Steven Pinker on the credibility of science

December 30, 2008 | By | 1 Reply More

Alternet has interviewed Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker on the credibility of science.   Pinker’s answer bears on many of the discussions we’ve had at this site.  In the following excerpt, Pinker distinguishes the scientific method from the “method” of politics, though his logic applies to most things that are not science (e.g., religion):

Jeremy Adam Smith: Americans seem to hold science and scientists in high esteem. Do you think this trust is justified?

Steven Pinker: I think it is. Not because scientists are necessarily trustworthy people, any more so than anyone else, but because the institutions of science are set up to reward finding the truth and to punish hiding it. So, as a matter of self-interest, scientists are nudged toward the truth. They suffer a loss of prestige and esteem if someone else fails to replicate an experiment they have used to back up a claim.

Likewise, if there is some obvious flaw in an experiment or in an argument, the mechanisms of peer review will ensure that they don’t get their next grant or don’t get their next paper published. And they will be humiliated if the paper does come out and the flaw is exposed afterward. If they say something patently false during a public meeting, there will be consequences.

In contrast, I think politicians have low credibility because our institutions at present don’t reward truth-telling among them. Quite the contrary. It’s easy to get away with blatant lies and misleading euphemism and doublespeak. So the incentive structure favors bending the truth among politicians, more so than one finds in the institutions of science.


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Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    I believe that the scientific method can reveal the nature of things. However, politics can filter and misdirect scientific research and and often does so in a manner the impedes the scientific community. This is seen in politicized research such as autism research.

    Since my oldest son was diagnosed with autism almost 14 years ago, I have followed autism research from around the world. I have studied various biochemistry and neurology topic so that I could understand various paper published on related topics. And I have become quite disgusted with what passes for unbiased research in the field.

    First there are the deniers. These range from the talk show pundits that claim autism is just a bunch of undisciplined brats, to those that claim the increasing numbers of autism can be explained away by a change in the criteria that defines autism.

    Next there are those that have decided the problem is genetic and are searching for an autism gene. This is a prime example of politics masquerading as science, sort of "We want it to be genetic, so only look for a genetic cause" type mentality that delays finding a cure. This particular group includes those that publish denial after denial of a possible vaccine connection, usually claiming "No supporting research" for such a connection. In the US, England, Australia, and New Zealand, where the pharmaceutical companies sponsor much of the medical research, researchers that publish results indicating the most remote possible connection to a vaccine suddenly lose their research funding and their jobs. They also discount research from other countries as being flawed, or as not pertaining to viral or vaccine related causes.

    Research being conducted at the Max Planck institute, and at the Pasteur Institute is uncovering a pathology that might implicate viral agents and a genetic immune system flaw, that can interact to trigger an autoimmune disorder resulting in autistic symptoms. According to the CDC, this research doesn't mean anything because it is not specifically targeted at autism, but is determining the functions of serotonin receptor subtypes.

    The worst, however, are the con-men who promise cures. Every few years, someone revives the idea that injections of the pancreatic hormone "secretin" is the cure for autism, claiming noticeable improvement with continued injections. In fact, secretin is only approved as a diagnostic injection, the source is usually porcine, and many who have tried it on their children witnessed immediate life-threatening reactions, including convulsions and permanent worsening of symptoms. In a very few cases, though, there are slight temporary improvements, but those cases appeared to be the result of an enzyme used as a stabilizing agent in one brand of secretin. Homocystiene, that stabilizing agent has documented immunosupressive qualities.

    For science to benefit mankind, it must not be filtered through a political lens.

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