For weeks I have attempted to write a grand and eloquent article about the nature of science and scientific discovery. To say that every attempt has failed would be an understatement. It is not that I haven’t written about the structure of science, especially medical science, I have, and generally, rather well. This time, however, I have been at a loss to put to paper how deeply dangerous current corporate attempts to proffer the myth of scientific certainty really are.
So instead of delaying this post any longer, I give you two remarkable and seemingly unrelated videos that crossed my desk contemporaneously and an example of corporate trollism that risks destroying the very foundation of science.
The first video, a Ted Talk by neuroscientist Stuart Firestein that questions the certainty of the scientific endeavor. More so than ever he suggests we ought to be embracing the uncertainty, the unsolved, the puzzles that science presents rather than resting our laurels on some misbegotten perception of scientific eminence.
Stuart Firestein: The Pursuit of Ignorance
The second video shows the awe-inspiring complexity of something so simple that few give any thought to it – how butterfly wings get their colors. It reminds us, or at least it reminded me, of how little we really know about nature’s physiology. The depth of complexity in the butterfly wing colors will blow your mind.
Of Nanoparticles and Pixie Dust
Corporate Certainty and Sciencism
And then there is this, the juxtaposition of scientific uncertainty and the vast complexity of natural physiology with corporate trollism and astroturfing. These are paid propagandists and digital social bots, whose only task is to dismantle all doubt about their products under the auspices of ‘scientific certainty’. The human trolls spend hours upon hours on social media, responding to each and every critique of their product or their issue. The digital social bots respond by algorithm. Each does its damage by attacking anyone, personally and professionally, who dares question the certainty of their science.
Take a gander at this particular message board where the risks of the HPV vaccine of were discussed in advance of a talk show. Whether you are pro or anti-vaccine is of no import. Indeed, not even the topic or the host of the board is important. The same pattern of corporate trollism can be viewed with any potentially dangerous, but hugely profitable, product or issue. It is the method of corporate trollism that is important to observe. See if you can identify the trolls paid by industry. There are at least five. They attack the veracity of the patient experience. They attack parents whose children died. They proclaim scientific certainty. No evidence to the contrary will shake their stance. No comment will be left un-argued.
On Sciencism and Being Galileo’d
If you have watched the videos and perused the message board, I bet you’re thinking what the heck do all three examples have to do with each other? Perhaps nothing, perhaps everything.
On the one hand, I was in awe of the brilliant complexity that is nature – the nano architecture of the butterfly wings is mind blowing. I was humbled. Listening to Dr. Firestein I was reminded of how wonderful it is have such immensely complicated puzzles to investigate. Science is, at its most fundamental, a quest for understanding. If all is certain, science is dead.
On the other hand, I was and continue to be, angered by what I see happening in corporate science or as I like to call it, sciencism. This strict adherence to, and indeed enforcement of, a consensus based understanding of reality, one that happens to correspond perfectly with product profit potential, is everything science is not. There is no humility there; only hubris and the certainty necessary to cudgel perceived detractors. And though there have always been forces that seek to derail discovery, especially when core ideologies are at stake, the Church versus Galileo, for example, the added impetus of billions of dollars in profits combined with the public slaying of patients, scientists and other contrarians, seems new.
Then again, maybe it’s not. Maybe we’re being Galileo’d by the high priests of industry-sponsored, media-supported, politically-ordained sciencism. Maybe only the players have changed.