Mark Ashby is an independent researcher interested in upland and farmland ecology, and evidence synthesis.
I began reading Hector Drummond Magazine in March this year, which is about the point at which Hector started to publish articles from guest authors. I’ve been extremely impressed by both the variety and quality of the articles published on the site. I’ve also noticed the scientific and philosophical credentials of the contributing authors. There’s Hector himself, who, as an academic, specialised in the philosophy of science and worked in a risk analysis institute. Then there’s the data maestros: Alistair Haimes, Christopher Bowyer, David Clark, Rick Hayward, Robert Watson and Thaddeus Michaels. And let’s not forget Charlie Spedding (former healthcare professional), Dominey Jenner (who should and could be a moral philosopher), Eva Dehlinger (biologist), John Church (good with data and something of a philosopher), Martin Sewell (quantitative researcher), Simon Anthony (former theoretical physicist), Thomas Galen (biologist and data analyst) and Tim James (who also should be a moral philosopher), to name a few. A quick peruse of the comments section also reveals that many readers have a scientific and philosophical bent.
You’re probably wondering why I’m harping on about your scientific and philosophical credentials. Well, it’s because they’ve given me an idea: an idea that has left me brimming with p*** and vinegar. Why don’t we, as a rough and ready group of scientists and philosophers, lay siege to the rot permeating through academia? We could tackle what I call the Big Four, which, in my view, are responsible for the authoritarian, hysterical and wildly damaging COVID-19 policies that have been inflicted upon us since March.
The Big Four
Lack of scientific rigour
I’ve lost count of the number of scientific articles I’ve read that shouldn’t have made it through peer-reviewe.g.1-3. What’s more, I find it utterly depressing that most of these shoddy and unreliable studies remain unchallenged. Furthermore, by remaining unchallenged, such studies could potentially be used to inform policy that directly affects you and me. There are also whole fields in which replication, a crucial part of the scientific method, is low to non-existente.g.4-6. In short, this raises the possibility that academic journals are filled with false knowledge.
The following scenario will explain what I mean by ought-ism: our study finds that A (e.g. alcohol consumption) has a negative impact on B (e.g. health outcomes); therefore, we conclude that we ought to ban, limit or tax A. Ought-ism is the prevailing attitude in many academic disciplines, but especially public health researche.g.7-9. We must fight back against this pervasive attitude because, if we don’t, then we’ll creep ever closer to Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World in which individualism is dead, and we’re reduced to mere ant-sized cogs whose every action must be for the good of society. As I write, many academics are busying themselves with research that will ultimately be used to legislate against many of the things that make life worth living. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not live in a society dreamed up by puritan academics.
It seems to me that many academic disciplines are plagued by groupthink. As an example, let’s take a look at the following article by a now-infamous public health scientist, Professor Devi Sridhar:
Sridhar, D. (2012). Regulate alcohol for global health. Nature, 482(7385), 302-302.
In the article, Professor Sridhar calls upon the World Health Organisation to produce a binding framework to control alcohol consumption in member states7 – all for the good of society, of course. This article is cited 35 times, but none of the citing articles are critical of regulating alcohol consumption10. In fact, there seems to be a presumption that alcohol consumption should be regulated to varying levels and within varying contexts10.
It has become apparent that our Prime Minister is incapable of thinking for himself and has an unhealthy reverence for scientific experts. Thus, if he were left alone with Professor Sridhar and her colleagues, then new legislation limiting alcohol consumption would swiftly follow (just look at his plans to reduce obesity after his bout of COVID-1911). We desperately need dissenting voices to prevent such groupthink and the political consequences it entails.
The precautionary principle
Since the 1970s, the precautionary principle (PP) has been widely adopted within academia12. I find this slightly ironic given that the PP is poorly defined, self-cancelling, and cannot be objectively applied13-15. Consequently, it’s often applied in a haphazard, subjective and biased manner13-15, which is exemplified by the way it’s been employed during the facemask debate in the UK. For example, I’ve heard people point out that the scientific evidence does not support the use of cloth facemasks to limit the spread of COVID-19, but they then go on to suggest we should wear them just in case it saves one life. Yet, there’s contrary evidence (albeit inconclusive) suggesting that cloth facemasks may increase the spread of respiratory viruses16. And here the problem of self-cancellation raises its ugly head: one precautionary route cancels out another: wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 versus not wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Not to worry, though, the PP is a very flexible tool. Indeed, mask zealots can get around this problem by selecting the precautionary route they like best. Perhaps this is why I’ve never heard anyone call for cloth facemasks to be banned just in case they increase the spread of COVID-19.
I cannot tell you how much I detest the PP and wish for its speedy demise. I’m not saying we should never be cautious, but we need an objective framework to help us decide when a precautionary approach is required. Such a framework must also consider the wider costs and benefits of any precautionary action that is taken. This latter point is particularly important given the current monomaniacal obsession with COVID-19 at the expense of all else.
So, dear readers, consider this a call to arms. Let’s pool our resources, knowledge and experience to fight back against the Big Four. We can start by rebutting scientific studies we deem to be fundamentally flawed. Then, if time and appetite allow, we could also begin to write perspective papers or carry out original research.
We might not always get our work published, and we’ll have to carry out the work for free, but at least we’ll be doing something to pushback against the aspects of academia that have become so detrimental to the institution of science and our everyday lives. I’m tired of sitting idly by while the institution of science rots and our once free society turns into an authoritarian technocracy. If you’re interested in fighting back or have rebuttal suggestions, please contact me using the email below.
The game’s afoot my friends: I do hope you join me.
Note: I’ve been out of action for a while due to computer problems. Total PITA fixing it (it’s a complicated audio workstation computer which makes it so much worse). I will have articles and graphs to go up this week though.
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