Scientists can't claim to be neutral about their discoveries

Mar 17, 2014 by Filipe Gracio, The Conversation
Science has impact. Credit: RIBI Image Library, CC BY

There is an enormous gap between the effects and consequences of science, and how much scientists consider these consequences. This is dangerous, but there is something we can do about it.

There is no pursuit of knowledge that does not seek to affect the world. Science is made by people with interests, intentions and ambitions; and it's funded by governments and companies with agendas. Scientific development is subject to funding rules, to expectations about outcomes, and to social forces and institutions that shape our research.

In the 1950s, Jonas Salk gave a striking answer to the question: "Who owns the patent on this vaccine?" He said:

There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?

Salk's immortal words refer to the patent for the polio vaccine that he helped develop. These words are worth remembering not just because his position proved right, but because the question was tremendously important: can a scientist accept privatising knowledge that would benefit all?

There are usually two lines of thought on this. The privatisation argument is that without the subsequent benefit of monopoly pricing, firms would not invest in development of new and socially beneficial products. The argument against it is that restricting others from using and improving technology that should be in the public domain stifles innovation and development of new products. And the issue is not a minor one: for example, Novartis recently tried to block the manufacturing of a generic lifesaving drug in India that helps treat cancer patients. This is one of the of the legal system that currently underpins the work of every scientist.

Joseph Stiglitz, winner of a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, has a position largely against strong IP laws. He emphasises that IP seeks to guarantee profits by freezing development and making sure there is no competition. He gives the example of Myriad Genetics, a company that claimed IP on human genes. This is an extreme example, but his observations are widely applicable. He explains that in this case:

Genetic researchers have argued that the patent actually prevented the development of better tests, and so interfered with the advancement of science. All knowledge is based on prior knowledge, and by making less available, innovation is impeded.

Scientists are at the centre of this process, yet they seem oblivious to it. Indeed, if you talk to , as I do (since I am one of them), these issues almost never come up. Ask them about the nature of scientific progress, the funding decisions of their project, the forces behind it or the interests it serves, and you will get a confused look. This is a problem.

Scientists cannot claim neutrality. What if Jonas Salk had decided to work for a pharmaceutical company? Consider a relevant question for the future: if a vaccine for malaria or AIDS is discovered, should it be IP protected to allow monopoly pricing maximising revenue but not health outcomes? More generally: can scientists really justify the predictable outcomes of the projects they are involved in?

What is to be done, then, to maximise the benefit of science from a public perspective? For a start, we can educate scientists and demand more of them. Scientists often participate in outreach events that aim to educate "the public" and explain what they do. In this model the public is merely a recipient vessel which has to understand the decisions made by scientists and research institutions.

But there is no reason this education should be one-directional. Ethics and politics are conspicuously absent of science curricula. It is legitimate and necessary to ask scientists and academics to justify themselves and their use of funding and institutions to the public. If we rightly scrutinise the actions of private companies or money being spent on social programs and get to debate political priorities in the public sphere, why would scientific research decisions and working models be exempt from scrutiny?

We scientists should be able to seriously address fundamental questions about our work: what sectors of society does a particular research agenda serve? What agents, public and private, are expected to benefit from anticipated discoveries? What sectors of society might be harmed by them? What could be the misuses of those discoveries? And these answers should go beyond superficial observations used to justify funding.

Scientists often do not have a clear view of the wider impact of their research or think about the forces that shape it. As I have illustrated, the results of their progress have serious consequences. Science is an incredibly powerful force that consumes a vast amount of resources, and those who make this machine run need to make sure it's running in a good direction.

Explore further: ASU professor explores the ethics of scientific research and why they matter

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HannesAlfven
1 / 5 (5) Mar 17, 2014
The author has just taken 13 paragraphs to explain that he has not read Jeff Schmidt's book, Disciplined Minds.
Duude
2.5 / 5 (4) Mar 17, 2014
The question is one of whether developments ought to be financed with public money or private money. Public money has a more inferior record of picking winners and losers and is far more likely to fund cronies and campaign contributors, while private money seeks to profit from its investment.
antialias_physorg
4.4 / 5 (7) Mar 17, 2014
. Public money has a more inferior record of picking winners and losers

That's a vast oversimplifaction.
Private money only finances extremely short term research (i.e. research that can lead to product within at most 5 years).

The real reason that 'private money' tends to pick winners: Private companies use this method to have joint public/privately funded research projects in order to RETROACTIVELY get their development funded via tax money.
In almost every such combined research project I've been involved in the private company partners already had their stuff done before the project even started (of course they didn't say so in the project proposal).
They just sat there and presented 'progress' that had been accomplished in years past and got the money for it. That tends to lead to 'successful' projects on their part.

And universities go along with that because they get no grant money unless they can show that companies are involved as partners.
julianpenrod
4 / 5 (4) Mar 17, 2014
With such suicidal readiness, every shill and every gullible embraces the idea that the "profiting" that companies expect to get from "discoveries" comes solely from the vast amount of money from marketing them. Thus, corporate greed "leads to the world being better off". But what if they derive a way top end all disease? Are they going to announce it and end all the billions they get from "medicines" and "treatments"? If part of the news leaks out, they may try to convert the "discovery" into a binary or trinary treatment, to maximize profits. Or they may introduce a weak version, one that requires constant application, and declare that that's what was leaked. Manipulating stocks, planned obsolescence, designing cars moronically to force purchase of expensive closed circuit rear view TV, forced consumption. There are many ways to profit, or profiteer, without benefiting mankind.
Zachia
1 / 5 (3) Mar 17, 2014
every shill and every gullible embraces the idea that the "profiting" that companies expect to get from "discoveries" comes solely from the vast amount of money from marketing them
Well, if nothing else, it plays well with finding, that over 70% of results of medical research are plain wrong. If the scientists would be unbiased, such a thing could never happen, isn't it true?
Captain Stumpy
4 / 5 (4) Mar 17, 2014
Well, if nothing else, it plays well with finding, that over 70% of results of medical research are plain wrong

@zephir
first off... the only % I saw even mentioned in your link was this one
As I've written before (although with a different number), it's been conclusively established that 43.58871563% of all statistics are made up on the spot.

second: it reports this
recently analyzed 45 well publicized studies from major journals appearing between 1990 and 2003. His conclusion: the results of approximately one third of these studies were flatly contradicted or significantly weakened by later work

which means to me that science works and later info trumped previous stuff
so where do you get 70% out of 1/3?
sounds more like YOU are biased!
provide supporting data that 70% of medical research "are plain wrong"

Jim4321
5 / 5 (3) Mar 17, 2014
You can't be a good scientist if you can't distinguish what is true from what you want to be true. Lying about or suppressing the truth is even worse.
Zachia
2 / 5 (4) Mar 17, 2014
@Stumpy: Actually this number is getting even worse in some areas of science (1, 2). So thank you for correction: it should be 90%... ;-) I admit, I was biased, because I couldn't believe, that the scientists can be wrong in such an extent.

I feel sorry about it.
Captain Stumpy
4.2 / 5 (5) Mar 17, 2014
Actually this number is getting even worse in some areas of science (1, 2). So thank you for correction: it should be 90%... ;-) I admit, I was biased, because I couldn't believe, that the scientists can be wrong in such an extent

@Zeph
first off... I dont trust the junkscience site BUT- I did download the STUDY they linked, it is for "False Positives in Cancer Epidemiology", not medicine in general, nor science in general, but a specific sub-field of medicine
second: the other link is STILL based upon the research in the FIRST link you made!

from your second link
[Ioannidis] zoomed in on 49 of the most highly regarded research findings in medicine over the previous 13 years
same doc, same study, same results reported a different way to sensationalize the finding, which is STILL the same (only they add 4 reports, and give a 41% number)
41 percent, had been convincingly shown to be wrong or significantly exaggerated

did ya think I wouldnt read your article?
Zachia
2 / 5 (4) Mar 17, 2014
I you believe, you'll make the science better with covering and excusing its biases, I can't prohibit you in it...
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (3) Mar 17, 2014
Well, if nothing else, it plays well with finding, that over 70% of results of medical research are plain wrong.

Bit biased about our own research...aren't we?

Medical studies are commonly done to a 95% certainty level. That means (if they were all at the lower end of the 95% certainty level - which they aren't) that 1 in 20 studies are wrong in a worst-case scenario.

This does not include where wrong statistical measures were used (which happens quite a lot).
But you have to understand that even using a wrong statistical measure does not have a huge impact on the outcome (it may move a study that is barely significant into the barely insignificant bin. But it will not change a statistically very significant one into an unsignificant one).
Porgie
1 / 5 (5) Mar 17, 2014
Its a grave problem with the climate change studies. Some so desperately want man's activities to influence climate they seem to glean "facts" out of thin air. Its also apparent in education. Desperately biasing history to smooth the integration of people or ideas into the main stream is definitely promoting a political and personal agenda.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (4) Mar 17, 2014
Some so desperately want man's activities to influence climate they seem to glean "facts" out of thin air.

Like? Which facts did you have in mind that are gleaned out of thin air? I'm guessing (nah, I'm pretty sure) you can't name any...you just gleaned that out of thin air.
Captain Stumpy
5 / 5 (3) Mar 17, 2014
I you believe, you'll make the science better with covering and excusing its biases, I can't prohibit you in it...

@Zachia/Zephir
who says I am covering or making excuses? (besides you)
but doing what YOU are doing is MUCH worse...
YOU ARE MISPREPRESENTING THE TRUTH FOR YOUR OWN CAUSE/PURPOSE
aka-lying for your own reasons/cause/benefit or however you want to portray it

it is all fine and dandy for YOU to make grandiose claims and not get facts right, as proven above and in other threads, BUT you expect scientists to be spot on all the time? people make mistakes sometimes, and when they do make them, they correct them - unlike YOU

this is not the first claim you have made that is blatantly false and proven by simply reading your OWN link... either retract/admit fault, or STOP TROLLING and go find a forum

or are you here because they WON'T IP ban you for your continued pseudoscience, trolling and posting blatant lies?
Pippero
Mar 17, 2014
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
antialias_physorg
4 / 5 (4) Mar 17, 2014
As Max Planck once said, the science advances one funeral at a time.

Lucky for us: so does wisdom

..and you'll have to die some time.
Captain Stumpy
5 / 5 (2) Mar 17, 2014
only about systematic groupthink, pluralistic ignorance and another emergent effects

@zeph
only problem with your definition of what you are addressing is that you are assuming that anyone with an education who has learned the basics is part of groupthink and demonstrating pluralistic ignorance... this is blatantly false as demonstrated with your comment
A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die
the BEST way to make a name for oneself in SCIENCE is to prove empirically that something is TRUE and that this thing proven applies to reality
you make ASSUMPTIONS that the world today is the same world 100yrs ago. The world since Planck died in 1947 is even drastically different than today, thus things change!
IOW – it is conjecture and no better than saying "whale farts cause El Niño"
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (3) Mar 17, 2014
"We have no right to assume that any physical laws exist, or if they have existed up until now, that they will continue to exist in a similar manner in the future."
"Ego is the immediate dictate of human consciousness."
Max Planck
Read more at http://www.brainy...pCLrs.99
Sigh
3.7 / 5 (3) Mar 18, 2014
Medical studies are commonly done to a 95% certainty level. That means (if they were all at the lower end of the 95% certainty level - which they aren't) that 1 in 20 studies are wrong in a worst-case scenario.

You need three numbers to calculate the posterior probability that a significant result is true. the 5% significance level means that 5% of false hypotheses are treated as true by significance testing. You need to know statistical power (depends on sample seize and effect size), which gives you the probability of a true hypothesis giving you a significant result. Then you need to know the prior probability of a hypothesis being true.

Continued next post
Sigh
4 / 5 (4) Mar 18, 2014
Say you work in a field in which, on average, 1 idea out of 10 turn out to be true in the long run. Test 1000 hypotheses, 100 are true. If statistical power is 70%, then 70 of the 100 true hypotheses will give you a significant result, 30 not. 5% of the 900 false hypotheses will also give you a significant result, that's 45. Out of your 115 significant result, 70 are true, giving you a posterior probability of any random significant result being true of 60.86%, for this set of prior, statistical power and significance level.

Ioannidis' calculations ignore that significant results can be significant at much more extreme levels than 5%. Demanding a more stringent significance criterion for publication would increase posterior probabilities that a significant result is true, at the cost of missing more true hypotheses (statistical power would decrease unless sample size is increased to compensate, meaning studies would become more expensive) and of increasing the file drawer problem.
Sigh
5 / 5 (2) Mar 18, 2014
Well, if nothing else, it plays well with finding, that over 70% of medical research are plain wrong. If the scientists would be unbiased, such a thing could never happen, isn't it true?

No, it's not. All you need is to work in a field too complex that good mathematical models could constrain your hypothesis development very much (low prior probability of a hypothesis being true), and it would be made worse if journals prefer to publish positive results. Read Gigerenzer's book "Reckoning with Risk", so you can more easily understand Ioannidis (http://www.plosme...0020124) and Goodman & Greenland's critique (http://users.stat...nd.pdf).

A solution would be registered reports, as offered by the journal Cortex: http://cdn.elsevi...2013.pdf
COCO
1.8 / 5 (5) Mar 18, 2014
note the AGW trolls in force - nice - bring them to the party - remember to seat those pseudo-scientist i.e. climatologists between the astrologers and alchemists so they will be among mates.
barakn
4 / 5 (4) Mar 18, 2014
"We have no right to assume that any physical laws exist, or if they have existed up until now, that they will continue to exist in a similar manner in the future." -soggyring2

Then there might not be any gravity, so you might as well walk off the nearest cliff. Please?