Science & Institutionalising Dissent

  • Date: 20/08/14
  • Judith Curry, Climate Etc.

As many have argued, rigorous scientific research requires dissent, or what Robert Merton called “organized skepticism”. Yet it is increasingly the case that some forms of dissent in pharmaceutical research are either absent or unheard.– Justin Biddle

I recently received an invitation to attend a philosophy of science workshop.  As I was reading the list of invited participants, I spotted Justin Biddle, Georgia Tech, philosophy of science. !!! I was hitherto unaware of Justin or that Georgia Tech had hired a philosopher of science.  Upon looking at his publications, there are many publications of relevance to topics being discussed at Climate Etc., notably some papers under review.

I picked the following paper for discussion here, which follows the previous thread on Importance of intellectual and political diversity in science.  Below are some abstracts from Biddle’s paper.

Institutionalizing Dissent: A Proposal for an Adversarial System of Pharmaceutical Research

Justin Biddle

Abstract. There are serious problems with the way in which pharmaceutical research is currently practiced, many of which can be traced to the influence of commercial interests on research. One of the most significant is inadequate dissent, or organized skepticism. In order to ameliorate this problem, I develop a proposal that I call the “Adversarial Proceedings for the Evaluation of Pharmaceuticals,” to be instituted within a regulatory agency such as the Food and Drug Administration for the evaluation of controversial new drugs and controversial drugs already in the market. This proposal is an organizational one based upon the “science court” proposal by Arthur Kantrowitz in the 1960s and 1970s. The primary benefit of this system is its ability to institutionalize dissent, thereby ensuring that one set of interests does not dominate all others.

Excerpts:

Many now acknowledge that there are serious problems with the way in which pharmaceutical research is currently practiced. These problems include the suppression of undesirable results, bias in the design of studies and in the interpretation of results. These problems can be traced to the influence of commercial interests on research.

As many have argued, rigorous scientific research requires dissent, or what Robert Merton called “organized skepticism”. Yet it is increasingly the case that some forms of dissent in pharmaceutical research are either absent or unheard.

This proposal is an organizational one based upon the “science court” proposal by Arthur Kantrowitz in the 1960s and 1970s. The primary benefit of this system is its ability to institutionalize dissent, thereby ensuring that one set of interests does not dominate all others.

The perspective of this paper is that it does not presuppose that policy-relevant research such as clinical trials can be done in a completely value-free manner. A serious problem with current pharmaceutical research is bias, including bias in the choice of which hypotheses to investigate (and which to ignore), bias in the design of experiments, and bias in the interpretation of results. […]

JC reflections

The analogy with climate science is that the dominant moral and political beliefs of climate scientists are introducing problems and biases into climate research.  To use just one example, consider climate models and the bias in experimental design.  Until very recently, driven by the UNFCCC/IPCC mandate, climate models have focused on the time series of temperature anomalies (not on getting the absolute temperatures correct), on anthropogenic forcing (with little attention paid to solar forcing and indirect effects), and on global average surface temperatures (not on regional variations or the disposition of heat in the ocean). Preference bias is evidenced in how climate information is displayed graphically – alternative graphical representations would send a different message.

One of the norms of science is organized skepticism.  Those working at the climate science – policy interface (including the IPCC) have worked hard to kill organized skepticism by manufacturing a consensus on climate change.  The idea of a climate red team has been put forward by John Christy. Kantrowitz and Biddle have thought through how institutionalizing dissent might actually work.  Particularly for climate science, implementing something like this wouldn’t be simple, and actually achieving the desired objectives would be quite difficult.

But not impossible.  The closest I’ve seen was the APS Workshop to consider its climate change statement.  A committee of eminent physicists, each with no particular expertise in climate science or an apparent dog in the public debate, selected 6 scientists (Held, Santer, Collins, Curry, Lindzen, Christy) to address specific questions prepared by the committee.   The committee has not completed its deliberations (I’m not expecting to hear anything from the committee before the end of the year) so the end of this story has not yet been written.  But this is the kind of thing that is more likely than a manufactured consensus seeking process to move the science forward while at the same time providing decision makers with a better sense of the uncertainties and areas of disagreement and ignorance.

An intriguing aspect of the Science Court is that it makes the debate about advocacy and sources of funding as a pernicious influence essentially moot.  It takes away the responsibility from individuals in these matters by institutionalizing dissent.

Full post

Recent Popular Articles


We use cookies to help give you the best experience on our website. By continuing without changing your cookie settings, we assume you agree to this. Please read our privacy policy to find out more.