My use of strong language to describe both the process and people involved in creating and publishing the Lancet Iraqi Mortality Survey has really set some readers off. I used such language intentionally, expressly because I did not wish to convey the impression that the only matters under discussion were dry scientific technicalities with no broader import than Iraq. I have used pejoratives such as “scientific whores” to describe those responsible for the study because I am angry and I want people to know it. I am angry because I am scared.
People who think I have been unfairly harsh in my assessment of those who created and published the Lancet paper should ask themselves this:
“What if Shannon is right? What if a major scientific journal and the peer review process it represents has been politically subverted? What are the consequences of such subversion beyond the this particular study?”
In this debate, people have repeatedly advanced to me arguments of the form, “Hey, the Lancet study must be right! This study was done by a well known scientist and published in one of the top 10 peer reviewed journals in the world. We can trust its findings even if we as individuals can’t understand all of it.” Unfortunately, that argument depends on the integrity of the institution. If the institution is corrupt, then we can no longer blindly trust its work.
Science is the discipline of struggling against subjectivity and bias in all forms. If humans were capable of completely escaping their own personal biases we wouldn’t need the scientific method and the institutions that evolved around it. Science is less a struggle against nature to unveil its secrets than it is a struggle against the blinders we place upon ourselves. Politics is just one of the many biases that can contaminate science and traditional scientific culture sought to suppress its influence (not always successfully). Scientific institutions became the most apolitical of human institutions and because of that, the most trusted.
But what if that is no longer true? What if a large percentage of scientists have abandoned the traditional ethos based on the pursuit of an idealized state of objectivity and have instead embraced a post-modernist’s ethos of consciously embracing subjectivity? What if scientific culture becomes like that of most of the Humanities, where one is expected not only to acknowledge one’s biases but to embrace them and to inject them into every facet of one’s work?
I believe the Lancet study represents just such an instance of political subversion and, as such, has repercussions far beyond Iraq or the politics of the moment. It is to our scientific institutions what Rathergate was to our major media. It reveals corruption that has been building for many years. It took 30 years for journalists to slide from one of the most trusted professions in the 1960’s to one of the least trusted today. The slide occurred because many, if not most, major journalist adopted the post-modernist ethos and begin to view it as a matter of personal integrity and morality to manipulate the news for political ends. Once the general public came to understand that journalists no longer collectively believed they had an obligation to try to be objective, people lost trust in the media.
Science is like a business whose brand has such a widely established reputation for quality that the brand has value in and of itself. Another company buys the business in order to get its brand but they make products with much lower quality than those that established the brand in the first place. At first, this strategy is very profitable but eventually the shoddy products educate people that the brand can no longer be trusted. In a likewise manner, the post-modernist have “bought” the brand of our scientific institutions and are using its reputation for honestly attempted objectivity to sell their shoddy subjectivism. This strategy will work for a time but eventually the science brand will erode. People will no longer trust a study just because it was published in a peer reviewed journal or came from a major research institution. Worse still, the science itself will degrade because the struggle against subjectivity is at the heart of science. Even if clever marketing maintains people’s trust in the scientific institution itself, its actual products will become useless.
In the modern world, scientific institutions function as civilization’s senses. They not only inform us and improve our lives but also warn us of dangers. None of us are capable of understanding every scientific issue. We must accept many pronouncements from scientific institutions on blind trust. If the people lose trust in the scientific institutions we will be unable to muster the political and social consensus needed to identify and fix problems. As a civilization, we will thrash about blindly until we stumble over a cliff.
Perhaps, I am wrong about the Lancet Study. Perhaps, I will find myself in the uncomfortable position of someone who went ballistic on someone falsely accused of child molestation and who must afterward crawl back on hands and knees to apologize. I hope so, as the alternative is far more frightening.
However, if the Lancet paper is actually as corrupt as I currently believe it to be, then the researchers, editor and peer reviewers deserve every pejorative I can think up.
(Note: I have recently read Walter Gratzer’s “The Undergrowth of Science: delusion, self-deception and human frailty. It covers everything from N-rays to Cold Fusion and really brings home just how sinister and always at the threshold the political corruption of science really is. I recommend it to everyone but especially to those who think peer review is the endpoint of the scientific process.)