Scientific research is the time-honored key to objective knowledge. In the past it was funded pluralistically, but today certain portions of the market for knowledge are dominated by a single buyer, namely the government. This is especially true in the research fields that impinge on the regulatory sphere, such as pollution and climate change.
What’s wrong with science today? What sciences can you trust? How are scientists incentivized? Are scientists just obsessed with getting published? How is science publicly funded?
Scientocracy, written by Patrick J. Michaels and Terence Kealey
More Breakfast Science to Sink Your Teeth Into, written by Terence Kealey
More Proof That Breakfast Is a Dangerous Meal, written by Terence Kealey
Science Doesn’t Need Public Funding, Free Thoughts Podcast
Bias in Scientific Research, Free Thoughts Podcast
The Moral Arc of Science and Reason, Free Thoughts Podcast
00:07 Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Trevor Burrus.
00:09 Aaron Powell: And I’m Aaron Powell.
00:10 Trevor Burrus: Joining us today is Terence Kealey, visiting Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and Professor of Clinical Biochemistry at the University of Buckingham. He is a co-editor of the new Cato book, Scientocracy: The Tangled Web of Public Science and Public Policy. Welcome back to Free Thoughts, Terence.
00:24 Terence Kealey: Lovely to be here.
00:26 Trevor Burrus: What’s wrong with science today?
00:28 Terence Kealey: Well, you did very well to say today, because what’s wrong with science has changed. And we start, really, with a paper written in 2005 by Professor Ioannidis at Stanford. And this paper was entitled Why Most Published Research Findings Are Wrong. And it really is worth reiterating that extraordinary title, Why Most Published Research Findings Are Wrong. And it turns out they are, and it turns out that Ioannidis was right. And what’s happened is that science has become caught up, really, in what has also been called the reproducibility crisis, and this came from the work of Brian Nosek in Charlottesville. He’s a good friend of Ioannidis’s, he works separately. He was the man who showed that most papers in psychology, the findings cannot be reproduced by independent psychologists. Again, most published papers are wrong. And so what’s happened to science today is that suddenly we’re living in a field, in a world, where the majority of papers cannot be trusted.
01:38 Aaron Powell: Science is an awfully broad category. So you just mentioned psychology. Is this reproducibility crisis uniform across the various scientific disciplines, or do some do better than others, or are there some for which we just don’t have enough evidence to know if there’s a reproducibility crisis?
01:56 Terence Kealey: No, that’s a terribly good question, because it is absolutely right. In the hard sciences, which are basically the ones that don’t use statistics, physics, chemistry, astronomy, you can trust basically everything that comes out on those sciences, but the soft sciences, which are really things like nutrition, psychology, some of the looser biological sciences, where statistics are important or where there’s a degree of subjectivity such as, say, anthropology, then I’m afraid the level of trust really collapses.
02:25 Trevor Burrus: And how does this… In the book, which I contributed a chapter to that you edited with Pat Michaels, it’s a focus, particularly on how science is used in public policy. Is it just that a lot of scientific results are valid or reproducible? You wrote a chapter about diet, and I think everyone… That’s one people have seen throughout their lives. So Time Magazine one year has “eat butter” and the next year has “don’t eat butter.” And it has “eat eggs,” “don’t eat eggs.” “Coffee”, “don’t eat… ” Back and forth, but is there something more systematic about the kind of sciences, like how this is done, how it’s often wrong, and then how it affects public policy?
03:02 Terence Kealey: Well, the public policy side is explored in some of the chapters here, where politicians and people in power will use science to apparently prove something or other. So for example, there’s a story here of a uranium mine about 150 miles south of here in Virginia, where the state government apparently used apparently good science to make a point, to the disadvantage of the person who owned the land. And that is an abuse of science, and that is certainly not unheard of, but it’s not a systematic abuse of science. Examples like that have probably happened throughout history. What has happened today is a very different thing about a systematic corruption of what science actually is. Scientists have ceased to be people whom we can intuitively trust to always want to prioritize the truth. They’ve become a group of people who can be trusted only to prioritize the publication of papers in distinguished journals, and that is a very different goal.
04:09 Trevor Burrus: How is the government working with this, part of the question… Is it distinguished journals, and how much of it is being done for the government, or for the government’s public policy aims, or funded by the government or other sort of systems where there’s a bias there?
04:26 Terence Kealey: Yeah, it’s not the public policy aims that your questions have been orientated towards. It’s more… Well, let me quote Daniel Sarewitz, who is a Professor at Arizona State University. He wrote a very important essay on this subject, and he came up with a very interesting phrase. He says, “It’s technology that keeps science honest.” In the olden days, before the federal government started funding science, scientists were funded by people who had an ultimate goal in mind. They were either funded by an aircraft company, or by the American Heart Foundation, or by some entity employing scientists to do pure science, but ultimately with a goal in mind. And because of that goal, which is ultimately technological by definition, it kept scientists honest because you couldn’t say, “Look, if A equals B… ” and then your airplane falls out of the sky, you’re going to be disproved.
05:15 Terence Kealey: But today, the world of public science is dominated by the National Science Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health, and other government bodies. And they give you a grant as long as that grant application fits their preconceptions of what they think you should be trying to show. So if you look at the nutrition world; for 40 years, you could not have got a grant from NIH or NSF unless your research was designed to confirm that fat was bad for you. You could not get promoted, you could not get published, unless your papers confirmed that fat was bad for you. And so what we ended up with a government funding the science where scientists reporting only to fellow scientists. They weren’t being tested by technology to keep them honest. They were merely reporting to fellow scientists, all of whom shared certain prejudices, that you had a reinforcement of false science by the fact that everybody, the editors, the promoters, the publishers, were all in the belief of a certain particular paradigm and they would not promote you, using that word in the wider sense, unless your work subscribed to their paradigm.
06:00 Aaron Powell: Well, that brings me back to, I guess, a variation of the question I asked earlier about how widespread this is, in that… So some areas of scientific endeavor get a lot more government funding than others, or it would seem like there’s more of a government interest in the outcomes of them. So the nutrition science, if we’ve got our food pyramid and we wanna maintain that paradigm. But do we see similar sorts of thing, of people chasing after certain results versus this pursuit of a pure truth, in all scientific areas? Do we see it more in those where there is more of a government intervention or funding into them? How uniform is that?
07:08 Terence Kealey: It’s really a corruption of the actual process of science per se, because the criterion of success is no longer, “Do I do a piece of research that ultimately is tested against a technology or against a heart attack rate or whatever?” The criterion of success is, “Do my peers review this positively?” And so there are different areas of science where it is easier to manipulate the data. So for example, if you’re doing statistics, it is very, very easy, particularly in, say, nutrition, to collect hundreds and hundreds of data points and then just to select the ones you are going to publish. And because the scientist is now no longer incentivized to find the truth but is now incentivized to get accepted by the peer review process, the temptation to collect data, to select data that will give you an apparently dramatic finding, becomes overwhelming.
08:04 Aaron Powell: What would a scientist think of the story that you just told? So if this was a room full of scientists who are doing scientific research in the areas that you’re talking about, like nutrition scientists, would they accept that, or would they have an alternate explanation? Would they say, “Yes, I know that I wanna get published, which means I know that I wanna get positively reviewed by my peers or I know that I need to get certain grants, so therefore, yeah, I am more likely to publish results that have positive results in these areas,” or would they say, “No, we’ve got… Of course I need to get positively reviewed, but that’s because peer review is the way that we select for truth or robustness or whatever else, and that we happen to be getting results that conflict with, say, your research on nutrition or this research on climate science or whatever, isn’t so much a condemnation of our research; it’s just that you happen to disagree with us about what’s true.”
09:09 Terence Kealey: No, I think it’s gone beyond that. So what most scientists would say… First of all, they would say science is self-correcting. And ultimately, of course, it is. We now know that the fat/carbohydrate story is wrong. But the trouble is over 40 years we were given a false story, so the self-correction can be a very long process. The other thing scientists would say is look at the fantastic success of science. Look how wonderful… We have electricity, we can go to the moon. So of course science has successes and of course there’s going to be a degree of problems on the edge because that’s always the case. However, Daniele Fanelli at Stanford showed that something like 3% of all scientists will acknowledge actually cheating, actually inventing false data; something like 15% of scientists will admit to manipulating data to give a result more easily publishable. But the percentage of scientists who say that others do it is much, much higher.
10:06 Terence Kealey: So there is a really systematic awareness. There’s really quite a systematic degree of manipulation of data in science. And in a sense, what’s happened is that people have become habituated to that, and in a sense almost discount and expect it. Certainly no one now, and if anyone does they would be misled, no one now believes that a scientific paper is a definitive statement of evidence. Now, increasingly, people understand scientific papers the way you’d understand a lawyer in court, an advocate for one side or another. There was a time when people saw a scientific paper as the dictates of a judge. You know, this would be judicious and balanced. Increasingly, the only way to read a scientific paper is as the advocacy of a very one side or the other lawyer in court putting forward one case, but you can no longer accept that paper as being true. You have to ask, “What would other scientists say about this paper from a different point of view?” So to answer your question, scientists would say the enterprise is still really successful. Yes, of course there are a few bad apples. Look overall. The trouble is the degree of bad apples is much higher than it should be.
11:11 Aaron Powell: And the way that government funding specifically fits into that… So you said in the past when science was funded by private enterprises that had a goal in mind… The airplane flying. Well, the airplane flying seems like the kind of thing where yes, the airplane’s either going to fly or it’s not going to fly. So if you produce bad science for whatever reason and the plane crashes, you know you failed. But most products aren’t going to be that way. They’re not gonna be as clear cut, black and white, this worked or this didn’t. So food companies might hire someone to do nutrition science about the products that they’re producing. We just got a puppy and we’ve been trying to figure out which dog food brands to buy, and they’re covered in scientific claims which are presumably largely paid for by… Or largely the result of researchers who are paid by these various companies. And it’s hard to know in a way that… Like you can’t watch the plane fall out of the sky. And so why is that system… Presumably those scientists are being asked to… They’re more likely to get published or re-hired again in the future if they produce a result that says, “Yes, this particular dog food is good,” than if it’s bad. So why isn’t the same problems that you’ve just outlined also present in this alternate or prior mechanism?
12:25 Terence Kealey: Okay, well, there are two aspects to the question that you’ve asked. Let me tell a story. It’s a slightly… In fact, it’s an extremely unpleasant story, so please be warned that I’m about to cite someone who is very unpleasant, but it’s a very relevant story. We all know that cigarettes give you cancer. Very few people know who made that discovery.
12:49 Aaron Powell: I do.
12:50 Terence Kealey: And it’s a very unpleasant story, so please don’t think I’m defending this person. But it was Adolf Hitler. Adolf Hitler, we all forget now, came to power in 1933. He subscribed totally to the whole progressive agenda of his day. He was a vegetarian; in fact, he was a vegan. He was a non-smoker. He didn’t believe in alcohol. He believed, as you may remember, in eugenics, which by the way, lots and lots of people in the United States believe in eugenics. Lots and lots of people in this country were compulsorily sterilized because they were thought to be idiots, so their children would be idiots. Eugenics, he bought into, as we know. One of his instincts was that cigarettes just had to be bad for you. It was an intuitive belief he had. And when he came to power in 1933, he called together his epidemiologists and he said, “I know cigarettes are bad for you. Go out and prove it or it might be bad for you.” And everyone was very surprised. They were surprised how easy it was to show that cigarettes were really, really bad for you. And so Richard Doll in England, who got all the credit in the ’50s for inverted commas “making the discovery,” he was one of the few people who were still reading the Nazi literature. The point was by the time this stuff was published, we were all at war with the Germans and no one was interested in the Nazi literature.
13:56 Terence Kealey: Now, the reason that’s important is it does indicate what the role of government in science should be. I am answering your point. You’re absolutely right. How can you trust what one dog food manufacturer says relative to another it’s scientific? And we know, and it’s been well established, that if you look, for example, at scientific papers about sodas or other drinks containing sugar or glucose, no company has ever published a paper reporting any bad effects of this. And if you have just one author from a company on any of these papers, the chances of it not being utterly good for you diminish by about 90%. It’s hugely biased science. There is a role for government, I believe, in challenging vested interests that wouldn’t otherwise be challenged, such as tobacco or sugar. But that’s not what government is doing. Government is doing two things. First of all, it really responds to lobbying. So Marion Nestle, for example, who is the Professor of Food Science at New York University, when she worked for the government for a time, was told her first day, “The rule is you must never advocate eating less of anything because whatever you say we should eat less of, the manufacturer will descend on the Senate, it’ll descend on the House, and we will get hell from Congress.”
15:16 Terence Kealey: So government is, therefore, acting as an amplifier to vested interests out of fear. But even more than that, in the last 70 or so years, government has created a self-referential pool of science, run by the National Science Foundation, National Institute of Health, which is completely or almost entirely monolithic. There is one story. These people all believe, rightly or wrongly, it doesn’t matter, in global warming. They all believe, rightly or wrongly, that fat is bad for you and carbohydrate good. You can tell a whole series of stories at that, and in this book, Scientocracy, we tell a whole series of stories.
15:47 Terence Kealey: And the real danger is that because the government funding the science is monolithic, there’s just one funder, and because scientists have always bought into one paradigm, because that’s the nature of science, you end up with a much more artificially monolithic story than you should. Whereas in the olden days before the government basically came in and moved all these scientists aside and crowded them out, you had lots of different companies and lots of different charities, all of whom had different prejudices. Many of those prejudices were just as wrong as the ones in the NIH or NSF today, but the point was there was a pluralism of competing prejudices. It made it much easier for truths to…
16:23 Trevor Burrus: It’s kind of interesting, as you mentioned, that Hitler said, “Go find out if cigarettes are bad for you,” and it seems like they actually ended up being bad for you. But even if they weren’t, they might have come up with papers that said, “Yes, they are in fact bad for you. You’re right. You’re right, Führer.” And maybe that has said something about other realms of science as you mentioned with the food. And I’ve also heard… And when it comes to diet especially ‘cause of ad culture, and there’s a lot of big interests there, for a very long time there was an attempt to try by the red meat producers, by beef producers, to try and get the government to make sure they don’t say “beef,” just say “saturated fat.” Just say like it’s, “Eat less beef. No, don’t say that. You’re not allowed to say that. We’ll turn it on to saturated fat and we won’t attack beef by itself, so we’re gonna come up with a result that they’re pressuring us on anyway.”
17:14 Terence Kealey: Trevor, you are so right. So for example, food advice in this country has to be passed by the USDA, the United States Department of Agriculture. How insane is that? The Department of Agriculture is protecting the interests of producers. We need completely independent defense of consumers, but the way food advice is given in the United States of America, it has to be passed by the producers.
17:36 Trevor Burrus: Now, when it comes to the biases, I guess, as you said, non-competitive. And I think that’s important to point out, that we need… If there is research being done by soda manufacturers or cigarette companies, we also need research on the other side and make sure you understand what the sources are. Maybe the real problem here is that people say the government funds unbiased science. They’re not a player. They don’t have a vested interest in people buying more sodas, they don’t have a vested interest… They have an interest in everyone being healthier, correct?
18:08 Terence Kealey: Well, it would be nice to think so. But scientists are human beings like everyone else, and they respond to incentives. And so even government-funded scientists will respond to whatever incentives they are subject to. Again, Marion Nestle; the story is you may never criticize a foodstuff. But the real problem about the research produced by industry is that they select the findings they want to publish, and there are areas of the nutrition journals are dominated essentially by industrial interests. If we had as much money being spent by genuinely independent government scientists whose job it was to challenge industry, we might get better journals. But the journals at the moment are basically just preaching to the choir, really. Their contents are dominated by scientists paid for by industry.
18:55 Aaron Powell: That preaching-to-the-choir-ness seems like it’s potentially bound up, I know you mentioned earlier, in a peer review process, because what you need to get your article published is some group of your peers to say, “This is worth being published.” But if we take a step back, like the peer review process seems to make a lot of sense that, you know the… You don’t wanna publish things unless it looks likes the research was done well. The experiments were constructed properly, the data was analyzed correctly and the people who can best do that are themselves subject matter experts in the field because laymen aren’t going to recognize the problems and whatnot.
19:36 Aaron Powell: And so putting this in front of a group of your peers and asking them to evaluate it and updating it based on their feedback and so on seems like a perfectly reasonable way to approach this, but at the same time, you can see how this would turn into if my… I’m a scientist and I’ve built my career around proving X, and your paper proves not X, I may be, even if it’s not like a conscious, you know, I don’t wanna see this published ‘cause it might hurt my career, I’m… Confirmation bias or whatever else, I might just be more likely to be more skeptical about results that cut against my prior views. What do we do about that? What’s the alternative?
20:18 Terence Kealey: Okay, you’re absolutely right. Peer review is much, much less useful than people think. Peer review, people forget, really, but peer review emerged in a very different world, in which peer review was basically a statement of trust, do we trust this person? It wasn’t so much, what do we think of the details of the paper? It was the most important part of peer review was the very first line, the line of authors and the universities they came from. Because after all, we’re accepting papers on trust. Someone sends in a paper, you have to trust that they did what they did. In the olden days, when the Royal Society was created in the 17th century, experiments were literally collective. People came together and watched experiments being done.
20:55 Terence Kealey: When Leeuwenhoek, the Dutchman who made so many exciting discoveries, when he sent his papers to the Royal Society, he would get members of the royal family, or they didn’t have a royal family, but the equivalent of a royal family in the Netherlands to sign affidavits so they’d watch his experiments being done, that they would confirm that what he said he’d seen, they had also seen looking under the microscope. And so in a sense, peer review really emerges as a away of saying, “Do we trust this person?” Now, at some point along the line, peer review changed into, do we like, what do we think of the methodology? What do we think of the results? And to some extent it can be of value, but I’m afraid that the only way to really address the problem of a scientific paper today, and I’m going to say something pretty savage, I think you have to say, “Is this person trying to mislead me? Why are they trying to mislead me and how are they misleading me?”
21:46 Terence Kealey: So for example, as you know, I’ve written a book called Breakfast is a Dangerous Meal, this is not an advertisement for that, but what I want to say about Breakfast is a Dangerous Meal, the work I did on breakfast, thousands and thousands of papers are published on breakfast. Don’t think breakfast is trivial because we basically eat three meals a day and that’s one of those three and there’s a vast amount of nutrition research [22:03] ____. Breakfast is a dangerous meal, it has to be, because you eat it in the morning when your cortisol levels are very, very high, and that makes you glucose intolerant and makes you insulin intolerant and also all the evidence shows that by eating breakfast you increase the number of calories, it’s a complete myth that eating breakfast means you eat less at lunch.
22:21 Terence Kealey: So breakfast is a dangerous meal. It’s now got to the point where every paper I read on breakfast, ‘cause almost every paper on breakfast says what a good thing breakfast is, it has now become a game between me and the author. How long does it take me to work out the trick that the authors played so they could present breakfast as being a safe meal when it certainly cannot be. And it’s a shame that nutrition research, but it’s not just nutrition research, has descended to the point where the reader has to say to themselves, “What trick are these people playing on me?”
22:53 Aaron Powell: How accessible are those tricks? So what I mean is the story that you’ve just told, every paper that’s coming out says breakfast is good for us. And then you, Terence Kealey, say it’s not, and that everyone, all of these papers are playing some trick but me, I know nothing about nutrition science, I have no real, don’t have a body of knowledge sufficient to evaluate it. And so, I could easily take that story as, look, if everybody is saying it but you, maybe you’re just wrong.
23:28 Trevor Burrus: That’s what flat earthers say, too.
23:29 Aaron Powell: Right, right, exactly, and so.
23:31 Trevor Burrus: Why aren’t you a flat earther, Terence?
23:31 Aaron Powell: And it… And then the accessibility of the trick means that the only way that you could convince me that it’s not a flat-earth situation is by showing me the trick in a way that I can say, “Oh, yeah, okay, I can see it.” And if that, on the one hand might, if that takes… If it’s inaccessible, that would mean I would basically have to become a nutrition scientist to see the trick. Or is it accessible and that it’s the kind of thing like, “Oh, yeah, they clearly hid this, changed this variable or did this sort of thing”? How obvious is it so that can I as a layman know that you’re not a flat earther?
24:10 Terence Kealey: Yeah, well, I wrote a book in which I explained what the tricks were. So let me give you an example of just one trick. People who eat breakfast… So, this may sound counterintuitive and it’s very important, however, people who eat breakfast tend to be slimmer than people who don’t. So that seems to contradict everything I’ve said. So let me say it again, people who eat breakfast tend to be slimmer than people who don’t. Therefore, we’re led to believe eating breakfast makes you slim. Girls who eat breakfast tend to lose their virginities two years younger. Sorry, girls who don’t eat breakfast tend to lose their virginities…
24:45 Trevor Burrus: Okay, I don’t know what I expected either way…
24:46 Terence Kealey: Tend to lose their virginities…
24:46 Trevor Burrus: Now that makes sense, okay.
24:49 Terence Kealey: Two years younger than girls who eat breakfast. So, are you telling me that eating breakfast rescues a girl from early sex? Of course not. The association of breakfast with slimness is an association of eating breakfast and not smoking, not drinking, not having premature sex, being middle or upper-class, having a high income, and various other things. It is purely an association. So when you see a paper that says, “Breakfast makes you slim and look here’s the data,” ask yourself why are they not telling us about social class and all the other… Now, what they do in these papers sometimes is they do actually appear to correct, but they’re not actually correcting completely, ‘cause there’s a big gap there.
25:27 Terence Kealey: So to answer your question. There’s actually almost no way at all a non-specialist can tell if a trick is being played, and that’s one of the things that makes it so dangerous. Only fellow specialists can. And if they’re all in the same game together, then it’s almost… And I tell you where there’s one area that has really let us all down, and that’s the science correspondents of the newspapers. Unfortunately the media are now so weak and feeble, and disempowered and poor. But, it is really shocking, even when you read a science story, how often they don’t even tell you which journal it came in, or… The amount of information you get from a science journalist is really, really trivial. The BBC in Britain used to for some time have a regular column in which a distinguished researcher, a statistician would pull apart these things on the BBC, and we need to see more of that sort of thing.
26:14 Trevor Burrus: I wanna go back on this question of flat earthers, because, it is kind of interesting in terms of what a person can do. And, it is… Usually, when someone is bucking the trend… On one level you could just take a lot of stuff and be like, “There’s a conspiracy of dietary scientists funded by the National Science Foundation, and I’m the only one who’s avoiding that.” It does actually sound a lot like flat earthers. They talk about all of the incentives that people have to lie that the earth is round and, I think they include Hollywood and all of these… Of course, different conspiracy theories abound, but all these different incentives… And the really interesting thing is… This is the thing I like about the flat earthers. If we have any listeners who are flat earthers it would be interesting, but there’s a documentary called Behind the Curve. They do try to test, the serious ones do scientific tests, they bring gyroscopes into the claims, they fire lasers to see if the earth curves, they make all these claims, which is kind of interesting ‘cause they’re saying, “Well, I need to see it for myself.”
27:17 Trevor Burrus: So, I guess in this case it’s… If you’re not a layman… If you are… Sorry, if you are a layman, if you’re not a specialist, and you’re trying to assess these things, what should one do? Should you first look for a systematic bias coming from the National Science Foundation? Should you always distrust government science, just like you distrust Nestle’s or Coke’s science or tobacco companies’ science? How should someone proceed in this?
27:41 Terence Kealey: Well, let me tell you a story, that happened to me in my own life. In 1991, when our first child was born, we were told, my wife and I, the science is settled, there’s no question about it, you have to put your baby to sleep, lying on her tummy. That’s the way you prevent what we in England call cot death. So I think you have a slightly different…
28:00 Trevor Burrus: Sudden infant death syndrome.
28:01 Terence Kealey: Right. Which was an epidemic.
28:03 Trevor Burrus: Oh, yeah, I remember.
28:04 Terence Kealey: In 1993 when we had our second child, the science was equally settled, but this time, you had to put the child on his back, ‘cause it turned out that 70% of those deaths had been caused by putting a child on his tummy. So, if in 1991 you had said, the evidence of putting a child on his tummy is flawed, and by the way, the evidence… So let me tell you what the evidence was very simply. In neonatal intensive care units, there was no question that babies did better on their tummies. The trouble is that they then extrapolated that to healthy babies under healthy circumstances, and it was an outrageous extrapolation.
28:37 Terence Kealey: They didn’t test the extrapolation, they just assumed that if it was good for sick babies, it had to be good for healthy babies. So, if in 1991 I’d said to you… It’s absurd, go to primitive tribes in the Amazon, they don’t put their babies on their tummies, they’d have said, of course, you’d have said you’re a flat earther. Two years later, you’d have been a flat earther the other way round. The nature of science is this constant business of paradigm shifting, and the establishment always resists the paradigm shift. Max Planck, the great physicist said, “Science advances funeral by funeral,” ‘cause it’s only when the old boys, in those days all men, have died, that young people come up with a more truthful story.
29:12 Terence Kealey: Equally, if you look at nutrition, it is a… We don’t believe in conspiracies because we’re at Cato and we’re mature and sophisticated men and women of the world. But if you look at nutrition, the three most important new nutritionists of the last 40 years, all three were journalists. Nina Teicholz, who wrote a book called Big Fat Surprise, Good Calories, Bad Calories… And if I wasn’t jet-lagged I’d remember [laughter] his name. And Mike Pollan who told us…
29:39 Trevor Burrus: The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
29:40 Terence Kealey: Yeah, exactly. Eat sparingly, mainly plants, not too much.
29:43 Trevor Burrus: Oh, yeah, yeah.
29:43 Terence Kealey: And Gary Taubes. Gary Taubes. Now, what is extraordinary is all three were journalists, and that’s important, because they were not… And they all three described a culture of fear. Professional researchers were scared to flout the orthodoxy, because they knew that by flouting the orthodoxy, like for example, we have an example for it. There was a man who wrote Pure White and Deadly, which is about the dangers of sugar. And his career was crushed, because, in those days you weren’t meant to criticize sugar. We can actually see it happening before our eyes. And it’s very interesting they were journalists, because they were investigative journalists, they knew how to read the scientific literature, and they smashed open what was, not a conspiracy so much as a mutual agreement of silence. It is the nature of science, and this is an important point. I’m addressing your point, it is the nature of science philosophically to go from paradigm to paradigm.
30:33 Trevor Burrus: Thomas Kuhn.
30:34 Terence Kealey: Exactly. But while you’re still in one paradigm, 99% of scientists for 99% of the time are incentivized to subscribe to that paradigm. Shifting paradigms is never easy, and it’s not rewarded until in retrospect.
30:46 Aaron Powell: Is there a way, heuristics that we as laymen looking at… We… So there’s… We see reports on scientific studies, and findings all over the place, we hear things from scientists, we hear things from government… So we… We witness all of the paradigms that we’re in, and then, we can also see stories about people who are pushing to shift the paradigm to something else. But some of them are flat earthers trying to shift the paradigm to flat earth, and some of them are nutrition scientists trying to shift it to something like… So they’re actually shifting to a better paradigm. Is there any way that we can look at these things and see signs of which one different things possibly are?
31:28 Terence Kealey: No, it’s a very sad thing. The only people qualified to examine a scientific paper are fellow scientists.
31:28 Trevor Burrus: Let me offer… Can I offer something like that? Yeah.
31:28 Terence Kealey: Sure. Please.
31:28 Trevor Burrus: There are… We did an episode which Aaron wasn’t on, with Jacob Greer on tobacco, for example. I think… I think Terrence is correct that at one point… It is pretty… Take all science journalism with a grain of the salt. Take the headlines that proclaim massive effects with a grain of salt. Also, salt is a funny one, too. The idiom is a funny one, ‘cause there’s a chapter about salt in the book from Michelle Minton, but the other idea I think is… I mean, some things are pretty easy. Look for large effects that are just unbelievable. This happened in a famous study about second-hand smoke in the 2000s, where a hugely influential paper claimed that just banning outdoor smoking lowered heart attack rates by 60% in an eight-month period in a town in Montana. And this was reported all over the place. In the New York Times, it was… And no-one was like, “That is an absolutely wildly implausible result. There is no way that’s true.” I think some of those are good sort of rules of thumb, but that doesn’t get you to understanding the nuances of the breakfast literature.
32:52 Terence Kealey: Yes, I would agree with that. But to come back to Aaron’s point, really, I think that it would help if scientific journalism were of a higher quality. And that applies even to the New York Times, funnily enough…
33:02 Trevor Burrus: Absolutely, yes.
33:03 Terence Kealey: Although that’s better than some journals. But I have to repeat what I said to Aaron. Unfortunately, it’s really impossible for someone outside the field to make a judgment. And so the only obvious thing to do is to assume that all science journalism, all reports of these findings have to be treated with great skepticism. If in five years’ time, people are still saying it, well, then it’s more likely to be true. But as we said, paradigms reinforce. And even the fat paradigm, which is completely false, lasted 40 years in the most scientific era in human history. The eugenics paradigm lasted 60 years and was only really smashed by, I regret to say, the terrible events in 1945 when suddenly we discovered what happened when you took those things to an extreme. So paradigms can last a very long time. Huge skepticism is… We have to get away from trusting scientists to being much more skeptical about them. That’s all I would say.
33:56 Trevor Burrus: So when it comes to some of the public policy aims, other than my chapter in the book, which is, for interested listeners, is about research into marijuana and MDMA, and your chapter, which is about diet. What do you… Do you have any favorite of the more public policy chapters in the book?
34:11 Terence Kealey: Well, these chapters are fascinating. One particularly… You mentioned Michelle Minton and her chapter on salt. Salt’s not bad for you. It’s just a complete myth. And she did a brilliant chapter there. If you look at this very, very carefully, the chapter that struck me most was Edward Calabrese’s chapter, which stunned me because I did not know. It turns out that the scientists who told us there’s no such thing as any safe level of radiation knew they were telling some untruth. What happened is that this was the era of nuclear testing, when America and Russia were setting off atom bombs every day, and the researchers in radiation felt that they had to deliberately distort the facts. That’s a polite way of saying tell something that was diametrically opposed to the truth. They had to say this…
35:00 Trevor Burrus: Which is another way of saying lie.
35:02 Terence Kealey: Which is another way of saying lie. In the greater good, because they believed that unless they could stop America and Russia doing this, that actually they would eventually go through the threshold and cause huge amounts of death globally. But it turns out that a small amount of radiation is good for you. Can you believe it? And everything we’re told in this area is completely false. But it was falsified deliberately by very senior scientists and the greater good. Do you know, it might even have been the right thing to have done? Perhaps if the Russians and Americans believed that the small amount of radiation is good for you, they really would have gone through on the threshold. But that is a fascinating story by Edward Calabrese, of scientists deliberately lying in the greater good.
35:38 Trevor Burrus: And that’s like a Linus Pauling. I could see Linus Pauling kind of doing one of those things in the Nobel Peace Prize. There’s also one, Jason Johnson, who writes about this level of risk is, I think, fascinating, especially when it comes to environmentalism… Environmental science and things like radiation, when you’re talking about linear risk models versus either you’re… Everyone says it’s not the poison, it’s the dose. And that comes into play when we’re talking about things like arsenic in drinking water, where there’s a huge political incentive if you take arsenic in drinking water and lower it from, say, 20 parts per billion to 10 parts per billion. If the model is linear, then you would say, “We’ve saved as many lives as if you lowered it from 50 parts per billion to 40 parts per billion.” But that’s not true at all. It’s ludicrous to believe that, but the EPA seems to work off of many of those kind of models sometimes. And they have historically, because there’s political incentives to say, “I lowered arsenic from 20 to 10, and I saved this many lives.” Actually, you probably saved no one at that level.
36:36 Terence Kealey: Your analysis is completely correct. Another way, just looking at the chapters here of the way science is abused… It happens for your chapter, Trevor, but it’s nothing to do with you being here. I’ve already been very nice about Ed Calabrese’s chapter. The use of science to justify the drug laws is grotesque.
36:56 Trevor Burrus: Yes.
36:57 Terence Kealey: The drug laws… And this is as much in England as in America, so I’m not making some sort of nationalist point. The drug laws are worse than obscene. They have caused such death and destruction on such a huge scale. They’ve turned huge areas of America and England into crime zones, all… The Mafia’s benefited, Mexico has been destabilized. They are grotesque, the drug laws. And the fact that science is used to justify them is really shocking.
37:23 Trevor Burrus: I always say it’s the worst government… Federal government policy, except for slavery.
37:27 Terence Kealey: Except for slavery.
37:28 Trevor Burrus: Yes. [laughter]
37:29 Terence Kealey: But that’s a very interesting…
37:30 Trevor Burrus: It would be in the running at least.
37:31 Terence Kealey: Yeah, it’s terrible. But also the point that Jeffrey Singer makes in his book on his chapter on the war on opioids, I was brought up to believe, when I was a doctor as a very young man, that there was no such thing as a safe dose of morphine. We now know that that was yet another extraordinary extrapolation.
37:51 Aaron Powell: Yeah, in addition to Terence’s many talents, he is a medical doctor. [laughter]
37:54 Terence Kealey: Well, I was a medical doctor, I don’t practice anymore. And the war on opioids, it’s a complicated thing because the point that he’s making, Singer, in his extraordinary interesting chapter, is there’s actually nothing wrong with being prescribed healthy opioids by a healthy doctor to an otherwise healthy person. It’s when the doctor stops allowing you to have legal opioids and you then have to get them illegally. That’s when the real problems start. But trying to get that message through in America or Britain today is very hard because of all the prejudices and, again, science is misused in that way.
38:25 Terence Kealey: So the misuse of science is a perennial problem, but where in this book, I think, is particularly important and interesting, is not in these examples of the misuse of science. Yes, of course, it’s terrible that science is misused to justify, just as science was used to justify the temperance movement, you know, Prohibition in the ’20s, and that was an abuse of science. But, I think, what is the most interesting part of the book is the way the government funding of university science has been subtly, but in a very real way, undermining the integrity of science.
38:57 Aaron Powell: This diagnosis that we have walked through the many parts of today sounds awfully bad. We’ve got, and it seems there’s a lot of causes going towards corrupting science in the way that you described. Given all of that, then, what can we meaningfully do? Like, what sort of concrete steps can we take, whether that’s in industry or policy, government, whatever, to, if not make things significantly better, at least move them a good step in the right direction?
39:31 Terence Kealey: I think we should question whether government should be funding science at all, but assuming that we’ll never stop that because there’s such a popular support for the government funding science, and the universities are such a very powerful lobby that they’ll never allow that to happen anymore, though it should be taught. There’s another book, another Cato book, coming out shortly where we’re all asked to say what we think that the perfect future should be.
39:52 Trevor Burrus: Aaron’s editing that one.
39:53 Aaron Powell: Everyone’s at liberty to look for it in the spring.
39:55 Terence Kealey: Yeah, it’s a great book, Aaron. But the point I make there, is what people haven’t noticed is there’s been a huge privatization, a huge privatization of research and development. Research and development is a bigger thing than science. Science is just what happens in universities and similar things. Research and development is what happens in industry. But, 30 years ago, most, it’s an incredible statement this, most research and development in this country was funded by the government. So, if you were Boeing and you wanted to do research into your next Max aeroplane, you wrote a research grant to the federal government.
40:24 Terence Kealey: Can you believe it? Slowly, the government has withdrawn from these huge budgets, and research and development now is entirely left in the private sector, and that’s much healthier for it. But academic science has not yet being pulled back ‘cause the universities are such an extraordinary powerful lobby. So we’ll never stop governments funding science, at least not easily. However, society could say collectively, okay, you insist on funding science, fine, but we want government-funded science to challenge, to challenge other government agencies, to challenge industry, to challenge generally. We don’t want government-funded science simply to echo and reinforce vested interests in other lobbies.
41:09 Aaron Powell: Thank you for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, you can find our Free Thoughts discussion group on Facebook or on Reddit at r/freethoughtspodcast. You can follow us on Twitter @freethoughtspod. As always, please rate and subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Free Thoughts is produced by Tess Terrible and Landry Ayres. To learn more, visit us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.