Will Quora ever do a lite version?

Scientists Versus Science - Thoughts on Researcher Integrity

Boundaries in today's sciences

Scientific and technological progress has been greeted euphorically for most of the past 300 years. One was sure that the world would get better and better. It was not until the second half of the 20th century that doubts about the ever new technologies increased. Scientists were still the incorruptible conveyors of the truth - only one wondered whether the technologies that arose from their knowledge were really always used for the good of humanity. To this day, the most discussed topics include nuclear power, nuclear weapons and environmental degradation, as well as the technologically authoritarian surveillance state for several years. In the 1950s and 1960s, the “mad scientist” who developed a dangerous technology even became a cult figure in literature and film. These doubts about the work of scientists were not always wrong. But the criticism of new technologies has become less today. We live in a technology-savvy age: Technology is an indispensable part of life for climate skeptics, anti-vaccination opponents and avowed supporters of populist parties. They protect their houses from thunderstorms with lightning rods, use GPS, swallow antibiotics and use computers and the Internet. Technological advances are more readily accepted than ever.

The scientific method itself is not criticized either. Nobody would want to claim that they do not think and act rationally and on the basis of facts. But if you ask about the trustworthiness of the scientist, things look different. You are faced with allegations such as the following:

  • "They only have their own interests in mind, they let themselves be bought and sold for stupid people."
  • "They don't know themselves and keep contradicting each other."
  • "Nobody understands what they're saying."

I have already written quite a bit about the last two allegations. Hence the first accusation: Most people in Germany are of the opinion that the influence of business on science is too great. At the European level, the picture is no different. An opinion poll commissioned by the European Commission in 2010 came to the result:

"Europeans are very determined to assume that scientists cannot be trusted to tell the truth about controversial scientific and technical problems because they are increasingly dependent on industry funding."[1]]

That means: Essentially, people trust science, but assume that it is Scientists Selfishness and Conflicts of Interest. Let us take a closer look at this accusation: “The scientists are paid!” On closer inspection, this turns out to be a banality: Researchers too have to earn money for a living, so they are always “paid”. The question is: who is she paying?

  • The State: The fact that most of the research companies in this country are state institutions has proven to be very helpful for our society. Politics has the task of defining the needs of the population and applying tax money accordingly. In democracies it is controlled by the people themselves. What flourishes when a totalitarian state controls scientific and technological progress is shown by the example of China, where digital technologies are used to monitor and suppress the population. But even in democracies, an uncontrolled state, e.g. in secret military projects, can develop disasters, as the example of the American atom bomb program in World War II, the "Manhattan Project", has shown. Transparency and public control of science - and correspondingly the state remuneration of scientists - are very important.
  • Companies. The interaction of entrepreneurship and scientific creativity has triggered an enormous increase in prosperity over the past 200 years. As early as the end of the 19th century, iron and steel barons generated enormous added value, but at the same time at the expense of a poor working class and without understanding the need for safety precautions and even then without regard to the environment.In their pursuit of profit, entrepreneurs repeatedly overlook ethical ones Guidelines or even applicable law, especially when it comes to the use and commercialization of your products and technologies. Scientists are not infrequently involved in such a procedure, be it with courtesy reports or due to a lack of transparency of their work towards the public.

Rational thinking also includes looking. How do we deal with possible self-interests and conflicts of interest of the individual scientists? There are cases in which individual scientists delivered “client-friendly” results or even deliberately falsified scientific results in order to gain personal advantages. Examples are studies by pharmaceutical companies on the effectiveness of drugs, by tobacco companies on the harmlessness of smoking, by energy researchers on the use of nuclear power or the allegedly minor impact of coal combustion on our environment, or by banks that try to investigate the risks of the global capital market architecture with appropriate commissioned studies and endowed professorships downplaying. Such cases are used by science skeptics and populists as evidence that science as a whole is unbelievable. But to fundamentally withdraw the trust of scientists because of individual cases is a classic category error. Much more we have to make such cases publicly transparent.

Of course, scientists also have non-commercial personal interests that can question their credibility or even integrity: career, reputation, advancement of the ego, etc. Who the behavior of the great Isaac Newton in his dispute with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz about the authorship of the infinitesimal calculus looks at, or Galileo's reaction to Kepler's ellipses, knows that this is not a new phenomenon in science. The fact that individual scientists have personal motives, cannot admit mistakes and persist in their errors does not, however, call science as a method into question. To conclude this would be another category mistake. Anyone who looks at how fiercely arguing about apparently clear results is in science will quickly recognize this. One example is the LIGO experiment for the detection of gravitational waves (for which the operators even received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2017): Despite great enthusiasm among the scientists involved, clear expectations due to an undisputed theoretical basis (general theory of relativity) and strong empirical evidence in the data some - very honest and competent - scientists question the results so that the LIGO experimenters cannot be 100% sure about them. This discussion also showed that the experimenters did not work with sufficient precision - or communicated their results poorly. This is exactly where the power of the scientific virtues of skepticism and persistence on clear empiricism (rather than dogmatic determination of how it should be) works in a very healthy way. Anyone who, as a layperson, takes the trouble to take a closer look at this, has plenty of opportunities to do so. But of course that is far more tedious than simply cursing scientists and science across the board.

[1] https://ec.europa.eu/commfrontoffice/publicopinion/archives/ebs/ebs_340_en.pdf, page 19.

Born in 1969, I studied physics and philosophy at the University of Bonn and the École Polytechnique in Paris in the 1990s before I did my doctorate in theoretical physics at the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems in Dresden, where I also did my post- Doc studies did further research in the field of nonlinear dynamics. Before that, I had also worked in the field of quantum field theories and particle physics. Meanwhile, I've been living in Switzerland for almost 20 years. For many years I have dealt with border issues in modern (as well as historical) sciences. In my books, blogs, and articles, I focus on the subjects of science, philosophy, and spirituality, especially the history of science, its relationship to spiritual traditions, and its impact on modern society. In the past I have also written on investment topics (alternative investments). My two books “Naturwissenschaft: Eine Biographie” and “Wissenschaft und Spiritualität” were published by Springer Spektrum Verlag in 2015 and 2016. I have been running my blog since 2014 at www.larsjaeger.ch.