Science in the Witness Box
Posted on 31 July 2014, 9:57
The sub-title of my forthcoming book Into the Wider Dream is Synchronicity in the Witness Box. Why? Well, if you put people with stories of synchronicity into the witness box, a jury will want to work out how much to trust their evidence. Who will testify for or against such people? Scientists? Yes, but they will disagree with each other. Other people with similar experiences? Probably. Theologians? Yes, but they will disagree. The jury will probably be most guided by good character witnesses.
Now, supposing we put “science” itself or “individual scientists” in the witness box: who will lawyers question, to help the jury, i.e. you and me? From what I am about to say, perhaps once again, good character witnesses would best fill the bill.
I have been complaining how Skeptics “fix” Wikipedia, about Skeptic James Randi’s questionable ethics. But let us grant that you and I are not always perfect either. Each of us has their strong convictions with which we judge others. I judge the Skeptics and find it hard to have a good word to say about them, and they would judge me. Discerning ultimate reality is not so easy because scientists themselves are human beings, and do not always behave ethically.
Blogger, Elene Gusch sends me this from periodical, Junk Science: “The research covered in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association stated that ‘Most Wikipedia articles representing the 10 most costly medical conditions in the United States contain many errors when checked against standard peer-reviewed sources. Caution should be used when using Wikipedia to answer questions regarding patient care’. Elene also referred to another website giving the response of Jimmy Wales, the Founder of Wikipedia, to a petition of 8500 alternative health care workers: He called them “lunatic charlatans”. “No, you have to be kidding me. Every single person who signed this petition needs to go back to check their premises and think harder about what it means to be honest, factual, truthful. Wikipedia’s policies around this kind of thing are exactly spot-on and correct. If you can get your work published in respectable scientific journals - that is to say, if you can produce evidence through replicable scientific experiments, then Wikipedia will cover it appropriately. What we won’t do is pretend that the work of lunatic charlatans is the equivalent of “true scientific discourse”. It isn’t.”
(Signed) Jimmy Wales, founder, Wikipedia. Posted on March 23, 2014.
The website comments: “Wikipedia’s founder tried to censor energy psychology, energy medicine, acupuncture and the entire alternative healthcare community in one broad stroke when he responded to our petition on change.org by referring to its supporters as “lunatic charlatans”, stating that Wikipedia would cover work in respectable journals. Apparently he is oblivious to the fact that there have been over 50 energy psychology research studies, many of them published and reviewed by respected scientific journals such as the Journal of Clinical Psychology, Review of General Psychology, and Traumatology.”
Aside from the question of the battles between rival editors of Wikipedia, we need to remind ourselves about what actually goes on when researchers undertake scientific investigations. We need to do this because Skeptics often seem to picture scientists as an infallible priesthood conveying ultimate truth to the world.
Against that view, read what Henry H. Bauer had to say on “The science Bubble” in Edge Science: ”One sign of the increased prevalence of fraud in science is that the newsletters of the National Institutes of Health quite frequently carry notices naming individuals who have been barred from seeking grants or serving on advisory boards following some kind of dishonest behavior, usually faking experimental results. How common this has become seems astonishing.
“About 2% of researchers admitted fudging results at least once—but since that 2% also believed that 14% of their colleagues had done so, perhaps the 2% is too low an estimate.
“Beyond that, about one-third admitted to questionable practices less serious than data fudging, but they thought that nearly three-quarters of their colleagues had been guilty of such misconduct. Rather clearly, mainstream science can no longer be automatically taken as trustworthy.
“Such prominent media as the The Economist have noted that science has gone badly astray: “modern scientists are doing too much trusting and not enough verifying—to the detriment of the whole of science, and of humanity . . . shoddy experiments . . . poor analysis . . . [H]alf of published research cannot be replicated. . . . [Only] six of 53 ‘landmark’ studies in cancer research. . . . just a quarter of 67 similarly important papers [could be replicated]. . . . three-quarters of papers in . . . [computer science] are bunk. . . . roughly 80,000 patients took part in clinical trials based on research that was later retracted because of mistakes or improprieties.” Competitiveness resulting from growth is one of the reasons: just after World War II, the world had a few hundred thousand scientists; now there are 6–7 million. . “publish or perish”. . . . “Every year six freshly minted PhDs vie for every academic post.”
The reader may well know of an academic friend who has not published, and because of this has lost employment, or heard of scientists desperately seeking commercial sponsors so that they may continue their work. The pressure to act in a questionable way thus can be intense.
So how do we go about getting some kind of accurate understanding of the nature of things? First and foremost comes the experience that comes to us through our physical and psychic senses, and our intuitions and thoughts. But how we interpret and think about these experiences, will be heavily influenced by the language we use, and by Other People in the shape of parents, our schools, our society, our civilisation.
And, in spite of all that we can say about problems with science: an essential way to get at the truth of things is indeed through the use of the tools of science. These tools are of supreme importance. But we need to recognise that the people using these tools are human beings subject to temptation. That is why imagining science in the Witness Box can be helpful. Our imagined lawyers will question “Science”with regard to the good character of individual scientists, the reliability of particular research, whether existing scientific procedures are appropriate when exploring events of human consciousness, or whether the testimony of trustworthy exceptional human experience is sometimes of more use in establishing the nature of reality.
Scientific methods often are of priceless value to humanity in avoiding superstition and arriving at some approximation to reality, but we need to be aware that science is always work in progress, conducted by fallible human beings, who may not agree with each other. Scientific methods are the product of the human mind, as is creativity of all kinds, and exceptional human experiences.
That is what the lawyers may wish to establish for the jury.
Michael Cocks edits the journal, The Ground of Faith.
Afterlife Teaching From Stephen the Martyr by Michael Cocks is published by White Crow Books and available from Amazon and other bookstores.
His forthcoming book, Into the Wider Dream will be published summer 2014 by White Crow Books.