|Trifid Nebula NGC6514 [Courtesy NASA]
Is there a conspiracy among scientists?
David H. Bailey
Updated 31 March 2019 (c) 2019
Some creationist and intelligent design material claims that scientists have conspired to keep from the public eye some important evidence undermining evolution (or other theories in the science-religion arena), or, at the least, that there is some "group-think" phenomenon going on, wherein scientists are reluctant to publish material that would draw these established theories into question. 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].
Similar claims have been made about the emerging scientific consensus on global warming and the extent of human causation, and so the two movements (creationism and global warming skepticism) have joined forces to pressure legislators in several U.S. states to require that students be taught "all sides of evidence" on these issues [Kaufman2010].
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. This forum is most assuredly not amateur websites, newspaper columns, television news channels, or legislative bodies. Instead, the proper forum for scientific debate is the system of peer-reviewed scientific journals and conferences sponsored by major scientific societies. When these issues are "debated" in any other settings, 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, in scientific journals, conferences and even in blog posts and the like written by professional scientists.
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? 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, and who now wonder if the day will ever come when they are financially well off enough to either retire or at least conduct their research without the constant stress and distraction of applying for grants (most of which are never funded due to recent cutbacks in scientific budgets worldwide). Thousands of others are among the unfortunate homeowners who have lost (or may yet lose) their homes to foreclosure. Many of these same scientists now have children attending college, or soon to attend college, and they face financial ruin in the wake of 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).
Real controversies in scientific research
Furthermore, claims of "conspiracy" 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 is a brief summary of some real controversies:
For additional details on these controversies, and a number of other good examples, see Controversies.
- The "hobbit" fossils. The 2004 discovery of Homo floresiensis, the remarkable new hominin fossil more commonly known as the "hobbit," due to its diminutive size, ignited a heated and rather public controversy, which continues to this day [Krause2009]. The latest salvo in this debate came in August 2014, when researchers at Pennsylvania State University reported their finding that the Flores bones exhibit features typical of a human with Down syndrome [Pacchioli]. Some researchers have declared the case closed, but others still argue that the bones represent a distinct branch of hominins that somehow survived until roughly 18,000 BCE.
- The Ardi and A. sediba fossils. In 2009, a team of researchers led by famed anthropologist Tim White of U.C. Berkeley announced rather complete fossil skeleton named Ardipithecus ramidus, or Ardi, which was dated to 4.4 million years ago, more than one million years older than Lucy, the famous skeleton of the species Australopithecus afarensis. But other scientists contested these claims [Wong2012].
- Dating the oldest rocks. In March 2014, a disagreement over the age of some of the oldest rock specimens on the planet, unearthed along the northeastern edge of Hudson Bay in Canada, came to the public view in a Scientific American article [Zimmer2014b].
- Arsenic-based life. In December 2010, a team of NASA-funded researchers startled the scientific world with an announcement that they had coaxed a species of bacteria originally found on the shores of Mono Lake in California to utilize arsenic as a substitute for phosphorus. But Steven Benner, an astrobiologist at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Gainesville, Florida, contested the finding, saying, "This is an exceptional claim, and exceptional claims require exceptional proof." [Brown2010].
- Human arrival in Western Hemisphere. For many years, the prevailing wisdom was that humans first arrived in the Americas approximately 13,000 years ago across the Bering Strait from Asia. But other researchers have challenged this belief, claiming that humans were here thousands of years before this date [Romero2014].
- 2011-2012 speed-of-light controversy. In September 2011, physicists announced that they had measured neutrinos traveling at faster than the speed of light, which would contradict Einstein's special theory of relativity. This announcement caused considerable sensation for a few months, but in the end the matter was resolved by more careful experimental methods [Overbye2011b].
- Big bang inflation. While the the big bang itself is hardly in doubt, questions remain regarding "inflation," namely the notion that in the first 10-36 second after the big bang, the space-time fabric of the universe expanded by some 30 orders of magnitude. In recent years, even some long-time supporters of inflation have begun to question the theory's viability. See Big bang and Inflation.
- String theory and the multiverse. One other major arena of controversy in physics and cosmology centers on string theory and the recently hypothesized "multiverse," namely that the universe we inhabit is but one pocket in an enormous and possibly infinite ensemble. The proponents of this theory claimed that the March 2014 discovery of gravitational wave ripples was an experimental confirmation of the multiverse, although skeptics are not impressed [Moskowitz2014].
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 peer-reviewed scientific journals and conferences, and who evaluate each other's research proposals in highly competitive bids for government funding. The system of peer review is not foolproof, and there have been lapses. But in spite of these lapses, the system 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 discussion, see Controversies, Peer review and What is science?.