Sep 01 2011

Science by Intimidation

There has been a disturbing trend lately in the relationship between science and the public. Actually, I am not sure if it is a trend or if this sort of thing has been going on as long as there has been institutionalized science – but it has been more apparent to me recently.

The issue is with segments of the public trying to intimidate scientists, with various methods, because they don’t like the conclusion those scientists are coming to. This is a potentially serious problem.

A recent example of this phenomenon is the death threats being made against researchers who study chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). It’s ridiculous when you think about it – researchers are just trying to understand a common and troubling syndrome, and some of the people who suffer from that syndrome are trying to inhibit the science by intimidating those scientists. How does this happen?

There are other examples, perhaps the most common being the extreme animal rights activists, who are known for their terrorist tactics and threats. In the case of these activists they appear to be acting from a moral conviction about the rights of animals.

The threats made against the CFS researchers are a different phenomenon, although they can have the same effect. In this case an extreme group of advocates believe that they know something about a puzzling syndrome – that it is caused by disease process that originates outside the body, like an infection. They further feel threatened by any researcher pursing a different hypothesis, such as psychological contributors to CFS.

CFS sufferers who buy into the infection hypothesis then feel animosity toward researchers who disagree with them. This animosity becomes extremely magnified when conspiratorial thinking comes into play – the researchers must be in the pocket of BigPharma or the insurance companies.

This line of thinking turns a scientific controversy into a black-and-white moral struggle. The researchers are not only wrong, they are corrupt and evil, and those with CSF are their victims. Anyone who defends the researchers or their hypotheses is also in on the conspiracy.

This type of thinking speaks to the more primitive, emotional, pattern-seeking part of the brain. It probably will also tend to attract those in the community who have a predisposition to conspiracy thinking. Social media can further be used to magnify these effects, creating a self-reinforcing feedback loop. A specific manifestation of this is the comment section of blogs, or in forums.

In these forums people can get each other worked up, and confirmation bias takes over with each person giving their supporting anecdotes. Dissenters may be chased away, or even censored. The conspiratorial jihad group mentality then takes on a life of it own.

And that’s how you end up with mild-mannered honest researchers receiving death threats from the very people they are trying to help.

We see a similar phenomenon with the anti-vaccine movement, with Morgellon’s disease (more properly known as delusional parasitosis), and with the chronic Lyme community.

It should be obvious why all of this is so destructive. Science works best when it exists in a bit of a bubble. This does not mean it is completely cut off from the practical world, but scientists should be free to pursue their ideas, to follow the evidence and their hunches wherever they lead. The process of science will sort out which ideas have merit and which do not.

Whenever someone puts their thumb on the scale, to try to coerce scientific research in a predetermined direction (or away from an unwanted direction), the process of science suffers. This occurs whether the motivation is political (such as Lysenkoism in the former Soviet Union), religious, ideological, for purposes of corporate greed, or any other motivation. Science cannot function when it is lashed to an ideology.

This also results from a lack of trust in the institutions of science. I will not argue that these institutions or the people in them are perfect – no human institution is, but science basically works. It’s not maximally efficient, but over time the evidence does seem to win out and our understanding grinds forward.

What the conspiracy theorists are saying is not that the practice of science is flawed but that it is completely broken (at least within their area of concern). They therefore feel justified in substituting their own personal beliefs for the consensus of scientific opinion. It certainly seems as if the personal beliefs come first, and the denigration of science, scientific institutions, and individual researchers is a mechanism of denial to maintain a desired belief system.

In fact research shows this is how people typically operate. Even worse, when confronted with disconfirming evidence, evidence that contradicts a firmly held belief, people will not only dismiss the evidence, they would rather believe the science itself is flawed rather than change their mind. So it can be counterproductive to confront people with scientific evidence that contradicts their beliefs – you may just push them further into pseudoscience and conspiracy thinking.

There is no easy solution to this problem, because it is rooted in human nature. We should certainly have no tolerance for thuggery against scientists who are just trying to do their job. They should be protected and insulated so that scientific inquiry can proceed.

The tactics that such groups employ are varied and changing. Direct threats is only one method. As we saw with ClimateGate, another method is to swamp scientists with freedom of information requests, and to take bits of information out of context to make them seem scandalous. Sometimes a researcher’s reputation is attacked, or they are harassed in various ways, such as flooding their institution with complaints.

Many researchers get out of or stay away from controversial topics to avoid such attacks. These thuggery tactics have an effect – they stifle research and public discourse.

At the very least when people do engage in such activity they should be called on it. They should be made to answer for their thuggery and intimidation. Further, institutions need to recognize what is happening and stand by their scientists and educators.

I also hope that by discussing this phenomenon people will understand the psychology better and perhaps be less susceptible to being sucked into such groups.

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