- Vaccination rates are plummeting across the nation, from conservative rural areas to urban areas such as Los Angeles — including children at top Hollywood schools.
- A large fraction of America believe that not only has warming of the surface atmosphere temperature paused (correctly, ignoring the activists’ propaganda), but that the Earth has not been warming during the past two centuries (quite daft). See the polls here.
- A large fraction of America not only have incorrect beliefs about current economic theory (ask a conservative about Keynes, you’ll hear the equivalent of confusing Einstein with a rodeo circus clown), and instead believe a long list of obviously false things. Wrong facts about history, and “zombie economics” (false but too politically useful to die).
We could make a long list of causes for this. Here are a few of the major factors.
Looking at this from a broad perspective, our confidence in our institutions was undeserved. Perhaps we’re over-reacting in the other direction. So much of what we believed about America was false: about JFK the family man. About the CIA and FBI and NSA. About the lies of government officials bringing us into the Vietnam and Iraq Wars.
More specifically, our confidence in scientists was undeserved. Perhaps we’re over-reacting in the other direction. Scientists first found the links between smoking and cancer in the 1930s, yet corporate money (and paid scientists) kept this from widespread public attention until the 1950s — and from public policy action until 1966 (the first warning labels). There are countless similar cases of scientists supporting their employers’ interest against the public’s welfare.
Perhaps worse, we’re learning that much — or even most — scientific research cannot be replicated (see links below). It works for the interests of the careers of the scientists involved — and those interests funding them. Which is all that matters.
Why are we surprised?
The findings of scientists are often of immense importance to society. Hence they’re of great interest to powerful interests outside academia. In America those with the money call the tune. We could build mechanisms to dampen these influences on scientists. Since we have not done so, there is nothing to be gained by insulting scientists for doing what they are paid to do. That is, after all, what most of us do. Let the saints among us cast the first stone.
It’s much the same with accountants, as in the old joke about the job interview :
“What is two plus two!”
“What would you like it to be, sir?”
This is not just a joke. Ross Johnson (CEO of RJR Nabisco 1986-89) got his first big career break in almost exactly this way, as described in the book Barbarians at the Gate.
When we decide to change how America works, then our anger will be appropriate and useful. Until then, reading about these things is entertainment. We get the thrill of righteous fury, then change the screen to watch another form of entertainment. But somewhere on the edges of our minds lingers the knowledge that we can do better.
For More Information
(a) The crisis in scientific research
- “Most scientific papers are probably wrong“, Kurt Kleiner, New Scientist, 30 August 2005
- “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False“, John P. A. Ioannidis, Public Library of Science Medicine, 30 August 2005
- “Reliability of ‘new drug target’ claims called into question“, Asher Mullard, Nature Reviews Drug Discovery, September 2011
- “In cancer science, many “discoveries” don’t hold up“, Reuters, 28 March 2012 — About Amgen’s study, reported in Nature, 28 March 2012.
- “How science goes wrong: Scientific research has changed the world. Now it needs to change itself“, The Economist, 19 October 2013
- List of replication attempts in psychological research
- The master website for anyone interested in this subject: Replication Watch
(b) Other posts about our loss of confidence in experts:
- Experts now run the world using their theories. What if they fail, and we lose confidence in them?, 21 June 2013
- Do we face a future without confidence in experts?, 25 September 2013