Is there a conspiracy among scientists?

Introduction

Some creationist and intelligent design writers claim that scientists have conspired to keep from the public eye some important evidence undermining evolution (or other theories in the science-religion arena). Others have asserted that scientists have been “brainwashed” by some sort of “group-think.”

As a single example, the 2008 movie “Expelled” claimed that creationist and intelligent design writers have been systematically shut out from scientific journals and conferences, due to a “conspiracy” among the scientific establishment. In a similar vein, Philip Skell, a retired chemistry professor at Pennsylvania State University recently wrote that an unquestioning acceptance of Darwinism has persisted in the field of biology “mainly because too many scientists were afraid to challenge what had become a philosophical orthodoxy among their colleagues” [Skell2005].

How do scientists respond to these claims?

Conspiracies and the scientific enterprise

To begin with, there is a proper forum for debating scientific issues, one that has been established for centuries and is an essential part of what is properly known as modern science, namely the system of peer-reviewed scientific journals and conferences sponsored by major scientific societies. When these issues are “debated” in any other settings (blogs, websites, etc.), particularly by persons who are not active researchers in the particular field, such discussions should not be taken as serious scientific debate. And real scientific controversies are debated, sometimes rather heatedly.

Indeed, to professional scientists actively engaged in peer-reviewed research, claims that various sectors of the scientific community are engaged in a “conspiracy” to silence critics and to keep the “truth” from the public are most absurd nonsense. How, in a worldwide community of hundreds of thousands of competitive researchers, from every nation on earth and from countless different cultural backgrounds, could a secret “conspiracy” be maintained more than momentarily? As Ben Franklin wrote in his Poor Richard’s Almanack, “Three can keep a secret, provided two of them are dead.” [Franklin1732]. Or as the present author once quipped, tongue-in-cheek, in response to a state legislator who was skeptical of evolution (and who had suggested conspiracy), “You have no idea how humiliating this is to me — there is a secret conspiracy among leading scientists, but no one deemed me important enough to be included!”

Here is another way to think about such claims: Worldwide, there are tens of thousands of senior scientists now in their 50s or 60s who have seen their retirement savings decimated by recent financial crashes. Thousands of others are among the unfortunate homeowners who have lost their homes to foreclosure. Still others now have children attending college, with rapidly escalating tuition bills. Yet all one of these many scientists needs to do, to garner both worldwide fame and considerable fortune through book contracts and speaking fees, is to expose the conspiracy — come forward with solid, unmistakable evidence countering one of more of these theories. After all, as emphasized in a recent Science letter signed by numerous prominent scientists (after brief mention of the prevailing theories of geology, big bang cosmology and evolution), “Even as these are overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, fame still awaits anyone who could show these theories to be wrong.” [Gleick2010].

So why haven’t any of these scientists come forward to unveil the conspiracy? Obviously, because there is no conspiracy to unveil! There is no substantive evidence that any central precept in the arena of evolution, geology and cosmology is significantly in error (although errors will doubtless continue to be uncovered in peripheral issues).

It is worth pointing out that even in the highly publicized 2009 “climategate” episode (an email exchange between some leading U.K. climate scientists that suggested collusion to counter opposition), the conclusion of multiple blue-ribbon scientific panels who subsequently reviewed the matter was that there was no significant wrongdoing, and furthermore the climate scientists’ research work and conclusions were basically sound [Adam2010].

Real controversies in scientific research

Furthermore, claims of “conspiracy,” “brainwashing” or “group-think” among scientists are countered by the numerous examples of public controversies that have erupted among scientists in the past few years. How can a “conspiracy” possibly be maintained within a community whose members so clearly express disagreements with others in their community? Here are a few examples of such controversies:

The “hobbit” fossils

In 2004 scientists announced the discovery of Homo floresiensis, the remarkable new hominin fossil more commonly known as the “hobbit” due to its diminutive size, which remarkably co-existed with humans until as recently as 17,000 years ago [Brown2004; Wade2004].

A heated and rather public controversy ensued, which has been chronicled in illuminating detail in a 2009 article by Kenneth Krause [Krause2009]. The initial salvo was from biologists Maciej Hennenberg and Alan Thorne, who dismissed the notion of a separate species, saying that the small skull instead represented merely a case of microcephaly, a malady that causes dwarfism in afflicted humans. In response, Brown and Morwood acerbically described Henneberg and Thorne’s article as “an extremely poorly informed, and ill designed, piece of ‘research’.” The microcephaly explanation was then boosted by a paper published by Indonesian researcher Teuku Jacob in the prestigious National Academy of Science, after a detailed comparison of the hobbit bones with the skeletal features of regional humans. What’s more, Robert Martin of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago published a paper drawing into question the initial claim that the Hobbits had descended from Homo erectus.

The current consensus of peer-reviewed studies seems to be shifting to support the original hypothesis, namely that the Flores skeletons represent a related but distinct hominin species, although others sharply disagree [Callaway2009; NS2010; Kaplan2011].

The Ardi and A. sediba fossils

Another good example was seen in 2009, when a team of researchers led by Berkeley anthropologist Tim White published their finding of a nearly complete fossil skeleton named Ardipithecus ramidus, or Ardi, which was dated to 4.4 million years ago. White’s team concluded that the skeleton was likely in the path that led to modern humans [Wilford2009]. However, in May 2010, a team led by Thure Cerling of the University of Utah published a study questioning this conclusion, noting that an analysis of soils and silica in the area surrounding the find indicated a tree-savana or bush-savana environment (and thus not a likely habitat for hominins) [Wilford2010]. White’s team testily replied that the Cerling team ignored “the totality of the fossil, geological and geochemical evidence” presented it the original papers, including the abundant presence of fossilized mammals adapted to wooded life. This fact, according to White, established that Ardi lived in “closed habitats,” not in open savanna and thus was plausibly a human ancestor [Wilford2010]. In February 2011, Terry Harrison of New York University again questioned whether Ardi is a human ancestor, saying that this species may have split off from the main branch of ancient apes before the last common ancestor linking humans and chimps. In response, Tim White called the Harrison team’s article a “six page illustrated op-ed piece” [Harmon2011].

A closely related controversy is the status of a newly discovered species known as Australopithecus sediba (or A. sediba, for short), which was discovered by Lee Berger and his nine-year-old son Matthew in 2008. These fossils, which have been dated as between 1.977 and 1.980 million years ago, are also thought to be the true ancestors of Homo sapiens by some. This is based on findings such as its hands, which are more humanlike than that of Homo habilis, which other scientists believe was the proper ancestor. These controversies are summarized in a nicely written feature article in the April 2012 Scientific American [Wong2012].

2011-2012 speed-of-light controversy

Controversies also are commonplace in the world of physics, where experiments involving state-of-the-art equipment sometimes give contradictory results until additional work clarifies the competing claims. Perhaps the best-known example was the September 2011 announcement that scientists conducting an experiment at the Gran Sasso laboratory in Italy (an experimental facility under the Italian Alps), had measured neutrinos traveling at faster than the speed of light, which would contradict Einstein’s special theory of relativity [Overbye2011b]. In the wake of this finding, some physicists proposed theoretical frameworks where such a phenomenon might be plausible, but others were unconvinced and insisted that there must be a flaw in the experimental measurements. Finally, in March 2012, the matter was settled when the original research team announced that they had found a problem with a cable connecting to a GPS receiver that might explain the discrepancy. Shortly thereafter another team of researchers, who share the same underground laboratory, announced their finding that precisely confirmed Einstein’s theory [Overbye2011b].

String theory and the multiverse

One other major arena of controversy in physics and cosmology centers on string theory and the recently hypothesized “multiverse.” Since the 1970s, string theorists been exploring the notion that all physical phenomena are, at the lowest level of reality, tiny vibrating strings and membranes vastly smaller even than a proton. The resulting theory can neatly represent all known physical forces, including gravity. However, recent research in the field has led to an enormous ensemble of possible universe designs, which by one reckoning number 10500. Some researchers have reacted to these developments by redoubling their efforts to derive a unique theory. Others have resorted to the anthropic principle, saying that the reason that our universe is so remarkably well-suited for intelligent life is merely an anthropic-principle-based selection effect — if it were not so finely tuned for intelligent life, we wouldn’t be here discussing the topic — see
Anthropic and Multiverse.

But string theory and the multiverse have their detractors, even among researchers intimately familiar with research in the field. Mathematician Peter Woit writes that “any further progress toward understanding the most fundamental constituents of the universe will require physicists to abandon the now ossified ideology of supersymmetry and superstring theory that has dominated the last two decades” [Woit2006, pg. 264]. In a similar vein, physicist Lee Smolin writes, in sharp criticism of the string theory-multiverse community [Smolin2006, pg. 352]:

We physicists need to confront the crisis facing us. A scientific theory that makes no predictions and therefore is not subject to experiment can never fail, but such a theory can never succeed either, as long as science stands for knowledge gained from rational argument borne out by evidence. There needs to be an honest evaluation of the wisdom of sticking to a research program that has failed after decades to find grounding in either experimental results or precise mathematical formulation. String theorists need to face the possibility that they will turn out to have been wrong and others right.

Conclusion

In summary, there is no evidence whatsoever that there is any sort of “conspiracy” or “group-think” among scientists in the areas of geology, evolution, physics or cosmology. To the contrary, when one peers beneath the smooth public veneer of the world of scientific research, one finds, more often than not, heated debates and disagreements, particularly at the forefront of research where genuine issues remain unresolved. In fact, in a real sense, virtually every scientific paper ever published (and hundreds of thousands are published each year) represents one voice in a debate, either supporting or debunking some other hypothesis or study. Indeed, it is utterly absurd to think that a “conspiracy” or “group-think” could persist more than momentarily in a worldwide community of hundreds of thousands of professional scientists, representing many different nations, cultures and religious traditions, who competitively critique each other’s work in scientific journals and conferences, and who evaluate each other’s research proposals in highly competitive bids for government funding.

Thus, while the system of scientific publication and peer review is not foolproof, and there have been lapses, nonetheless it works very well in rooting out sloppy reasoning, weak experimental support, as well as any attempts to impose an “orthodoxy” in the field. Scientific progress is real.

For additional examples and more detailed references, see Conspiracy.

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