One thing that disappoints me is the way that some scientists prostitute their science. The way that some scientists use their academic qualifications or reputation to support unscientific messages. I realise that everybody who does this has their own reasons and these are usually related to ego, ideology or money.
This is something we should all be aware of when “experts” are rolled out to support questionable or controversial causes, as well as when they are used to advertise commercial products. A blatant example of this was revealed in a blog report on a recent debate about intelligent design (ID) (see ID Was Spanked In Fort Worth). The main speakers were Dr. Lawrence Krauss (opposing ID) and Dr. David Berlinski (supporting ID). After the debate an audience member:
“heard Krauss ask Berlinski why he wasted his intellect advocating for intelligent design. To which Berlinski replied that he doesn’t believe a word of it, but is happy to cash the checks the Discovery Institute writes him. Strangely enough, this would be consistent with Berlinski’s odd statement early on in which he admitted that his own ethical orientation was focused on living as contentedly and as selfishly as possible. It was a weird aside at the time; realizing that he could be exercising that ethic by making chumps of the Discovery Institute seems somehow poetically appropriate.”
I realise that this is hearsay – and Berlinski may well deny these comments whether he made them or not. However, I think the report does illustrate the problem.
Now, Berlinski is not a scientist – he has a PhD in philosophy. Perhaps philosophy is sufficiently divorced from reality as to enable spokespeople to be found who will support any position. However, we can also find scientists who do the same thing. The Discovery Institute has managed to find 700 PhDs prepared to sign their “Scientific Dissent from Darwinism” list (see Dissenters from Darwinism in context and Who are the “dissenters from Darwinism”?). Climate change deniers have produced similar lists and include scientists and engineers who provide professional “respectability” to the attacks on the findings of climate scientists.
Motivations for prostitution
Perhaps it is easy to understand how a financial return can motivate people to attack their professional colleagues. After all, we have all got to live somehow. But, of course, they don’t all do it for money. People easily select evidence or bend the truth to support strongly held ideological and religious beliefs. And I wouldn’t discount ego. It’s easier to be a big fish in a small pond. And how else would ID guru Bill Dembski (author of blog posts like Theistic Evolutionists Close Ranks — Let the Bloodletting Begin! and Would you want your child to marry an atheist?) get himself described as the “Newton of information science.”
I think that retired scientists who make extra money as consultants can easily get themselves into this sort of position. They are susceptible to being bought by commercial, political and ideological organisations. They can produce reports and pontificate without the backup of proper peer review. They quickly become divorced from current evidence in their former field and have limited access to laboratories and a healthy professional environment. I find it interesting that many of the activists against the scientific consensus on climate change are actually retired scientists.
Selecting the evidence rather than following it
Whether these spokespeople are making money, advancing their strongly held belief system or exercising their ego one thing they do have in common is selecting evidence to support a preconceived scientific, ideological or commercial position. And science shouldn’t do that. We should be wary of preconceived beliefs and, in any case, always follow the evidence – not select the evidence.