Damned Heretics

Condemned by the established, but very often right

I am Nicolaus Copernicus, and I approve of this blog

I am Richard Feynman and I approve of this blog

Qualified outsiders and maverick insiders are often right about the need to replace received wisdom in science and society, as the history of the Nobel prize shows. This blog exists to back the best of them in their uphill assault on the massively entrenched edifice of resistance to and prejudice against reviewing, let alone revising, ruling ideas. In support of such qualified dissenters and courageous heretics we search for scientific paradigms and other established beliefs which may be maintained only by the power and politics of the status quo, comparing them with academic research and the published experimental and investigative record.

We especially defend and support the funding of honest, accomplished, independent minded and often heroic scientists, inventors and other original thinkers and their right to free speech and publication against the censorship, mudslinging, false arguments, ad hominem propaganda, overwhelming crowd prejudice and internal science politics of the paradigm wars of cancer, AIDS, evolution, global warming, cosmology, particle physics, macroeconomics, health and medicine, diet and nutrition.

HONOR ROLL OF SCIENTIFIC TRUTHSEEKERS

Henry Bauer, Peter Breggin , Harvey Bialy, Giordano Bruno, Erwin Chargaff, Nicolaus Copernicus, Francis Crick, Paul Crutzen, Marie Curie, Rebecca Culshaw, Freeman Dyson, Peter Duesberg, Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, John Fewster, Galileo Galilei, Alec Gordon, James Hansen, Edward Jenner, Benjamin Jesty, Michio Kaku, Adrian Kent, Ernst Krebs, Thomas Kuhn, Serge Lang, John Lauritsen, Mark Leggett, Richard Lindzen, Lynn Margulis, Barbara McClintock, George Miklos, Marco Mamone Capria, Peter Medawar, Kary Mullis, Linus Pauling, Eric Penrose, Max Planck, Rainer Plaga, David Rasnick, Sherwood Rowland, Carl Sagan, Otto Rossler, Fred Singer, Thomas Szasz, Alfred Wegener, Edward O. Wilson, James Watson.
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Many people would die rather than think – in fact, they do so. – Bertrand Russell.

Skepticism is dangerous. That’s exactly its function, in my view. It is the business of skepticism to be dangerous. And that’s why there is a great reluctance to teach it in schools. That’s why you don’t find a general fluency in skepticism in the media. On the other hand, how will we negotiate a very perilous future if we don’t have the elementary intellectual tools to ask searching questions of those nominally in charge, especially in a democracy? – Carl Sagan (The Burden of Skepticism, keynote address to CSICOP Annual Conference, Pasadena, April 3/4, 1982).

It is really important to underscore that everything we’re talking about tonight could be utter nonsense. – Brian Greene (NYU panel on Hidden Dimensions June 5 2010, World Science Festival)

I am Albert Einstein, and I heartily approve of this blog, insofar as it seems to believe both in science and the importance of intellectual imagination, uncompromised by out of date emotions such as the impulse toward conventional religious beliefs, national aggression as a part of patriotism, and so on.   As I once remarked, the further the spiritual evolution of mankind advances, the more certain it seems to me that the path to genuine religiosity does not lie through the fear of life, and the fear of death, and blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge.   Certainly the application of the impulse toward blind faith in science whereby authority is treated as some kind of church is to be deplored.  As I have also said, the only thing ever interfered with my learning was my education. My name as you already perceive without a doubt is George Bernard Shaw, and I certainly approve of this blog, in that its guiding spirit appears to be blasphemous in regard to the High Church doctrines of science, and it flouts the censorship of the powers that be, and as I have famously remarked, all great truths begin as blasphemy, and the first duty of the truthteller is to fight censorship, and while I notice that its seriousness of purpose is often alleviated by a satirical irony which sometimes borders on the facetious, this is all to the good, for as I have also famously remarked, if you wish to be a dissenter, make certain that you frame your ideas in jest, otherwise they will seek to kill you.  My own method was always to take the utmost trouble to find the right thing to say, and then to say it with the utmost levity. (Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt for Life magazine) One should as a rule respect public opinion in so far as is necessary to avoid starvation and to keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny, and is likely to interfere with happiness in all kinds of ways. – Bertrand Russell, Conquest of Happiness (1930) ch. 9

(Click for more Unusual Quotations on Science and Belief)

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The Times is far too cosy a berth for science reporters


How well do the media do in covering science and explaining it to the public, let alone catch scientists out in lies and bias? If AIDS is the fantasy that critics say it is, this question is vital. Lacking expertise of their own, reporters assigned to difficult fields will just copy out whatever scientists, or corporate or government press releases, tell them. That the New York Times science reporting suffers from this handicap might seem unlikely, given the Grande Dame of Times Square’s substantial resources. But is it ruled out? Apparently not.



Last night a female science writer and sometime editor of the New York Times, one Cornelia Dean, turned up at the New York Academy of Science at 2 East 63rd Street in Manhattan to talk the Use and Abuse of Science in American Public Life, under the auspices of the Center for Inquiry Metro NY, whose Director is Susan Jacoby (http://www.cfimetro.org 212 265 2877).

This is one of the charms of New York, that those who otherwise are buried deep in the fortresses of our major institutions sometime emerge to talk about their jobs and answer questions in intimate settings, often revealing either surprising talent or surprising ignorance and irresponsibility. Dean gave a half hour talk on how little science Americans know, and what can be done about it, if anything—her answer was that scientists should talk more to the press—and then answered questions. In the end, what she revealed was debatable, and quite possibly helps to account for the ignorance and irresponsibility of the Times coverage—gross lack of it, in fact—of the AIDS theoretical debate.



The talk was well timed, since Dean’s profile was published yesterday of Evelyn Fox Keller, a grand dame and sociologist of science who wrote “A Feeling for the Organism”, the biography of Barbara McLintock who discovered jumping genes in maize, in 1983, before McLintock won the Nobel for it. Keller herself was divorced, had two children to raise, and experienced “professional isolation”, so she put some of her anger at this injustice into a book on “Reflections on Gender and Science.” Most recently she wrote a book about genes in 1992, “Making Sense of Life”, and gave a talk at Harvard last week on “Innate Confusion: Nature, Nurture and all That”.

Keller packed the hall at Harvard on this currently very hot topic, but judging from Cornelia Dean’s article Theorist Drawn Into Debate ‘That Will Not Go Away’ what she said added up to no more than some of it’s nature, some of it’s nurture, and we don’t yet know how much of either, according to Cornelia Dean. “”When we talk about innate and acquired it’s rarely clear where to draw the line.”



Not as original and illuminating as one might hope, perhaps. After all, everyone has been waiting for the last word on la sexual difference ever since Larry Summers, president of Harvard, rather too straightforwardly said in January at a private meeting that he didn’t think the matter had been researched enough for us to be sure yet that there weren’t in fact innate sexual differences in aptitude in mathematics or science.



This was apparently a misstep in PC terms, and it has been a club that his enemies have been bashing him with ever since. That’s why the talk was crowded, with people standing along the walls. Yet according to the Dean profile, she didn’t say anything illuminating after all these years she has been obsessed with gender injustice in science.

Or perhaps she did, but Dean missed it. Maybe it is just that Cornelia Dean is not really very into science herself, at least, not as much as one would like, or the public interest would seem to demand. That, at least, is the impression she gave at least one member of the audience, in recounting her background and credentials to undertake her Times assignment, which is apparently not only to report on science and also at times to edit other reporters.



In her remarks she seemed to embody all by herself the chief reasons why the media are so bad at covering science, to the detriment of public understanding of it, even as she was complaining about both. The most striking thing she said was that journalists can’t be expected to get things right without the help of scientists because how could they train for all they had to cover? If they studied physics they might have to cover biology, she pointed out.



On the face of it, this is a sad admission that even at the Times they cling to the old fashioned way of doing things, which is to trust the basic intelligence and talent of a reporter can be applied with success to almost any topic. That used to be the way things were done in journalism around the world, and to some extent it made sense. After all, the reporter is .is a surrogate for the reader, who in daily journalism is assumed to know very little about the field of science being reported upon. But things are a lot more complex now. At the very least, one would hope that if a reporter is trained in physics or biology he or she might be assigned to the area of his or her expertise.

But Dean said she had studied American civilization at college (Brown, someone said afterwards) and she hadn’t ever studied science then or since, and seemed to be proud of it. Naturally I raised my hand at question time and asked if she didn’t think science journalists had to know a bit about their field these days, especially when she had acknowledged in her talk that in recent years scientists had changed from telling the truth as they knew it to playing politics with what they told journalists. Surely if scientists were going to try to pull the wool over journalists eyes, reporters needed to know what was going on in the field? But no, Dean, not seeming to get the point, said she didn’t think so, no.



I got the distinct impression she lived such a cosy, collegial existence in the heart of the Establishment fortress that she hadn’t quite caught up with the idea that scientists might mislead her or her reporters from venal motives. She apparently imagined that any manipulation they might indulge in was simply to beat back Bush and the evangelicals on stem cells and other policy issues. But what this blithe confidence seems to overlook is that the amount of money pouring into scientists’ pockets from commercial sources these days is very large, both from biotech and other investment sources and also from drug companies and others interested in medical research.

I couldn’t resist taking the opportunity after her talk to ask if she knew how badly the Times has fallen down in covering the controversy over the cause of AIDS, although I knew the answer. Just as Nicholas Wade answered the same question in public ten or more years ago, Dean said she wasn’t aware of it as deserving any more than the few reports they had given it. I said I hoped she wouldn’t live to regret those words, as I think she might.



Sooner or later the dam will break on that one, I intimated, without going further. What I could have told her is that a very long article being edited right now for a major national magazine will probably do the trick, and break the dam of debate in AIDS like the bombs of Britain’s famous Dam Buster squadron in World War II smashed the Ruhr dams in enemy territory with enormous ‘bouncing’ bombs in a night attack. Why do I think so? Because I have read the article in final draft, and I have never seen such a powerful piece.



But it wasn’t the moment to inform her about that, and anyway I didn’t want to tell her about it since she so obviously relied on other people for her judgement and vision of the material she was writing and editing. She admitted as much, saying her writers knew so much more than she did about matters that she had actually ordered them to come into the office to work, so she could draw on their expertise!

So this is the quality of expertise of a reporter and editor of science at our leading newspaper. Very suitable for the old days, but if the Times hasn’t woken up to the fact that we are in another century where the word of scientists can no longer be taken as disinterested either politically or financially—Dean seems to acknowledge the first but not the second—then it needs to be told.

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