A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post laying out the basics of the scientific method. Not that I came up with this; it's just the basic stuff everybody learns (or should learn) in junior high school. Essentially, the idea is that every hypothesis is open for challenge by all comers at all times, and when observation or experiment contradicts a hypothesis, then that hypothesis is wrong and must be rejected.
But then there's the small problem that arises when accumulating data contradict some scientific hypothesis on which a lot of careers and funding and public policy have already been built. The acute version of this problem occurs when a hypothesis has become official scientific dogma and is currently in use by some powerful government bureaucracy to enhance its power and advance its preferred policy agenda. All of a sudden the problem is not so small to the people whose funding, status, perks and careers are on the line. And thus we find in the community calling themselves "scientists" people in positions of high power and prestige who in fact are the opposite of scientists, and who have taken on the role of enforcing orthodoxy and suppressing contrary evidence in service of pre-established public policy agendas. This may be anti-science, but it turns out it's a good way to get yourself lots of fancy titles, awards, grants, perks, and compensation.
Which brings me to the story of Marcia McNutt. Dr. McNutt is the Editor-in-Chief of Science magazine, one of those premier peer-reviewed scientific journals that a budding scientist absolutely must get published in to rise out of obscurity and become someone in the field. Currently Dr. McNutt has been nominated to be the next head of the National Academy of Sciences. There is no other candidate. Here is a picture of Dr. McNutt:
Yesterday I received a copy of an extraordinary email on the subject of Dr. McNutt authored by Peter Wood of the National Association of Scholars. The email was sent by Wood to the membership of the National Association of Scholars, and a full version of it appears on their website. Mr. Wood raises serious issues of what he terms "threats to the integrity of science" arising during Dr. McNutt's tenure at Science. Essentially the issue boils down to McNutt turning Science from a organ of science into a tool of orthodoxy enforcement.
Dr. McNutt has in her career found herself faced more than once with the challenge of what to do when an entrenched orthodoxy meets a substantial scientific challenge. The challenge in each case could itself prove to be mistaken, but it met what most scientists would concede to be the threshold criteria to deserve a serious hearing. Yet in each case Dr. McNutt chose to reinforce the orthodoxy by shutting the door on the challenge. . . . Dr. McNutt’s dismissive treatment of scientific criticisms is disturbing.
Wood treats three particular controversies in detail. In each case the hypothesis in question is a main underpinning of government regulatory and/or environmental policy in some respect. In each case the hypothesis has come into serious question based on observation and data that appear to contradict it. In each case McNutt has used her role as Editor-in-Chief of Science to make sure that no paper presenting evidence contrary to the hypothesis can see the light of day. I will quote Wood extensively on each of the three controversies. You can then judge for yourself:
1. The status of the linear no-threshold (LNT) dose-response model for the biological effects of nuclear radiation. The prominence of the model stems from the June 29, 1956 Science paper, “Genetic Effects of Atomic Radiation,” authored by the NAS Committee on the Biological Effects of Atomic Radiation. This paper is now widely questioned and has been seriously critiqued in many peer-reviewed publications, including two detailed 2015 papers. These criticisms are being taken seriously around the world, as summarized in a December 2, 2015 Wall Street Journal commentary. In August 2015 four distinguished critics of LNT made a formal request to Dr. McNutt to examine the evidence of fundamental flaws in the 1956 paper and retract it. However, on August 11, 2015 Dr. McNutt rejected this request without even reviewing the detailed evidence. Furthermore, Dr. McNutt did not even consider recusing herself and having independent reviewers examine evidence that challenges the validity of both a Science paper and an NAS Committee Report.
This is a consequential matter that bears on a great deal of national public policy, as the LNT model has served as the basis for risk assessment and risk management of radiation and chemical carcinogens for decades, but now needs to be seriously reassessed. This reassessment could profoundly alter many regulations from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Environmental Protection Agency, and other government agencies. The relevant documents regarding the 1956 Science paper and Dr. McNutt can be examined at www.nas.org/images/documents/LNT.pdf.
2. Extensive evidence of scientific misconduct in the epidemiology of fine particulate air pollution (PM2.5) and its relationship to mortality. Since 1997 EPA has claimed that lifetime inhalation of about a teaspoon of particles with diameter less than 2.5 microns causes premature death in the United States and it established an national regulation based on this claim. Science has provided extensive news coverage of this issue and its regulatory significance, but has never published any scientific criticism of this questionable claim, which is largely based on nontransparent research.
Earlier this year, nine accomplished scientists and academics submitted to Science well-documented evidence of misconduct by several of the PM2.5 researchers relied upon by EPA. The evidence of misconduct was first submitted to Dr. McNutt in a detailed June 4, 2015 email letter, then in a detailed July 20, 2015 Policy Forum manuscript “Transparent Science is Necessary for EPA Regulations,” and finally in an August 17, 2015 Perspective manuscript “Particulate Matter Does Not Cause Premature Deaths.” Dr. McNutt and two Science editors immediately rejected the letter and the manuscripts and never conducted any internal or external review of the evidence. This a consequential matter because many multi-billion dollar EPA air pollution regulations, such as, the Clean Power Plan, are primarily justified by the claim that PM2.5 is killing Americans. The relevant documents regarding this controversy can be examined at https://www.nas.org/images/documents/PM2.5.pdf.
3. Science promotes the so-called consensus model of climate change and excludes any contrary views. This issue has become so polarized and polarizing that it is difficult to bring up, but at some point the scientific community will have to reckon with the dramatic discrepancies between current climate models and substantial parts of the empirical record. Recent evidence of Science bias on this issue is the June 26, 2015 article by Dr. Thomas R. Karl, “Possible artifacts of data biases in the recent global surface warming hiatus”; the July 3, 2015 McNutt editorial, “The beyond-two-degree inferno”; the November 13, 2015 McNutt editorial, “Climate warning, 50 years later”; and the November 25, 2015 AAAS News Release, “AAAS Leads Coalition to Protest Climate Science Inquiry.”
Dr. McNutt’s position is, of course, consistent with the official position of the AAAS. But the attempt to declare that the “pause” in global warming was an illusion has not been accepted by several respected and well-informed scientists. One would not know this, however, from reading Science, which has declined to publish any dissenting views. One can be a strong supporter of the consensus model and yet be disturbed by the role which Science has played in this controversy. Dr. McNutt and the journal have acted more like partisan activists than like responsible stewards of scientific standards confronted with contentious claims and ambiguous evidence. The relevant documents and commentary regarding the Karl paper and McNutt editorials can be examined at https://www.nas.org/images/documents/Climate_Change.pdf.
So how does a Marcia McNutt come to be the unopposed shoo-in candidate to head the National Academy of Sciences? My hypothesis is that those promoting her candidacy know that she can be counted on to protect any important orthodoxy from serious challenge. This is one hypothesis I'd like to see proved wrong; but don't count on it.