THE BLOG
02/01/2016 02:20 pm ET | Updated Feb 01, 2017

How likely is it that scientists are engaged in a conspiracy?

Frauds in scientific research

From time to time, the scientific community is rocked by cases of scientific fraud. Needless to say, such incidents do not help instill confidence in the public mind that is already predisposed to be skeptical of inconvenient scientific findings. Some notable cases include: (a) a series of papers in nanoelectronics by a Bell Labs researcher, (b) two papers claiming that electromagnetic fields from cell phones can cause DNA damage, and several dozen articles by Netherlands social scientist Derek Stapel.

How could such frauds have happened? Jonathan Schooler of the University of California, Santa Barbara explains that "the big problem is that the culture is such that researchers spin their work in a way that tells a prettier story than what they really found," often out of pressure to cast every advance as a breakthrough. Projects in which only one or a handful of researchers have full access to data are particularly prone to this type of distortion. For example, in Stapel's case he was able to operate for so long because he was lord of the data -- not even his doctoral students were permitted to see their own data.

Evolution, climate change and other "conspiracies"

Evolution is evidently considered controversial by many, and allegations of fraud and conspiracy have been raised numerous times. According to a 2014 Gallup poll, 42% of Americans believe that "God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years;" (rates are lower in most other nations but still significant).

However, the basic facts of evolution, namely that living organisms have proliferated on earth over many millions of years, and that species have a common biological ancestry, have not been in question for many years in peer-reviewed scientific literature. Indeed, tens of thousands of radiometric dating measurements and terabytes of publicly accessible DNA sequence data cannot reasonably be interpreted any other way. Qualified scientists who accept the consensus on evolution outnumber those who question it by at least 200 to 1. Nor do most religious-minded individuals (scientists or otherwise) find evolution to be in conflict with their faith.

Another area that many in the public consider controversial is climate change. Gallup Poll's analysis of climate change shows that 45% of Americans either do not believe that climate change is occurring or else do not expect that it will occur within their lifetime. Sadly, it appears, as noted recently in The Conversation, that additional scientific data on climate change does not change minds of many people.

According to a recent analysis, 97.1% of peer-reviewed papers on climate change support the conclusion that climate change is occurring and is due at least in part to human activity. Among scientists publishing peer-reviewed literature in the field who have expressed a view on human-caused warming, 98.4% endorse this consensus. As the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concludes, scientific evidence for warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and evidence that it is in part human-induced is very strong.

It is worth noting that only in the United States is there a major political party, the Republicans, which for non-scientific reasons is uniformly on the side of climate warming denial.  Then again in the US respect for government is at an all-time low, and political discourse is certainly more vituperative than in the rest of the advanced world.

Other alleged scientific conspiracies include the claim that vaccinations cause autism, but medical authorities aren't telling us (believed by 6% of Americans with another 52% unsure); that the Apollo moon landings were a hoax (also believed by 6% of Americans); that aliens have been visiting humans (believed by 48% of Americans) but the government is covering it up; and that scientists have found a cure for cancer, but big pharma is suppressing it.

Is there a conspiracy?

Many who are not comfortable with the scientific consensus on one or more of these topics have suggested that there is a conspiracy among scientists to hide the "truth," or at least to hide important, uncomfortable facts that argue against the mainstream conclusion. This is amusingly lampooned in the moon does not exist parody.

To the present authors, claims of a conspiracy are nonsense. How could such a conspiracy be maintained more than just momentarily in a worldwide community of scientists? As Ben Franklin wrote in his Poor Richard's Almanac, "Three can keep a secret, provided two of them are dead." Or as one of us once quipped, tongue-in-cheek, in response to a state legislator who was skeptical of evolution, "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: There are tens of thousands of scientists worldwide who have seen their retirement savings decimated in recent stock market declines, or who are about to lose their homes through foreclosure, or who find themselves unable to pay for their children's college education. Yet all one of these scientists has to do to garner both worldwide fame and considerable fortune (e.g., book contracts) is to call a news conference and present solid evidence that will expose the "truth." So why isn't this happening?

Quantitative analysis of scientific conspiracies

Recently British researcher David Robert Grimes published an interesting study wherein he attempted to quantify the likelihood that a scientific conspiracy involving a given number of people will persist more than a given length of time. One key parameter for his probabilistic model was the chances of a single individual revealing a conspiracy within a single year. For this he took three genuine conspiracies, including the Prism project revealed by Edward Snowden, as a baseline.

Grimes then examined the following four alleged conspiracies:

  1. That the Apollo moon landings were a hoax (involving 411,000 people).
  2. That climate change is a fraud (involving 405,000 people).
  3. That the fact that vaccinations are unsafe is being covered up (involving 22,000 people).
  4. That a cure for cancer is known but is being suppressed by large pharmaceutical companies (involving 714,000 people).
Using his probabilistic model, Grimes calculated that the moon landing hoax should have been exposed in 3 years 8 months, the climate change fraud in 3 years 9 months, the vaccination conspiracy in 3 years 2 months, and the suppressed cancer cure in 3 years 3 months. In other words, all of these frauds should have collapsed long ago.

If anything, Grimes' model, in our view, understates the probability of exposure and thus overestimates the time to exposure. Note, for instance, that the Prism activity, exposed by Snowden and used by Grimes as a baseline, is a highly classified project, so that those with access to it are bound by severe criminal penalties. Also, given compartmentalization procedures in the defense world, it is likely that few of its participants understood the full scope of the project or the extent to which it exceeded boundaries of applicable law. Such considerations do not apply to conventional scientific projects, which by definition are open literature research.

Summary

In short, there is no possibility whatsoever that major facts of science are being withheld or misrepresented in a conspiracy, at least not for any significant consensus conclusion of modern science. Alleged frauds of evolution, climate science, moon landings, vaccinations or cancer cures would require tens or hundreds of thousands of people, without any exception, to keep secrets over many years, which is exponentially unlikely (contrast these alleged conspiracies to the actual frauds mentioned at the start of this article, which involved only one or a handful of people). And nothing can stop maverick scientists from publishing papers that overturn conventional wisdom.

Unpleasant and inconvenient as some scientific findings may seem, we must accept them (provided they have passed peer review, have been examined and confirmed by numerous independent researchers and are accepted as well-established consensus in the field), not as incontrovertible truth, which can never be provided in science, but as reliable facts on which we can and must construct a rational worldview. To believe otherwise is to detach ourselves from modern scientific progress.