NS Essay - The honesty of science is being compromised at every turn
Can we still rely on what scientists tell us? Alas, no. Their conferences and papers are sponsored b
Science - not science-based, "high" technology such as smart weapons or GM crops, but science itself - is losing its way. Since science is the most potent agent of change - the ultimately anti-conservative driver of world affairs - this concerns us all. Some scientists worry about the present turn of events. Some do their best to circumvent some of the secrecy and greed that are among its modern manifestations: Sir John Sulston, for example, who put his team's contributions to the Human Genome Project straight on to the web; or Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the web in the first place, and could surely by now be Bill Gates-rich, but who instead made it free - a gift to humankind, like the ceramics of China.
But scientists as a whole do not seem worried enough. Some are waxing fatter than their forerunners ever dreamt of - mere lucre, after all, had not used to be the natural reward of the intellectual. Some in the highest places feel that the present way of doing things is good enough. It is just the way of the world, they say, and we have to be "realistic". Yet scientists of all ranks write to the newspapers and complain about lack of public "trust", which they ascribe to "public ignorance", to be remedied by "education". They are right about the lack of trust, but not about the ignorance. People are not daft; and you don't have to be a PhD to smell a rat that is, as colonels used to write from Tunbridge Wells, nibbling not simply at the fact but at the very idea of civilisation.
Science draws upon, and one way or another impinges upon, the furthest reaches of philosophy. Science cannot decide what is right or wrong but it affects moral decisions in a whole range of ways. It has been entwined with theology since its outset - indeed can be seen as the scion of religion - and the present public spats so often staged between the more dyed-in-the-wool clerics and the more aggressive scientists tend to be crude in the extreme. In normal times, these ramifications are fun. To be sure, there has been the odd burning. But on the whole, the nature and the limits of science have been cosily contained in donnish debate.
What has changed things is modern, ruthless, vicious, crude economics: not capitalism per se, which has many benign faces, but the neo-monetarist, globalised, corporatised, no-holds-barred version of it. Science in its beginnings, and in essence as conceived by Pythagoras, is a divine invention. But even divinity is now deemed to be for sale and science, in effect, has been bought. Politicians and corporate bosses often argue that globalisation is good because it will bring unity to humankind. But it is hard to conceive of anything more able to disrupt humanity than the privatisation of science, with all its power to change minds and things. Patenting is necessary. But the widgets that are granted temporary licence derive from a corpus of knowledge put together by the genius of all humankind over at least 3,000 years. The sequestration of that knowledge is theft.
Conversations with many scientists over many years have given me some insight into why so many of them seem content to put up with what to onlookers seems so foul. First, scientists say, science at its core is not as badly served as outsiders think. Most "basic" science - the really fundamental ideas, such as natural selection and the theory of relativity - is still paid for out of the public purse, and its course is still decided by intellectuals, who follow the ideas where they will lead. Only the applications - the translation of basic ideas into technologies - are in private hands. Despite appearances, core science maintains its Pythagorean purity.
Second, some point out that input from commerce is not all bad. It provides much-needed cash, and science is a lot more expensive in these days of linear accelerators and PCR analysers than it was when Archimedes mused and sketched in the sand. And the particular problems posed by industry have often prompted the most profound insights. The laws of thermodynamics arose from study of the steam engine. Louis Pasteur founded modern microbiology in the 19th century on research undertaken for makers of wine and breeders of silkworms. Gregor Mendel set out to solve problems of interest to plant breeders and founded the science of genetics. It is fun and creative to turn a good wheeze into something that actually works, and perhaps does some good, as a new vaccine may do.
Third, and more crudely, academic salaries are low. It is hard to raise a family in a university town on £30,000 a year. Professors knocking on the door for Nobel prizes may be paid less than supermarket managers, even without the free car. With a foot in industry, they can be rich, or at least be up there with the solicitors and estate agents. Why not? Do they deserve less? Beyond any doubt, academe and commerce can work very well together to everybody's benefit, and often have. Many scientists, like most of us, just muddle along as best they can and, if a drug company will pay them and nobody else will, well, what should a poor post-doc do?
But a lot can go wrong, and does. It is good for science that taxes pay for core research. But why, the taxpayers may reasonably ask, do the material fruits of that research then pass into private hands?
If we believe that the world as a whole must be run by corporations - that they alone have the competence and that corporations survive only by doing what people want and need - then it is fine and dandy that people at large should give them a head start. Otherwise, the present arrangement seems like a bad deal.
In truth, industry and science are locked in a positive feedback loop: good for both, in a way, but nothing much to do with the outside world. Industry provides the wealth that finances the science that produces the high technologies that enable the industry to make more wealth, and so on and so on. But industry cannot afford to be altruistic, as its executives are wont to point out. It cannot finance science that does not increase its own wealth. So we have the situation so well recognised in medicine - of drugs developed for western diseases, which are often minor irritations, while the biggies of the world, such as malaria and all the other still rampant tropical infections, are largely neglected.
With Aids, the drugs developed primarily for the rich have been made available to (some) poor people only after up-to-the-wire protesting. Last year in the Lancet, Dr Bernard Dixon asked whether Sars might be treated by the well-tried, century-old technique of "passive immunity" - injecting antibodies originally derived from infected patients and multiplied in some neutral organism. This method can be greatly improved by modern biotechnology. Would it not work? Later a drug company executive told him: "Of course it would. But we've looked at it and there's no money in it." Goodness me.
In agriculture the conflict is even more stark. The real threat of genetically modified crops is not that they will poison us but that they are designed to place all agriculture, including that of the developing world, in the hands of a few companies. If the developing world takes its farming down the western industrial route that those companies follow, half of its enormous population will be permanently out of work. All in all, anyone who believes that big corporations do work in the interests of all humanity is living on another planet. Yet I have met many people in high places who do believe this.
More pernicious still is the way that privatisation has corrupted the fabric of science itself. Science is dead without honesty, which should be judged as the lawyers judge it: the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. As things are, this most fundamental principle is compromised at every turn. Bad results are concealed; apparently favourable results are bruited in the spirit of PR; people are bought and/or threatened so that they comply, and even that once final guarantor of honesty, "peer review", is now routinely circumvented.
A cause celebre, described in a book out this year from Sheldon Krimsky of Tufts University School of Medicine, Massachusetts (Science in the Private Interest), is that of Dr Nancy Olivieri, who in the 1990s worked at the University of Toronto and Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children. She was sponsored by the Canadian Medical Research Council and the drug company Apotex to test the company's new treatment for thalassaemia, an inherited form of anaemia very common in the Mediterranean and south-east Asia though not so much in Canada.
She found the drug did not work as well as Apotex hoped, and had worse side effects than the company had expected. She prepared to publish, as scientists should, and Apotex threatened to sue her. Then the university sacked her. Apotex was preparing to donate $12.7m to the university, and its president was lobbying the Canadian government on the firm's behalf. Olivieri was finally exonerated and reinstated. But her case leaves a permanent stain, not on her but on academe; and as university vice-chancellors struggle to keep their institutions alive in a world that apparently regards academe as a luxury, it is naive in the extreme to suppose that it was, or is, a one-off.
I have seen what I think comes close to perjury many a time - and often on public platforms - in the name of corporate science. What makes it worse is the piety that envelops it: the appeal to "evidence", which for scientists is the sine qua non. Detractors are not simply derided, but shamed for their sloppy-mindedness. However, the "evidence" typically presented is anything but. There are graphs and statistics - the trappings of science - yet often they signify nothing.
I remember a recent defence of golden rice, genetically engineered to be rich in Vitamin A, and hence to save the lives and sight of millions in the developing world. There were pictures of molecules and of poor blind children, and rows of figures to show how many could be helped, were it not for the tiresome non- governmental organisations. But the speaker did not point out that Vitamin A is, in effect, carotene, one of the commonest molecules in nature. It is the yellow pigment that is present (masked by the chlorophyll) in green leaves, and in yellow roots such as carrots and cassava as well as fruits such as papaya and mango. If people practise horticulture, they have Vitamin A aplenty, and traditional farming always included horticulture. Problems start when traditional mixed farms are replaced by monocultural commodity crops for export to make cash for the owners of the new estates. Golden rice is not the antidote to old-fashioned inadequacy, as the speaker implied. It merely solves (partially) a problem created by modernity.
Then there is the new spectre of "confidentiality", a long name for secrecy. Trials to test the safety of innovations, from toothbrushes to GM crops, used to be carried out by government scientists. Now, increasingly, they are by law in the hands of the producers themselves who - again protected by law - are not obliged to reveal all their results and methods. We must just take their word for it. Often the "evidence" presented in defence of, say, GM crops runs to thousands of pages, apparently covering many hundreds of trials, all of them carefully designed at great expense in the public interest. When Saddam Hussein presented the UN with a 10,000-page apologia for the weapons he apparently did not have, he was greeted with scepticism. The plausibility, diplomats felt, was inversely related to the bulk. Indeed so.
Peer review? Well, it has never been quite what it was made out to be. There has always been bias. Much worse, however, is the state described by Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet, in the New York Review of Books last month. Drug companies now pay academics to give papers at international conferences, reporting favourable results from trials. (The companies also pick up all the other delegates' expenses, including evening concerts and day trips, and generally shower them with gifts. I have picked up the odd diary myself over the years.) These papers are then published, and commonly appear as supplements in respectable scientific journals, often with little or no peer review and with no direct input from the editor. This is PR, but it is solemnised by the reputation of the journal, in turn built up by the honesty of others.
There is one final twist, an abstract one but perhaps most damaging of all. Science, since its outset, has been fostered as a rational pursuit. It is the ultimate cerebration. Scientists sometimes appear as cold fish even though they are driven by passion. They suppress their passions as a matter of strategy, to keep their thoughts clearer.
Yet all serious scientists, from the Greeks onwards, have recognised the limitations of their cerebrations. First, they acknowledge that the human ability to find out, and to understand, is limited. Second, they recognise that however hard they try, they can never eliminate subjectivity or mistakes. Science is often presented as a seamless edifice of certainty, "rational" all the way through, where in reality it has the texture of Dundee cake: currants of "fact" and raisins of well-tried theory contained in a dough of rhetoric and supposition. It relies far more on untried dogma than is commonly admitted. Third, scientists with a taste for philosophy - as the best ones have - recognise that "rationality" is not all there is. It is only half of being human. This idea is expressed in many ways - the Greeks pitting Apollo against Dionysus; Thomas Aquinas insisting that understanding requires both the empiricism of science and divine revelation; David Hume proclaiming that we cannot derive "ought" from "is"; and the entire Romantic movement, emphasising the absolute need for emotional response as a guide to human action.
Now, in the debased discussions that pass for critical debate, science is flaunted as if it had in fact achieved its own ideal, as if it really is as "rational" as its best exponents aspire to be. That is a mistake in itself. To compound matters, rationality is increasingly equated with expediency, and expediency with profit. So it is "rational" to seek to make as much money as possible out of farming, say, and "irrational" to bang on about employment, and ways of life, and autonomy, and suchlike abstractions. As the coup de grace, policy is increasingly decided on the basis of what is "rational", which is equated both with what is commercially expedient and with what science says should happen. So it is that GM crops are being wished upon us on the grounds that there are no "scientific" reasons for not growing them. Anyone who cares about science - as well as anyone who cares about humanity, and good thinking - should be appalled by such nonsense. But it has become the norm, and is presented with all the pompous piety for which we deride the worst of clerics.
Scientists and politicians are forever banging on about the need for "public debate" on the various manifestations of science, albeit with the implication that the status quo is basically fine and that the net flow of ideas should be de haut en bas. Well, we do need a public debate, but not the kind usually proposed. To put things right we need to dig very deep indeed, back to Pythagoras, and on from there, taking in most branches of moral philosophy, economics and theology. Otherwise the future life of humanity is going to be both more brutal and far shorter than it needs to be.
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