by Judith Curry
The implications of dogmatic groupthink and intimidation for the pursuit of sound science — and sound policy — are chilling. – Christopher Snowden
A collection of articles from the health science community on the fate of papers and scientists that challenge the consensus.
Christopher Snowden has an article Groupthink attacks on science has a long history (behind paywall; google the title and you can get in). Excerpts:
Take Katherine Flegal, a statistician at the US Centres for Disease Control. Last year, she and her colleagues published a systematic review of 97 studies in The Journal of the American Medical Association and concluded that mild obesity produced no extra mortality risk and being merely overweight resulted in a small reduction in mortality risk.
Despite being supported with a ream of data, the study was savaged by the public health lobby. Walter Willett, one of the world’s most prominent anti-obesity campaigners, said: “This study is really a pile of rubbish and no one should waste their time reading it.”
A spokesman for the National Obesity Forum said, “It’s a horrific message to put out at this particular time”, and absurdly suggested that Flegal’s “message” was that we can “eat ourselves to death with black forest gateaux”. Willett later organised a symposium in which speaker after speaker denounced Flegal and her work.
Or take James Enstrom, a vastly experienced and respected epidemiologist who had been working at the University of California at Los Angeles since 1976. In 2003, he and a colleague published a study in the British medical journal BMJ that found no association between second-hand smoke and lung cancer. Many other studies had come to the same conclusion and Enstrom’s research had no substantive flaws. Nevertheless, when anti-smoking campaigners heard about the findings, they breached the journal’s embargo and organised a press conference in which they slated the study (which they not yet read) and described it as “crap” and Enstrom as “a damn fool”.
In 2005, Enstrom further blotted his copy book by conducting research on fine particulate matter that cast doubt on the scientific basis of new air pollution laws proposed by the Californian Environmental Protection Agency. Although Enstrom’s findings have since been replicated in other studies, he was later sacked by UCLA because his research was “not aligned with the department’s mission”.
Or take the 2011 study by Jennie Brand Miller and Alan Barclay that claimed sugar consumption had been falling in Australia while obesity had been rising. They and their study, The Australian Paradox, have been viciously attacked by anti-sugar campaigners, with the usual accusations of being in the pay of industry. The researchers eventually were charged with scientific misconduct and only recently have been exonerated.
All of these examples involve scientists of good standing whose studies have been published in peer-reviewed journals. It is hard to believe that any of them would have been attacked with such vigour had they not been dealing with red-button issues that are of great importance to public health pressure groups.
To put it bluntly, the policies had already been decided. The campaigners want to send a clear, unambiguous message to the public while persuading politicians to act. Any research suggesting that a policy is misplaced or directed at the wrong target brings down a firestorm on the heretical scientist, regardless of the quality of the research or the credentials of the researcher. In each case, the response from the establishment is visceral rather than rational. The implications of dogmatic groupthink and intimidation for the pursuit of sound science — and sound policy — are chilling.
From the Independent: The science of saturated fats: a big fat surprise about nutrition? Excerpts:
When Ronald M Krauss decided, in 2000, to review all the evidence purporting to show that saturated fats cause heart disease, he knew that he was putting his professional career at risk.
Challenging any of the conventional wisdom on dietary fat has long been a form of professional suicide for nutrition experts. And saturated fats, especially, are the third rail. But Krauss persevered and concluded in 2010, after reviewing all the scientific literature, that saturated fats could not be said to cause heart disease. In March, another group of scientists, including faculty from Cambridge and Harvard, came to the same conclusion after conducting a similar “meta-analysis”. These were stunning results. It seemed that saturated fat, our principal dietary culprit for decades, had been unfairly convicted.
Yet the truth is there never has been solid evidence that these fats cause disease. We only believe this to be true because nutrition policy was derailed over the past half-century by personal ambition, bad science, politics, and bias.
Silencing science and the role of partisanship
This paper digs into the second hand smoke issue, and does a sociological analysis of the broader issues.
Silencing science: partisanship and the career of a publication disputing the dangers of secondhand smoke
Sheldon Ungar and Dennis Bray
Abstract. This paper examines the silencing of science, that is, efforts to prevent the making of specific scientific claims in any or all of the arenas in which these claims are typically reported or circulated. Those trying to mute the reporting or circulation of scientific claims are termed “partisans.” The paper examines silencing through a systematic examination of the “rapid responses” to a smoking study published in the British Medical Journal claiming that secondhand smoke is not as dangerous as conventionally believed. Media coverage of the smoking study is also examined, as is the question of whether there is self-silencing by the media regarding doubts about the negative effects of passive smoke. The results suggest that the public consensus about the negative effects of passive smoke is so strong that it has become part of a regime of truth that cannot be intelligibly questioned.
Published in Public Understanding of Science, [link] to full manuscript.
Unger and Bray lay out the problem in the Introduction:
Thanks for turning back the clock on public health decades or more. We don’t need this kind of negligence from what used to be a professional medical publication. I seriously wonder who got paid off at BMJ to publish this utter garbage.
Dale Jackman, Seriously Annoyed
I won’t dignify this rag with my credentials
This quotation is from the “rapid responses” to a paper on secondhand smoke (hereafter the smoking article) by Enstrom and Kabat (2003) published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ). Other rapid responses castigate the BMJ for its “tabloid style journalism” and suggest that it is seeking publicity and controversy in publishing this paper that presents results suggesting that passive smoking is far less dangerous than often believed. The editor of the BMJ speaks of going “From hero to pariah in one easy jump,” as others seek a retraction or an apology. This does not sound like standard scientific discourse to us. Something is different—and seemingly awry. Editors are not ordinarily whipping boys, subject to harassment by “outsiders” who are not scientific specialists in the domain of interest and are acting on extra-scientific agendas. But our concern is not to judge this discourse so much as to identify, define, and develop its characteristics and implications for scientific publication, reporting, and policy usage. We refer to these activities as silencing science; those who engage in the silencing efforts are termed partisans.
As a result of these recent developments, and abetted by new technology such as the Internet, there has been an amplification of scientific controversy that fosters an increasingly intense and acrimonious scrutiny of methods, results and even personal integrity by competing scientists, the media and various interest groups. In place of what were once jousts in obscurity over arcane matters, many scientific disputes now overflow into different public arenas and involve uncivil efforts to silence researchers for political, ideological, social or even economic reasons. Accusations of junk science, cherry picking and stacked committees have become strikingly commonplace.
Partisan is a felicitous metaphor, as it encompasses two levels—ideas and actions. At the first level, a partisan is a firm adherent to a belief or cause; the partisan tends to have an unreasoned allegiance to this, and not to truth. This contravenes, of course, the normative complex surrounding openness in science. At the second level, a partisan is a member of a military unit or guerrilla band harassing an enemy. For our purposes then, partisanship involves not only a dogmatic adherence to a belief, but also the use of a wide range of tactics to silence opponents of that belief in any arena in which it is presented, reported or used. Partisans seek not only to authoritatively lay down their (scientific) position, but to shield it by engaging in silencing skirmishes that can include, among other things, intimidation, slander and discredit, gagging, budget cuts, and the removal of opponents. As can be gleaned from the discussion throughout this paper, partisans are not a unitary group but can be composed of state officials, large firms or sponsorship organizations, scientists, interest groups, and/or members of the public.
“Political partisanship” is widely used and fully understandable (and almost redundant). But “scientific partisanship” borders on the oxymoronic. If fully realized, scientific partisanship entails, as noted above, closure, intimidation, and silencing, rendering science impossible.
Beyond the general tendency to avoid extreme methods, silencing tactics further depend on the kinds of partisans involved. Scientists themselves, especially those who are experts in the area of research under question, are likely to use the least extreme tactics. Not only will experts in the field have the knowledge and tools to mount a conventional scientific attack on the offending ideas, but they will have sufficiently imbibed the norms of openness that they will tend to recognize or tolerate deviant ideas. Those with some knowledge of the field, whether holders of some scientific knowledge (e.g., physicians), or practitioners applying knowledge in that realm, have less expertise to formulate criticisms and are likely to be less restrained by norms of openness and the informal controls extant in the specific research domain. Outsiders, or the lay public, are expected to be the least restrained of all partisans. Not only do they lack training in the area, but they have the least to lose and are involved in the domain as a result of personal beliefs or choice. Hence they are most likely to engage in personal abuse, intimidation, and open calls for silencing.
According to Ziman, “A sure symptom of non-science is personal abuse and intolerance of the views of one scholar by another.”
The situation in health/nutrition science has some unfortunate parallels with climate science.
I like the terms ‘campaigners’ and in particular ‘partisans’. I find the Unger and Bray paper to be very insightful (note Dennis Bray is frequent collaborator of Hans von Storch). Re partisans, I was struck by this:
Scientists themselves, especially those who are experts in the area of research under question, are likely to use the least extreme tactics. Not only will experts in the field have the knowledge and tools to mount a conventional scientific attack on the offending ideas, but they will have sufficiently imbibed the norms of openness that they will tend to recognize or tolerate deviant ideas.
According to Ziman, “A sure symptom of non-science is personal abuse and intolerance of the views of one scholar by another.”
Partisans who are not climate science experts can and do sling mud, it is particularly egregious and pathological when science experts do the mud slinging.
JC message to climate scientist partisans: leave the mud slinging to bloggers, advocacy groups, politicians. Attack the arguments, not the person. Some recent examples: Gavin Schmidt is behaving like a scientist (with his response to my 50-50 argument); Michael Mann is becoming a poster boy for non-science with his personal abuse and intolerance of the views of other scientists.
In summary, these articles provide a stark picture of the dangers to science of groupthink and intimidation of science with non-consensus views. In my opinion, climate science is suffering badly from these.
“People are open-minded about new things as long as they’re exactly like the old ones.” Charles Kettering