FOM: scientific wrongdoing
amathias at rasputin.uniandes.edu.co
Wed Dec 9 16:39:34 EST 1998
[A format-free version of a paper originally written in TeX]
I wrote the following about five years ago, when the then
British Minister of Science invited the public to express views
concerning the state of science in Britain. I received no reply beyond
a bland message to say that the Minister would be taking my views into
account when preparing his recommendations.
I think some of the issues discussed continue to be topical, and perhaps of
interest to the FOM group; from the letter as sent to the Minister I have
deleted only certain passages which concern problems peculiar to Cambridge.
A. R. D. Mathias
REMARKS ON THE STATE OF SCIENCE
Here are five books which consider the ills of science today.
 William Broad and Nicholas Wade, "Betrayers of the Truth",
Simon and Schuster, New York 1982; also Century 1983 and O.U.P.
(paperback) 1985; 256 pp.
 Irwin Bross, "Scientific Strategies to Save
your Life: a statistical approach to primary prevention", Marcel Dekker, New
York and Basel, 1981, v + 259 pp.
 Paul Feyerabend, "Science in a Free Society",
NLB, London, 1978, Verso Editions 1982 (paperback)
 Gary Taubes, "Nobel Dreams: power, deceit, and the ultimate experiment",
Random House, New York 1986, xxiv + 261 pp.
 C.A.Truesdell III, An Idiot's Fugitive Essays on Science,
Springer-Verlag, Berlin, Heidelberg, New York, (second printing, 1986)
1. Taubes' book  is a study of the work and conduct
of the Nobel Laureate Carlo Rubbia and indicates the way in which the
over-endowed and excessively publicised Nobel Prize perturbs, even perverts
science. This and other studies are the more disturbing since the
procedures of the Nobel Committee give no certainty that the Prizes go to those
who have had the ideas.
A consequence of the greed of scientists for the Prize is the breakdown of the
master--apprentice relationship in scientific circles. This is documented
(with other abuses) in  and illustrated by Rubbia's dreadful remark, recorded
in , that "I treat physicists like lemons: I squeeze them dry and throw them
away''. Other cases of alleged plagiarism of the ideas of young scientists by
their seniors are known.
2. Truesdell (, Chapter VI) documents
the nineteenth century cases of Herapath and Waterston, two young men who
given recognition and encouragement at the right time would have become
important figures. But by being too far ahead of their time --- in both cases
recognition came forty years too late --- they were blocked rather than helped
in their careers, and consequently abandoned original work.
Clerk Maxwell, on the other hand, between the ages of 16 and
18 at Edinburgh University had the privilege, to him invaluable, of using the
class apparatus in private experiments. According to Truesdell, he was able
to establish himself by writing a series of not too shocking papers, and then
when in 1861 he wrote a paper starting from ideas to be found or foreshadowed
in the papers of Herapath and Waterston, it was accepted where both theirs had
Truesdell is sharply critical of the role of the Royal Society in these two
cases: the human interactions involved appear on closer examination to be of
a type that could well happen today. The flaw is not that those
involved acted maliciously, though some could be accused of being
unimaginative and too prone to stand on their dignity; but that their negative
decisions, which should have merely be interpreted as meaning
"You have yet to convince me'' were ritualised by the excessive prestige of
the Society into oracular and irreversible condemnations.
Lord Rayleigh's initially shocking remark, when publishing Waterston`s paper 46
years after its first submission, that "highly speculative investigations,
especially by an unknown author, are best brought before the world through some
other channel than a scientific society'' is correct *if* it
means that a scientific society is merely an association of persons with
common interests and should not be credited with
abnormal, let alone supernatural, powers of assessment and judgment.
3. A more topical area is that of AIDS research. On January 1st
1992 the papers were full of reports of some `breakthrough'; curiously this was
the same day that the definition of `having AIDS' was officially extended. A
statistician has argued most persuasively that the medical records particularly
of African countries where the virus has long been endemic do not support the
view that AIDS is a disease caused by the HIV virus. Thus insurance
companies may be overcharging on the basis of dubious theories; and the
unedifying quarrel over priority of discovery
of the HIV virus that has already occurred reinforces
the impression that certain scientists are acting from a love not of science
nor of humanity but of large research budgets, and are combining
manipulation of the data with scare tactics to that end.
4. For an American study of the deplorable behaviour of Big scientists seeking
to protect their interests rather than advance science, see Bross
, Chapter 14, "Big Science versus Little Science", especially page 219.
>From this book I quote two passages: "The much praised peer review system is
simply a device for allowing an in-group to pass out money to itself.'' "Until
the decisions on funding research are made by persons who are interested in
saving your life rather than protecting professional interests, you can't
expect that very much medical research will be done that will be for your
5. For further general argument, the writings of Feyerabend are a delight: see
for example his essay "From
Incompetent Professionalism to Professionalized Incompetence --- the Rise of a
New Breed of Intellectuals" in Part III of . For present purposes, I would
draw attention to the central essay of : in particular his discussion in
section 6, "The Strange Case of Astrology", of the "Statement of 186
Leading Scientists against Astrology" (18 Nobel Prize winners among them) that
appeared in the October 1975 issue of the HUMANIST. He writes: "What
surprises the reader whose image of science has been formed by the customary
eulogies which emphasize rationality, objectivity, impartiality, and so on is
the religious tone of the document, the illiteracy of the arguments and the
authoritarian manner in which the arguments are being presented.'' The section
headings of this essay summarise the drift of his argument:
The Prevalence of Science a Threat to Democracy;
Expert Opinion often Prejudiced,Untrustworthy, and in
Need of Outside Control;
Laymen can and must supervise Science;
Science is one Ideology among many and should be separated from the
State just as Religion is now separated from the State.
6. The message to be learned from the above books and
examples is that the organisation of science has become too hierarchical, too
centralised, too totalitarian. In practice science develops chaotically,
even randomly, and necessarily so; one cannot know where good
developments will occur. Science will thrive only if
the people working in the laboratories are finding
personal fulfilment. They will not find that if they are simply in thrall to
their Director, no matter what Swedish prizes he may, by whatever means,
have won. The problem is, in a phrase, intellectual bullying; and its cure, as
argued by Truesdell in  at the end of Chapter VI, is the wider distribution
of academic power.
7. Some scientists are fully occupied in
research. Others undertake some teaching. There is disagreement about the
relationship between the two activities; for my part I think them inseparable,
each invigorating the other. Hence I think it proper to discuss declining
trends in teaching patterns.
The following statistics reach me from the U.S.
According to my informant, who has been a full Professor for the last
eighteen years in the Mathematics Department of one of the top twelve State
universities, and who has taken pains to check his figures, between 1974 and
1992 the following changes took place:
student numbers: up by 50 per cent;
student room and board charges: up by a factor of 3;
tuition charges for in-state students: up by a factor of 4.7375;
tuition charges for out-of-state students: up by a factor of 6.65;
the teaching staff numbers: up by 20 per cent;
the teaching load of a professor: up by 33 per cent;
the salary of a Professor
(with no promotional increases) up by a factor of 2.2;
the cost of living: up by a factor of 2.8;
the number of bureaucrats: a conspicuous increase --- where there
was one dean there are now several assistant and
associate deans in addition; where there were two department chairmen there are
now 6, (namely five associate chairmen plus The Chairman);
salaries of bureaucrats are not published in this particular state but
newspaper reports have it that the President of the University is now paid
US $ 200,000, or thrice the average Professorial salary, whereas in 1974 he
was paid about fifty percent more than the average Professor.
This drift is entirely in line with the predictions of Professor Parkinson.
It would be of interest to know what the comparable figures are for the UK.
The losers in these changes are plainly the students, who are not
only getting a much diluted education compared with formerly, but are being
forced to pay for more bureaucracy. With teaching as with research,
the activity is endangered by the organisation: surrounded by excessive
bureaucracy we forget our aims.
8. I work in mathematical logic, a subject poorly supported in the U.K.
Naturally I should like to see it better supported for its own merit as a
special subject: even eminent mathematicians make elementary errors in the
area, and my teaching experience has been that a majority of the mistakes made
by first-year mathematicians are errors of logic rather than of mathematics.
I should also like to see teaching in the less
specialised parts of logic more generally available. I would admit that few
people are suited to a life of specialisation in
logic; but many would benefit from knowing more about it. Were
training in logic to be more general among graduates, Truesdell's campaign for
greater clarity of thought in thermodynamics might by now have succeeded,
Feyerabend's complaints about the illiteracy of his opponents might have
been met, and the Agency scientists discussed by Bross might have been too
embarrassed to put arguments so plainly devoid of justification.
There is a further reason for promoting the teaching of logic in a broader
sense. It is this. One notices that a propensity to intellectual bullying
is often accompanied by a hostility to the teaching of logic. The reason
is plain: such teaching sharpens the critical faculties and promotes
intellectual independence, and it is therefore not surprising that it was
illegal for thirty years in the Soviet Union. Persons in positions of power,
within the scientific hierarchy as elsewhere, wish it to be thought that there
is only one way to think (that way being, strangely, their own) and therefore
that there is no need to have any logic, all thought being pre-ordained.
A little healthy anarchy introduced into the over-rigid
system of the present day would, I hope, lead to the possibility of more people
having a good grounding in logic wherever their interests might lie.
Hence I welcome the flexibility of future mathematics courses envisaged by
 The Future for Honours Degrees Courses in Mathematics
and Statistics: Final Report of a group working under the auspices of
the London Mathematical Society, London, February 1992.
and I hope that steps will be taken to make logic a generally
available option in universities. This would give the numerous talented British
logicians working in North America a chance to come home.
9. I believe that the following proposals, which
consistently aim to de-centralise academic life, will raise academic
morale, academic potential and academic achievement.
i) cut down on Big Budget science. Commission an independent study to see
if young workers in big laboratories are being exploited: for example it
would be interesting to know how long young recruits last in the laboratory
and what happens to them. The success of such a study would depend on
evidence being taken in confidence, so that witnesses are protected from
possible reprisals by their superiors.
ii) splinter Departments wherever possible, so that instead of an
omnipotent Head there are several Professors each with a sphere of influence
--- my German colleagues are shocked at my tales of interference in teaching
and research and say "It couldn't happen here''; spread the supplementary
budgets, so that we move to the transatlantic system whereby each
member of the department has a grant which is for the support of his research
and which he decides how to spend, be it for travel, for equipment or for
inviting visitors; commission a comparative study of bureaucratic levels
with those of twenty years ago.
iii) restore academic tenure, which is essential to protect academics
from each other and thus to permit them to serve truth, but remove
academics from the shelter of the libel laws, should (as I suspect) it be the
case that at present academics are excessively protected from criticism.
iv) take steps to make logic a generally available option in Universities.
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