Sunday, 30 May 2010

Forbidden topics

One intractable debating point in science is the question of whether some things should *not* be researched.

And indeed, there can be very few people who don't have some topic or another which they would prefer not to be researched - although the specific topic varies widely, and indeed diverges - and the method by which research should be discouraged or prevented is also variable.

So that the people who believe that research should not be done on human embryos or human stem cells are likely to be different from the people who believe that research should not be done on chemical weapons or genetically-modified crops.

The reason for prohibited topics of research is that science is not, ever, the primary value system; and therefore science is inevitably subordinated to whatever *is* the primary value system. For most of human history the primary value system would have been religion - nowadays it might be politics.

And by 'value system' is not meant (as some people imagine) merely a moral or ethical system - but the whole system of 'goods', the positive versus negative evaluations - or what may be called transcendental values - virtue is one, beauty another, truth another and wholeness or unity is yet another possible 'good'.

So presumably, what gets done in science ought to reflect in some specific way, that which is good in some general way.

But does it? Of course not!

The whole motivational system of science is broken, there is no overall moral or ethical system except that the consensus of the powerful scientists is always right. In science, the consensus that matters is that of the peer review cartel of dominant scientists – since peer review controls scientific evaluation.

Scientists’ choice of topic and methods of work now passively reflect consensus; and the consensus is always changing, consensus has no direction, but still consensus is always right.

In other words, there is no concept of the good in modern science - since consensus is simply a word for an arbitrary and shifting outcome of social interplay among those with power to enforce their views. In other words, consensus is peer review, and peer review is consensus.

(Those who contrast science with consensus are therefore mistaken when it comes to modern science – although of course real science is *in a sense* the opposite of consensus.)

There is no concept of the good as a cohesive system located anywhere in the motivational system of science. There is therefore no responsibility.

Instead of ‘the good’ – an eternal ideal - there is an ethic of obedience to whatever is the outcome of undirected social interplay – even (or especially) when this outcome is arbitrary and ever-changing.

The advocacy of peer review as a gold standard is precisely this: that scientists must submit - swiftly, willingly, happily! - to the outcome of peer review, and that the outcome of peer review is intrinsically valid.

Even though peer review is unpreditable, changeable, and lacks any rationale: all the more *vital* that submission be swift, willing and cheerful!


The main method of enforcing scientific prohibition is 'defunding' - which can be done covertly by peer review on the pretext of 'scientific standards'. Also there is the failure to allocate award jobs, promotions, publications, memberships and prizes to those whose topic and/ or views transgress the accepted boundaries.

After all, any job application, any paper, any grant request can be rejected on quasi-plausible grounds.

Many of the greatest scientists have been rejected from jobs, many of the greatest ideas in science have been rejected by peer review, many of the major breakthroughs in science we turned down for grants - all on the grounds that they 'weren't good enough'.

Modern scientific evaluations equate lack of funding with illegitimacy – so defunded science is not merely ignorable science but *bad science*. That which is rejected by peer review is not merely unfashionable or mistaken science but *bad science*. Work done by people outside the peer review cartel is intrinsically *bad science* whenever and to whatever extent it conflicts with the intrinsically authoritative views of the power brokers.

It's an easy sophomoric trick of the half-educated. There has never been a paper in the history of medicine which could not be torn to shreds by a zealot with a Masters degree in epidemiology. The evaluation procedures are over-inclusively negative. The evaluation procedures always imply rejection. The question is merely when to apply the evaluation procedures, and when quietly to set them aside…

Sheltering coercive consensus behind the defense of ‘standards’, mainstream power-brokers and their apologists for prohibition can continue to advocate libertarian ideals.

Craven conformism masquerades as idealism.

And the potentially subverting self-knowledge of moral bankruptcy is deferred for yet another day…