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Who controls Whom in science and what it means for new thinking and new discoveries – a lawyer talks

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Reader Edward Sisson writes to tell us of his encounter with the Who–Whom of science, in connection with the recent Armitage soft dinosaur tissue case: 

It reminds me of an idea I had in about 2003, when I was at Arnold & Porter representing (pro bono, with firm authorization) ID organizations and people, for a study and book based on the study, working title “Who Controls Whom in Science.”

The basic idea was to research and chart the individuals in power-relationships within academic science — editors of journals, persons on tenure committees, persons who have mentored PhD candidates, persons who sit on PhD thesis defense committees, etc. The research would be updated and published annually. This identifies the individuals in a particular year who control the career advancement of younger, lower-level aspiring scientists.

The elders have, during their lives, made certain statements, taken certain positions, etc., and no one who publicly rejects the most important such statements will gain any aid to their own career advancement from those elders. People don’t promote those who disagree with them, or who think they have made intellectual errors. This is human nature and applies in virtually all areas of endeavor.

Another element of this is the general principle that the only person who can criticize a position asserted by a PhD specialist in a particular field is another PhD specialist in that same field — and the term “field” here means the precise sub-divisions of a larger field, such that, to take the example of my own brother, a career PhD in geology, specifically volcanos, the principle is that only another PhD in volcanoes has credible standing to critique anything he pronounces in that field. I suspect that if I knew more about the field of volcanoes, I would discover that there are subdivisions within that, such that it is in reality a narrower subspecialty of volcanoes that he and his colleagues recognize as his field.


Within any particular field, a certain amount of criticism is allowed from PhD critics in that same field, because otherwise, there could be no progress at all. But the nature of the criticism has narrow de facto limits, such that nothing discrediting is said of the intellect of any of the elders, only modifications based (supposedly) on newly-discovered evidence, enabled by better experimental instruments than the elders had had available to them.

The classic example of this criticism-limiting effect is the oil-drop experiment in 1909 by Millikan and Fletcher to measure the charge on the electron. The number was a bit wrong. But later scientists took a long time to get a more accurate number, because of their desire to avoid discrediting Millikan and all those who had followed Millikan.


This principle has a powerful protective effect for the career of any PhD, because it reduces to a very small number the list of individuals who will be recognized as having standing to criticize that person’s work.

Each PhD tends to honor the principle by also disclaiming, for himself or herself, any right to criticize the statements of any other PhD outside his or her speciality. If even a PhD pronounces a personal disqualification to criticize the work of another PhD in any field except the potential critic’s own field, then certainly no non-PhD has standing to critique the work of any PhD in any field. Thus does the entire PhD community adopt and enforce a principle that no-one who does not hold a PhD may critique and reject the work of any PhD. This is what makes a PhD a particularly valuable credential for each individual who holds one.

The net result is that no PhD is subject to criticism from almost the entire human race — the number of recognized “legitimate potential critics” of a particular individual PhD scientist is reduced, as a practical matter, to perhaps 50 other individuals in the entire population of the world. And all 50 of those individuals live in and work in and seek career advancement under the same social and financial conditions as the person who is the individual PhD whom they might criticize.

Within any particular field, a certain amount of criticism is allowed from PhD critics in that same field, because otherwise, there could be no progress at all. But the nature of the criticism has narrow de facto limits, such that nothing discrediting is said of the intellect of any of the elders, only modifications based (supposedly) on newly-discovered evidence, enabled by better experimental instruments than the elders had had available to them.

The classic example of this criticism-limiting effect is the oil-drop experiment in 1909 by Millikan and Fletcher to measure the charge on the electron. The number was a bit wrong. But later scientists took a long time to get a more accurate number, because of their desire to avoid discrediting Millikan and all those who had followed Millikan. As Feynman said in 1974:

Millikan measured the charge on an electron by an experiment with falling oil drops, and got an answer which we now know not to be quite right. It’s a little bit off because he had the incorrect value for the viscosity of air. It’s interesting to look at the history of measurements of the charge of an electron, after Millikan. If you plot them as a function of time, you find that one is a little bit bigger than Millikan’s, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than that, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than that, until finally they settle down to a number which is higher. Why didn’t they discover the new number was higher right away? It’s a thing that scientists are ashamed of—this history—because it’s apparent that people did things like this: When they got a number that was too high above Millikan’s, they thought something must be wrong—and they would look for and find a reason why something might be wrong. When they got a number close to Millikan’s value they didn’t look so hard. And so they eliminated the numbers that were too far off, and did other things like that …

This is also the reason why it is true, as Max Planck said in 1906 “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” The influence of the elders persists over the younger, and the elders resist their own discrediting as long as they are alive. This deters the younger from learning and adopting the new, and discrediting-to-the-elders, “scientific truth.” But how is the “new scientific truth” to become known to the younger generation that lives after the elders have died off, if the younger generation itself never becomes familiar with the “new scientific truth,” but instead, must repeat and make its own — and attach its own reputation to — the “old scientific truth”?

I have relied on and found to be very useful the work of many PhDs in my own researches, and it is a valuable credential to have. But this “insulation from criticism except from an approved source” attachment to a PhD is not a legitimate “addition” to the social power of any PhD, and tends to devalue the PhD generally, because it means that errors go uncorrected rather than incur damage tot he intellectual reputations of prominent individuals.

As regards my idea for “Who Controls Whom in Science:” a person who had presented a number of television challenges to accepted theories came to my office to meet with me about pursuing this. Coming to a partner’s corner office at a big Washington law firm, he evidently thought I had a client behind the idea, who would pay money to make this happen. But when I made it clear there was no client, no money, it was just an idea I had that I thought was a good one, his face fell, he left, and nothing came of it.

See also: It’s a wonder that more people don’t “hate science.”

and

Maybe we should all hate science. Alternatively, ask troubled disciplines to shape up. Especially the tax-funded ones.

4 Replies to “Who controls Whom in science and what it means for new thinking and new discoveries – a lawyer talks

  1. 1
    Seversky says:

    Should we hate science as much as we hate lawyers?

  2. 2
    Pearlman says:

    the science should speak for itself, for example the soft tissue indicates the asteroid impact/s related to the dino die off was under 10k YA until proven otherwise as the greater the claim the greater the burden of proof,
    reference The Recent Complex creation Framework for understanding science in maximum available context.

  3. 3
    polistra says:

    This is extremely old news to anyone who has actually worked in science.

    Trouble is, the LOUD public voices of “science” constantly push a false picture of how the system works.

    How do we overcome the false picture?

  4. 4
    kairosfocus says:

    News,

    the name for this is, class interest; and it is old. Mutual protection of a common privilege can become ruinous when it leads to entrenching falsehood or injustice rooted in effective monopolisation of a key social institution.

    That is the history of nobility, and if we imagine that privilege based on dominating education and influence/access based on the credibility of expertise joined to media power and gate-keeper power to lock out the unwelcome is somehow better than that due to birth, we will prove to be sadly mistaken.

    Historically, the answer is to break monopolisation of control of key institutions so that people have viable alternatives.

    In this case, Government funding of higher education backed by taxing power (also, power to “print” money) and further backed by the urgency of military-technological dominance multiplied by media power will have fed a process of gradual monopolisation. That is backed by the ideological control of the new radically secularist, evolutionary materialist scientism agenda-driving establishment.

    This is not “conspiracy theory” — conspiracies will always exist BTW (so if the watch-dogs are suspiciously silent and we do not see regular exposes of the powerful but corrupt and instead see cheer-leading and targetting of the marginalised scapegoats, that is a BAD sign . . . and I daresay an all too familiar one) — it is a matter of pretty obvious domination that has reached to dangerous proportions. Bland denials, dismissals of those who question the “consensus,” substitution of the ideological party-line for telling the truth about the inherent limitations of science and much more are all actually evidence of this trend. In the OP, it is obvious, people were scared to offend the power-brokers . . . another red flag sign. And of course, we have recently seen how social media and social funding initiatives have been brought back under increasing ideological control.

    So, the issue is, how to break the monopoly.

    The answer is, build your own platforms. And if the new magisterium comes after such, that is when you defend and expose what is going on, using alternative media power and courts if necessary. Where, the very fact that taxes are compulsorily taken gives the ordinary citizen rights to demand that there be no monopolisation driven by ideology. Or else, we are being reduced to serfdom by the power classes who see our income, businesses and property as little more than leases or allowances they grant us to keep us from rising up against them.

    And as case after case of abuses, usurpations and impositions are exposed and word spreads, it reaches the 3 – 5% tipping point. A swing of that scale implies a vote spread difference of 6 – 10%, which is usually enough to decide elections in systems with strong two-party systems. Once, that 3 – 5% is from the mushy middle where elections are as a rule decided.

    Where, if instead there is one utterly dominant party across a system (usually, concentrated in key urban centres) then the challenge is longer term, to build a coalition strong enough to push the electoral balance back into the range of swing-able elections.

    Such will be resisted, of course. Expose the dirty tactics, and use the power of the Internet’s long tail of the few reaching the few and things going viral.

    In addition, the trend strongly is, to break the monopoly of the Unis. Recently, a Harvard prof pointed to the cost-effectiveness of online education vs on-campus studies. He projected that in 10 – 15 years half of the 4,000 unis in the US will be bankrupt as a result. Mixed in, he and others envision a shift away from massive, high debt degrees to more focussed short-course certification. I presume, with credit banking that allows work-study components and eventual certification.

    All we need is for dissidents to set up some valid online study-programmes and train a critical mass. Where, let us remember, accreditation started as in effect peer review of quality of training.

    Then, as solid institutions emerge, research programmes can attract funding and will gradually shift the balance of power. An excellent case in point is how that balance has been visibly shifting on “Climate Change.”

    Philosophy, in key sectors, has shifted.

    Computer Science and informatics was never centralised enough to be monopolised. And, that is where design theory has had its least hostile reception. Where of course, the sheer weight of evidence on the coherent, functionally specific complex organisation and associated information in the living cell and wider world of life is moving the trend our way.

    Meanwhile, the scandals that always crop up when monopoly opaque power is concentrated in key institutions, are already under way.

    It will take time and will be difficult, but we can win this fight.

    KF

    PS: No expert — collective as well as individual — is better than the quality of the facts, reasoning and assumptions behind the views, conclusions or proposals being pushed. So, to the merits we must go and we must insist that they be clearly communicated to the voters, based on transparent discussion. In an internet age.

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