I’ve been wondering today whether zealotry of the sort found in antismoking or global warming science is the natural outcome of a common disease of science.
It seems to me that good science, on any subject matter whatsoever, is always open to the widest possible participation, from people with a diverse set of opinions. It seems to me that the greater the diversity, the more rapidly and readily that mistakes will be corrected, and new hypotheses offered. It’s open, public science that’s conducted in the full light of day.
Science starts to deteriorate when it ceases to be open and public. And this is something that can easily happen in a variety of ways. And perhaps the most common way is that some of the participants come to regard themselves as ‘experts’ in the field, and to conduct their discussions exclusively with fellow ‘experts’. The science thereafter proceeds in a closed and private environment. Mistakes cease to be readily corrected, and new hypotheses cease to be offered. And in this closed environment, the participants in the debate grow more and more dogmatic in their convictions, as they are repeatedly re-enforced by each other. In fact, very soon they start saying, “The debate is over.” Because, for them, it actually is over.
In the case of the antismoking zealots, the principal participants were senior medical doctors, like Sir George Godber. From an article cited recently by Rose:
“I can’t break with Godber,” wrote Crossman in his diary in October 1969. “He is a very powerful man of the department and people never like acting against his wishes. He is away half of the time around the world, advising the World Health Organisation, in America, lecturing. He is remote, out of touch now I think, except with the lord high panjandra and the physicians in the Royal Colleges of London. He knows all the top people, but nothing about ordinary life, yet on the other hand he is radical and left-wing. I don’t want to quarrel with him.”
Here was someone who belonged to a closed world of fellow experts, and who knew “nothing about ordinary life”.
…he was a man uninterested in personal publicity and concerned only about the good opinion of himself by the medical cognoscenti.
He was an ‘expert’ who only consulted other ‘experts’.
I’ll also cite a recent comment by Walt:
A Consumers Union “Report on Smoking” 1963 (!) in which (1963) long before shs was invented, your Royal College of Physicians was recommending bans on smoking in public as a way to make smoking socially unacceptable and keep it “out of sight, out of mind ” 1963. Before the first US Surgeon General’s report. A decade before Godber dreamed his dream of a smoker-free planet and wished for the magic wand of something along the lines of shs to make it come true. The war started behind the closed doors of a non-smoke-filled room long before any of us knew it: gleams in the eyes of patient madmen.
It all starts ‘behind closed doors’. For it’s probably behind closed doors, with only a few like-minded people present, that it’s easiest to get all concerned to agree to something that would meet with numerous, vocal objections in any open, public debate.
‘Behind closed doors’ also inevitably means excluding people with divergent opinions, such as anyone with any connection to Big Tobacco, anyone who smokes, and anyone who dissents in any way. More and more people are excluded, until in Moscow last year the WHO antismoking conference was entirely closed to the press and the public.
From a link to a 2007 Michael Siegel blog, posted up by Rose today:
Importantly, only one perspective on this issue was presented to us in the trainings. There was no room for disagreement or challenge. These ideas were presented as scientific facts, not subject to debate. In fact, if we were to challenge the ideas, the implication was that we – ourselves – might be accused of working for Big Tobacco or receiving secret payoffs.
The most prominent and dogmatic idea presented to us was that “The debate is over.” There is no room for questioning of the link between secondhand smoke and chronic disease. Anyone who challenges that link or suggests that it is being exaggerated must therefore be a front for the tobacco industry. No reasonable person – acting of their own accord – would challenge this undebatable science.
Much the same has been happening in climate science. Here, once again, we have a select group of ‘expert’ climate scientists who have all come to agree with each other, behind closed doors, that the world is warming dangerously as a result of human carbon dioxide emissions. Anyone who disagrees is branded as a ‘denialist’ working for Big Oil. And of course, as always, “The debate is over.”
The only real difference between this sort of dogmatic zealotry and an ordinary religious cult is that the cult members are highly influential members of society: they are senior doctors and physicists. And while an ordinary religious cult may attract numerous devotees, the devotees are usually quite ordinary people, and not very influential. But when a cult takes over the top echelons of the medical profession, the consequences are likely to be immediate and devastating.
These cults, which are all born behind closed doors in secrecy, probably meet their nemesis when their closed, secretive debates are thrown open to public debate and criticism. i.e. when good, open, genuine scientific debate re-commences. And this seems to have been happening with climate science as secret discussions have been thrown open to public view (Climategate), and the ‘expert consensus’ is now increasingly called into question. And the same has begun to happen with the antismokering zealots, largely on the web.
But the problem in our present society is that almost everything is now done ‘behind closed doors’. Military research is conducted behind closed doors, lest enemies find out. And so also is a great deal of the research conducted by corporations of any kind, lest competitors learn of it. We no longer have an open, public debate about anything. We now live in a world where there are experts in everything that are making all the decisions, with everyone else excluded.
The results will probably be disastrous.
Behind closed doors, people go mad. It might be said that, prior to the last election, the Labour party leadership managed to convince themselves that they could, and would, win the election. They came to this conclusion largely by consulting only each other, and a coterie of the usual ‘experts’. In their closed world, they had completely lost touch with reality.