Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Selective science

The Fraser sockeye - a run facing a unique "boom and bust" challenge. 
Photo Isabelle Groc, Tidelife Photography.

An important blog posted today by Alexandra Morton deals with the role of science in the ongoing struggle to save BC’s wild salmon.

She starts by giving a quick analysis of a scientific paper published yesterday which discounts sea lice as a primary cause to recent wild salmon declines. “The authors state they won the trust of the Norwegian feedlot companies”, she writes, “and present conclusions that run counter to science published across the North Hemisphere. They don't report on why their results are such distant outliers to the scientific weight of evidence that wild salmon populations go into steep decline wherever there are salmon feedlots. They suggest something else must be killing young wild salmon near salmon feedlots, but they don't [say] what that could be.”

Further down in her blog, while not discounting climate change as a long-term factor in the Fraser sockeye decline, she remarks that other sockeye runs did not boom and bust as the Fraser run did and “so it would seem the Fraser sockeye are facing a unique challenge and that ocean conditions assist or aggravate whatever the problem is.” She then adds the following:

“Of concern is that scientists are not talking about the evidence that DFO has found a "novel" virus that appears to be compromising specifically the Fraser sockeye that travel north out of the Fraser through fish feedlot effluent. The technique examines the RNA of the sockeye and this has never been done before in fish. However, the methods are sound and suggest a retro virus is infecting the majority of Fraser sockeye that travel along the east coast of Vancouver Island. It is not being found in the sockeye that come in from the open ocean via Juan de Fuca. In a leaked briefing [obtained] by the Globe and Mail, it would appear DFO believes this is one of the three most likely causes of the 2009 collapse and yet no one is mentioning it.”

Alex Morton’s comments reinforce my own direct observation that some scientists appear to be engaged in what I can only describe as a practice of “selective hypothesis making” consisting in over-emphasizing certain scientific explanations while downplaying others, with no detectable consistency or method as to how such selections are being performed.

That's a big problem, because scientists enjoy a natural prestige and legitimacy in society by the sole virtue of being who they are. A PhD, a professorship carries a certain weight – one may say inertia – in our collective belief systems. As such, and unlike what the dominant mythology would have us believe, a scientist’s opinion is anything but neutral.

How to account for this tendency by some scientists to engage in selective hypothesis formulating? Scientists at least in their overwhelming majority are honest and highly ethical individuals, and therefore plain corruption or sell-out to the highest bidder does not account for that phenomenon. A more plausible explanation lies in the considerable (and truly irresistible) pressures being exerted on research teams by market forces in a fashion very similar to those applied on a routine basis upon our politicians.

Large transnational corporations, unlike civil society, have long abandoned the myth of "scientific neutrality" and have instead identified scientists and researchers for what they are: a malleable political material carrying a strong potential for influencing public opinion, and as such a force which ought to be channeled to one’s benefit. Since most scientists have too high moral standards – or opinions of themselves – to be simply bribed, the research system itself needed to be corrupted. This has been accomplished over the past 30 years of neoliberal regime through the systematic privatization of research funding. I challenge the reader to identify more than a handful of large research projects in North America today which do not rely mainly on private funding for their perpetuation (after one has discounted US military research, which represents a totally different beast and I won't even touch it here).

In a system of privatized research financing, researchers no longer have a choice but to comply with, or at least take significantly into account, the exogenous pressures which corporations exert upon them. They are submitted to market forces, having to sell their research projects like so many commodities, competing with one another for access to funds, forced to give their funding sources a say in the nature, direction, and results of their research. Research directors would be highly irresponsible not to allow this to happen, given that their research team’s payroll and livelihood for the next few years may indeed depend upon it.

It’s a subtle game, of course. First, there are often intermediate funding organizations with neutral-sounding names standing between research labs and their corporate sponsors, making linkages from one to the other harder to trace. Second, researchers don’t decide consciously and cynically to dismiss a perfectly valid hypothesis in favor of a doubtful one in order to please a private funder. Rather they learn, often at an unconscious level, to modify the research directions that they provide to their staff. To ponder every word in their communications with the public in a manner that does not unnecessarily aggravate powerful interests. To master the art of compromise, of performing daily self-censure on peripheral aspects of their research so as not to endanger what they consider to be the core. In a word, they learn the difficult, mostly foreign to their culture, yet necessary, trade of politics.

And guess what? We activists engaged in the fight against “evil” corporations are no different, not in the slightest. We slant, bend, interpret science in a direction favorable to our own agendas on a continual basis just as corporations, governments, and scientists do. Truth is not an idea which somewhat awaits in hiding to be uncovered. It is a dialectical process. A synthetic, contradiction-ridden knowledge base which is continuously set in motion and transformed by a succession of crises and clashes. This is, after all, how evolution works. To think that scientific truth is any different would be foolish. 

We who are participating in the struggle to save the Fraser salmon from extinction are actively engaged in one such clashes of knowledge. The fight for truth is always political in nature. In the case of scientific truth, that political struggle must be waged using scientific tools. If we pay attention to the manner in which Alex Morton responds to the research paper published yesterday, she does not respond using ideology. Instead, she uses rigorous scientific methodology, asking for example why the authors don’t explain how their findings are such distant outliers to previously gathered scientific evidence – a basic question in the scientific peer-review process. In a follow-up post, she adds: "If these authors want to champion their methods they need to explain why it is more accurate [than that of previous research teams]."

The sooner we accept and embrace the objective reality that scientific truth is a hard-fought, hard-won political struggle which is waged using a rigorous scientific arsenal – and yeah, a healthy but always marginal dose of polemics –, the quicker we may get to work on counteracting the tremendous power that large corporations have mustered in influencing and controlling the production of scientific knowledge.


1 comment:

  1. Thanks Ivan, ~awesome article on the corruption and fanaticism of the new religion, "Scientism." The science is for sale that proves that black is white. I have now bookmarked your website! Cheers, Ingmar