Silencing Outsider Status

Me last week:

Paul Davies, chair of the group that decides what SETI scientists will do if evidence of aliens is ever found, thinks … until scientists can say something to the public with great (~99%) confidence, they should say nothing. … Most early low-probability signs … being false alarms is “damaging to the credibility of science.”  So until scientists can confidently say that an asteroid will hit us or that we see aliens, they should just whisper to each other. … One might justify this confidence-or-silence policy by arguing … reporters are biased to present low probability news as if it were high probability.

Today’s Post:

NASA … reopened a 14-year-old controversy, … reaffirming and offering support for its widely challenged assertion that a 4-billion-year-old meteorite that landed thousands of years ago on Antarctica shows evidence of microscopic life on Mars. … Fourteen years of relentless criticism have turned many scientists against the McKay results, and the Mars meteorite “discovery” has remained an unresolved and somewhat awkward issue.  This has continued even though the team’s central finding — that Mars once had living creatures — has gained broad acceptance. …

Critics had said that the magnetites could have just as easily existed without bacteria or biology — that they sometimes form as a result of the shock and searing heat that could come, for instance, from an asteroid strike. But … [a] recent paper … reported that the purity of the magnetites made that explanation impossible. … “All the criticisms of our original paper got widely distributed, but when we did the work to prove the critics were wrong, it hardly made a ripple. … We’re now in a position to say we’ve knocked down all the criticisms — and our biological explanation is the one left standing.” …

At the conference, a leading cautionary voice in astrobiology proposed that a special protocol be established to oversee release of any journal articles making dramatic extraterrestrial claims. Andrew Steele … compared the absence of astrobiology review with the formal procedures set up by scientists involved with the search for extraterrestrial life, or SETI.  He said that SETI leaders understood the societal sensitivity of their work and that it was time for researchers in astrobiology “grow up and do the same.” (more)

Yet another voice for muzzling!  It seems clear to me that scientists do not usually insist on such high standards of confidence for publication.  Most Research Findings Are False seems pretty clear evidence, as does the high rate of celebrated new medical treatments that are later repudiated, and the very low marginal health-effectiveness of medicine.  I suspect I see similarly low standards for publications that are pro-global warming, or that warn of low science funding or manpower.  If the standard of evidence for publication varies with the topic, we can’t explain it via a generic tendency for reporters to exaggerate findings.  So what explains this variation?

Here I’ll channel Tyler Cowen, and suggest this is mostly about how real events echoing stories we tell change which intellectuals get more status.  Think of all the movies you’ve ever seen of an outsider intellectual unfairly rejected by establishment scientists.  Evidence of aliens, or a Really Big Disaster are prototypical.  Well establishment scientists see those movies too, and they don’t want real stories like them to appear in the media. They correctly perceive, for example, that a story confirming aliens would raise the status of UFO nuts, relative to establishment academics.  Similarly, news about a really big disaster would raise the status of “the sky is falling” outsiders.

On the other hand, establishment academics correctly perceive their status would be raised, relative to outsiders, by more stories of promising new medical treatments, of the seriousness of global warming, of the need for more science funding, or that a new result “might lead to a new theory of everything.” Even if such stories turn out later to be wrong.  Why?  Because we hear many similar stories about heroic scientists discovering treatments, or warning of enviro disaster, and few stories about such scientists being later wrong.

I see two effects:

  1. There are some long standing disagreements between insider and outsider intellectuals in our society, and any news that confirms outsider claims raises outsider status.
  2. News about a real event about you that matches a commonly-told story in which you’d be a hero, raises your status.   If that news is later reversed, that won’t reverse your status, if there aren’t commonly told stories about you being a villain in a news reversal story.
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