover at the Department of Energy in the age of Clinton and Gore, he found there was considerable Federal funding targeted at doom-and-gloom scenarios for the planet. When he attempted to balance the DOE presentations with independent research that cast doubt on some of Gore's more extreme environmental concerns, he was sacked. Clearly, it's not just the Bushies who have ideologically driven agendas in science. The Democrats are no different.

Finally, we have corporate and institutional interference in scientific matters. Where the research is done under the aegis of a for-profit institution, reasons such as intellectual property and competitive advantage are frequently used to suppress the dissemination of knowledge. When I was in college, a visiting professor (whose name I unfortunately don't recall) told us about the invention of interior-point methods in optimisation theory by Narendra Karmarkar, at the time on the staff of Bell Laboratories. This was a breakthrough in the efficient solution of linear programming problems, which were heavily used in the industry. It so happened that Karmarkar was allowed to talk about some of his results, but not the full details, and everywhere he went - conferences, talks, presentations - he was accompanied by Bell Labs lawyers who would vet questions and decide whether or not he was allowed to reply. This frustrated the attending scientists who had been fascinated by his theory, and caused considerable ill-will towards Bell Labs. (Later on, I worked at Bell Labs myself, and was struck more by its openness in publishing its research rather than the suppression. Indeed, many of the economic problems faced later by its parent organisations (AT&T and Lucent) stemmed from this openness: Bell Labs didn't enforce patents on many of its discoveries that went on to become moneyspinners for other companies.)

Other examples of industrial interference are more egregious. Their long reach has extended even to editorial panels of prestigious journals such as Nature. Check out the following excerpt 7:
[Ignacio Chapela of the University of California, Berkeley] and his graduate student, David Quist, published an article in Nature that announced the contamination of Mexican maize landraces by transgenic DNA (Quist and Chapela 2001). Within days factions of the scientific community denounced the results and charged Chapela with technical incompetence and politically motivated science (Agbioworld 2002). Nature responded by publishing two harsh critiques of the article (Kaplinsky, Braun et al. 2002; Metz and Fütterer 2002) and an unprecedented editorial note that withdrew support from the original publication. without formally calling for a retraction by the authors ("Editorial note" 2002). In response, two groups from UCB published critiques in Nature of the unfolding controversy: the first, challenging Nature’s editorial note as an affront to the peer review process and a disturbing precedent for discrediting politically-relevant science (Suarez, Benard et al. 2002); the second, exposing the conflicts of interest held by the authors of the scientific critiques – both lead authors and several co-authors had received funding from the Novartis Agreement (mentioned above) – and challenging Nature’s failure to disclose its own conflict of interest due to its reliance on corporate sponsorship by biotechnology companies (Worthy, Strohman and Billings 2002).
Constantin Cavafy in his poem Things Ended saw clearly the pitfalls of obscured and false knowledge. Happer quotes him at the end of his essay 7, and it can serve admirably as a coda for this humbler article as well.

Possessed by fear and suspicion,
mind agitated, eyes alarmed,
we desperately invent ways out,
plan how to avoid the inevitable
danger that threatens us so terribly.
Yet we’re mistaken, that’s not the danger ahead:
the information was false
(or we didn’t hear it, or didn’t get it right).
Another disaster, one we never imagined,
suddenly, violently, descends upon us,
and finding us unprepared——there’s no time left——
sweeps us away.


1. John Kelly, The Great Mortality, Harper Perennial, 2006. Page 172.
2. Ibid, page 166.
3. Brian Martin, Suppression of dissent in science, in Research in Social Problems and Public Policy, Volume 7, edited by William R. Freudenburg and Ted I. K. Youn (Stamford, CT: JAI Press, 1999), pp. 105-135.
4. G. Cochran, J. Hardy, H. Harpending, Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence, Journal of Biosocial Science 38(5):659-693 Sep 2006
5. Richard Lewontin, Dishonesty in Science, New York Review of Books, Volume 51, Number 18, Nov 18, 2004
6. M. Diesendorf, A kick in the teeth for scientific debate, Australasian Science vol. 24, no. 8, pp.35-37, 2003.
7. W. Happer, The Harmful Politicization of Science. Hoover Press.
8. Jason A. Delborne, Transforming Scientific Dissent into Dissidence. Society for the Social Studies of Science (4S) Annual Conference, Public Proofs – Science, Technology and Democracy, August 27, 2004. École de Mines, Paris


Shefaly said...

Feanor: This is a great post although a bit long (I read it thrice to 'get' it fully since you do what I do in conversations, go off in tangents and come back..).

I once read a book From Chance To Choice: Genetics And Justice, which will resonate with you I think. More later. Busy week.

Fëanor said...

Thanks, Shefaly. Took ages to type it up (with one hand holding Angad off and another doing the typing). But I'm amazed you read it three times - implies a respect for (and attention to detail in) the writing, for which I'm grateful and touched.

Yup, I do meander. (The expression probably should be 'waffle' - problem stemming from being a jack and not a master: one's attention wanders all the time. :-)

Thanks for the book recommendation. Shall look for it.

Post a Comment