Hypocritial Science Denialism in TZM
I have science-related debates with fellow Zeitgeist supporters on a regular basis. Many of us are avid and knowledgeable advocates of science, as it should be. However, when you mix science and counter-culture activism working against the establishment, there almost necessarily will be a demographic of science denialists floating around as well. Sadly, this is an embarrassing self-contradiction for the Zeitgeist Movement as we promote science above everything else as the way to align ourselves with the natural world, so let's try to nip these individuals in the bud through our favorite form of social persuasion: education. Many of these individuals don't know how science works and unwittingly propagate numerous myths about the scientific method and its interactions with business and the world of monetary profit. They use what they feel are justifiable anecdotes to dismiss any trust in scientific consensus because it, too, is viewed as part of the profit-motivated establishment.
Fortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. The scientific process of establishing consensus through independent repeatable research and peer review has little interaction with the profit structures that most of us in counter-culture activism view as corrupted. In truth, peer review is semi-analogous to the process of open-source development of technology where individuals working on the project contribute their own additions and contributions are tested independently by the community of developers working on the same project. Useful additions are adopted into the overall development process while bad contributions are thrown aside and replaced by others that work better. To say that the profit motive could come along and mess up this harmony is to imply a complete misunderstanding about how this all works. Nobody in this structure owns anything, reports to anyone, or has any exclusive control to exploit. Open-source projects have been on-going for years and produced some of the most well-developed products we have (i.e. the Linux operating system).
The Peer Review Process
When a scientist has completed a research project, documented the experiment, and drawn all of the conclusions, it is time to submit the research to a peer review journal so that other scientists can review it. This has many benefits. This helps ensure that the research was done well, is most likely free of errors, and contributes to the sum of knowledge. Other scientists can also repeat the experiment and use the research to further related research of their own. Once a paper is submitted to the appropriate journal, an editor reviews the paper to ensure it is well-written and appropriate for the journal. For example, sloppy or unintelligible writing work won't get accepted and physics papers are not accepted in medical journals. Once a paper passes this step, it is sent anonymously to a handful of related peer scientists who will check the work for several things. Is it conclusive? Is it significant? Does the experiment make the conclusions being purposed? If the reviewers like the paper, it is recommended to be published in the journal. Most papers do not get accepted.
The main difference between peer review and open-source development is that in peer review, a scientist submitting a new paper to a journal doesn't know who is reviewing his or her work nor does the reviewer know whose work he or she is reviewing. This eliminates bias right from the start. They could be in different countries or working for competing employers within the same industry. All of that in mind, let me hit the overall issue bluntly.
Do business, government, or other profit-oriented bodies dictate what science concludes? No! Business and government cannot influence scientific consensus in the modern world. Most people reach this erroneous conclusion out of an ignorance of the peer review process and one of two other factors: 1. A disdain for corporate/government propaganda that they believed was the scientific consensus (implying a lack of knowledge or willingness to check it); 2. An erroneous assumption that business or government own the peer review journals. The spectacular truth is that most of prestigious peer review journals are operated pro bono by the global academic community, not by any government or business (or industry of businesses). Again, they don't report to anyone and, therefore, have no control structure to dictate what the conclusions should be.
Does this mean science is completely free of influence by the profit motive? Unfortunately, it does not. One of the ways the profit motive has an unpredictable, but considerable, influence on the proper function of science is by denying scientists the resources to reproduce experiments described in peer review papers. This doesn't mean errors in research won't get caught. It means they won't get caught as quickly. The good news is that this is not a weakness one could exploit deliberately for any particular gain.
Finding Scientific Consensus
So how do we know what the scientific consensus is? As a non-scientist, peer review papers are infuriatingly dry and complicated, but there are a few avenues available to us for researching what the current understandings of science are on any given topic. First, and foremost, I check to see if the topic in question is being published in the appropriate journals. If so, I also want to know how many papers are being published, how many different experts are writing about it, how many citations the papers usually get, is the knowledge being applied for everyday use, and other such criteria. The more I find, the more compelled I become. If the topic is not something recently discovered within the past 10 years or so, I may e-mail any number of university professors I can find and inquire if the topic is being taught in university classrooms. Don't take the word of any one expert. Get a general idea from many of them! If I only find a small number of papers on the topic from very recent research, I'd be forced to contact some experts myself and ask. Again, don't get take the word of just one.
Last Minute Myths
Here are a few last minute concerns I often hear that I'd like to squash.
1. Journals do not publish research revealing changes to already widely accepted scientific beliefs, revealing an inherent dogmatism in science. WRONG! There is a term for those, "scientific breakthrough." They not only happen, but they happen often enough that we award experts who reveal them with Nobel Prizes.
2. Scientists review papers based on how their employers want them to do so. WRONG! Most scientists review papers pro bono on their own time.
3. Big Pharmaceutical companies lie all the time, therefore science is not reliable. WRONG! Pharmaceutical companies produce their own propaganda for the people to read, but these may or may not reflect what is in the peer review journals. People have a bad habit of reading pseudo-science trash without checking it and blaming science when it turns out to be false.
4. Science is responsible for a lot of atrocities (i.e. the atom bomb). Partially wrong. Science under the instruction of politics was responsible for the atom bomb. War is necessarily a failure in diplomacy, a duty we charge to our politicians. If winning the war required the use of an atom bomb, it is necessarily the fault of the government which required it. Aside from that, science has saved and extended far more lives as well as increased the standard of living over the centuries so a single anecdotal, albeit atrocious, case is hardly fair.
5. Science gets things wrong all the time, so we can disregard it if we so choose. Right, but spectacularly stupid. Science is irrefutably the single most reliable way of assessing reality. It is as imperfect as we are, but it is self-correcting. If you choose to disregard science on the basis of some standard of perfection that nothing could ever possibly fulfill, my question to you is this. What do you fill that intellectual vacuum with: conjecture, a subjective hunch, an uneducated guess? No matter what you choose, it necessarily must be less accurate than science. This position is arrogant and logically fallacious.
6. Scientists are arrogant, closed-minded, elitists. Partially right. They are elitists and that is as it should be. This position almost always stems from a person who has a personal preference toward a conclusion that disagrees with the experts. To hold that position out of choice in spite of what is evident and regardless of what is true is the height of arrogance and closed-mindedness.
I have one final word to science denialists. Everything we have today from our computers and medicines to our cars and machines are the fruits of science. If you choose to be a science denialist, then you are necessarily stained with hypocrisy unless you opt to live the caveman's life without those fruits. Science...love it or hate it, but you can't have it both ways.