The Nature of Scientific Knowledge

This essay was prompted by an article on AlterNet, "Global Warming Deniers Aren't 'Experts' At All: It's Time for a New View of Science" by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, selected from Merchants of Doubt.

We rely on science every day. From our cell phones to our electricity, applied science is embedded in our activities. The authors of Merchants of Doubt want to remind us of some of the aspects of science that we may misunderstand:

In conclusion they caution about believing media stories about the doubts held by certain individuals on scientific theories like global warming. "We need to pay attention to who the experts really are" by questioning their credentials, their research, "the venues in which they are subjecting their claims to scrutiny," and the nature of any financial conflicts of interest.

With regards to global warming, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an international body of scientists sponsored by the UN, has accepted it as scientific reality. The Union of Concerned Scientists writes "As a result of an enormous scientific effort over the past 10–15 years to better understand the climate system and its relationship to human activities, there now is a growing consensus among mainstream scientists about the reality of global warming. As Dr. Robert Watson, then Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said in 2001, 'The overwhelming majority of scientific experts, whilst recognizing that scientific uncertainties exist, nonetheless believe that human-induced climate change is already occurring and that future change is inevitable.'"

So, what is wrong with the question "do you believe in global warming"? Unless you are a climatologist, your belief is of no consequence, it plays no part in the protocols for vetting scientific claims, it has no impact on scientific knowledge. Whether you believe it or not, the scientific community accepts it as reality.

That said, the September 2010 issue of Wired magazine has an article "The Truth is Out There" by Robert Capps, about British writer Simon Singh who was sued by the British Chiropractic Association for libel after writing an article for London's The Guardian newspaper about "outrageous" chiropractic claims including, for example, that there's no reliable evidence chiropractic can alleviate asthma in children. Singh realized that, if he apologized and withdrew his statements, people would dismiss anything he'd ever written about alternative medicine. So he defended himself in court, spending $200K of his own money, and prevailed this past April. The Wired article quoted Singh: "What shocks me is people who have no expertise championing a view that runs counter to the mainstream scientific consensus. For example, we have a consensus amongst the best medical researchers in the world—the leading authorities and the World Health Organization—that vaccines are a good thing, and that MMR, the triple vaccine, is a really good thing. And yet there are people who are quite willing to challenge that consensus—all of whom rely on the tiny little bit of science that seems to back up their view." And then he goes on to repeat a bit of what was said in the Merchants of Doubt.

Singh presents the opinions contrary to the AMA position on vaccines, for example, as just another misguided presentation of opposing scientific beliefs in the media and just another misunderstanding of the nature of scientific knowledge by non scientists. He says "you have to decide who you trust before you decide what to believe," which is pretty much one of the messages of Merchants of Doubt.

I am having trouble reconciling the explanation of the nature of scientific knowledge with Singhs's acceptance of the pronouncements of leading medical researchers. I admit my trouble is based on my own opinion-belief that vaccines are NOT a good thing. How do I reconcile my opinion with that of the scientific community that embraces vaccines? In this case I expect a financial conflict of interest exists in the community of medical researchers. Separate research into the hegemony of the AMA supports my doubts. I have come to suspect that what passes for medical research, at least in this country, is not conducted in a rigorously scientific manner. Certainly the history over the past 40 years or more of nutritional theory suggests that just because doctors believe margerine is good for you does not make it true. This is but one small example of many. I suspect that science and medicine go about their ideation, research, and vetting differently. While I am willing to accept the definition of scientific knowledge, I do not think it can be used as a pattern for medical knowledge.

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Written: 9-15-2010.