Scientists versus science – thoughts on the integrity of researchers

The scientific and technological progress has been euphorically welcomed for most of the last 300 years. People were sure that the world would over time become a better and better place. It was not until the second half of the 20th century that general doubts about newly developed technologies began to grow. Scientists were still seen as the incorruptible mediators of truth – the question was whether the technologies derived from their knowledge were always used for the benefit of mankind. The much-discussed topics to this day include nuclear power, nuclear weapons, and environmental destruction, more recently a technological-authoritative surveillance state. 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 unjustified. But today, criticism of the technology has tended to dwindle. We live in a technology-affine age: even for climate skeptics, anti-vaccination activists and declared supporters of populist parties, technology is an indispensable part of life. They protect their homes from thunderstorms with lightning conductors, use GPS, swallow antibiotics and use computers and the internet. More than ever, technological achievements are being readily accepted. use GPS, swallow antibiotics and use computers and the internet. More than ever, technological achievements are being readily accepted. use GPS, swallow antibiotics and use computers and the internet. More than ever, technological achievements are being readily accepted.

Nor is the scientific method itself being criticized. No one would claim not to think and act rationally and on the basis of facts. But if you ask about the trustworthiness of scientists , the situation is different. They are faced with the accusations like the following:

  • “They only have their own interests at heart and let themselves be bought.”
  • “They don’t know themselves what’s going on. See, they’re always arguing.”
  • “Nobody understands what they’re saying.”

I have written much about the last two allegations. So, let us here deal with the first accusation: Most people in Germany believe that the influence of business on science is too great. The picture is no different at the European level. This is the result of an opinion survey commissioned by the European Commission in 2010:

“Europeans feel most strongly that scientists cannot be trusted to tell the truth about controversial scientific and technological issues because they depend more and more on money from industry.” [ [1] ]

This means that people trust science but accuse scientists of self-interest and conflicts of interest. Let us take a closer look at this: “Scientists are paid!” On closer examination, this turns out to be a banality: like everyone else researchers have to earn money to make a living, so they are always “paid”. The question is: who pays them?

The government : The fact that most research institutions are publicly financed has proven to be very helpful for our society. Politics has the task of defining the needs of the population and using tax money accordingly. In democracies this is controlled by the population itself. The example of China, where digital technologies are used to monitor and suppress the population, shows what happens when a totalitarian state controls of the scientific and technological progress. But even in democracies, an uncontrolled state, for example in secret

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

  • military projects, can develop harmful things, as the American atomic bomb program in World War II, the “Manhattan Project”, illustrates. Transparency and public control of science – and accordingly the public financing of scientists – are thereforeessential.
  • Companies: The interaction of entrepreneurial spirit and scientific creativity has triggered an enormous increase in prosperity over the last 200 years. Already in the late 180s iron and steel barons have generated enormous economic value, however, they have also enriched themselves at the expense of a miserable workforce, without regard for the need of security measures and already back then with no consideration for their entrepreneurial actions’ impact on the environment. In their pursuit of profit, entrepreneurs repeatedly ignore ethical guidelines or even applicable law, also and especially when it comes to the use and commercialization of their products and technologies. Scientists are often involved in such actions, either by means of courtesy reports or due to a lack of transparency of their researchtowards the public.

Rational thinking also involves looking at things carefully. How do we deal with possible vested interests and conflicts of interest of individual scientists? There are cases in which individual scientists delivered “client-friendly” results or even deliberately false scientific results in order to gain personal advantages. Examples include studies by pharmaceutical companies on the effectiveness of drugs, by tobacco companies on the harmlessness of smoking, by energy researchers on the benefits of nuclear poweror aproclaimed limited influence on burning coal for our climate, or by banks that try to play down the risks in the global capital market architecture with corresponding contracted studies and endowed professorships. Such cases are used by science skeptics and populists as evidence that science is not to be trusted. But to fundamentally withdraw the trust of scientists because of individual cases is a classic category mistake. Rather, we must make such cases publicly transparent.

Of course, scientists also have non-commercial personal interests that can call their credibility or even integrity into question: career, reputation, ego boosts, etc. Anyone who looks at the behavior of the great Isaac Newton in his dispute with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz about the authorship of infinitesimal calculus or at Galileo’s reaction to Kepler’s ellipses knows that this is not a new phenomenon in science. However, the fact that individual scientists have personal motives for not being able to admit mistakes and insisting on their errors does not call science as a method into question. To conclude this would be another category mistake. Anyone who observes how fiercely even seemingly clear results are disputed within in the scientific community will quickly recognize this. One example is the LIGO experiment to detect gravitational waves (for which in 2017 the operators received the Nobel Prize in Physics): Despite great enthusiasm among the participating scientists, clear expectations based on an undisputed theoretical foundation (general relativity) and strong empirical evidence in the data, some (very high integrity and competent) scientists continue to question the results, so that the LIGO experimenters cannot yet be 100% sure of them. In this discussion, it became even apparent that the experimenters did not work with sufficient accuracy – or communicated their results poorly. This is exactly where the power of the scientific virtues of skepticism and the ever-ongoing insistence on clear empirical evidence (instead of dogmatic determination as things should be) comes into play in a very healthy way. If a layman takes the trouble to take a closer look at this, there are plenty of opportunities to do so. But this is, of course, much more tedious than simply scolding the scientists and science in general.

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