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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Thursday, July 19, 2018

The BRAIN Initiative's Floundering Quest for a Mechanistic Account of Mind

The BRAIN Initiative is a multi-year big-science project launched during the Obama administration in 2013. It started off in 2014 with a budget of about $110 million, and its funding has increased in subsequent years, with some estimating that it may use up billions in funding before it is finished. One of its documents claims on page 121 that the BRAIN Initiative ”will require new and distinct funding of between 300-500 million per year." Too bad the program consists largely of not-terribly-useful research designed to try to prove an extremely dubious mechanistic ideology about the mind.

The assumptions behind the project are made clear in a document called Brain 2025: A Scientific Vision, which is offered at one of the project's two main web sites. The “scientific vision” laid out in the document is largely an ideological vision, based on the far-fetched idea that the human mind is merely the product of the brain. The dubious ideology of the authors is made clear in the very first sentence of the document, in which the authors state, “The human brain is the source of our thoughts, emotions, perceptions, actions, and memories; it confers on us the abilities that make us human, while simultaneously making each of us unique.” It has certainly not been proven that any brain has ever generated a thought or stored a memory.

In fact, later in the document the authors confess, “We do not yet have a systematic theory of how information is encoded in the chemical and electrical activity of neurons, how it is fused to determine behavior on short time scales, and how it is used to adapt, refine, and learn behaviors on longer time scales.” This is certainly true. No one has anything like a systematic theory of how a brain could store memories as neural states, nor has anyone come up with anything like a systematic theory of how a brain could generate a thought. So why, then, does the document start out by stating that “the human brain is the source of our thoughts, emotions, perceptions, actions, and memories”? No one has any business making such a claim unless he first has “ a systematic theory of how information is encoded in the chemical and electrical activity of neurons,” but the document admits that no such theory exists.

The document makes clear that the main purpose of the BRAIN Initiative will be to shore up mechanistic ideas about the human mind. The document states, “The most important outcome of the BRAIN Initiative will be a comprehensive, mechanistic understanding of mental function that emerges from synergistic application of the new technologies and conceptual structures developed under the BRAIN Initiative.” That makes it pretty clear that the project is ideology-driven. The idea that mental function can be explained mechanistically is a very doubtful piece of ideology inconsistent with many forms of evidence. One of these forms of evidence involves the many cases of minds that worked well after half or more of the brain was lost to injury, disease or surgery. Another such form of evidence is that scientists cannot find any plausible storage place in the brain where memories could be stored for 50 years, synapses (subject to very rapid molecular turnover) being no such thing.

What are some of the things that this BRAIN Initiative will be spending money on? Most of the project's money will apparently be spent as follows:

  1. Trying to develop new tools to study the brain.
  2. Creating circuit maps of the brain.
  3. Identifying various types of brain cells.
  4. Playing around with zapping people's brains in various different ways.

There is no reason to believe that any of this activity will actually result in the project's goal of a “comprehensive, mechanistic understanding of mental function” or even something much smaller, a fragmentary mechanistic understanding of mental function. There is no “circuit map” that we can possibly imagine that would allow us to understand how neurons might produce thoughts, how neural activity could result in such a thing as selfhood, or how human episodic memories could ever be stored as neural states. No real insight into such things has been produced by previous efforts to identify different types of brain cells or map out the connections of the brain. So why should we believe that any further insight on these matters will come from further activity along these lines?

In a section entitled “Manipulating circuit activity,” the Brain 2025 document tries to suggest that electrically zapping people's brains might tell us something about memory. It says, “In the 1950s, Penfield’s electrical stimulation experiments suggested that a memory or thought could be elicited by activating neurons in the underlying network.” But the document fails to tell us that a review of 80 years of electrical stimulation of the brain found that it was very rare for people to recall anything during electrical stimulation of the brain and that Overall, only one patient reported what appeared to be a clearly detailed episodic memory for which he spontaneously specified that he had never thought about it.” But nonetheless the BRAIN Initiative fellows expressed great enthusiasm for monkeying with people's brains. After noting approvingly that “stimulating electrodes are being placed in human patients,” the BRAIN 2025 document says, “Entirely new tools could be developed based on magnetic stimulation, gases, infrared excitation, ultrasound, or organic or physical chemistry to allow access to neurons deep within the brain.” It sounds like their plan is kind of like this:

master plan

So far the BRAIN Initiative has been running for four or five years, and has accomplished nothing extremely noteworthy. Our understanding of the brain has not dramatically advanced during those four or five years, and all the old mysteries of mind and memory seem as mysterious as ever. At this “Achievements” link there is a discussion of what the BRAIN Initiative has accomplished so far. At the top of the text is a big bold headline saying “Transformative Advances,” but the BRAIN Initiative has produced no such transformative advances. Go beyond the flashy spin on the web site, the high-tech glitter, and the discussion of things in progress that haven't yet yielded much, and you have not a single major accomplishment relating to our understanding of the mind or memory. You see in this section a video entitled “The BRAIN Initiative – the First Five Years.” The video fails to list a single accomplishment of the BRAIN Initiative. Apparently all this work to mechanistically explain the mind is pretty much a flop and a failure so far.

About the only memorable thing mentioned in the BRAIN Initiative's list of accomplishments is a description of some “brain interface” by which a paralyzed person was able to use to raise a robot arm to bring a cup to his mouth. Such an interface doesn't seem very impressive when you consider that the same effect could have been achieved much less expensively and more simply by using a 1990's-style voice-based interface that would respond to a command such as “raise arm.”

I predict that even after spending billions, the BRAIN Initiative will by 2025 produce no big breakthrough in our understanding of mind, memory or consciousness. All attempts to understand such things through mechanistic methods (such as creating circuit diagrams or zapping brains) are doomed to failure. The reason is that mind, memory and consciousness are not mechanistic products of the brain, but are aspects of a human soul or spirit that cannot be understood by analyzing electricity, neurons and chemistry. If our minds were produced by brains and our memories were stored in brains, we would have already discovered by now “smoking guns” of such mechanistic effects; but no such things have been found.

We found in the 1950's that all cells have encoded information in the form of the genetic information in DNA. If our brain cells contained encoded memory information, we would have discovered abundant fingerprints of such a thing during the twentieth century. But even though it is 65 years after DNA was discovered, and even though our electron microscopes can see things 1000 times smaller than synapses, no one has discovered any proof of memories encoded in neurons. Such a mechanistic encoding would require thousands of dedicated genes, to accomplish the gigantic task of translating our experience and ideas into neuron states; but not one such gene has been found, even though the human genome has been thoroughly studied. There is one scientific study claiming to have found correlation evidence for such memory-encoding genes, but the study's methodology is quite goofy, for the reasons discussed at the end of this post. 

A better approach for gaining insight about the mind would be one that focused on extraordinary human experiences, and people having ordinary mind and memory function despite extraordinary brain states. This would involve studying all the people whose minds functioned well even after they lost vast parts of their brains due to surgery or disease, all the people with phenomenal memories despite having ordinary brains, and all the people having extraordinary experiences such as near-death experiences and out-of-body experiences, often while their brains were shut down. Such a study approach would tend to shed light on how mechanistic neuroscientists are making the wrong assumptions about the brain. 

Sunday, July 15, 2018

The Exit Doors of Paradise: A Science Fiction Story

When David Deloren was abducted by extraterrestrials, he thought it would be the start of a terrifying experience. He never expected that he would have more fun than he had ever experienced.

David saw the glowing disk-shaped UFO while hiking in the wilderness. He came up directly underneath the UFO, to get a good look. Then he saw some beam coming from the UFO toward him. He was astonished to find himself being levitated into the air. He was lifted up into the UFO, and then saw some strange creature inject him with something. He quickly fell into unconsciousness.

David awoke to find himself on a comfortable bed. He was in a room that looked like an expensive hotel room. Exiting the room, he walked around before finding a room filled with other humans, most of whom seemed happy and cheerful.

Where am I?” asked David. “I think I was abducted by a UFO.”

Oh, another new abductee?” said a young woman with a big smile. “Well, don't worry about a thing. You'll be plenty happy here. Let me fetch Mr. Hawkins to give you a briefing.”

After a short delay, Mr. Hawkins came into the room to give David an introduction to his new surroundings.

Welcome, to what we call the Place of Pleasure,” said Mr. Hawkins. “In this wonderful location, all of your pleasure needs will be abundantly fulfilled.”

Where is this place?” said David. “Why was I brought here.”

I can't tell you that,” said Mr. Hawkins. “But I can tell you that you will be able to live here for as long as you wish. Nothing will be asked of you. Just enjoy yourself.”

David began to explore around, and soon found out about the abundant opportunities for pleasure at his strange location. The location resembled a big resort and amusement park. There were swimming pools all over the place, all filled with warm, clear water. The swimming pools all had long fun slides. There were many cafes and restaurants, all offering free food. The food was better than any he had ever tasted. In each cafe was a singer and musician who sang songs that seemed to David more beautiful than any he had heard before.

David soon learned that his strange location was some kind of sexual paradise. Every day he would be approached multiple times by amorous young ladies eager for sensual enjoyment. Most of them had faces like movie stars or supermodels. Before long he learned that 80 percent of the local people were robots. But in the bedroom, he could not distinguish between the robots and the real humans. The real humans were all abductees like himself. All of the abductees had been treated with injections that removed any danger of disease or unwanted pregnancies. There was also something in the drinking water that greatly intensified all sexual experiences.

David also learned that at this strange location, he could drink alcohol to his heart's content, without ever getting drunk or without his mood being negatively affected. The only effect was that the alcohol made him merrier and more likely to laugh. David also found he could use recreational drugs to his heart's content, enjoying the highs of cocaine and heroin, without any of the danger or drawbacks he would have experienced using such drugs on Earth. The drugs were offered for free in the cafes, and listed on the menu signs. When David once asked whether there were any legal penalties for using the drugs, the people in the cafe simply laughed very hard. He assumed from then on that in this place no one went to jail for using drugs.

David was in a wonderland of pleasure, enclosed by a huge high dome with the color of a blue sky. He sometimes asked himself: could it be that this whole location was part of some extraterrestrial spaceship?

There was only one way out of the location. There were two tall doors that were clearly marked as an exit. A strange hooded figure always stood near those doors.


One day David walked towards the figure and asked about the exit doors. He could hardly see the face underneath the hood, but it looked non-human.

Can I see what's outside the doors?” asked David.

Yes,” said the hooded figure. “But if you use these doors, your exit will be permanent, and you can never come back to this place of perfect pleasure.”

What lies beyond these doors?” asked David.

Knowledge,” said the figure. “Vast and deep knowledge. If you go beyond these doors, you will learn all about why you were brought here, all about the extraterrestrials who abducted you, and all about many other deep truths of time, space and cosmic history.”

So what's it like past those doors?” asked David.

Maybe life is hard past those doors, or maybe it is easy,” said the hooded figure. “I can't say. But it won't be half as much fun as this place of perfect pleasure you are leaving behind.”

Then to hell with it,” said David. He went back to his bodily pleasures. But after ten more days of sex better than any he had known on Earth, and food better than any he had known on Earth, and more blissful drink and drug experiences, he began to keep thinking again and again about the exit doors. He kept thinking about what kind of deep cosmic knowledge he might find by going out the doors.

After another week passed, David returned to the exit doors, and found the same strange hooded figure in front of them.

You said there was great knowledge to be found by going past those doors?” asked David.

Yes, vast and deep knowledge, knowledge of great cosmic truths,” said the hooded figure. “But if you pass through those doors, you must leave behind forever this place of perfect pleasure. And I give no guarantee about how easy or hard it will be when you pass through those doors.”

Let me through,” said David. “My body wants to stay here forever, but my mind and soul want me to go through those doors.”

Very well,” said the figure. “You will learn many great truths.” He unlocked the doors, and opened them.

For starters, how about telling me why I was brought here,” said David.

This whole place is merely an experiment,” said the figure. “It was built for only one purpose – to find out what percentage of you humans will ask to pass through these doors. If that fraction is high enough, then my primeval race will have found out the human race is worthy of entering into fellowship with we who have roamed the galaxy for a hundred million years.”

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Flaws in His "Origin of Language" Experiment

In 2017 Evolutionary biologist Kevin N. Laland produced a book entitled “Darwin's Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind.” The book had an odd subtitle. How could culture have made the human mind, when a mind like the human mind was needed for culture to have even got started?

Chapter 8 of the book is entitled, “Why We Alone Have Language.” Laland presents a theory of the origin of language, but it's not a very useful one. His theory addresses the “why” of the origin of human language, not the “how” of the origin of human language. Anyone can come up with reasons why humans might have found it useful to originate a language. The hard part in regard to the origin of language is explaining the “how” part. This involves addressing questions such as these:

  • How could a language ever have got started, when it seems that you need to have a language in place in order to teach anyone a language, or to impose a language on a group of people, so that they all speak the same language?
  • How could a language ever have got started, considering that language requires lots of specialized speech biology in the mouth and brain, which wouldn't have existed when someone first tried to establish a language?
  • How could anyone have contrived any original rules of grammar, the origin of which is so much harder to explain than someone merely thinking up some nouns and words, and convincing nearby people to use those words and nouns?

Laland's theory of the origin of language is that language was created to teach people things. Laland specifically suggests that language was created so that people who knew how to make stone tools could pass on that knowledge. To try to back up this idea, Laland has done some experiments. He had 200 adult experimenters work in experiments described in his book as follows:

Adult human participants first learned to knap stone flakes using a granite hammerstone and flint core, and then were tested on their ability; next, they helped others learn this skill....Experimental subjects were allocated to one of five conditions that varied according to the type of information that could be passed from “tutor” to “pupil.”

The five conditions included an “imitation” condition in which pupils could only imitate another person they were watching, a “gestural teaching” condition in which a teacher could only silently make gestures to try and teach how to make stone tools, and a “verbal teaching” condition in which teachers could speak instructions to their pupils. The experiments showed that teaching someone how to make stone tools occurs more effectively when you can use language such as modern English – but only slightly so. A scientific paper describing the experiment says in Table 1 that the “total quality” of the teaching of how to make stone tools was 23.6 with verbal teaching and 19.8 with gestural teaching.

Laland sounds very pleased with his experimental results, and at the end of the chapter, he makes it sound like they offer some evidence of great importance. He says this:

Alfred Russel Wallace, codiscoverer of natural selection, famously failed to accept that selection could account for human evolution, partly because he could not imagine how a trait like language, and the other unique features of human cognition, could evolve. I would like to believe that, had he known of the material in this chapter, he might have reached a different conclusion.

But Laland has failed to see two fatal flaws in his experiment. I can explain the first flaw by mentioning that humans can only speak clearly because of a great deal of specialized biology, biology which humans would presumably not have had when the first humans tried to speak. This biology is mentioned on page 174 of the book How Language Began by Daniel L. Everett, who states the following:

The creation of speech requires precise control of more than one hundred muscles of the larynx, the respiratory muscles, the diaphragm, and the muscles between the ribs – our “intercostal muscles”-- and muscles of our mouth and face – our orofactal muscles. The muscle movement required of all these parts during speech is mind-bogglingly complex.

And here Everett is not even mentioning specialized biology in the brain. Stroke victims often lose much of their ability to speak. So there is not only a good deal of the brain specialized to allow speech, but also a good deal of speech-specialized biology in the area around the mouth, throat and lungs. There is no natural reason why humans would have had so much speech-specialized biology when humans first started to speak.

The flaws in Laland's experiment are as follows:

  1. He has compared the effectiveness of gesture-teaching of stone making skills to the effectiveness of speech-teaching of stone making skills, using modern humans who have mouths and brains optimized for speech. When language originated, according to naturalistic assumptions, humans would not have had such biology.
  2. He has compared the effectiveness of gesture-teaching of stone making skills to the effectiveness of speech-teaching of stone making skills, using modern humans who could use the full grammatical amd vocabulary richness of modern speech. When language originated, according to naturalistic assumptions, no such linguistic richness would have existed.
  3. His experiment only allowed a five-minute teaching period, which did not allow any “hand gesture” teachers a decent amount of time to teach some hand signals to be used in the instruction.

I can imagine how you could modify Laland's experiment to get a more realistic result. The first change in the experiment would be for all the "speaking allowed" teachers to have had mouths filled with food when they tried to teach how to make stone tools. This would simulate the fact that the first people trying to use spoken language would not have had any mouths optimized for speaking, and would only have been able to speak garbled words, making the kind of hard-to-understand sounds a person might make if his mouth was filled with food.


A second modification in the experiment to make it more realistic would be to forbid the teachers from using any language other than a language they invented themselves. So, for example, a teacher might be allowed to invent the word “crob” to mean “rock,” and then to teach that word to someone; and a teacher would be allowed to invent the word “soz” to mean “strike,” and then teach that word to someone. But a teacher would not be allowed to use instructions such as the English sentence, “Now firmly grip the big stone with your left hand and strike it at a 45 degree angle with the smaller stone, using your right hand.” The third change would be to allow all subjects to have up to an hour to teach, allowing someone a decent length of time to teach some hand signals or newly invented words that could later be employed as part of the instruction.

With these three modifications, the experiment would realistically simulate whether  it would be more effective for teachers at the beginning of a language's origin to teach using hand gestures or using rudimentary speech. The experimental results would be drastically different. Instead of finding that the teachers trying to use speech were slightly more effective than the teachers using gestures, it would be found that the teachers using gestures were able to teach much more effectively.

Why is that? It's because it's much easier to convey information using nice, clear hand signals than by using spoken language whenever spoken language sounds all garbled and unclear, as it would have sounded if humans first started to use spoken language before getting all the specialized biology in the mouth and brain allowing spoken language to be clearly transmitted.

There is a paradox I call the IPS paradox. IPS is an acronym standing for Inferiority of Primitive Speech. I can describe the paradox or difficulty as follows:

  1. Before any spoken language, it would have been possible for humans to communicate fairly effectively and clearly using hand gestures, in which particular words are expressed by particular hand gestures.
  2. If humans first started speaking before developing all the specialized biology needed for clear speaking, they would only have been able to speak in a very unclear and garbled manner, like a modern person trying to speak while holding his tongue against the bottom of his mouth, or trying to speak with a mouth filled with food.
  3. Such a primitive mode of oral communication would have been greatly inferior to hand gestures as a mode of communication.
  4. It therefore seems that oral language never could have become established before organisms developed good speech biology like modern humans have, and that there would never have been any gradual progression from primitive, garbled speaking to the type of clear speaking like humans now have.

I argued for this Inferiority of Primitive Speech paradox in a previous post. Laland's experiment does nothing to remove that paradox. His experiment allowed people with modern anatomy to use regular English sentences to teach stone-making. That does nothing to clear away the difficulty that it would have been a hundred times harder to orally teach something at the dawn of language, at a time when human ancestors did not have all the nice biology current humans have allowing them to speak clearly, and when no language was yet established. The Inferiority of Primitive Speech paradox is a powerful reason for rejecting all theories of the naturalistic origin of human spoken language. We can understand how humans might have naturally developed a hand gesture language, but cannot understand how humans could have naturally developed the first spoken language with rich expressive capability and complex rules of grammar.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Why Mind-Kneel to an Expert Who's Like a Bribed Juror?

A recent article on medium.com is a piece by Gleb Tsipursky entitled “We're in an Epidemic of Mistrust in Science.” The author cites a poll stating that only 14 percent of respondents showed “a great deal of confidence” in academia. He cites a 2017 poll in which only 35 percent of respondents have “a lot” of trust in scientists, with 45% of respondents choosing instead that they have only “a little” trust in scientists.

Tsipursky has a simple explanation for this fact that we don't all trustingly yield to all the claims of scientists. His explanation is that it's all the stupid public's fault. He says that the public has failed to realize the principle that experts are “much more likely to be right.” Tsipursky states the following:

That doesn't mean an expert opinion is more likely to be right –it's simply much more likely to be right than the opinion of a nonexpert....While individual scientists may make mistakes, it is incredibly rare for the scientific consensus as a whole to be wrong.

It is not a valid principle that expert opinion is much more likely to be right than the opinion of a nonexpert. It is probably correct that regarding small-scale, tangible physical things such as plumbing or farming or surgery, expert opinion is usually correct. But there is no general principle that expert opinion is generally correct in matters that are moral or philosophical or highly abstract, or in anything involving origins or large-scale trends. In this post I discuss many examples of expert opinions that were wrong with disastrous consequences, with the results often costing many thousands of lives.

Tsipursky admits that “ideological biases can have a strongly negative impact on the ability of experts to make accurate evaluations,” and he links to a book about politics. But ideological biases occur not just in regard to political matters, but also in regard to all kinds of questions relating to physics, cosmology, biology and psychology. When scientists are trained to hold particular jobs such as evolutionary biologists and neuroscientists, they are conditioned in ideological enclaves where poorly established theories may be required beliefs, and unreasonable taboos may be prevalent. We should no more expect such enclaves to produce highly accurate opinions than we should expect some randomly chosen theology school to produce highly accurate opinions about matters of eternal truth.

Another major reason why experts can reach wrong opinions is that an expert is often not like an impartial juror, but like a juror who has been bribed. Although jurors sometimes make mistakes, all in all the jury system is an excellent method for producing reliable opinions; and at its center is the idea of impartiality. We are careful to select only jurors who have no financial interest in the matter they are deciding. But a large fraction of experts have financial interest in reaching particular judgments. If you shell out $100,000 in graduate school tuition to get a degree in some field, you are expected to conform to the dogmas and intellectual taboos of that field, and not express opinions defying the majority viewpoint. If you state opinions defying the majority viewpoint, you will be less likely to get your scientific papers published, less likely to get research grant money, less likely to be appointed as a tenured professor, and less likely to get a good return on your hefty tuition investment. So it is quite common for an expert to have a large financial incentive to conform to majority opinions. An expert with such an incentive is not like an impartial juror, but is like a juror who has been bribed to reach some particular decision.


An article on widespread sexual harassment in scientific academia reminds us of how someone trying to become a scientist is totally dependent on the approval of other scientists, a type of situation that will minimize contrarian free-thinking and maximize "me too" thinking in which someone yields to peer pressure:

There is a complete dependency, in a way that there isn’t in the corporate world, on the people who are above you,” she says. “[Academics and committees] have to pass your comprehensive exams; they have to pass your dissertation proposal; they have to pass your defense of your dissertation; they have to write you letters for your first job, they have to write you letters for your funding – at all of those stages you are vulnerable. If they say no, you have no recourse; there is nobody else you can substitute for them to write that letter for you.”

We can imagine a system that would maximize the chance that scientists would be impartial judges of truth. A person would become a certified scientist by simply passing a very hard standardized 3-hour multiple choice test. Once he had passed the test, he would be assured a government salary for 5 years, along with a certain amount of money for research. The scientist would get the salary and the research money no matter what opinions he stated. There would be no committees analyzing someone for conformity before appointing him as a tenured professor. The only way someone could stay a certified scientist would be by passing the very hard test every 5 years. The publication of the papers of all certified scientists would be guaranteed, and scientists wouldn't have to worry about votes of approval from “peer review” paper reviewers. Such a system would maximize the chance of impartial and objective scientists, but it would be totally different from the current system.

Tsipursky does nothing to back up his claim that it is incredibly rare for a scientific consensus to be wrong, other than to link to another weakly reasoned blog post, and to make the laughable reasoning below:

Scientists get rewarded in money and reputation for finding fault with statements about reality made by other scientists. Thus, when the large majority of them agree on something — when there is a scientific consensus — it is a clear indicator that whatever they agree on accurately reflects reality.

Anyone familiar with the “echo chambers” that are certain branches of science may chuckle at this claim. The situation is that quite a few unproven and implausible ideas have become popular among different tribes of scientists, just as quite a few unproven and implausible ideas have become popular among different religions. Scientists who criticize a prevailing dogma that is poorly established or implausible will not at all “get rewarded in money and reputation for finding fault with statements about reality made by other scientists.” They will instead be treated as heretics and lepers, and will have a much smaller chance of having their papers published, and a much smaller chance of getting appointed as tenured professors.

Besides blaming the public for distrust in academia, Tsipursky tries to tell us it's the Internet's fault. He states the following:

Before the internet, we got our information from sources like mainstream media and encyclopedias, which curated the information for us to ensure it came from experts, minimizing the problem of confirmation bias. Today, the lack of curation means thinking errors are causing us to choose information that fits our intuitions and preferences, as opposed to the facts.

Anyone familiar with the extremely high rate of confirmation bias (and general ideological bias) in the writings of experts of many types will chuckle at this idea that previously people didn't get biased information when they read from encyclopedias and mainstream media.

Tsipursky has an idea for how trust in academic scientists can be increased. His idea is for people to sign something called the Pro-Truth Pledge. One of the promises in that pledge is a promise to “recognize the opinions of experts as more likely to be accurate when the facts are disputed.” That is not a sound general principle, since communities of experts often may be wrong because of sociological and groupthink reasons, and because a person belonging to a community of experts often has a financial interest in reaching some opinion that echoes that of the community. Such an expert is not like an impartial juror, but like a juror who has been bribed to reach some particular decision.

There's a better way to get the public to have increased confidence in academic scientists: have the scientists themselves do things that will increase the public's confidence in their statements. The following are some of the things that scientists could do.

  1. Scientists could stop pretending to understand things they do not understand. Many a modern scientist speaks as if he understands things that he does not actually understand. Nobody understands the origin of life, the origin of biological complexity, the origin of human minds, how it is that a newly fertilized ovum is able to progress to become a full baby, why proteins fold into conveniently functional three-dimensional shapes, how a human is able to have memories lasting for 50 years, how humans are able to generate ideas, why humans are able to instantly remember obscure facts and memories, or why the universe's fundamental constants are so fine-tuned. But scientists often speak as if they understand such things. A conspicuous example of this type of intellectual sin is a recent story in New Scientist with some teaser text saying, “The idea of an infinite multitude of universes is forced on us by physics.” This statement is completely false, and there is zero evidence of any universe other than our own. Another recent example was cosmologist Ethan Siegel telling us fine details of what supposedly happened at the time of the Big Bang, details he cannot possibly know, because the first 300,000 years of the universe's history are forever closed off to telescopic observations because of photon scattering.
  2. Scientists could stop describing as “impossible” or “unscientific” things for which there is much empirical evidence. Besides dogmatically advancing some claims for which there is no good evidence, many a modern scientist will  refuse to acknowledge evidence of the paranormal and the psychic, even when such evidence includes decades of very convincing laboratory experiments (as in the case of ESP). So a scientist such as Sean Carroll tells us that ESP is impossible (despite decades of experimental research establishing its existence), while also falsely claiming that the multiverse idea is not a hypothesis, as if there is any convincing empirical basis for believing in it, which there is not. In such cases we get the impression of a scientist believing precisely what he wants to believe, regardless of the evidence.
  3. Scientists could work on cleaning up problems in their scientific papers. In this post “The Building Blocks of Bad Science Literature,” I discuss more than a dozen problems that we commonly see in scientific papers, including data cherry-picking, unwarranted causal attribution, studies with too low a statistical power because of an inadequate sample size, misleading brain visuals, all-but-indecipherable speculative math, and data dredging. By reducing these problems, scientists would increase public confidence in them. 
Opinion pieces like Tsipursky's tend to make it sound as if it's only the poorly educated who are suspicions of the theoretical pronouncements of scientists, but that isn't the case. There's plenty of distrust in such pronouncements coming from the well educated. For example, philosophers of science have extensively discussed the issue known in the technical literature as “the underdetermination of scientific theories.” This is the fact that in many cases the evidence will support equally well a prevailing scientific theory and rival theories that are called “empirical equivalents.” Countless philosophy of science papers have been written about this issue of the underdetermination of scientific theories. Outside of academic philosophy departments, there are many sociologists who study scientist communities objectively, regarding them as just another social community with the same sociological tendencies as other social communities, such as tendencies to construct group norms and taboos, with sanctions punishing those who deviate from such norms and taboos. Such sociologists often conclude that some popular scientific theories are social constucts created largely to serve the ideological, economic or sociological needs of those who teach such theories. 

It is interesting that a government web site gives us a "hierarchy of evidence" pyramid, one of a number of similar pyramids you can find by doing a Google image search for "hierarchy of evidence."  In the hierarchy of evidence (ranging from weakest at the bottom to strongest at the top), "expert opinion" is at the very bottom of the pyramid. So why is it we are so often asked to believe this or that explanation for some important matter, based on expert opinions? 



Postscript: A study found that "nearly all scientific papers" are "controlled by six corporations." We may only wonder about what shadowy agenda such thought overlords may have.