By Neil A. Kurtzman
As many scientists have behaved like fools, the discipline itself is in jeopardy of being thought stained and unreliable.
Science is in its worst state since the burning of Giordano Bruno (1600) and the trial and conviction of Galileo (1633). The wounds it has suffered are largely self-inflicted. Science advances by questioning the current state of knowledge and by attempting to fill the gaps identified by examination of the germane data pertinent to the discipline. Any attempt to stifle vigorous—even if heated—debate is an assault on science. Over the past three decades dissent from what some consider orthodox scientific theories has been ridiculed rather than refuted.
Consider the interaction between Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr about the implications of quantum mechanics. Einstein constantly peppered Bohr with a litany of objections to the statistical nature of quantum mechanics and pointed to the seemingly astounding implications inherent in the theory. Eventually, Bohr and others were able to answer all of Einstein’s objections to quantum mechanics, but the field was immeasurably advanced by having to deal with the complicated and sophisticated issues raised by Einstein. Einstein’s prestige was so great that he could not be demeaned nor ignored.
Many of the great scientific issues of today seem governed by dogma rather than debate. The inflexible response to the COVID pandemic was pre-conditioned by the anti-scientific restrictions imposed, mostly by scientists, on several major scientific problems that have come to prominence and importance over the past decades.
Consider climate change. I’m not concerned here with the details and accuracy of the claims made by scientists who study the problem. My subject is the reaction of many of those scientists to the questions and doubts of other scientists as to the correct assessment of their data and the predictions that could be made with reasonable confidence from those data.
The typical response of those who purport to speak for the majority of serious climate scientists is to try to silence those who object to their interpretations or who say the data are ambiguous.
Steven Koonin is currently a professor at New York University. He was undersecretary of science in the U.S. Department of Energy in the Obama Administration. Before that he was professor of theoretical physics at CalTech where he served as vice president and provost for a decade. Koonin is a member of the National Academy of Sciences. After he wrote an essay in the Wall Street Journal which concluded that the science is insufficient to make useful projections about how the climate will change over the coming decades, much less what effect our actions will have on it, an effort was made to have NYU fire him. He’s written a book, Unsettled, on the subject. The book may cause bricks to fly through his windows.
The actual data concerning climate are more complicated and accordingly subject to differing interpretations from what one might appreciate reading the mostly apocalyptic accounts of a rising temperature and its effects on the planet. The media have run riot over data that are dense and not easily summarized. Robust debate has always attended scientific problems. Why should climate change be held to a lesser standard? Yet climate science has demanded such an unearned privilege and the media have been pleased to grant it.
Almost from its onset those who proposed what might be called the standard model of climate change have demanded freedom from criticism. The problem was completely defined, the future was known with reasonable certainty, and those who objected were likened to Holocaust deniers. The science was settled.
That last statement is particularly startling. Science, by its very nature, is never settled. The answer to any problem is not only subject to future modification, it invariably raises many more questions than it answers. Then there was the appeal to the majority, as if the history of science doesn’t offer countless examples of the majority of scientists being wrong.
The earth was held to be at the center of the solar system for thousands of years though there were good data to show it wasn’t. Lord Kelvin thought the planet would run out of oxygen in 400 years. He made this error because the details of the oxygen cycle were not worked out until 80 years after his death (1907).
Climate science is no different from any other scientific field and must be subject to the same intense scrutiny as was quantum mechanics. There can be no exemption from rigorous challenge.
While climatology is legitimate science and needs further study free of censorship, the gender controversies now before us are like an opaque lens obscuring crazy thinking offered to the public as new discoveries based on the science of gender differentiation. Until almost the day before yesterday, a male who was convinced he was a female and vice versa was referred to a psychiatrist, not a surgeon.
There are a few disorders of sexual differentiation where the pairing of the sex chromosomes is disrupted. They are very rare, and are not included as part of what are now considered transsexuals. That a few people with normal chromosomes identify as the opposite of their phenotypic and genotypic sex is not a new phenomenon. This phenomenon was both very rare and considered a psychiatric problem.
What’s new is the embrace of normalizing the phenomenon to the point where people are voluntarily choosing to identify their sex opposite from that determined by biology. What rational adults do to themselves is their own business. But when children are encouraged to question their gender at a time in life when they are unable to make informed decisions that will cause bodily changes which will persist for life is an expression of lunacy.
Permanently altering their sexual development is an ethical atrocity. That members of the medical profession contribute to this policy is an expression of the failure of medical ethics. It wasn’t that long ago that the enlightened West was decrying the practice of female genital mutilation in some of the benighted portions of the world.
Having thus unmoored ourselves from the lines of ordinary rational discourse, the world was ready to react to a pandemic of middling dimensions, by comparison to past such events, with brobdingnagian overreaction. We let a career NIH bureaucrat who had been an expert in infectious disease, but not epidemiology, become the de facto czar of our response to the epidemic. The NIH largely limited itself to vaccine research to the disregard of therapeutics. The CDC, which should have monitored the epidemiological response to the disease, was limited to issuing contradictory or inaccurate declarations.
The response pattern that had been established for climate change and gender transformation was again employed to deal with the epidemic. In retrospect it appears that the government, or major parts of it, saw the new disease as an opportunity to control the populace rather than minister to it.
The implications of our response to the pandemic on society, education, economics, and all the sundry activities of daily life were ignored. Everything was subordinated to masks, lockdowns, and social isolation—all of which proved futile. One can understand a misdirected approach to a new disease that took us unawares, but to persist in error after the errors were clearly delineated was more than foolishness: it was an attempt to impose government control which could be used later for other centralized actions, or both.
Again, shaming and banning of discussion which went against official opinion was widely employed. Twitter and YouTube were maniacal in their obliteration of any opinion that departed from official dogma.
States and countries whose approach to the pandemic differed from revealed opinion without any serious consequence were deprecated and ignored for as long as possible. The net effect of all this entropic activity was to confuse the public and to demean science. As many scientists behaved like fools, the discipline itself was in jeopardy of being thought stained and unreliable. If “follow the science” led to a ditch by the side of the road, science accordingly was in danger of losing a reputation gained over several centuries of extraordinary progress.
Medicine often gets things wrong. An example is the radical mastectomy for the treatment of localized breast cancer. Pack and Ariel in the 1950s proposed lumpectomy as a more reasonable alternative, which it was. They were attacked viciously within the profession, but eventually the data supported their position and lumpectomy is now a standard treatment.
Ignaz Semmelweis ended his life in a mad house merely for suggesting that obstetricians wash their hands and observe antiseptic procedures. The profession came around. So perhaps there’s hope that reason will prevail and allow sober analysis of the current epidemic, how we should have proceeded, and what we should do when the next one hits. But sanity does seem in short supply today.
Why did all this seemingly mad stuff happen? Why does the mayor of New York require four-year-olds to wear masks that serve no purpose? The choice appears to be between lunacy and a diabolical plan to change the foundation of society. Usually when craziness is a choice, that’s the way to go. But in the current maelstrom of societal upheaval a combination of both may be the answer. Regardless, faith in the institutions that have been the foundation of the republic for more than two centuries is under assault.
The loss of core beliefs is fatal to self-government. The value of science to the health of the planet and its occupants is almost beyond measure. The fruits of science are long lives, cheap energy, delivering the poor from the chains of poverty, enabling leisure, uplifting technology, and the general enjoyment of life. There’s a dark side to science about which I won’t comment here, but nevertheless the discipline’s potential and actual enhancement of life outweighs its danger. We cheapen and degrade science to our great peril. It would be the cruelest of fates if science were brought down by those who claim to speak in its name.
Neil A. Kurtzman, MD is the Grover E. Murray Professor Emeritus and University Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Department of Internal Medicine at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in Lubbock, Texas. He has combined careers in clinical medicine, education, basic research, and administration for more than 30 years.