Scientists are biased, just like the rest of us

Dr. Harold Brown's picture

Reporters and commentators frequently cite scientists as support for positions. In headlines, scientists assess disasters (“Scientists say Gulf spill is way worse than estimated”), bolster environmental actions (“Scientists say mountaintop mining should be stopped”) even to make the obvious official (“Drought grips some of Harris County, scientists say”).

The public holds scientists in high regard, too. In a 2009 poll by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, 70 percent of respondents viewed scientists as contributing “a lot” to society’s well-being, compared to 40 percent by clergy and only 21 percent by business executives.

This high regard for scientists is not necessarily well-founded. First, it is subjective. “Well-being” in this case is probably based on advances in medicine, technology and communications. Economic advancement, one of the real marvels of the 20th century, is not usually credited to business executives. Second, scientists are viewed as experts in subjects most of us know little about. The everyday science that we know is considered practical engineering or mechanical expertise, not the “science” that holds us in awe.

In the public view, scientists are paragons of objectivity and judgment. When Pew surveyed 2,500 scientists about the behavior of colleagues, 14 percent said they were aware of falsification of results, and about the same number knew of scientists who withheld data that contradicted their own research. In other surveys, up to 72 percent of scientists said they knew about instances of questionable research practices by colleagues.

A majority of the public – 64 percent – believe scientists are not particularly liberal or conservative, and just 20 percent see scientists as politically liberal. In fact, 52 percent of scientists polled claimed to be liberal; 9 percent said they were conservative.

Political leanings aside, scientists are subject to the same weaknesses and desires as the rest of the public. They may feel they are noble and providing a public service but they participate in shortcuts to success, cheating, vilifying opponents and hiding bad behavior. Such allegations are rampant on both sides of large issues such as global warming.

Scientists comment on much they know little about; they are not as smart as the public thinks. In that way and in their bias, they are like the rest of the population.

“[I]n contrast to the popular conception supported by newspapers and mothers of scientists, a goodly number of scientists are not only narrow-minded and dull, but also just stupid,” said James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, in his book, “The Alpha Heli.”

Watson was saying, perhaps without intending to, that scientists are run-of-the-mill people. So was he: great in his scientific discovery, ordinary in other ways.

Especially suspect are those scientists who predict the future, especially about the climate. “Scientist says that 1927 will be virtually without a summer,” read a 1926 New York Times headline. (The year was slightly warmer than average.) In 1961, the newspaper’s headline was, “Scientists Agree World Is Colder.” A claim of unanimity followed, “After a week of discussions on the subject of climate change, an assembly of specialists from several continents seems to have reached unanimous agreement on only one point: it is getting colder.”

One measure of the humanity of scientists is the advocacy of practices that are popular in their era, but repugnant in others. Early in the 20th century, many scientists endorsed the misguided practice of human population engineering (Eugenics), including sterilization of the unfit.

Conservationist Madison Grant helped start the New York Zoological Society, the American Bison Society, the Save the Redwoods League and “scientific racism.” He declared of humans in 1916, “The laws against miscegenation must be greatly extended if the higher races are to be maintained.”

Expecting scientists to be unbiased is about as realistic as expecting politicians to be modest or bankers to be generous. Some politicians are modest and many bankers generous, and scientists, like all humans, are biased. If you want to test the bias of an individual scientist, ask if his or her specialty is one of the least important. If they say “yes”, they’ve caught on to your motive.

Next time you hear a scientist predict the future or advocate solutions instead of advancing science, fall back on that human trait that has served science so well from the beginning: skepticism.

[University of Georgia Professor Emeritus R. Harold Brown is an Adjunct Scholar with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and author of “The Greening of Georgia: The Improvement of the Environment in the Twentieth Century.” The Foundation is an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians.]

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