Wild speculation based on tidbits of scientific evidence, unwarranted extrapolations of scientific theories, and ridiculous conspiracy theories about scientific data are rampant in the media.
Scientific and medical fraud is a large and growing problem as well, with numerous high-profile cases damaging public trust in the scientific and medical communities.
Anti-science media output (tailored for target audiences) is poisoning the public discourse on a wide range of scientific, medical, technological, and safety issues, making government policies dysfunctional.
Just as Galileo was faced with anti-science sentiment, so are modern societies faced with a bipartisan, three-pronged assault; the result is lost jobs, wasted resources, and misspent money.
We need to improve science education, remove politics from research funding, and monitor fraud; I would hedge positions in DWDP, MON, CLR, EOG, PXD, KMI, WMB, GILD, MRK, PFE.
Galileo Galilei, @1605
I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forego their use."
The number of people that can reason well is much smaller than those that can reason badly. If reasoning were like hauling rocks, then several reasoners might be better than one. But reasoning isn't like hauling rocks, it's like racing, where a single, galloping Barbary steed easily outruns a hundred wagon-pulling horses."
Long experience has taught me this about the status of mankind with regard to matters requiring thought: the less people know and understand about them, the more positively they attempt to argue concerning them, while on the other hand to know and understand a multitude of things renders men cautious in passing judgment upon anything new."
The root of all superstition is that men observe when a thing hits, but not when it misses."
Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd."
A scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it."
As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality."
Consider the following recent news items:
1) New evidence suggests that a periodically dimming star has not been harnessed for use by aliens after all (Shivali Best, 2017);
2) Was the recent huge Mexican earthquake manmade? (Uncensored.co.nz blog, 2017);
3) Hurricanes Harvey and Irma are the direct result of climate change, and President Trump and other “climate deniers” have committed murder by refusing to act on global warming (Mark Hertsgaard, 2017);
4) The US Geological Survey, the Center for Disease Control, and the EPA have been manufacturing scientific data, as documented by the US Inspector General, courts, and Congressional hearings (David Lewis, 2017);
5) Hominin footprints indicate humans originated in Europe, not Africa, providing new fuel for creationists (cf. Gunter Bechly, 2017);
6) Medical journals are full of reports containing “spin” (distorted interpretations) on the utility of research results, including recommendations for drug treatments that have no support in the actual reported data (Brian Goldman, MD, 2017);
7) Hollywood has come down four-square against hydraulic fracturing in the oil & gas industry, in spite of massive evidence that it is generally safe (Julia Bell, 2013);
8) Creationism has recently gained a considerable following in Europe, in spite of massive evidence in favor of evolution (Stefaan Blancke & Peter C. Kjaergaard, 2016);
9) A Minneapolis measles outbreak is blamed on the anti-vaccine movement, whose claims are completely unsupported by science (Megan Molteni, 2017);
10) The US spent $50 billion over the last 20 years replacing asbestos in spite of compelling evidence that almost all of it was inert and has no effect on human health (Christopher Booker & Richard North, 2007);
11) Approximately 150 municipalities worldwide have rejected fluoridation in the last few years, in spite of massive evidence that it is both safe and useful (Cathy Hester Seckman, 2016);
12) Millions reject any notion of eating GMOs on purpose (we all eat them accidentally), in spite of compelling evidence that these foods are safe, and that poor countries will benefit greatly from GMO agriculture (Janet Cotter, 2011).
Wild speculation based on minuscule tidbits of scientific evidence, unwarranted extrapolations of scientific theories to cover very specific events of the day, and ridiculous conspiracy theories about scientific data are rampant on the web nowadays. Scientific and medical fraud is a large and growing problem as well, with numerous high-profile cases damaging public trust in the scientific and medical communities. A huge and growing wave of anti-science media output (tailored for target audiences) is poisoning the public discourse on a wide range of scientific, medical, technological, and safety issues affecting society (Shawn Lawrence Otto, 2012). The anti-science movement is both bipartisan (Jamelle Bouie, 2015) and bi-modal; i.e., it appears to be exclusively the domain of conservatives with respect to some topics, and liberals on other topics, but everybody is in on the game. Those who are not politically aligned can jump from side to side depending on the issue, and many appear to do just that (Darrin Durant, 2017).
The two main social groups, which are polar opposites on a number of social and political issues, each appear to reject one or more aspects of science, or to accept others, depending entirely upon which issues happen to reflect their respective biases and political goals. Lest we think this is purely a political problem though, it behooves us to recall some of the recent issues that everyone agreed on, like asbestos removal, which nevertheless had little scientific merit or justification behind the massive public expenditures applied to what was ultimately an almost non-existent problem, except for industrial workers (James P. Collman, quoted by Spyros Andreopoulos, 2001). This is a disturbing trend that is likely costing our economy many jobs and massive amounts of money. All of this results from society seeking the dubious benefits of trying to satisfy the completely irrational and anti-intellectual mobs that form like stampeding buffaloes over any given scientific, medical, technological, or safety issue that arises. While this is not exactly a new thing, its importance is completely at odds with the interests of civilized society.
Galileo Galilei, the father of modern science, was faced with an anti-science movement in 1633, but it came from what was very much a part of the establishment: the Italian Inquisition in Rome (Dava Sobel, Galileo’s Daughter, 1999; Penguin Books, New York, 420p). Galileo was used as a pawn in a political struggle (the Thirty Years’ War) between the Pope (Urban VIII) and his detractors in Europe, but his scientific theories and writings about astrophysics also became entangled with major policy issues in the Italian Renaissance, with important philosophical and religious ramifications.
In essence, Galileo’s observations through his telescope led him to confirm the heliocentric theory of Copernicus, which flew in the face of the religious doctrine of the time. Galileo, in spite of his own deep religious conviction, and his previous permission from the Inquisition’s censors to publish his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Systems of the World, was nevertheless tried before the Holy Office of the Inquisition. The delivery of the verdict and sentencing took place at the Dominican convent adjoining the beautiful Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome, and Galileo was found guilty, whereupon he was forced, under threat of torture, to recant his theories. His book was also banned (ultimately for 189 years), and he was sentenced to house arrest for the remainder of his life. Ironically, his fame and prestige increased greatly after his ill treatment became known in other parts of Europe.
Anti-science sentiment has historically been generally focused on religious issues, as evidenced by the huge debate over evolution triggered by the publication of Darwin’s and Wallace’s theories in 1859, over 225 years after Galileo was tried. This debate has never really died, and was famously revisited during the Scopes “Monkey Trial” of 1925 in Tennessee (Edward J. Larson, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion, 1998; Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 318p). Similarly to the debate over a heliocentric system for the planets, evolution has stayed controversial because views on the role of man in nature are central to religious and philosophical thought. What appears new today is that all sorts of additional, non-religious arguments against science are now coming forward, mostly generated in the interests of particular philosophical and political positions, but also based on breathtaking scientific illiteracy. It is surely an indictment of the educational systems in many countries that so few people have even the foggiest notion of what science is, how it operates, and why it is historically superior to other approaches to knowledge.
There is much media commentary on President Trump’s presumed scientific ignorance right now, given his highly controversial decision against joining the Paris climate accord, but even if we accept what are mostly partisan attacks on Trump, he hardly stands alone in his supposed scientific illiteracy. For example, look at this gem from his predecessor: "We've seen just a skyrocketing autism rate," said President-elect Obama (in 2008). "Some people are suspicious that it's connected to the vaccines. This person included. The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it," he said (Steve Connor, 2008). This grossly unscientific opinion was uttered four years after the study (published in The Lancet) that triggered the autism scare was fully repudiated scientifically and retracted by its own authors. There has never been any other statistically valid evidence on this supposed vaccination source of autism, and eventually the British Medical Journal published a series of articles exposing outright fraud by the authors of the original study (T. S. Sathyanarayana Rao & Chittaranjan Andrade, 2011), yet the controversy persists.
Obviously politicians play to their constituencies, but the level of scientific ignorance amongst the general public is a major concern in an age when so many social and political issues involve scientific questions (e.g., gene editing, radioactive waste disposal, antibiotic drug resistance, nutrition, water quality, etc.). Professor Jon D. Miller at Northwestern University studied this problem of scientific illiteracy over many years (Cornelia Dean, 2005). Miller's data (as of 2005) revealed some pretty substantial gaps in basic scientific knowledge. At that time, American adults in general did not understand what molecules are, and less than a third could identify DNA as a key to heredity. Only about 10 percent knew what radiation is. One adult American in five still thought that the sun revolves around the earth, which must have Galileo spinning in his grave. In more recent surveys (Cary Funk & Lee Rainie, 2015) it has been found that about 57% of Americans believe that GMOs are unsafe to eat (in opposition to the vast majority of scientists), and about a third of Americans believe that man’s evolution is still the subject of considerable scientific disagreement (it is not).
That takes us to one of the most common misperceptions about science. There is a widespread belief amongst lay persons that science consists of proven facts, rather than theories supported by evidence. Indeed, many ill-informed critics of evolution refer to it as “just a theory,” without realizing that relativity, the laws of motion, thermodynamics, and all other major concepts in science that they seem to accept are also theories. Science properly conducted never makes the statement that we are done; indeed, all theories can be seen to change or evolve over time as our understanding of natural processes improves. The process of science is thus iterative, meaning scientists return again and again to a topic, burrowing ever deeper into its true nature, as discerned at the time (Understanding Science blog, 2017).
The Scientific Process
The process of science is not predetermined, meaning that testing a hypothesis can lead to unexpected data, or a discovery that completely changes the research project being worked on, or even sends the scientists off on a completely different track. I have experienced this exciting phenomenon myself, for example when I was working on my PhD dissertation. I started the project by seeking to reconstruct the paleogeography of Africa over time by using geologic data and 4-D crustal loading models to restack the sediment (that had eroded off the continent) back onto its original source areas, which then allowed one to map paleo-topography. But what I discovered about the shape of the ancient African continental margins, early in the project, led to an improved plate tectonic reconstruction of the southern continents, before they broke up to form the Atlantic and Indian oceans. Thereafter, we saw so much potential from what we discovered, and we had so many questions come up in the light of new data, that my PhD dissertation was switched from a study of African geologic history to a global plate tectonic study. This produced a whole series of published papers in internationally published scientific journals and books over the next few years (cf. Wilson et al., 1989). The original project on African paleogeography was set aside for a while, pending the completion of the more exciting stuff. Eventually the reconstructions of continents, island arcs, ocean basins, and paleo-topography produced by all these studies also had significant implications for the modeling of paleoclimate for the ancient earth (Wilson et al., 1994). Almost all of this was unpredictable from our original working hypothesis.
Any scientific hypothesis must, according to the teachings of philosopher Sir Karl Popper (Wikipedia, 2017) and others, be both testable and falsifiable, meaning that new data might disprove a cherished theory at any time. No empirical theory is ever absolutely proven then, even Newton’s Laws, or Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, or the Laws of Thermodynamics. Einstein himself said, “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.” This is not a concept about science that the average person seems to understand. Few seem to realize that science is constantly tossing out or modifying established theories in the light of new evidence. A great example of this process was the significant displacement of Newtonian physics by Einstein’s relativity concepts (cf. Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (2 nd Ed.), 1970, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 210p). Thus, when global warming enthusiasts call others out as “deniers” even when they just quibble a little about some parts of the climate change story, the “warmers” are really putting on a demonstration of their own scientific naiveté.
Sir Karl Popper
Science is not, and never has been, permanently “settled” by popular votes or surveys taken amongst the elites in a particular field, because nothing is ever really “settled” in science. There is commonly a consensus of sorts on major theories, such as the much-overstated consensus on climate change right now (Oren Cass, 2017), but there is also plenty of dissent about the details of climate change, and the wildly varying predictions of models. In any case that consensus would change if the data changed, or if an established hypothesis is found to be incorrect. Consensus in science is hardly an automatic sign of the virtue of the theory in question. For example, there was at one time a broad scientific consensus on the notion that the continents were immutable, i.e., had never moved in space and time. In spite of fairly compelling evidence to the contrary presented by Alfred Wegener in 1915, there was no physical theory that could explain how such movement could occur, so the evidence of continental drift was ignored until 1960. Then, Harry H. Hess provided the missing mechanism for moving the continents, and plate tectonics/continental drift became the accepted consensus within a few years. Thomas S. Kuhn (op.cit.) studied the way major new theories achieve acceptance, and it is generally not a pretty sight. The quote from famous physicist Max Planck that I placed at the beginning of this posting basically sums up the problem.
Disputes in science are quite common, and criticism publicly offered is the norm; this is not for the faint of heart. For example, Darwin was so intimidated by the firestorm he knew would come from both the religious and scientific communities that he delayed publication of his seminal work (The Origin of Species) for years. This delay ended when friends advised him that the impending publication of the work of his colleague Alfred Russel Wallace would be a scoop that would force him to lose scientific precedence if he didn’t get his own work published immediately. In the end Darwin and Wallace shared credit for the theory of evolution. The ensuing debate was so stressful that Darwin stepped aside from participation in it in favor of his good friend and supporter, Thomas Henry Huxley (Hal Hellman, Great Feuds in Science, 1998, John Wiley & Sons, New York, 240p). I have personally been involved in scientific disputes, and I can tell you, the gloves come off pretty quickly, and they stay off.
Alfred Russel Wallace
Returning to the subject of what science is and is not, it seems clear that by definition, theological questions (e.g., does God exist?) are intrinsically unscientific, because they can’t be tested or falsified. It is disheartening then to see otherwise reputable scientists (e.g., Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking) specifically take on the question of God’s existence as if science knows or could discover the answer. This has had the effect of damaging the reputation of science with major portions of the general public, at least those who realize from their own common sense that science has nothing useful to say on such subjects. There has likewise been a proliferation of scientists (e.g., Stephen Hawking [again], John R. Baumgardner, Arthur E. Wilder-Smith) who speak out of turn, i.e., who attempt to speak authoritatively on controversial subjects (such as evolution or climate change) in which they have neither formal training, nor a history of research effort in relevant fields (Creationists.org blog, 2017; Peter Holley, 2017). This publicity-seeking behavior is sometimes quite counterproductive to the increase of scientific knowledge.
It should also be noted that scientists can have an inherent conflict of interest in some cases, because they have careers to promote and grants to obtain, meaning simply that they follow the money, just like everyone else. There are many examples of specifically targeted funding (earmarks) for scientific projects favored by Congress; these are rightly feared to distort or subvert scientific inquiry because they sidestep the peer review system (Jeff Cheek, 2002). I have been shocked to discover recently that at all three of my earth science department alma maters, there has been a significant shift away from traditional basic research on cognate fields such as petrology, structural geology, plate tectonics, or historical geology, and towards environmental and climate change studies. This is simply what’s hot, and where a great deal of the money is now.
Scientists also achieve power within their home institution on the basis of the grant money they bring in, since on average about half of that money is contributed to their school’s general fund as a sort of tax, called overhead or indirect costs. Professors with an extensive series of active grants tend to make much more money than those without that funding, simply because they are bringing all of that money in. But since Congress now directly interferes in science funding, the biggest winners are sometimes those who pay attention to whatever the latest political trend is in mandated funding. The pressure to produce successful grants and publications has also led to a proliferation of scientific fraud in recent years, and it now represents at least 2% of all published work (Stephen Buranyi, 2017); I would hazard a guess that it is actually a multiple of the known rate.
It is also not helpful that so many lay people nowadays take the public stage to tout their own versions of scientific “truth.” Public figures like Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, Al Gore, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Matt Damon, Robert Redford, Gwyneth Paltrow, and a host of others have taken positions on a range of topics that can be summed up as well-meaning (mostly) but woefully uninformed. The fact that the opinions of public figures seem to count for a lot in public debates on scientific issues is alarming to me, because however good their intentions, they really get things wrong most of the time. This is natural for several reasons. For one thing, both the 24/7 news cycle and media in general operate on a clicks rather than content basis, which tends to reward people for attention-grabbing headlines rather than the content of their ideas. This is causing a further dumbing down of the necessary national debate on a range of issues. Secondly, public figures are demonstrably less informed than even the often publicity-seeking scientists who speak "out of turn" on scientific controversies. Thirdly, celebrities influencing more people to fall in with popular trends in mass opinion does not really improve our grasp of the issues; instead, it makes it harder to make good decisions and move understanding forward, as Galileo recognized almost 400 years ago (see his quote on group thinking at the top of this article).
The effect of all this anti-science and pseudo-science rhetoric and its associated media campaigns on the economy should be of concern to all investors. Scientific and medical research frauds are far more numerous than I can ever remember seeing them, and that is clearly a threat to public confidence in scientific answers to society’s problems. The combination of these recent trends in anti-science and pseudo-science rhetoric and scientific fraud has created a three-pronged risk to rational decision-making. It has likely already cost our economy many jobs, definitely led to a shocking waste of resources, and also definitely wasted massive amounts of money. As I already stated above, “All of this results from society seeking the dubious benefits of trying to satisfy the completely irrational and anti-intellectual mobs that form like stampeding buffaloes over any given scientific, medical, technological, or safety issue that arises. While this is not exactly a new thing, its importance is completely at odds with the interests of civilized society.”
For example, I have already mentioned the $50 billion wasted on asbestos remediation. The mandated use of ethanol requires more energy than it saves, has negatively affected the food supply, and has not reduced our carbon footprint (James Lenz, 2017); furthermore, E85 use ends up costing each car owner around $1,600 extra over the life of their vehicle (James R. Healey, 2007). The global cost of the Kyoto Agreement was in the billions of dollars per year, but it has failed to have any appreciable impact on global warming (Chart 1; cf. Quirin Schiermeier, 2012). The estimated global cost of the Paris Treaty will potentially reach $2 trillion per year by 2030, but reduce global mean temperature by only about 0.17 degrees Centigrade by the year 2100, based on a range of cost/benefit analyses (Bjorn Lomborg, 2016). The cost of political resistance to GMOs may eventually be measured in significantly increased environmental damage coupled with diminished potential GDP growth occurring in some developing countries (Ramez Naam, 2014).
Chart 1: Failure of Kyoto Protocol to Mitigate Global Warming
In order to correct the current three-pronged assault on science, we need to improve science education, make a philosophical commitment to avoiding political interference in scientific research, and provide funding for the monitoring of research fraud. Investors should be cautious about the potential for resolving big issues like climate change, GMOs, the control of disease, and energy policy, given the currently poisonous atmosphere of public debate on many such science-related issues. Congress and the Administration are likely to spend money on the wrong priorities, continue to support the political distortion of scientific inquiry, and make mistakes in judgment that will be costly.
Society will pay an ever higher price for this over time. Regulations may change unexpectedly, and local disputes on policy (e.g., pipelines, nuclear power, etc.) will be more frequent. We should expect then that the corporate approach to climate change risk may need to change, that energy policy (such as it is) may also change, and that disease outbreaks are a bigger threat than we thought. Investors should already be hedging any investments they may have in GMO producers (e.g., DWDP, MON); shale oil and gas producers (e.g., CLR, EOG, PXD); pipeline companies (e.g., KMI, WMB); and pharmaceutical companies (e.g., GILD, MRK, PFE).
Disclosure: I am/we are long MRK, PFE. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.
Additional disclosure: Disclaimer: This article is intended to provide information to interested parties. As I have no knowledge of individual investor circumstances, goals, and/or portfolio concentration or diversification, readers are expected to complete their own due diligence before purchasing any stocks or other securities mentioned or recommended. This post is illustrative and educational and is not a specific recommendation or an offer of products or services. Past performance is not an indicator of future performance.