I had developed a fascination with science when I was a teenager. It was unique as a way of dealing with life and explaining much about the world. Unlike all of the other creeds, cults, and ideologies that humans had been coming up with for as long as humanity had existed, each with a different version of what one should believe, science produced theories that could be tested by observable results that could be repeated. Its success was unprecedented, evident in the new world that had come into existence in little more than a century. From atoms to galaxies, phenomena were made comprehensible and predictable that had remained cloaked in superstition and ignorance through thousands of years of attempts at inquiry by other means. Airplanes worked; magic carpets didn't. Gravitation, not heavenly spheres, explained the movements of planets. Telephones, radio, and TV enabled anyone, at will, anytime, to communicate over vast distances, observe remote events as they happened, and accomplish countless other things which before could have been conceived only as miracles. Asimov's nonfiction added the topping: Science was not only effective and made sense; it could be fun too!
What singled out science was its recognition of objective reality: that whatever is true will remain true, regardless of how passionately someone might wish things to be otherwise, or how many others might be induced to share in that persuasion. A simple and obvious enough precept, one would have thought. Yet every other belief system, even when professing commitment to the impartial search for truth, acted otherwise when it came to recruiting a constituency. And hence, it seemed, followed most of the world's squabbles and problems. Wars were fought over religions, economic resources, or political rivalries. Well, science showed that men made gods, not vice versa; sufficiently advanced technologies could produce ample resources for everybody; and once those two areas were taken care of, what was there left to create political rivalries over? Then we could be on our way to the stars and concern ourselves with things that were truly interesting.
When I turned to writing in the mid seventies--initially as a result of an office bet, then going full-time when I discovered I liked it--a theme of hard science-fiction with an upbeat note came naturally. The picture of science that I carried into those early stories reflected the idealization of intellectual purity that textbooks and popularizers portray. Impartial research motivated by the pursuit of knowledge assembles facts, which theories are then constructed to explain; the theories are tested by experiment; if the predicted results are not observed, the theories are modified accordingly without prejudice, or abandoned. Although the ideal can seldom be achieved in practice, free inquiry and open debate will detect and correct the errors that human frailty makes inevitable. As a result, we move through progressively closer approximations toward the Truth.
Such high-flying fancy either attains escape velocity and departs from reality permanently, or it comes back to ground sometime. My descent from orbit was started by the controversy over nuclear energy. It wasn't just political activists or journalists cooking a story who were telling the public things that the physicists and engineers I knew in the nuclear field insisted were not so. Other scientists were telling them too. So either scientists were distorting facts to promote political views; or they were sincere, but ideology or some other kind of bias affected what they were willing to accept as fact; or vested interests and professional blinkers were preventing the people that I was talking to from seeing things as they were. Whichever way, the ideal of science as an immutable standard of truth where all parties applied the same rules and would be obliged to agree on the same conclusion was in trouble.
I quickly discovered that this was so in other fields too. Atmospheric scientists that I knew deplored the things being said about ozone holes. Chemists scoffed at the hysteria over carcinogens. A curious thing I noticed, however, was that specialists quick to denounce misinformation and sensationalized reporting concerning their own field would accept uncritically what the same information sources and media said with regard to other fields. Nuclear engineers exasperated by radiation scares nevertheless believed that lakes formed in some of the most acidic rock on the continent had been denuded of fish (that had never lived there) by acid rain; climatologists who pointed out that nothing could be happening to the ozone layer since surface ultraviolet was not increasing signed petitions to ban DDT; biologists who knew that bird populations had thrived during the DDT years showed up to picket nuclear plants; and so it went on. Clearly, other factors could outweigh the objective criteria that are supposed to be capable of deciding a purely scientific question.
Browsing in a library one day back in the eighties, I came across a Creationist book arguing that the fossil record showed the opposite of what evolutionary theory predicts. I had never had reason to be anything but a staunch supporter of Darwinism, since that was all I'd been exposed to, but out of curiosity I checked the book out and took it home. Scriptural explanations aside, to my surprise I found the purely scientific evidence that they presented for problems with the Darwinian theory to be thought-provoking and persuasive. Moreover, their references cited works by molecular biologists, biochemists, and others with no religious axes to grind, who were also critical of the theory, a notable example being Michael Denton's Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, which became next on my reading list and quickly led to others. Strange things happened when I brought my findings up with various biologists that I knew. While some would fly into a peculiar mix of apoplexy and fury at the mere mention of the subject, others would confide privately that they agreed with a lot of it; but things like pressures of the peer group, the politics of academia, and simple career considerations meant that they didn't talk about it. I was astonished. This was the late-twentieth-century West, not sixteenth century Spain.
Then I met Peter Duesberg, one of the nation's leading molecular and cell biologists, tipped to be in line for a Nobel Prize, suddenly professionally ostracized and defunded for challenging the mainstream dogma on AIDS. But after talking with him and his associates and reading their papers, as far as I could see, what they were saying made sense, whereas the official party line did not. I also got to know was the late Petr Beckmann, professor emeritus of electrical engineering at the University of Colorado, whose electrical interpretation of the phenomena conventionally explained by the Einstein Relativity Theory is equally compatible with all the experimental results obtained to date, simpler in its assumptions, and more powerful predictively--but it is ignored by the physics community. I talked to an astrophysicist in NASA who believed that Halton Arp--excommunicated from American astronomy for presenting evidence contradicting the accepted interpretation of the cosmic redshifts that the Big Bang theory rests on--was "onto something." But he would never say so in public, nor sign his name to anything to that effect on paper. His job would be on the line, just as Arp's had been.
Whatever science might be as an ideal, scientists turn out to be as human as anyone else, and they can be as obstinate as anyone else when comfortable beliefs solidify into dogma. Scientists have emotions--often passionately so, despite the myths--and can be as ingenious at rationalizing when a reputation or a lifetime's work is perceived to be threatened. They value prestige and security no less than anyone else, which inevitably fosters convergences of interests with political agendas that control where the money and the jobs come from. And far from least, scientists are members of a social structure with its own system of accepted norms and rewards, commanding loyalties that at times can approach fanaticism, and with rejection and ostracism being the ultimate unthinkable.
I wrote this book to share those experiences, for others to make of them what they will. It is not concerned with cranks (though some readers will surely disagree) or simple die-hards, who are entitled to their foibles and come as part of life's pattern. Rather, it looks at instances of present-day orthodoxies tenaciously defending beliefs in the face of what would appear to be verified fact and plain logic, or doggedly closing eyes and minds to ideas whose time has surely come. In short, where scientific authority seems to be functioning more in the role of religion protecting doctrine and putting down heresy than championing the spirit of the free inquiry that science should be. The factors bringing this about are various. Massive growth of government funding and direction of science since World War Two has produced symbiotic institutions which, like the medieval European Church, sell out to the power structure as purveyors of received truth in return for protection, patronage, and prestige. Sometimes vested commercial interests call the tune. In areas where passions run high, ideology and prejudice can easily prevail over objectivity. Academic turf, like any other, is defended against usurpers and outside invasion. Some readily trade the anonymity and drudgery of the laboratory for visibility and celebrity in the public limelight. Peer pressure, professional image, and the simple reluctance to admit that one was wrong can produce the same effects at the collective level as they do on individuals.
I used to say in flippant moments sometimes that science was the only area of human activity in which it actually matters whether or not what one believes is actually true. Nowadays, I'm not so sure. It seems frequently to be the case that the cohesiveness that promotes survival is fostered just as effectively by shared belief systems within the social-political structures of science, whether those beliefs be true or not. What practical difference does it make to the typical workaday scientist, after all, if the code that directs the formation and behavior of the self-assembling cat wrote itself out of random processes or was somehow inspired by a Cosmic Programmer, or if the universe really did dance out of the head of a pin? So today, I reserve the aphorism for Engineering. You can fool yourself if you want, and you can fool as many as will follow for as long as you can get away with it. But you can't fool reality. If your design is wrong, your plane won't fly. Engineers don't have the time or the inclination for highfalutin theories. In fact, over-elaborate theories that try to reach too far, I'm beginning to suspect, might be the biggest single menace affecting Science. Maybe that's why I find that the protagonists of the later books that I've written, now that I look back at them and get to think about it, have tended to be engineers.