Monday, 15 July 2013

Not even trying: the corruption of real science

 

Not even trying: the corruption of real science

Bruce G Charlton

University of Buckingham Press: Buckingham, UK. 2012

Note: This is a draft version of the book which is substantively accurate but contains some typos and minor errors and a few differences from the published paper/ Kindle version.

Note: The length is about 28,000 words, so for ease of reading it may be best to copy and paste this text into a Word document, edit and print it out. 
Alternatively, the Kindle version is very cheap...

***

 

Real science – a definition

Real Science noun Science that operates on the basis of a belief in the reality of truth: that truth is real.

 

 

Dedication

To the late John Ziman FRS (1925-2005) physicist, and great understander of science; who wrote about Real Science in his book of that name, and was probably the first to distinguish real science from what nowadays calls-itself science but is not.


 

 

Note to the reader

This book might strike some people as bitter – it is not.

It is however viscerally and unapologetically angry – although I hope to have kept this reasonably well under control...


 

 

The argument of this book in a single paragraph

Briefly, the argument of this book is that real science is dead, and the main reason is that professional researchers are not even trying to seek the truth and speak the truth; and the reason for this is that professional ‘scientists’ no longer believe in the truth - no longer believe that there is an eternal unchanging reality beyond human wishes and organization which they have a duty to seek and proclaim to the best of their (naturally limited) abilities. Hence the vast structures of personnel and resources that constitute modern ‘science’ are not real science but instead merely a professional research bureaucracy, thus fake or pseudo-science; regulated by peer review (that is, committee opinion) rather than the search-for and service-to reality. Among the consequences are that modern publications in the research literature must be assumed to be worthless or misleading and should always be ignored. In practice, this means that nearly all ‘science’ needs to be demolished (or allowed to collapse) and real science carefully rebuilt outside the professional research structure, from the ground up, by real scientists who regard truth-seeking as an imperative and truthfulness as an iron law.


 

Introduction

As a schoolboy and for many years afterwards, I was perhaps as idealistic about science as anyone in recent years – it would not be much of an exaggeration to say that I worshipped science; since I was an atheist for whom science was the bottom-line description of reality. The great scientists were my heroes – those whom I hoped to emulate.

For me nothing was more fundamental than science; everything else was properly to be evaluated from the perspective of science.

Yet now I regard real science – the kind of science I used to worship - as a thing of the past; an object of historical study. There are small islands of real science dotted here and there, but with only local and dwindling influence.

To all extents and purposes, I see real science as dead; and what calls itself science is a fake – worse than nothing, because it claims so much: claims indeed the noble mantle of real science.

*

This is not a matter of science having run-out of useful truths to discover. It is that scientists are not any longer trying to discover useful truths.

So, real science has essentially gone. What is now left – a vast, international activity with millions of employed workers and multiple billions of dollars of funding, is so thoroughly corrupt as to be un-reformable.

If enough people care enough about real science to want it back, they will now have to build it all over again, from the ground up.

*

This book describes the essence of real science: a phenomenon much simpler to describe – yet more difficult to do - than you might suspect.

It also charts the course of real science over about a thousand years to its peak in the three centuries up to about 1950, then its extraordinarily rapid – yet dishonestly concealed – collapse down to almost nothing during the past two generations.

It is a remarkable story – covering some of the peaks of accomplishment, and some of the darkest aspects of the human spirit.

Read on...

 


 

Understanding science retrospectively

The Owl of Minerva flies only at dusk said Hegel; implying that understanding must be retrospective. Therefore we did not know what science was, nor how it worked (in a philosophical, historical and sociological sense), until real science was already well-advanced towards destruction.

For me, real science is the core of the modern world. Science is the creator and driving force of genuine economic growth (increased efficiency in the production, trade and distribution of essentials), and a significant driver of social change; intellectually science is the crowning glory of modernity; but at the same time and by the same mechanisms, science is responsible for most of the distinctive horrors of the past couple of centuries.

*

My (very basic, to be amplified throughout this book) summary understanding of the rise of real science was that it came from Pagan Greece (epitomized by Aristotle), then through the early Christian theologians - epitomized by the Western Medieval scholastic philosophers (pioneered by Peter Abelard).

It was the Roman Catholic Church that professionalized philosophy as a subject increasingly distinct from theology, and developed the university as institutionally distinct from the monastery (thus dividing education from devotion) – so, the Great Schism (when the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches divided, around 1000 AD) marked the true beginning of modernity.

Then natural science separated from philosophy in the Renaissance era, at around the time of Galileo, and later moved to be focused in Protestant Northern Europe where it first became large, visible and noticeably distinct from about the 17th century.

There were agrarian and industrial revolutions in Britain during the 1700s; and from around 1800 a new world was increasingly apparent: a world characterized by growth in science, technology, the economy, and human capability: the world of modernity. And from this point science became not just a distinct social structure, but a professional career structure.

*

Since the later 19th century, science has, with each generation, broken-up into smaller and smaller specializations, and become more and more career focused.

For a while this specialization led to greater achievement, since it allowed the devotion of more time and effort to solving more manageable problems. Yet each new-generation specialist had been educated in a more generalist tradition – which acted as a drag on the tendency to fragmentation and incoherence.

For a while, therefore, specialization led to greater accomplishment within its individual divisions yet with sufficient integration across these divisions to maintain unity and to check error.

However, specialization continued past this optimal point, and into less-and-less functional fragmentation – such that science lost unity and specialisms lost the ability to serve as mutual checks.

Science gradually became nothing but isolated and irrefutable micro-specialisms.

Apparently, therefore, specialization was a slippery slope for science: such that once science had stepped-onto the slippery slope of specialization it could not stop the process, even when science had slid far beyond the point at which specialization was helpful.


 

 

From real science to generic bureaucracy

At some point over the past several decades, science stopped being real and evolved into its current state of being merely a research-based variant of generic bureaucracy.

This was increasingly clear to aware observers from the 1960s, and indeed to the most astute observers (such as Erwin Chargaff) from several decades earlier. But now it is so obvious that only ignorance or dishonesty prevents it being universally acknowledged. 

However, bureaucracies are systematically ignorant, and dishonesty is now institutional and compulsory, therefore the disappearance of real science is not acknowledged but instead vehemently denied, and steady, incremental progress is claimed!

*

Science presumably always was done among humans – albeit at a very low prevalence; technological breakthroughs have tended to accumulate – albeit with interruptions and local reversals - throughout recorded history; but modernity happened because real scientific breakthroughs came so thick-and-fast that increasing efficiency out-ran increasing population – and humanity escaped what Gregory Clark has called the Malthusian Trap.

*

So far, the thesis is relatively uncontroversial. But if modernity depends on the take-off of real science, upon what does the take-off of real science depend?

My answer is creative genius.

My understanding is that real science grew fast – especially in the populations of Northern Europe by recruiting from an increased pool of ‘creative geniuses’ who were motivated to do science. This I regard as the essential underpinning of modernity.

*

The take-off of science therefore depended on two main things: 1. a sufficient concentration of creative genius focused on scientific problems plus 2. a modest degree of cognitive specialization.

That is to say, smart and creative people working cooperatively on relatively-specific ‘scientific problems’.

And that, more or less, is my definition of science.

Merely that.

*

So, real science is smart and creative people working cooperatively on scientific problems.

But science proved so useful that it became professionalized, and initially this seemed to accelerate progress considerably. The first few generations of professional scientists from the later 1800s into the twentieth century were immensely productive of significant scientific breakthroughs.

Science seemed very obviously useful – the presumption was that even-more science would be even-more useful...

And so the growth of professional science continued, and continued...

Until it out-grew the supply of creative geniuses and had to recruit from uncreative but very smart people - but continued growing...

Until it then out-grew the supply of uncreative but very smart people, then it had to recruit from uncreative, only moderately smart but hard-working people – but continued growing...

And so on and on, until ‘science’ consisted of whomsoever who would do specific narrow technical and managerial jobs at the wage and conditions on offer.

That’s where we are now...

*

More importantly, professional science initially recruited only those who regarded the pursuit of truth as an iron law (and dishonesty was punished by expulsion from science).

Yet, due to professionalization, science increasingly attracted careerists rather than truth-seekers.

*

(Truth-seekers are typically resistant to bureaucratic organization; and bureaucratic organization is intrinsically hostile to truth-seekers.)

*

The professionalization of science having eliminated those who were internally-motivated to seek truth; various formal mechanisms and procedures were introduced to try and deal with purely careerist motivations. These mostly amount to peer review mechanisms (peer review = the opinion of a group of senior colleagues).

So, instead of truth-seeking, a filter of committee evaluations was applied to ever-more-blatantly-careerist individual behaviour.

And science continued to grow - recruiting less- and less-talented, weaker- and weaker-motivated, less- and less honest personnel until...

... until untalented, unmotivated and dishonest career-orientated professional scientists became a large majority within science and included most of the most successful researchers; thus careerists took-over the peer review evaluation procedures such as to impose their values; and ‘science’ became nothing but a ‘professional research bureaucracy’.


 

I wasn’t actually doing science

Looking back on 25 years in professional research – I am forced to admit that, although I certainly tried, I wasn’t actually doing science.

*

I began professional science in 1984 - or, at least, that's what I thought I was doing.

Since then I worked in and across a variety of fields: neuro-endocrinology (brain transmitters and blood hormones) in relation to psychiatry; the anatomy and physiology of the adrenal gland (especially from 1989), epidemiology (statistics of health and disease, from about 1991); evolutionary psychology (evolutionary aspects of human behaviour including psychiatric illness and the psycho-active drugs, from 1994); systems theory (understanding complex biological organization, from about 2001); and from 2003-10 I edited an international journal of ideas publishing work from the whole of medicine – and sometimes beyond.

*

In all of these areas and some others I found serious problems with the existing scientific literature: errors, inconsistencies, wrong framing of problems.

(I don’t mean serious problems in-my-opinion; I mean that problems objectively, undeniably serious to any honest, informed and competent observer prepared to think for more than five consecutive minutes or two steps of logic – whichever comes first.)

I was not shocked - after all, this is what science is supposedly about, most of the time - providing the negative feedback to correct the wrong stuff.

After all, science is not at any time-point supposed to be wholly-correct, rather it is conceptualized as a system of intrinsic self-correction.

 (Generating distinctive new lines of true and useful scientific work is what we would all prefer to do, in other words to be original - but only a few who are both very lucky and very able are able to achieve this.)

*

My assumption was that - as the years rolled by - I would have the satisfaction of seeing the wrong things tested, discredited, discarded and replaced with more-correct knowledge. Error would be eliminated; truth built-upon. So that overall, and in the long term, science would progress.

That is what was supposed to happen.

*

Well, it hasn't happened.

It hasn’t happened in any of the scientific fields with which I am familiar or of which I have any knowledge. Indeed, instead, much that was true and useful has been lost while much that is utterly worthless – dishonest, incoherent, useless - has thriven.

A few decades ago one could assume that published work was honest and competent (except in specific cases); now one must assume that published work is dishonest and incompetent (except in specific cases).

A few decades ago one could assume that high status (“successful”) scientists were honest and competent (except in specific cases); now one must assume that famous and powerful scientists are dishonest and incompetent (except in specific cases).

*

Overall it seems that things have gone backwards, and not just slightly.

Yet research activity (personnel, funding, publishing, communicating) have all increased exponentially – doubling in volume every 15 or so years (doubling every decade in medical research. And China has exploded with research activity in the past 10 years).

So there has been massive expansion of inputs with first stagnation then decline of outputs. Something has gone terribly wrong: not just slightly wrong, but terribly wrong.

*

So, I must conclude that although I believed I was participating in something called science, something that I thought I understood from the writings of Jacob Bronowski and Karl Popper and from reading the great genius scientists of the past – it turns-out that I wasn't really doing science at all.

I was 'going through the motions' of doing science, true; but the machinery of science was broken, and the work I was trying to do, and the work of those whom I respected, was like a free-spinning-cog – disconnected from mainstream activity.

If real science is that done from truth seeking motives and communicated truthfully, then this kind of science had zero impact on the mainstream. 

Get this – real science had become detached from professional research, technology and policy; and (most important) detached from practice: detached from career success, status, funding, publication, prizes and awards...

Real science had become a thing done for subjective personal satisfaction merely a lifestyle choice – nobody else was interested.

*

Maybe real science was being done, maybe it was published, maybe it was cited, maybe it was funded, maybe people made careers from doing it?

But in the end, real science did not make any difference:  real science had become just a private hobby.

Those few who were lucky enough to find a niche that supported real science did so by accident, not by necessity; and the niches were shrinking all the time.

And we who thought we were participating in the group activity of real science were deluded – pleasantly deluded, perhaps; but deluded.


 

If not real science, what are professional ‘scientists’ really doing?

The activity of mainstream modern Big Science is most reminiscent of a Soviet Union era organization – such as the grossly unprofitable Polish glass factory I saw on TV being inspected by John Harvey Jones in his TV show Troubleshooter.

The factory was producing vast quantities of defective drinking glasses which nobody wanted. Nobody wanted to buy them nor even to use them. So the glasses were simply piling-up in gigantic stacks around the factory building – using-up resources, getting in everybody’s way, and taking-up all the useful space.

When Harvey Jones was asked what to do, how to make the business profitable, he said the first essential step was stop making the glasses.

*

Stop now: this very minute, he said. Go out of this office and switch-off the production line, send all the factory workers home (on full pay) for a few weeks, and begin sorting it out.

But so long as the workers were attending daily, beavering-away, filling-in paperwork, with raw materials pouring-in on thundering lorries; the masses of defective glasses were being churned-out, stacked until they were blocking the aisles and preventing anything useful being done... there was no hope.

Better to pay people for doing nothing than this!

*

Same with professional science – stop it now, for goodness sake!

Switch-off the assembly line - please!

Stop wasting vast human and physical resources in piling-up useless stuff that nobody wants. Better to pay researchers to do nothing than this...

*

(Obviously it would be better if people did something useful than nothing – so maybe ex-professional researchers could be dressed warmly and paid to lie across the threshold of closed doors to function as draught-excluders?)

*

So, here we have the problem of professional science today – it has been bloated by decades of exponential growth into a bureaucratically-dominated heavy industry Soviet factory, characterized by vastly inefficient mass production of shoddy goods that nobody wants.

And professional science is trundling along, hour by hour, day by day; masses of people going to work, doing things, saying things, writing things, getting funding, spending money, advertising themselves, engaging in petty gossip, intrigues and back-stabbing…

Science is hopelessly and utterly un-reformable while it continues to be so big, continues to grow-and-grow, and continues uselessly to churn out ever-more of its sub-standard and unwanted goods.

Switch it off: stop making the defective glasses: now...


 

The pervasive dishonesty of modern ‘science’

How did we get from useful and real science to useless research bureaucracies generating hype and spin for the public relations industry?

Anyone who has been a scientist for more than 20 years will realize that there has been a progressive, significant and indeed qualitative decline in the honesty of communications between scientists, between scientists and their employing institutions, and between scientists and their institutions and the outside world.

In a nutshell – science has gone from being basically honest to basically dishonest (and in the process gone from being real science to professional research).

*

Naturally enough, the pervasive atmosphere of dishonesty has long since led to scientists being dishonest with themselves - and once this happened the situation of endemic corruption itself became wholly deniable.

(The primary and fundamental act of scientific dishonesty is: denial of the pervasive reality of scientific dishonesty.)

The situation now is that what calls itself scientific research is essentially dishonest, not incidentally so; such that honest (real) science is on the one hand very rare and on the other hand it has negligible impact on the conduct of mainstream research.

(From my experience it seems that real science is nowadays more likely to be actively-suppressed, and real scientists systematically persecuted, than for either to be encouraged.)

*

More exactly, mainstream research is not so much dishonest as non-honest: it is simply unconcerned by matters such as seeking truth and rigid truthfulness in its discourse. Mainstream research is not about truth – it is doing other things.

*

So of course modern ‘science’ is dishonest – why on earth should it be honest when it is not even trying to be honest? Research is not being done to find the truth, experiments are not done to test the truth, scientific ideas and results are not written-up in order to communicate the truth.

Truth doesn’t go into it. Why on earth, then, should anybody imagine that truth will come out of it?

Mainstream professional research is no more about honesty than advertising, politics or official statistics are about honesty.

Which is to say that in modern professional research there is just enough narrowly-factual accuracy to render deniable its basic and motivated dishonesty.

*

Yet real science must be an arena where truth is the rule; or else the activity simply stops being science and becomes something else – professional research, a job, a bureaucratic institution, an arbitrary activity done to justify funding.

The honesty of real science is not merely a desirable feature, an optional extra, it is intrinsic to the activity – real science is built-around honesty as its core ethic.

Discard honesty and there is nothing left of science.

*

Mathematicians know that even random (accidental, undirected) errors multiply very rapidly – third and fourth generation analogue recording are more crackle than music and beyond that there is just crackle. Yet random errors occur equally in both directions from the signal, noise tends to cancel out; and so can be averaged. The signal can be retrieved from even a great deal of noise.

But systematic error cannot be averaged, because there is no reason to assume that falsity is equally distributed on either side of the truth: and dishonesty is a systematic error.

Truth cannot be retrieved from a mass of lies – so without strict honesty, truth is simply lost...

 


 

Communications within the science profession

The most egregious domain of untruthfulness is probably where scientists speak or write about their own work.

When modern researchers are preparing applications for funding, there is clearly no notion that they should be trying to communicate the truth. The idea would be regarded as ridiculous! The whole motive and rationale of the exercise is to write a successful application: in other words to get yourself money by selling (what you claim are) your research results and plans.

The veracity of what is being claimed is merely a means to an end. The funder neither expects truth nor does the applicant expect to write truth – grantsmanship is thus a kind of game (albeit with high stakes) where one side sets up the rules, and the other side tries to be as dishonest as it can get away with, while sticking to the letter of the rules - then the first side tries to catch them out in an inconsistency.

Modern research grant proposals therefore resemble the official accounts of organized crime – everyone knows that they are intentionally and carefully faked, but the auditors are allowed only to check for internal consistency among the lies. Consistent lying is fine – indeed admired and rewarded.

So long as the information in grant proposals and research publications has been thoroughly laundered, then everybody is happy (well, ‘everybody’ who has influence over career success – and for modern researchers that is everybody-who-matters...). 

*

When a modern researcher describes the nature and significance of his research to another researcher in the same field, for example in a writing a publication or speaking at a conference or in the casual interactions of scientific life; or to a bureaucrat or official who might directly or indirectly influence his pay and conditions (say a university administrator); or to a journalist or media person, or even to a random member of the public – there is no notion of the modern researcher trying to be truthful about the nature and significance of his research.

Trying strictly to be truthful would indeed be regarded as evidence of naiveté, or – if persisted-with - actively dangerous.  

Modern research communication is strategic – it is a means to an end: and the degree of veracity of what is being said is controlled by the requirements of that end.

 


 

Dishonesty as pervasive, endemic

Once they have been observed, selected and trained; real scientists are unreflectingly honest and will trust each other; but their honesty is also enforced by a multitude of informal processes – if, after being trusted, that trust is betrayed there is the permanent sanction of exclusion from real science. From that point, real scientists will simply ignore you.

*

In discussing the dishonesty of modern ‘science’ it is tempting to focus on cases of ‘fraud’ – especially instances in which specific researchers have fabricated, invented or deliberately distorted their results for personal gain.

It is tempting but misleading, because it assumes honesty as a baseline. While real scientists are indeed habitually truthful, modern professional researchers by contrast are not even trying to be truthful.

Truth is a positive value. However, at most, modern researchers are trying not to be factually incorrect – which is as different from trying to be truthful as a scandal-mongering tabloid ‘investigative’ journalist is different from Einstein.

This is not a subtle matter. Nor is it a matter for debate. It is absolutely plain and obvious on a day-by-day level in the conduct and conversation of modern researchers. Compared with real scientists, the mass of modern researchers (including, perhaps especially, scientific leaders) are neither motivated nor regulated by truth, nor do they speak about truth, nor do they discriminate on the basis of truthfulness.

*

You doubt this?

Just watch! Just listen! Just read!  So long as you can tell the difference between on the one hand someone trying to be as truthful as they can be, and on the other hand someone trying to sell something – then it is a no-brainer.

 


 

Dishonesty with oneself

So pervasive are the petty misrepresentations and cautious lies, it is evidence that many scientists are now dishonest even with themselves, in the privacy of their own thoughts.

Such things can happen to initially honest people either by force of habit, or because they never knew any better (never having met, leave-aside worked-with, a real scientist); and because lies breed lies in order to explain the discrepancies between predictions and observations, between claims and outcomes.

*

Lying to oneself may be one cause of the remarkable incoherence of so much modern scientific thinking, when coherence is evaluated across the whole range of human knowledge.

(The coherence of modern science is restricted to the micro-specialty; where it is the artificial result of laundering rather than natural consequence of honestly reporting perceived reality.)

It is much easier to be coherent, and to recognize incoherence, when discourse is uncontaminated by deliberate misrepresentations. There is less to cover-up.

Most people can think-straight only by being completely honest with themselves and with everybody else. Maybe straight thinking doesn’t matter in some areas of life – but science is about straight thinking or it is nothing. 

If scientists are not honest even with themselves, then their work will be a mess – or rather, because modern researchers are not honest with themselves their work is a mess.

*

Scientists are usually too cautious and timid to risk telling outright lies about important things, or to invent and emphasize fake data; but instead they push the envelope of exaggeration, selectivity and distortion as far as possible. And tolerance for this kind of untruthfulness has greatly increased over recent years.

So it is now routine, normal, indeed required behaviour for scientists deliberately to exaggerate, to ‘hype’ the significance of their status and performance, and ‘spin’ the importance of their research.

The envelope of exaggeration is now extended to the not-impossible: so if it is in reality not-impossible that my research might (under highly implausible but not-impossible combinations of conditions) assist in some way in curing cancer... then it is nowadays permissible (in a ‘good’ cause – i.e. when it is expedient) to present the research as being progress towards curing cancer.

In sum, when a modern researcher says ‘my research is progress towards curing cancer’ it really means ‘it is not impossible that my research could conceivably count as progress towards curing cancer’.

*

Furthermore, it is entirely normal and unremarkable for ordinary ‘scientists’ to spend their entire professional life doing work they know in their hearts to be trivial or bogus – preferring that which promotes their career over that which has the best chance of advancing science.

Indeed, it is entirely normal and unremarkable for the best modern ‘scientists’ to spend their entire professional life doing sub-optimal work they know in their hearts to be less scientifically ambitious than they are capable of.

In a nutshell the most successful modern researchers have replaced scientific ambition with career ambition.

Far from being frowned-upon, such gross and treacherous misapplication of research effort is positively encouraged, nay enforced, and not just sometimes but as the norm in many places and by many people, including what are supposed to be the best places for research (universities and other institutions); because careerism is a more reliable route to high productivity than real science.

In fact it may be impossible to get a job, or get tenure, or promotion - except by dumping idealism and scientific ambition and embracing low-risk careerism.

*

Indeed, senior scientists in the best places are clever, hard-working and intelligent enough rapidly to become expert at hyping mundane research to create a misleading impression of revolutionary importance. Far from resisting, or fighting, the degradation of science; the senior researchers at the ‘best’ places have led (indeed driven) their subordinates into a morass of corruption, like so many demonically-possessed Gadarene swine.

It is a kind of Gresham’s Law at work; when dishonest research is treated as if it were real science; then bad research drives out the good.


*

So, in real science there is, there must be, zero-tolerance for dishonesty and zero-compromise with truthfulness.

Truth-telling and truth-seeking must not be regarded as mere ideals within science, but as iron laws, continually and universally operative.


 

Causes of dishonesty in science

Although some scientists are selfishly dishonest simply in order to promote their own careers, for most people quasi-altruistic arguments for lying (dishonesty in a good cause of helping others, or to be an agreeable colleague) are likely to be a more powerful inducement to routine untruthfulness than is the gaining of personal advantage.

For example, scientists are strongly pressured to be less-than-wholly-truthful for the benefit of their colleagues or institutions, or for official/political reasons – for example in fund-raising, or complying with inspections or external research evaluations.

(And in areas of science that impinge on the taboos of political correctness or the imperatives of ‘progressive’ politics, honesty is punishable with extreme disincentives – career termination, media-orchestrated vilification, legal prosecution, threatened and actual violence.)

*

Often, scientists are unable (without attracting severe sanctions) to opt-out of administrative or managerial exercises which all-but insist-upon dishonest responses – and for which colleagues expect dishonesty in order to promote the interests of the group.

Failure to comply would be seen as selfish scrupulousness at the expense of colleagues. There would be no support from scientific leaders – whose careers stand to benefit most from success in administrative or managerial exercises.

Project leaders may feel responsible for raising money to support the livelihood of their junior team members; and feel obliged to do whatever type of research is most generously funded, and to say or write whatever is necessary to obtain that funding.

Failure to do whatever it takes to secure funding or survival in a bureaucratic system would be seen as a failure to provide for your dependents – as sacrificing peoples livelihoods on the altar of your own smug desire to feel virtuous...

*

So, in a bureaucratic context where cautious and consistent dishonesty is rewarded, strict truthfulness is taboo and will cause trouble for colleagues, for teams, for whole institutions.

Because when everyone else is exaggerating their achievement then any precisely accurate person will be judged as even worse than their already modest claims.

If every fourth rate scientist is claiming to be third rate – but after inflation-adjustment is judged to be fourth rate; then honestly to label oneself as fourth rate would lead to being to be judged as fifth rate - on the assumption that you, like everyone else, must be indulging in hype.

In this kind of situation, individual truthfulness will be interpreted either as simply stupid, or as an irresponsible indulgence.

*

Clearly then, even in the absence of the sort of direct coercion which prevails in many un-free societies, scientists may be subjected to such pressure that they are more-or-less forced to be dishonest; and this situation can (in decent people) lead to feelings of regret, or to shame and remorse.

The only alternative is some species of martyrdom.

*

This is a situation which leads decent people to feel shame and remorse.

Unfortunately, shame may not lead to remorse but instead to rationalization, to self-exculpation, to the elaborate construction of excuses - and eventually a denial of dishonesty. In other words, shame may lead to aggressive hypocrisy.

But eventually the situation leads many to cynicism; hypocrisy is abandoned as ludicrously implausible – and there is a cynical advocacy of dishonesty. Such cynics feel they are merely being honest in advocating open dishonesty, because everyone is doing this anyway. Better – they think – to be a cynic advocating evil than a hypocrite pretending to good.

Yet, whatever are the motivations and reasons for research dishonesty, it has been by such means that modern ‘scientists’ have become inculcated into habitual falsity; until people have become used-to dishonesty, don’t notice dishonesty, eventually come to expect and finally insist-upon dishonesty.


 

Roots of dishonesty in science – the role of peer review

My belief is that science has rotted from the head down – from the top to the bottom - and therefore blame mostly lies with senior ‘scientists’.

The careerism of senior ‘scientists’, and their abandonment of the Iron Law of truthfulness, has been the main cause of the now pervasive corruption of science (not least because the senior appoint the junior, the bosses choose the minions).

So the roots of dishonesty in science constitute a ‘treason of the clerks’ phenomenon.

*

While the ultimate cause of the treason has been the abandonment of truth conceived as a transcendental value – as I argue below – the proximate mechanism by which corruption has been implemented was peer review.

Since the middle twentieth century there has been a massive expansion and not influence of peer review, peer review infiltrated into all the major scientific evaluations – peer review has become the self-perceived core process of science.

Yet peer review is no more, no less, than the opinion of senior scientists. And individual judgment, but a procedure for gathering opinions of a group, followed by some kind of more-or-less formal, more-or-less explicit procedure for deriving a single decision from the group of opinions: by vote, by veto, by some kind of weighted quantification, by an impressionistic judgment of the decision, or whatever.

In practice, most peer review is a ‘black box’ mechanism – and all the more effective for its unknown operations. A question is fed-into the black box of peer review, some senior scientists deliberate in some way and some answer emerges – an answer that is impossible to critique yet regarded as authoritative (as if a committee of senior scientists constituted a kind of super-hero-scientist with magically-combined wisdom and expertise!)

The essence of peer review is therefore the ‘peers’ – which implicitly means a plurality of senior figures from (broadly) the same domain or field of research endeavour; and the ‘review’ element which in some way derives a bimodal or categorical evaluation from the plurality of opinions.

*

To put it another way, the triumph of peer review is a triumph of the committee over the individual, of procedure over judgment, of the selective and explicit over the unbounded and implicit.

The even-more-significant aspect of peer review is the rhetorical success of implying that a committee procedure is more objective and more valid than individual judgment; the almost-wholly successful trick of disguising that peer review is pure opinion, and therefore just as ‘unreliable’ and prone to corruption as individual judgment – but that in fact peer review is worse than individual judgment for the same reason that a committee decision is intrinsically worse than an individual decision: because the committee decision is removed from individual responsibility, hence removed from responsibility altogether.

(Responsibility is an attribute of individual authority. Without I.A. there is no responsibility – merely a legal contract.)

Yet peer review is neither necessary nor sufficient as a definition of science, it is orthogonal to science; and therefore domination by peer review marks the disappearance of ‘real science’ and the inclusion of its activities within the system of large, complex trans-national bureaucracies.

*

So peer review does not solve the problem of subjectivity; rather it replaces potentially responsible individual subjectivity with necessarily irresponsible group subjectivity.

Thus the advantage of peer review is precisely the opposite of its propaganda – peer review has become universal because it is irresponsible, not despite this.

For peer review; irresponsibility is a feature, not a bug.


*

Overall, senior scientists have set a bad example of untruthfulness, self-seeking and lack of principle in their own behaviour, and (surely not unrelated) they have also tended to administer science in such a way as to reward hype and careful-dishonesty, and punish modesty and strict truth-telling.

Some senior scientists have laudably refused to compromise their honesty, however they have done this largely by quietly ‘opting-out’, and not much by using their power and influence to create and advertise alternative processes and systems in which honest scientists might work. They have not exposed the pervasive and mandatory dishonesty of modern ‘science.

Presumably they began by not wanting to discredit what real science still remained, but ended by colluding in the disguise of the non-scientific nature of pseudo-scientific professional research.

But, to be fair to the honest real scientists, those that did speak out loudly and clearly – such as Erwin Chargaff - were first marginalized, then ridiculed, then completely ignored and forgotten – as being embittered failures, motivated by ‘sour grapes’ and envy...

*

Peer review - of ever greater complexity, hence irresponsibility - has now been applied everywhere: to academic education and research training, job appointments and promotions, to scientific publications and conferences, to ethical review, to research funding, to the allocation of medals, prizes and awards.

And peer review processes are set-up and manned by senior scientists. In a sense, peer review (where it matters, where it makes a difference to policy and practice) simply is monopolization of all evaluation, reward or punishment processes by senior scientists; yet not as autonomous individuals but as components of a process which nobody-in-particular controls.

This seems something like the worst of all possible worlds; most of the actual disadvantages of tyranny but without any of the potential advantages of having ‘somebody’ in control.


 

Modern ‘science’ is de facto dishonest

Of course not every single modern scientist is dishonest, and not every last branch of professional science is corrupt.

However, in practice, they might as well be.

By ‘in practice’ I mean to make that distinction that, from the transcendental and ultimate perspective, corruption is an evil and thus every individual science who holds out against the prevailing dishonesty counts.

Yet when honest scientists and truthful specialties are disarticulated from the processes of mainstream science (especially from the outputs of peer review processes) then these do not affect functioning of the system.

The existence of a few honest souls does not refute the charge of general scientific dishonesty – just as the existence of a handful of impartial judges does not refute the charge of systemic legal corruption.

(After all the rare honest judge can be, often is, over-ruled by corrupt superiors. It happens.)

 


 

Peer review is neither a necessary nor sufficient part of real science

I have often read comments which state explicitly, or assume implicitly, that peer review is what sets science apart from other (less valid) modes of knowledge.

Yet this is simply, observably, demonstrably false. Peer review is neither necessary nor sufficient to real science.

Peer review is not necessary, nor was peer review a feature of science in its golden age, when science worked best – most effectively and efficiently.

Old writings never mention anything like modern peer review. In those eras decision making was mostly, sometimes wholly, individual and personal (with certain exceptions where a ‘collegial’ method of decision making was used to allocate goods that were generated and controlled by an institution).

And peer review is not distinctive to science, but is indeed (very obviously – I would have thought) found in all academic subjects nowadays; and is characteristic of many formal bureaucracies. Indeed, peer review is perhaps the defining feature, the hallmark of modern bureaucracies in which personal responsibility has been replaced by (deliberately, not accidentally) unaccountable committee procedures.

*

The over-expansion and domination of peer review in science is therefore a sign of scientific decline and decadence, not (as so commonly asserted) a sign of increased rigour.

Peer review as the ultimate arbiter represents the conversion of real science to generic bureaucracy; a replacement of testing knowledge by opinions about knowledge; a replacement of objectivity by subjectivity – imposing a procedural but arbitrary subjectivity rather than having individual subjectivity linked to responsibility.

And the increased role for de facto irresponsibility in science has created space into which dishonesty has expanded.

When modern ‘science’ is not honest, as it typically is not, then peer review ensures that nobody-in-particular is identifiably to-blame for the situation.

*

As well as from the careerism of senior scientists, inducements to dishonesty have also come from outside of science – from politics, government administration and the media (for example), all of whom are continually attempting to distort science to their own agenda and covert real science to the service of their power.

At present, the situation in the UK is that a researcher cannot get money from a government source without perjuring themselves.

(Naturally, I refer to perjury by appropriately scientific criteria of departure from absolute truth-full-ness; and not by irrelevant legal criteria of perjury as provable-lying.)

(The skill of scientific perjury, as practiced by the most modern successful researchers, is indeed precisely to commit scientific perjury while avoiding legal perjury.)  

*

But whatever the origin of the pressures to corrupt science, it is obvious that the scientific leadership have themselves been corrupted and co-opted.

The alternative would have been inflexible resistance on a matter of principle – the principle of truth-seeking and truth-speaking as an Iron Law intrinsic to science, even to the point of ‘martyrdom’.

Notable individuals from past generations of scientists did indeed stand up for their beliefs to the extent of being sacked, imprisoned, exiled or even killed. We moderns can only stand in awe of such principled behaviour.

But modern ‘scientists’ have been kept in-line without any need for recourse to such draconian measures. The mildest of implied threats have been enough to convert real scientists into careerist drones.


 

In real science truth must be a transcendental value


Why, how did past generations of real scientist behave so much better – so much more truthfully - than modern professional researchers?

I have come to believe that real science depends for its long-term success on an explicit and pervasive pursuit of the ideal of transcendental truth.

‘Transcendental’ implies that a value is outside the material world; is real, stable and ultimate – it is aimed-at but can only imperfectly and imprecisely be known, achieved or measured.

So, transcendental truth is an ideal but actual thing, located outside of science; beyond and above scientific methods, processes and peer consensus.

*

Transcendental truth is not, therefore, evaluated by science; but is instead the proper aim of real science. It is regulatory of real science.

(Technically, transcendental truth is a metaphysical assumption. And that-there-is-no-such-thing-as-transcendental-truth is also a metaphysical assumption.)

Especially truth is the proper aim of scientists as individuals. In other words, science should be a social system constituted by individual scientists who are dedicated truth-seekers: whose practice of science includes ‘truth talk’ that references current actuality to ideal aspirations and who practice ‘the habit of truth’.

Real science is not, therefore, made of institutions, nor organizations, nor of rules, methods nor processes – real science is made by, done by, individuals: people working together to discover and communicate reality.

  

 


 

Jacob Bronowski on the habit of truth

Jacob Bronowski (1908-1974) invented the term 'the habit of truth' to describe the fundamental and distinctive ethic of science: the main foundation upon which was built the success of science, providing the means (knowledge) for mankind to shape the natural world.

Bronowski emphasized this, since it was (and is) often imagined that science is a morally neutral activity. This is wrong. Because, although scientific knowledge is indeed morally neutral (and can be used for good or evil), the practice of science (including being a scientist) is certainly a moral activity - based on the habit of truth.

He argued that for science to be truthful as a whole it is not sufficient to aim at truth as an ultimate outcome, scientists must also be habitually truthful in the ‘minute particulars’ of their scientific lives.

The end does not justify the means, instead Bronowski argued that the means are indivisible from the end: scientific work is ‘of a piece, in the large and in detail; so that if we silence one scruple about our means, we infect ourselves and our ends together’.

*

Bronowski’s insight was that – to be successful in terms of the test of shaping the natural world, each and every scientist in his scientific communications must speak the truth as he understands it.

To put it another way – scientists must be trying to seek the truth, trying to be truthful – all the time and about everything.

Indeed, I think it likely that the social structure of science is at root nothing more than a group of people investigating reality who seek truth and speak truth habitually (and if, or when, they cannot be truthful, they will either state this or say nothing).

*

Bronowski perceived that societies which abandoned, indeed persecuted, the habit of truth – such as, in his time, the USSR and Nazi Germany – paid the price in terms of losing their ability to perceive or generate the underlying knowledge of reality which forms the basis of shaping the natural world.

(Note – these were societies which had had the habit of truth in science at one time, but then ‘lost’ it; or rather – like ourselves – actively crushed it.)

This declining ability to shape the natural world was concealed with propaganda, but such concealment could only be temporary since the cause of the decline was strengthened by every attempt to deny it.

But, the scientific failures of Germany, and especially the USSR, were obvious in comparison with the USA and the UK – however, when the USA and the UK abandoned truth (along with pretty much all other places) then there was no comparator; the effect was not obvious, could more easily be hidden...

(After all, somebody will be awarded a Nobel Prize every year – whether or not anybody deserves it, whether or not there is any real science being done in the field in question.)

*

Having grown up strongly under the influence of Bronowski (for good and for ill) and also this distinctive morality of science, I have witnessed at first hand the rapid loss of the habit of truth from science.

At first I saw an encapsulated loss whereby scientists continued to be truthful with each other (that is, truthful in the sense of speaking the truth as they see it) while lying to outsiders (especially in order to get grants, promote their research, and to deflect criticism)...

Then scientists stopped being truthful with other scientists (who were now seen as competitors, gatekeepers, potential patrons)...

After which the situation degenerating swiftly to the final surrender whereby scientists are no longer truthful even with themselves.

*

At the same time I have seen hype (i.e. propaganda) expand from being merely a superficial sheen added to real science in order to make it more interesting to the general public, to the present situation where hype defines reality for scientists (as well as everyone else) – where propaganda is so pervasive that nobody can know what – maybe nothing at all, or the opposite to the propaganda – lies beneath it.

There is, indeed, no ‘beneath’ since by now hype goes all the way through science: from top to bottom, inside and out.

 


 

A 50 year experiment in excluding transcendental truth from scientific discourse

Although the ultimate scientific authority of a transcendental value of truth (located outside of current scientific practice) was a view almost universally held by the greatest scientists throughout recorded history, and was a frequent topic of discourse among scientists and in the literature until the mid-20th century; modern science has pretty much dispensed with the idea of truth.

References to truth in an ultimate sense have by now been all-but banished from professional scientific literature and discourse; being regarded by a younger generation of hard-nosed and technically-orientated researchers as wishful, mystical and embarrassing at best – and hypocritical or manipulative at worst.

Instead, all disputes are constrained to operate within an evaluation system of proximate methodology and peer approved standard practice.

*

Such exclusion of references to truth from scientific discourse could be regarded as an experiment which has been gathering support for about 50 years – although the overlapping of scientific generations meant that senior scientists continued to discuss truth in a transcendental fashion at least into the 1980s, and a handful still continue.

The experiment in exclusion of truth talk was driven (presumably) partly by the desire for greater efficiency (the desire for less metaphysical chit-chat and more hard science) – and partly on the belief that transcendental values serve no practical function – merely waste time and energy, confuse and mislead. The assumption was that science could more-efficiently be done using just internal, professional (within-science) evaluations.

Partly it was also driven by the increasing prevalence of materialist atheism – such that ‘scientists’ no longer believe in transcendental reality; indeed some modern ‘scientists’ seem not to believe that there is any reality separate from social structures that describe and define what-counts-as-truth. They seem to operate on the basis that reality is ‘socially constructed’.

Modern ‘scientists’ are not interested in whether something really is true; they are interested only in whether peer review says it is true – they are interested only in whether something is fashionable, funded, publishable in high-impact fora, and likely to attract jobs, promotions and prizes.

Even those who publicly oppose and ridicule the idea of social construction of ‘reality’ behave as if a vote from a peer review committee of senior ‘scientists’ is the nearest possible approximation to truth – which is a view as close to pure reality-denying nihilism as makes no difference...

*

This profound shift within science was described tellingly in Real Science by the late John Ziman (1925-2005) (from whom I took the sub-title of this book). Ziman was a British physicist of great distinction as well as a philosopher and sociologist of science, and on the advisory board of Medical Hypotheses when I was editor.

Ziman termed the transformation in science during his lifetime a change from ‘academic science’ to ‘post-academic science’.

Academic science is what I call ‘real’ science; post-academic science is what I call ‘professional research’.

*

In Ziman’s description, post-academic’ discourse is implicitly framed such that questions of truth have lost their meaning. It is a type of Big Science – focused on the organization and funding of projects.

Real Science memorably describes the transformation in the fine texture of a successful scientist’s life, the day to day activities.

The old style ‘academic’ or real scientist does science – tries to discover, theorise and describe the truth about reality.

But the typical day of a modern, professional-researching post-academic ‘scientist’ is non-overlappingly distinct from this. It is, in essence, the life of a bureaucrat, of a manager – combining personnel administration and project organizing with public relations, arranging for publication, fund-raising, publicity and presentations.

*

The lack of any anchor from research practice to transcendental truth has rendered many areas of modern ‘science’ a kind of ‘glass bead game’ (to use the term from Herman Hesse’s novel), comprising research disciplines that are free-spinning cogs with little or no explanatory, predictive or manipulative connection with the natural world.

By its ultimate reliance on professional evaluations (various different versions of peer review applied to research funding, publication, prizes, promotions, etc.) modern ‘science’ has become structurally indistinguishable from academic literary criticism: both being arcane, technically non-intuitive and rigorous, sometimes intellectually brilliant – but ultimately internally-validated fashion-driven high brow pastimes comprised of ringing variations for the sake of career advancement.

The experiment in trying to do science without reference to transcendental truth has therefore failed utterly. In discarding transcendental truth, science discarded what had made it science.

What is left over is a fundamentally dishonest sham which tries to claim the distinctive validity of real science without submitting to the iron discipline of truth.

 


 

But is truth really true, or was it just a convenient fiction?

It seems that transcendental truth is needed in science, for science to work, for science to remain science.

Only when science is truth-seeking can its practice mobilize the most profound dedication from its practitioners – a level of motivation far greater than that elicited by peer-approval-seeking science, or science done from a familial or social sense of duty.

Recall; when scientists believed in truth they would historically suffer hardship (sometimes extreme hardship, prison, even death) for their scientific beliefs. But nowadays even the mere possibility of being passed over for a grant or promotion is sufficient to terrify ‘scientists’ into submission.

Another reason for valuing truth is the need for science as a social system to tolerate (and if possible actively support) individuals who seek truth – even when this generates greater risk and a short term reduction in performance.

Likewise the discipline of transcendental truth enables science to tolerate the fact that many brilliant and creative scientists will often have unworldly, erratic or abrasive personalities.

In other words, only the living presence of truth in the daily practice of science may provide a higher context for decision-making in which considerations of social expediency can potentially be transcended.

*

But despite these advantages, the ‘big question’ for any modern scientist is whether transcendental truth really is ‘true’ or is merely a convenient fiction.

By ‘convenient fiction’ I mean the idea that even if it could convincingly be argued that scientists work better when they believe in transcendental truth; such ’truth’ is actually no more than a delusion, albeit a useful delusion.

The convenient fiction argument is that in reality there is no such thing as truth but it is a good thing for science and for society when scientists act as if truth is real.

*

The discussion then moves beyond science, and to the presuppositions of science; moves to a level of the basic understanding of things – in other words, to metaphysics.

Early scientists generally assumed (I mean they assumed at a metaphysical level – as their conception of the nature of reality) that the truth was reality - a property of the universe created by a god.

Truth (knowledge of reality) was communicated in outline to humans partly by being in-built (by god) as human nature and partly from divine revelation; truth was understood by means of reason (which was valid because also god-given), and applied to the study of Nature by god-given human ingenuity.

Early scientists therefore believed in both god/s and truth.

Later scientists (from the late 19th century into the early 20th century) were atheists about god but realists about truth. For example Albert Einstein had an abstract, or pantheistic view of an ordered universe and a belief in the fortunate (but not god-given) rational and intuitive ability of humans to understand the nature of reality.

*

Most of these scientists of several generations ago were theists, more or less; believing in an impersonal god who created order (and the order was real – for example mathematics or the laws of physics were real); but setting-aside divine aspects of individual salvation, meaning and purpose.

Another generation or two onwards, and most of the best scientists were atheists about god and also did not believe in the reality of truth. They disbelieved in both God and truth, nonetheless the best scientists continued to behave as if they did regard truth as real. For example Richard Feynman was not religious and seemingly did not believe in transcendental truth but anyway lived and worked by a strict personal ethic of truthfulness and truth-seeking.

Modern scientists have abandoned all this as so much useless baggage. They are atheists about god, relativists about truth, and careerists in their behaviour: they neither believe, nor behave as if they believe, in transcendental truth.

*

So, the historical sequence was: theism, deism, atheism.

Deism perhaps enabled the greatest science; but deism was temporary and en route between theism and atheism.

How a scientist behaves is clearly more important than his or her belief system. Einstein and Feynman behaved (with respect to science) in an exemplary fashion.

Yet viewed through the ‘retrospectoscope’ I am not convinced of the coherence or long-term sustainability of Feynman’s views – nor even Einstein’s.

To be truthful yet believing neither in transcendental truth nor in a personal relationship with deity, now just looks like another unstable phase between theism and atheism – a perspective restricted to the transitional generation of people who were brought-up religiously then abandoned it in adulthood.

The next generation, their children and grand-children – born from the mid-twentieth century onwards, were brought-up as secular materialists, have moved decisively to atheism and also to non-truthfulness.

*

In a nutshell, it seems that there are several ways to live by transcendental truth – ranging from formal religion to a pragmatic assumption that it is expedient to act as-if truth were real.

But some belief systems relating to truth are more stable and coherent than others, and some belief systems are more powerfully motivating than others.

For scientists, the crucial matter is that each real scientist must, must, must (for whatever reason) work according to a binding personal ethic of the importance and reality of transcendental truth – that truth lies beyond and above science; and science must be practiced according to this reality

 


 

Not even trying...

While wanting to know the truth does not mean that you will find the truth; on the other hand, if scientists are not even trying to discover the truth - then the truth certainly will not be discovered.

Even if stumbled-upon, or tripped-over by happy accident by someone not looking for it, then truth will fail to be recognized as true.

If the truth is in a particular direction, then there are many more directions (an infinite number of them) where the truth cannot be found; so when a researcher is not looking for the truth, the chances of finding it are one to infinity.

In a nutshell, there are an infinite number of ways to be wrong, but only one way to be right.

(Of course, nobody is ever completely right – but even to be approximately right entails the objective reality of universal and eternal truth.)

*

'Truth' can be defined as 'underlying reality’. Science is not the only way of discovering truth (for example, philosophy is also about discovering truth - science being in its origin a sub-specialty of philosophy) - but unless an activity is trying to discover underlying reality, then certainly it cannot be science.

But what motivates someone to want to discover the truth about something?

The great scientists are all very strongly motivated to ‘want to know’ about reality, and this drove them to great efforts, risk, hardship - and kept them at their task for decades.

Why scientists should be interested in one thing rather than another thing remains a mystery – but what is clear is that this interest cannot be dictated but arises from within – having arisen it can be encouraged but not re-directed.

Real science is a vocation.

*

Francis Crick commented that you should research that about which you gossip, James Watson commented that you should avoid subjects which bore you.

Their point was that science is so difficult, that when motivation is deficient then problems will not get solved.

You need, you must have, spontaneous positive interest (the gossip test) and you cannot solve problems that bore you because real science is too hard to succeed without the benefit of spontaneous interest.

Motivation needs all the help it can get – hence real science cannot be dictated. It cannot be planned.

The directed provision of research funding and the implementation of research strategy can certainly make people ‘do research’ in a particular field; but it cannot make them do real science. 

*


But there is an opposite assumption at work in mainstream modern ‘science’; the idea that professional researchers should properly be motivated by career incentives such as appointments, pay and promotion – and not by their intrinsic interest in a problem.

This is rationalized on the basis that personal motivations are a probable source of bias.

Well, maybe they are – but without personal motivation you don’t get science at all.

The way to get valid science is not to employ people who care so little about what they study that they are impartially uninterested in everything and will believe and work on anything.

The way to get valid science is to have a group of inevitably-biased people working together to seek the truth – the motivation to seek truth will find ways to deal with bias, as was seen many times in the history of science. 

In reality, the bureaucrats who run science just do not want vocationally motivated scientists as employees, since they are intrinsically awkward individuals - precisely for the reason that their beliefs and activities can neither easily nor wholly be shaped by career incentives.

*

By contrast, careerist research drones who want to be ‘successful’ will do whatever they are told to do and will not do what they are punished for doing. Careerist research drones would not, for example, insist on trying to discover the structure of DNA when they were supposed to be doing other things – as did Crick and Watson.

Modern pseudo-scientific bureaucrats would try very hard not to employ anyone with the awkward personality traits of Crick and Watson, and indeed very few modern researchers are of that type.

Thus everything runs smoothly, people do exactly what they are supposed to do – and the only problem is that zero real science gets done...

However, that ‘perception’ is easily fixed by public relations, hype and spin.


 

The peer review cartel

The modern scientist is supposed to be a docile and obedient bureaucrat and is trained and selected for that purpose – cheerfully switching ‘interests’ and tasks as required by the changing (or unchanging) imperatives of funding, the fashions of research and the orders of his master.

What determines a modern scientist’s choice of problem? Essentially it is peer review – the modern scientist is supposed to do whatever work that the cartel of peer-review-dominating scientists decide he should do and reward him for doing.

This will almost certainly involve working as a team member for one or more of the peer review cartel scientists (or their out-sourced ‘suppliers’); doing some kind of allocated micro-specialized task of no meaning and zero intrinsic interest – but one which, supposedly, contributes to the overall project being managed by the peer review cartel members.

Of course the funders and grant awarders have the major role in what science gets done, and these are all parts of an interconnected bureaucratic web of senior professional researchers. The allocation of funding, hence the direction of research and the subjects deemed acceptable, has long since been captured by the peer review cartel.

*

Even more importantly than choosing the subject matter of research, the peer review cartel has captured the ability to define success in solving scientific problems.

To solve a problem, the cartel of dominant scientists in a field simply declares that the problem has been solved!

Since peer review is now regarded as the gold standard of science, when the peer review cartel announces that a problem has been solved, then that problem has by definition been solved.

Since truth is no longer transcendental but internal to research then nothing more needs be said: indeed there is nothing more to say. Power is truth (in modern research).

And anyone who disagrees is not competent to have an opinion, also by definition.

*

To what does the modern ‘scientist’ aspire? Obviously not to discover the truth about reality. Instead, he aspires to become a member of the peer review cartel – one of the group who allocate ‘success’ in science.

In other words, the modern ‘scientist’ aspires to become a bureaucrat, a manager, a ‘politician’. In yet other words, the modern ‘scientist’ aspires to power – (im)pure and simple.

However, being a modern high level bureaucrat, manager or politician is incompatible with truthfulness, and dishonesty is incompatible with science; hence being a successful modern ‘scientist’ is incompatible with the practice of real science.

 


 

Understanding reality

A real scientist needs to want to understand reality - this necessarily entails first believing in reality (believing that reality is real), and secondly believing that one ought to discover and describe reality (which is the specific vocation of a scientist).

*

The belief in reality is a necessary metaphysical belief, which cannot be denied without contradiction - nonetheless, in modern ruling elite culture it is frequently denied (this is called nihilism); which is why modern elite culture is unprecedented in being irrational, self-contradictory (and self-destroying).

But obviously, a real scientist cannot be a nihilist - whatever cynical or trendy things he might say or do in public, in his heart he must have a transcendental belief in the reality of reality and must want to know something of it.

Thus a real scientist cannot be a member of the modern ruling elite – therefore, a real scientist in the modern world must be powerless...

*

Science also involves the metaphysical belief (‘metaphysical’ meaning a necessary assumption which frames the practice of science, and is not itself part of science) – a belief in the understandability of nature including the human desire and capacity to understand.

(That is, understandability at some level of approximation, sufficient understanding - but not necessary detailed or comprehensive understanding.).

Without this belief in the understandability of nature, science becomes an absurd and impossible attempt to find the one truth among an infinite number of possible errors.

Nonetheless, in modern elite culture, a belief in the understandability of nature and human capacity is routinely denied - another aspect of nihilism. Among many other consequences, this denial destroys the science which makes possible modern elite culture.

*

Explaining reality is a second step which may follow understanding, but effective explaining needs to be preceded by the desire to explain reality accurately, which itself entails honesty; again because there are an infinite number of possible explanations varying in accuracy between as close-as-possible to understood reality; to as far from accurate as you can get-away-with.

*

Modern science is undercut by many things - one is the difficulty for modern scientists of working according to the proper motivations and beliefs of a real scientist.

Transcendental beliefs such as the reality of reality and the desirability of truth are difficult to hold in isolation and in a hostile environment that imposes multiple pressures to abandon proper motivations to expedience.

It is difficult, in other words, for a modern scientist to work according to the principles of real science; when to do so requires a lesser or greater sacrifice of career and status.  And when any level of sacrifice of principles will negate the possibility of real science.

Yet the demands of real science are absolute. There can be no compromise with truth.

And the punishment for failure to be truthful is simple – failure of knowledge. No progress in science – but instead loss and destruction of knowledge.

 

 


 

Real science declined because scientific genius declined

That science progressed overall, rapidly and by a great deal between, say, 1700 and 1950 can be assumed.

But what drove this progress?

Scientific progress is talked about in three main ways, depending on the numbers/ proportion of the population involved in generating this progress. We could conceptualize science as the product of tiny minority of creative geniuses, an elite class of professionals, or a mass population of competence.

*

1.   Genius – science as the product of 10s to 100s of people per generation (for England at its height – much less for most other places) – a fraction of one percent of the population.

This idea states that science is the product of, depends on, a relatively small number of geniuses - without whom there would be no significant progress.

Therefore an age of scientific progress can be boiled down to the activity of tens or hundreds of geniuses; and the history of science is a list of great men.

Since little/ nothing is known about how to generate scientific genius, the task is mainly one of selection of individuals; aiming to ensure that those who seem, potentially, to posses creative genius are given the chance to implement it – rather like the ‘methods’ for discovering and developing top athletes and sportsmen, chess grandmasters, or great singers and classical musicians.

1.   *

2.   Elite - 1000s to 10,000s of people per generation – a few percent of the population.

Science is the product of an elite of highly educated and trained people, usually found in a relatively small number of elite and research-orientated institutions, linked in an intensely intercommunicating network.

This elite are presumed to generate, by their cooperation, significant scientific progress.

Without this elite, and these elite institutions, there would be no significant progress.

According to this view, the history of science is a history of institutions. So the promotion of science is a matter of the creation and sustenance of elite degrees, elite universities, elite research units etc.

A matter, therefore, of selection of institutions.

*

3.   Mass - 100,000s to millions of people per generation – a large percent of the population, ideally most of the population.

By this view, science is the product of a 'critical mass' of scientifically-orientated and educated people spread across a nation or culture; and whose attitudes and various skills add or synergize to generate scientific progress. If society as a whole is not sufficiently 'scientific' in this sense, then there will not be significant progress.

The history of science is seen as a history of gradual transformation of populations - mainly by educational reform. So the promotion of science is a matter of science teaching (e.g. in STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics) – to as high a level and for as many of the population as possible.

A (common) twist on this is the idea that all humans have vast untapped potential - and that this potential might somehow be activated - e.g. by the right kind of education; leading to an elite of geniuses, or a mass-elite, or something...

*

Perhaps the mainstream idea nowadays is a mushy kind of belief/ aspiration that science is essentially elite but that the elite can be expanded indefinitely by education and increased professionalization.

Another common modern variant is that scientific progress began as based on individual creative genius, then became elite-driven, and nowadays is a mass ('democratic') movement.

However, this is merely an historical description of what has actually happened (more or less) to professional research - underpinned by the unchallenged (but false) assumption that scientific progress has indeed been maintained throughout this transition.

But there is no reason to accept that assumption of continued progress (given the vastly increased level and pervasiveness of hype and dishonesty in science).

Certainly there do seem to be historical examples of scientific progress without need for a prior scientific mass of the population, or even a pre-existing elite gathered in elite institutions. It looks very much as if science is mostly a product of individual genius; and a sufficient concentration and succession of creative geniuses are the key necessity - without which scientific progress will not happen.

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Of course, nowadays there are (approximately) zero geniuses in science, so admitting that genius is necessary to significant scientific progress entails admitting that we are not making progress.

Again: admitting that there are no geniuses means admitting there is no progress...

which admission would devastate all scientific careers, since these careers depend upon the conviction and expectation of continued progress.

Therefore, the necessity for genius in science is an hypotheses that cannot be entertained.

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Nonetheless, my reading of the history of science is that a sufficient supply of genius really is necessary to significant scientific progress (although history has not always recorded the identities of the presumed geniuses).

At any rate, science has often made significant progress without elites in the modern sense, and elites often fail to make progress; and the idea that scientific progress arises from mass education of the masses is very obviously sheer moonshine, without a shred of evidence in support...

Furthermore, if geniuses are necessary for real scientific progress, and if real scientific progress is necessary for modernity (i.e. a society based-on growth - such that growth in productivity will out-run population growth)...

And if (as it seems) there are (for whatever reason) no more geniuses…

Then scientific progress has already stopped and will not re-start (unless there can again be not just a few but a sufficiency of real geniuses in science) – and modern society will in due course collapse due to the usually-operative ‘Malthusian’ mechanism that the weight of population will grow to be in excess of economic (especially food) production.

 


 

Human capability peaked decades ago, and has since declined

What is the ‘evidence’ for decline in science?

Clearly, such evidence must be of the ‘common sense’ variety, since scientific evaluations are precisely what is under question – we know they are poisoned by dishonesty, hype and spin.

Here is one item: I suspect that overall human capability (leaving aside specific domains) reached its peak or plateau around 1965-75 – at the time of the Apollo moon landings – and has been declining ever since.

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This may sound bizarre or just plain false, but the argument is simple. That business of landing men on the moon and bringing them back alive was the supreme achievement of human capability, the most difficult problem ever solved by humans.

40 years ago we could do it – and repeatedly – but since then we have not been to the moon, and I suggest the real reason we have not been to the moon since 1972 is that we cannot any longer do it. Humans have lost the capability.

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Of course, the standard line is that humans stopped going to the moon only because we no longer wanted to go to the moon (done that, got the T-shirt...), or could not afford to, or something…

But I am suggesting that all this is so much hot air, merely excuses for not doing something which we cannot do.

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It is as if an eighty year old ex-professional-cyclist was to claim that the reason he had stopped competing in the Tour de France was that he had now had found better ways to spend his time and money.

This may be true; but does not refute the fact that an 80 year old could not successfully compete in international cycling races even if he wanted to.

And this fact would not be altered if the 80 year old had undergone extensive plastic surgery and offered in evidence carefully ‘airbrushed’ photographs that made him look as if he was just 45.

And this fact would not be altered if he was able to do other things instead (such as building better computers or making better televisions).

And the fact would not be altered even if he presented the testimony of a panel of prestigious doctors and physiologists who swore on oath that he could win the Tour de France if he really wanted to.

He may look like he can do it, he may be able to do other things, he may swear that he could do it if he wanted to – but the telling fact is that he does not do it.

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Human capability partly depends on technology. A big task requires a variety of appropriate and interlocking technologies – the absence of any one vital technology would prevent attainment.

I presume that much technology has continued to improve since 1975 – so technological decline is not likely to be the reason for failure of capability.

But, however well planned, human capability in complex tasks also depends on ‘on-the-job’ problem-solving – the ability to combine expertise and creativity to deal with unforeseen situations.

And human capability also depends on attitude: with the primary imperative of getting-the-job-done.

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It is on-the-job problem-solving and getting-the-job-done attitudes which have declined so sharply over recent decades – declined to the point of rendering Western societies helpless in the face of difficulties which could easily have been solved several decades ago.

It might be asserted that these are trivial psychological factors, which could be changed if and when necessary. But it seems that these psychological factors cannot be discarded even when it is necessary – it is, after all, so much easier to deny the reality of the difficulties, simply to look the other way, do something else...

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On the job problem-solving means having the best people doing the most important jobs.

For example, if it had not been Neil Armstrong at the controls of the first Apollo 11 lunar lander, but had instead been somebody of lesser ability, decisiveness, courage and creativity – the mission would either have failed or aborted.

If both the astronauts and NASA ground staff had been anything less than superb, then the Apollo 13 mission would have led to loss of life.

But since the 1970s there has been a decline in the quality of people in the key jobs in NASA, and elsewhere – because organizations no longer seek to find and use the best people as their ideal. They are not even trying to find the best people.

What do they do instead of trying to find the best people? All sorts of things – for example they try to be ‘diverse’ in various ways (age, sex, race, nationality etc).

And also the people in the key jobs, even when they are the best people, are no longer able to decide and command; due to the expansion of rules, committees and the erosion of individual responsibility and autonomy.

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By 1986, and the Challenger space shuttle disaster, it was clear that humans had declined in capability – since the disaster was fundamentally caused by managers and committees being in control of NASA rather than individual experts.

It was around the 1970s that the human spirit began to be overwhelmed by bureaucracy (although the trend had been growing for many decades).

Since the mid-1970s the rate of progress has declined in physics, biology and the medical sciences – and some of these have gone into reverse, so that the practice of science in some areas has overall gone backwards, valid knowledge has been lost and replaced with phony fashionable triviality and dishonest hype.

Some of the biggest areas of science – medical research, molecular biology, neuroscience, epidemiology, climate research – are almost wholly trivial or bogus. They have failed to deliver on a truly catastrophic scale.

Never have so many resources have been expended with so little to show for it: Stonehenge and the Pyramids may not do much, but at least they are still there...

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This broad general failure in core objectives is not compensated by a few islands of progress, e.g. in computerization and the invention of the internet.

Capability must cover all the bases, psycho-social as well as technical, and depends not on a single advanced area but all-round advancement in all necessary areas.

 


 

Human capability then and now

The fact is that human no longer do - can no longer do - many things we used to be able to do: land on the moon, swiftly win wars against weak opposition and then control the defeated nation, secure national borders, discover ‘breakthrough’ medical treatments, prevent crime, design and build to a tight deadline, educate people so they are ready to work before the age of 22, suppress piracy on the high seas...

50 years ago Western societies would aim to have the smartest, best trained, most experienced and most creative people they could find (given human imperfections) in position to take responsibility, make decisions and act upon them in pursuit of a positive goal.

That is what they were trying to do.

Now, we are not even trying.

And since we are not even trying to do the job, naturally the job will not be done.

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Now we have dull and docile committee members chosen partly with an eye to affirmative action and partly to generate positive media coverage, whose major priority is not to do the job but to avoid personal responsibility and prevent side-effects and to build careers; pestered at every turn by an irresponsible and aggressive media and grandstanding politicians out to score popularity points; all of whom are hemmed-about by vast and proliferating regulations, such that – whatever they do do, or do not do, whether they succeed or fail – they will be in breach of some rule or another and vulnerable to open-ended sanctions.

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So we should be honest about the fact that human do not anymore fly to the moon because humans cannot anymore fly to the moon.

Also noteworthy is that the deepest manned ocean descent of about 10.9 kilometres into the Mariana Trench, was as long ago as 1960; and humans have never again been as deep during the past half century.

Humans have failed to prevent or suppress the re-emergence of high seas piracy on a large scale because we nowadays cannot do it - although humans solved the problem 150 years ago.

And we cannot solve new problems either, since these require a combination of attitudes and freedoms that we can no longer imagine, or which we fear more than the problems themselves. In the past the average experts were both smarter and more creative than we are now, and these experts would then have been in a position to do the needful.

 


 

Measuring human capability: Moonshot versus 'Texas Sharpshooter'

But is the Moonshot really a valid measure of human capability?

Yes. The reason that the Moonshot is a valid measure of human capability is that the problem was difficult and was not chosen but imposed.

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The objective of landing men on the moon (and bringing them safely back) was not chosen by scientists and engineers as being something already within their capability – but was a problem imposed on them by politicians.

The desirability of the Moonshot is irrelevant to this point. I used to be strongly in favour of space exploration, now I have probably turned against it – but my own views are not relevant to the use of the Moonshot as the ultimate evidence of human capability.

Other examples of imposed problems include the Manhattan Project for devising an atomic bomb – although in this instance the project was embarked upon precisely because senior scientists judged that the problem could possibly, maybe probably, be solved; and therefore that the US ought to solve it first before Germany did so.

But, either way, the problem of building an atomic bomb was also successfully solved.

Again, the desirability of atomic bombs is not the point here – the point is that it was a measure of human capability in solving difficult imposed problems.

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Since the Moonshot, there have been several difficult problems imposed by politicians on scientists that have not been solved: such as finding a ‘cure for cancer’ (or the common cold) and ‘understanding the brain’.

These two problems had vastly more monetary and manpower resources (although vastly less talent and creativity) thrown at them than was the case for either the Moonshot or Manhattan Project.

But modern technological advances are not imposed problems; they are instead examples of the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy.

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The joke of the Texas Sharpshooter is that he fires his gun many times into a barn door, then draws a target over the bullet holes, with the bulls-eye over the closest cluster of bullet holes.

In other words the Texas Sharpshooter makes it look as if he had been aiming at the bulls-eye and had hit it, when in fact he drew the bulls-eye only after he took the shots.

Modern science and engineering is like that. People do research and development, and then proclaim triumphantly that whatever they have done is a breakthrough. They have achieved whatever-happens-to-come-out-of-R&D; and then they spin, hype and market whatever-happens-to-come-out-of-R&D as if it were a major breakthrough.

In other words, modern R&D triumphantly solves a retrospectively designated problem, the problem being generated to validate whatever-happens-to-come-out-of-R&D.

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The Human Genome Project was an example of Texas Sharpshooting masquerading as human capability.

Sequencing the human genome was not a matter of solving an imposed problem, nor any other kind of real world problem, but was merely doing a bit faster what was already happening.

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Personally, I am no fan of Big Science, indeed I regard the success of the Manhattan Project as the beginning of the end for real science.

But those who are keen that humanity solve big problems and who boast about our ability to do so; need to acknowledge that humanity has apparently become much worse, not better, at solving big problems over the past 40 years – so long as we judge success only in terms of solving imposed problems which we do not already know how to solve, and so long as we ignore the trickery of the many Texas Sharpshooters among modern scientists and engineers.

 


 

The Texas Sharpshooter society of secular modernity

As I said, the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy is a joke which suggests that the TS fires his gun many times into a barn door, then afterwards draws a target over the bullet holes.

But the sharpshooter fallacy is nowadays unavoidable and everywhere, it characterizes secular modern society throughout, because secular modern society has no aim but instead idealizes process and retrofits aim to outcome.

Indeed, the Texas Sharpshooter strategy is the master theory of our phase of late modernity – the persuasion of people that whatever has happened is what they wanted and what was intended.

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Secular moderns - in public discourse - 'believe in' things like freedom, or democracy, or equality, or progress - but these are processes, not aims.

Aims are not prescribed in advance and progress checked-against them – instead, aims are retrospectively ascribed to whatever emerges from process.

In this respect professional science is merely a typical aspect of modern life – real science has been assimilated into mainstream contemporary life.

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It happens all the time: abolition of slavery emerged from the American Civil War therefore people retrospectively ascribe liberation as its purpose. Destruction of the death camps emerged from the second world war, so the liberation of the Jews is ascribed as its purpose.

Libertarians 'believe in' freedom not as a means to some end, but as a process which by definition leads to the best ends; so that they 'believe in' whatever comes out of the process.

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The modern attitude is that the best thing is for science to be well funded and to do what science does, and whatever comes out of the process of science is retrospectively defined as 'truth'.

In practice, science is defined as whatever scientists do, and what scientists do is defined as generating truth.

Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy...

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Or law. Law is a process, and justice is defined as that which results from the process of law. Modern laws may feel revoltingly unjust; but lacking a transcendental concept of justice, nothing more can be said. Justice is what justice does.  

TSF...

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Or education. What is education? The answer is ‘what happens at school and college’. And whatever happens at school and college is what counts as education. Since what happens at school and college changes, then the meaning of education changes. But since education is not aiming at anything in particular, it is merely ‘what happens at schools and colleges’, then these changes cannot be evaluated. Whatever happens is retrospectively defined as what needed to happen.

TSF...

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Or economics. Economic ‘growth’ is pursued as the good, and whatever comes out of economics is defined as prosperity. What people 'want' is known only by what they get - their wants are retrospectively ascribed. If what is being measured and counted grows, then this is defined as growing prosperity. So the economy fifty years ago wanted more A, B and C but the modern economy instead provides X, Y and Z – however, economists retrospectively re-draw the target around X, Y and Z and proclaim the triumph of economics. The economy did not provide ABC, but this is taken to prove that ABC was not really wanted; instead the economy provided XYZ which is taken to reveal people’s true preferences.

TSF...

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This is, of course, paradoxical; but it is not just paradoxical - it is nonsense.

The primacy of process is simple nonsense – it is sleight-of-hand, it is bait-and-switch. It is trying to do without aims because all aims point to the necessity for underpinning justifications for those aims. Since modern society regards clear and explicit aims as merely arbitrary and subjective statements, and because aims (except when platitudinous) are divisive; it cannot agree on aims and regards it as dangerous to try.

Secular modernity is fundamentally (not accidentally, not reformably) based on the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy, and the fallacy is simple and obvious

However, since the fallacy is intrinsic and pervasive, it must be concealed; and it is concealed.


 

Since collapse happened to Classics, it could happen to science

Since professional science is not longer providing the breakthroughs in efficiency that are necessary to sustain modernity, then modernity will collapse; we will, in other words, return to the Malthusian Trap in which increasing population will cause reducing standard of living (or violence or disease) until such a point that the population has come into line with resources.

But, before that point, it is probable (not definite) that professional science will itself collapse – simply because it is on the one hand a waste of resources (costs) and on the other hand these resources are needed for other purposes (opportunity costs).

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I find that people simply cannot take seriously that Science would collapse down to a small fraction of its