In 2003, author and filmmaker Michael Crichton (1942–2008), best known for Jurassic Park, made a now-famous speech at Caltech, titled “Aliens Cause Global Warming.” The title was humorous but the content was serious. He was not addressing some strange theory of global warming; he was warning about the politicization of science.
Crichton (left, in 2002, courtesy Jon Chase, Harvard CC 3.0), noted that, over the years, science has drifted away from its foundation as an objective search for truth and given itself over to political power games. The first time that he witnessed that was with the famous Drake Equation, used to turn SETI speculations about space aliens into a science. The Drake equation was a series of probabilities multiplied together to estimate the probability that space aliens may exist who can communicate with us. Of course, none of the terms is known or even estimable, and they may not be expressible as probabilities. However, SETI was given a pass because it suited the scientific zeitgeist of the day. It probably helped capture public attention for science.
The same thing happened during discussions of the effects of nuclear war. Paper after paper made nonsense claims about such a war’s effects, including nuclear winter. But no one wanted to intervene, fearing that skepticism might be portrayed as a defense of nuclear war. Thus, bad science, even from top-tier journals, was reported as fact by the scientific community.
Crichton noted that some of these papers were actually part of an orchestrated media campaign:
The first announcement of nuclear winter appeared in an article by Sagan in the Sunday supplement, Parade. The very next day, a highly-publicized, high-profile conference on the long-term consequences of nuclear war was held in Washington, chaired by Carl Sagan and Paul Ehrlich, the most famous and media-savvy scientists of their generation. Sagan appeared on the Johnny Carson show 40 times. Ehrlich was on 25 times. Following the conference, there were press conferences, meetings with congressmen, and so on. The formal papers in Science came months later.Michael Crichton, “Aliens Cause Global Warming” at California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA (January 17, 2003)
He summed it all up by saying, “This is not the way science is done, it is the way products are sold.” Painful, but true.
Unfortunately, these problems in science remain and affect coverage of the COVID-19 crisis today. I’ll give two examples, both from The Lancet, which is one of the world’s oldest and most respected peer-reviewed medical journals.
The first one is “Mortality Before and After the 2003 Invasion of Iraq: Cluster Sample Survey” This meaningless study was rushed to publication in time for the 2004 election, precisely because it was meant to influence policy. That fact alone should set off warning bells about the content.
But the paper itself is worse. The paper claims (quite emphatically, and several times) that the civilian body count for the Iraq war was around 100,000. And that was the number reported in all significant media outlets. But, if you looked at the details, you would find that the actual range was between 8,000 and 194,000 casualties. With so wide a range of estimates, it was basically a worthless study. Yet it was rushed to publication in one of the most prestigious medical journals in order to influence an election. As Crichton said, “This is not the way science is done, it is the way products are sold.”
Now, in the midst of the current COVID-19 crisis, another questionable study has been released, again by The Lancet. This study claimed that, not only was hydroxychloroquine not helpful in fighting COVID-19, it was actually dangerous. The World Health Organization (WHO) cancelled its trials of the drug due to this study.
The problem? The data is totally bogus. The now retracted study overstated COVID cases and deaths, sometimes by a factor of 80. Why the rush to publish a study with such bad data? Is it because an unpopular public figure was touting hydroxychloroquine, which made everyone look the other way when data that appeared to refute him didn’t match up?
What is even more disturbing is that influential groups are using such studies to form the basis for censorship—not just of controversialists—but even of world leaders. Facebook, for instance, possibly on the basis of this very study, removed the public statements of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro which claimed that hydroxychloroquine was working. Why? Because it breached their “misinformation guidelines.” That is, the post contained information which was at odds with established science—and the established science in this case is a now-retracted study.
So, what we have is politically motivated science that is backed up by scientifically motivated censorship. The science pretends to be an unbiased source of truth and the big media companies use such claims as a pretense for removing content of which they disapprove—all the while appearing high-minded. It’s traditional political censorship dressed up to look like concern for “science.”
In short, the worry that science might be co-opted by non-scientific motivations is not merely theoretical. The Lancet peer review scandal around hydroxychloroquine and COVID-19 shows that science has already been co-opted by political interests: From now on, we must all be prepared to treat skeptically claims that are “vetted in top tier peer-reviewed journals.”
Further reading: Why it’s so hard to reform peer review. Robert J. Marks: Reformers are battling numerical laws that govern how incentives work. Know your enemy!