Cobbler, stick to your last – Applies also to scientists
There is much talk in blogs like this about the rehabilitation of scientists who oppose a zeitgeist of „fake news,“ political lies, ideological fundamentalism, pseudo-religious legitimizations of power, and dull world simplification. The Corona virus seemed to have accomplished something that seemed almost impossible before: the public exposure of the intellectual dishonesty of right-wing populists. Quite different to those are the scientists, whose statements seem so unusually honest, factual, and truthful compared to those of their political superiors and other power holders that many of them have even made it to great public popularity. Moreover, what is unfortunately quickly forgotten, it is the scientists who are responsible for the immense advances in genetic engineering of recent years that now enable us to develop „genetic vaccines“ and thus promise to lead us out of the Corona crisis.
However, the fact that even they sometimes fall into the intellectual trap of presumption and ignorance is illustrated by the case of nano- and solid-state physicist Roland Wiesendanger of the University of Hamburg. Wiesendanger is a very renowned physicist who in 2020 published the remarkable amount of 11 scientific papers on topics such as Spectroscopic signature of the Stark-shifted Tamm-type surface state of La(0001) or Discovery of Magnetic Single- and Triple-q States in Mn/Re(0001), two of those even in Physical Review Letters, which is considered by most scientists as one of the most prestigious journals in the field of physics. A twelfth paper, however, attracts special attention. It bears the (as the only one of his publications German!) title Study of the origin of the corona virus pandemic (Studie zum Ursprung der Coronavirus-Pandemie; https://www.researchgate.net/publication/349302406_Studie_zum_Ursprung_der_Coronavirus-Pandemie). Here Wiesendanger moves – as a single author – into a for him completely new area: the investigation of the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. And he comes to the spectacular result „that both the number and the quality of the indications speak clearly for a laboratory accident at the virological institute of the city Wuhan as cause of the present pandemic“. One wonders: How does a nano physicist from outside the field come to make such a controversial claim, which is widely rejected among virologists and WHO experts? Wiesendanger himself writes in his text: There is „no scientifically based strict evidence“ for his theory on the origin of the coronavirus; rather, he offers „circumstantial evidence“ based on scientific articles, publications in the media and social networks, and conversations with international scientists. The limited argumentative power of his sources does not prevent him from making such a controversial statement with a high degree of conviction, while the probability of it being true is considered quite low by experts.
Now, the scientific method consists precisely of repeatedly casting doubt on the existing consensus, so that errors do not persist for too long. And the pandemic is, after all, one of the most pressing problems at present, which is why it is so important not to make false assumptions about it and to understand its origins in detail. And that can only be done through scientific discourse. But the students at the University of Hamburg are right when they write: „The „study“ by Mr. Wiesendanger of the University of Hamburg does not meet the scientific standards we expect from a university. Instead, it only plays into the hands of conspiracy theorists and stirs up anti-Asian racism.“ They themselves must adhere to the „Guidelines for the Preparation of Scientific Papers,“ where it says, among other things, „A heavy accumulation of verbatim quotations should be avoided, otherwise the impression is created that the author shies away from independent formulations.“ Mr. Wiesendanger does not appear to have read these guidelines: Rather, he integrates several pages of excerpts from his sources aiming to strengthen the force of his arguments; in some cases, it is often even difficult to identify the paragraphs originating from himself. Scientific (peer reviewed) articles are in the minority among the sources: articles in print and online media, including those in social media, which are not subject to any review at all, are in the (relative) majority with over 30 of 71 sources. Wiesendanger also does not stop at sources with clear proximity to conspiracy theories. At latest here the his paper removes itself from the realm of recognized scientific standards.
Unfortunately, even scientists are not armed against populist currents of thought, once they leave their field of expertise, but even here claim to appear with the same power of persuasion as in their field of expertise. The public is called upon to put a stop to this. The University of Hamburg has hardly covered itself with glory here, but rather offered this „study“ (rather a richly confused media research) with an official press release of the university a prominent platform, which on February 19 even led to a BILD headline: „German professor sure: Corona was LABOR ACCIDENT in China“. We should apply higher requirements to the scientists. As they are not armed against the hubris of the populist right-wing opinion, either, as we see.