Curators of "Truth"
How reliable is the authority of the institution of science when it comes to truth?
An examination of institutional science and truth from the perspective of Iain McGilchrist and some thoughts about truth today.
It doesn’t matter how many scientists a person has to back up what they say. It doesn’t matter how many links to scientific journals a person adds. If anyone dares go against what the politicians and their ‘fact checkers’ deem to be correct, they will be silenced.
- The Organic Prepper
If all the sources of current information are effectively under one single control, it is no longer a question of merely persuading the people of this or that. The skillful propagandist then has the power to mold their minds in any direction he chooses, and even the most intelligent and independent people cannot entirely escape that influence if they are long isolated from all other sources of information.
- F. A. Hayek - The Road To Serfdom
It is without question that knowledge has exploded during the 19th and 20th Centuries in an unprecedented manner - the 21st Century, even more so. Much of knowledge discovered and refined by scientists, in an untold number of silos of specialty, within the grand institution of science. The claim of institutional science is that it carries the authority, due to its weighty cognitive prowess, to define what is true.
How true is this?
No-one these days is in a position to evaluate the validity of science’s myriad pronouncements across more than the tiniest part of the whole range of what it treats. Even the most eminent scientist in his or her limited field, must rely, as we do, on authority, on the pronouncements of others. In fact every published paper is an instance of taking something on someone else’s authority, on the understanding that peer review can vouch for its validity. (McGilchrist, 2021, p. 501)
Because of the startling explosion of scientific knowledge any advances in any area require there to be highly specialised people working in very narrow areas of sub-specialities. The problem then is the scientist working in her narrow, yet highly complex and technical, field often does not have the time, encouragement, or even inclination to look up to see how her work plays into the significance of the bigger picture. The panoramic and the myopic view of the world need to relate, to integrate. The polymath Arnold Toynbee offers the metaphor of the Japanese house where the walls are not fixed and solid but non-permanent movable screens - the whole space can be divided and opened in a flexible manner. This should be the flexibility and interaction our scientific disciplines have between one another.
I was talking recently to a colleague at one of our large universities about the interdisciplinary interaction that may or may not happen on campus. The problem, she said, was as much geographical as it was intellectual. The psychologists huddled over there in that building, the physicians over there, the physicists in yet another area while the philosophers, journalists and political scientists share a clump of buildings on the other side of the campus. Where there is interdisciplinary work being done in the same building, with the same common areas, and efforts made for the sharing of work (a certain brain institute is a case in point), there is the panoramic and myopic being expressed and impressed upon those who work there. I’m not saying that putting diverse disciplines in the same building is always advantageous, but it can go someway to that right hemisphere appreciation of the whole.
The generalist appreciate the need for specialists but that is not always reciprocated. Just as the right hemisphere appreciates the left hemisphere but the left sees no utility for the right. Which is a problem. As the fields specialise, become more microscopic in vision, and become increasingly detached from the bigger picture, their claims on truth become more questionable. Indeed, we do need the microscopic, detailed view in all of its specialised complexity, but the investigator needs to know where it all fits. You can frame one piece of a jigsaw puzzle and hold it up as a complete picture but it would surely disappoint most and belie the beauty and truth of the completed puzzle.
Unfortunately, for the panoramic view, specialisation is the way to career success - you have to go deeper into the silo you are in. To spend time looking around at the rest of the related fields is to stop being a specialist, and that means certain death to your career. The renaissance man and the polymath are cool ideals but certainly not ‘practical’ for the serious scientist. You have to keep digging that hole, down, down, down.
If perceiving shapes is how maths and science progress, as I believe it is, you will see those shapes only by rising above the hole where you are digging. The view in the valley floor is good, but if you never climb, you will not know that there are many other valleys, and mountain ranges nearby, which are not only beautiful in themselves, but help you see why good work needs to be done down in the valley floor at all. (McGilchrist, 2021, p. 504)
You see the panorama and your imagination is sparked, you garner ideas from areas you wouldn’t have imagined down in your silo basement. There is more than the technical knowledge of the highly specialised field, there is also wisdom - the understanding of what to do with the knowledge. And furthermore there is creative play and the freedom to mix-&-match things in a broad cross-disciplinary way rather than the constraints of today’s institutional demands.
The world of science was open before us to a degree that has become inconceivable now, when pages and pages of application papers must justify the plan of investigating, ‘in depth’, the thirty-fifth foot of the centipede; and one is judged by a jury of one’s peers who are all centipedists or molecular podiatrists. I would say that most of the great scientists of the past could no have arisen, that, in fact, most sciences could not have been founded, if the present utility-drunk and goal-directed attitude had prevailed. (Erwin Chargaff, 1976)
Chargaff further lamented over the fragmentation of nature, where more and tinier pieces are needed for closer inspection, all the while disconnecting from the continuum of nature. The myopic view creating a world of dissociated or decontextualised abstractions. Not exactly the outlook of the scientific and intellectual giants of our modern age who often thought and wrote beyond the constraints of their academic institutions.
McGilchrist makes a great point about the scientific paper as an instrument well suited to the dissemination of data but not to the exposition of grander ideas. Books, actually, provide the space to develop ideas more fully and to offer those ideas to a wider audience. A book, if written well, forces the writer to express his or her ideas to others outside the specialisation and to think carefully about why such ideas matter and how they fit into the bigger picture. But career scientists don’t write books - there’s no impact factor, no career value, and take a long time to write, time that could have been spent writing a dozen papers, one of which might be the career catapulting one!
This is unfortunate for both the scientist and society. I know myself that in the 30 something years I’ve had reading scientific papers the barrier of jargon has increased so much to make some papers completely unintelligible bar those in the inner circle of the sub-sub-field. The humanity is completely lost, the capacity to communicate across disciplines is lost, it has a short life for a handful of people and then forgotten. In the rare case where I’ve reached out to talk to the authors of such papers, and they tell me what it was about in plain English, it’s often easy to grasp. So why the foreign language? Why the separation from other fields because of unique technical language? I guess this is why I appreciate McGilchrist so much, among other scientist/philosophers, who is able to bring the science and humanity to the table and tell a story we can all relate to. Not in a over technical paper, but in a book or a lecture aimed at the public, or the professionals within a field at large, that highlights something about who we are or why the world is the way it is.
When you are trained in a field of scientific exploration there are hardly any absolutes. It would be folly to make claims of certainty. Yet claims of certainty, based on the most superficial evidence or no real evidence at all, is what we are getting from media and bureaucrats. The COVID-19 ‘vaccine’ studies by the manufacturers being the most dramatic example of study design manipulation and all sorts of magick to make bold Science claims. Data is manipulated by kicking subjects out of the study who are not providing the desired results, destroying control groups with claims that it would be unethical to include them in the experimental group, and then twisting already inadequate data in statistical contortions, cover-ups, smoke & mirrors. Publish it in a top tier journal and voila! “We are 100% certain that…”
Here’s an example:
[Quick quiz: In this video is Rochelle Walensky, A) a psychopath; B) having a gun pointed at her head behind the teleprompter; C) a lizard; D) just stupid and believes whatever her handlers tell her; E) a mythomaniac; F) both A, D & E?]
Even with well designed studies not funded and performed by repeat felons like Pfizer, the ability to replicate results is rather disappointing and gives us little confidence in any single study.
Two of the best-known analyses, from psychology and cancer biology, found reproducibility rates of around 40% and 10%, respectively. A survey of 1,576 researchers across scientific disciplines published in Nature revealed that more than 70% of researchers had tried and failed to reproduce another scientist’s experiments, and more than half had failed to reproduce their own experiment. In fact, more than half thought there was a significant crisis in research reproducibility and only 3% thought there wasn’t a crisis at all. Yet 73% nonetheless went on to say that they thought that at least half of the papers in their field could be trusted, with physicists and chemists generally showing the most confidence. (McGilchrist, 2021, pp. 513-14)
There are so many variables, so many points of uncertainty within extremely complex systems (especially so if we are talking about humans and pharmacology) that it does take many attempts at studying a phenomenon before a picture can emerge - and even then we can’t be absolutely sure. Even the measurement of fundamental physical constants is not certain - so how much less certain should the research conclusions be in fields like psychology or biology?
A problem for the general public is that the heavy-hitting articles with catchy titles make headlines in the popular press, while the more measured responses, that create a more nuanced picture, do not. So the public is served up two competing fantasies: that anything that comes from science is irreproachable, and that most of it is irredeemably flawed. This kind of polarisation makes rational debate about the true (therefore limited) value of science very difficult indeed. (McGilcrhist, 2021, p. 514)
Both the media, with their ‘newsworthy’ headlines of supposed ‘breakthrough’ research (which is almost never breakthrough findings), and journals such as Nature and Science with their high impact factors, have a lot to answer for. Stanford professor of medicine and statistician, John Ioannidis, wrote about a number of reasons why most published research findings are false, due to competition, low statistical power, and basic financial and non-financial conflicts of interest. Publishing a significant paper in a prestigious journal can be more career ladder climbing than purely seeking solutions to problems. Data mining results to get a significant p-value, or as we’ve seen recently with COVID ‘vaccine’ studies, designing and executing studies to significantly bias the data in a certain direction so the data mining becomes even easier.
I’ll pause here as we are already at the 10min reading mark - but will continue in a future post about some of the systemic problems we have with the science publishing world and why we should take every study’s conclusions with a grain of salt (and if you are just reading a science journalist’s take, a tablespoon of salt!).
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Hopefully future generations will look upon the cult of scientism as abhorrent as the psychosis of the witch burners (no offense to the obscure punk rock band).
Excellent timing. I just read this chapter a few days ago.
Regarding the impenetrable thicket of technical jargon (and the deadening bureaucratic prose in which its presented; I believe McGilchrist also commented on that) that has become the norm in the scientific literature, I believe substantial improvements could be made in the ability of scientists to adopt a more panoramic view if papers included a 'layman's abstract': a brief description in plain English describing the central results of the paper, with an emphasis on putting the work in its broader context.
More ambitiously, what's needed is a movement in science to discard the impersonal prose of third person passive, and allow back in the light of humor and metaphor. Make scientific writing fun again! Unfortunately most scientists of my acquaintance are terrible writers.