Autoimmune Thyroid Disease

An Unfortunate and Lengthy Adventure in Misdiagnosis

Who killed science?

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You may have heard recently the story of Dr Hwang Woo Suk of Seoul National University, South Korea, who admitted to fabricating his data in papers about human cloning. Further papers have now been found to be faked, and as it stands, all published evidence of success in human therapeutic cloning has now been wiped out.

“Worst of all is the damage done to science itself. Science runs on trust. Governments give researchers money on the understanding that they will use it fairly, and honestly report their results. Peer reviewers assume that what they are judging is a fair account of what happened; they are not yet charged with policing dubious data. Without trust, the whole scientific project will collapse.” (New Scientist editorial, December 2005)

After describing another couple of high-profile cases of fabrication, New Scientist goes on to say:

“[A] certain amount of low-level bad behaviour seems to be endemic. Earlier this year, Brian Martinson and colleagues from Minneapolis published a survey of more than 3000 researchers funded by the US National Institutes of Health. (Nature, vol 435, p 727). They found that 10 percent or more admitted to withholding details of methodology or results, inappropriately assigning authorship credit, and dropping observations or data points based on a gut feeling that they were inaccurate.” (New Scientist editorial, December 2005)

Compare the misbehaviour and disgrace of Dr Hwang with the fate of poor Dr Árpád Pusztai. Dr Árpád Pusztai is the world renowned scientist whose work on feeding GM potatoes to rats revealed that the snowdrop lectin in the GM potatoes caused pathological tissue changes in the stomach linings of the rats. Dr Pusztai was surprised by his own results, but being a good scientist he checked his numbers and his methodology and finding it correct, he announced his results. In spite of his work being scientifically sound, a campaign by vested interests in the GM industry was launched against him that then led to him being unfairly sacked. It is widely known that lectins have deleterious effects on human beings. But when big business didn’t like what poor Dr Pusztai found, it had this well-behaved and respected scientist silenced.

Coming from the perspective of someone who rejects the cholesterol hypothesis, I find myself continually aware of and continually disturbed by the distortions and even the fabrications of data in scientific papers, the wrong-headed conclusions scientists sometimes come to, and dumbing down of subsequent advice when it is meted out to the general population via the media. The less than perfect trust I feel able to give science leaves me subtly disturbed.

In sociology you learn about paradigms. A paradigm is a set of ideas, theories, opinions, or beliefs held by society which are taken as fact and pretty much universally accepted. In truth they are not necessarily true. Take palaeontology. Twenty years ago the idea that a giant meteor wiped out the dinosaurs was scoffed at by most reputable palaeontologists as fantasy – until compelling evidence came from a different area of specialist knowledge; geology, in the discovery of a layer of ash in the rock found the entire world over. It then took the next twenty years for all or most of the palaeontologists to climb aboard the bandwagon and decide that this theory was probably true. Both sides represent paradigms – just like political beliefs and religions are paradigms – and ultimately there is no way to be completely sure of the truth. When people state something as true because they ‘just know it’, not merely that they see a possibility or a likelihood, it frightens me because it speaks of faith, not science.

Duck and Cover to avoid a nuclear blast? Painting one’s face white with lead? Using leeches to “bleed” a patient? We may laugh at the past, and ten years ago we did laugh at the idea of using leeches to “bleed” sick people during pre-modern times. But it turns out that leeches provide endorphins that block pain, and the anti-clotting substances in their saliva are useful for a variety of ailments, from deep vein thrombosis, to strokes, to heart attacks. The point is, we don’t always move forwards in science, sometimes we move backwards or sideways too, as we did when we dismissed the age-old remedy of “bleeding” as groundless. I imagine there are quite a lot of age-old remedies currently dismissed as pure quackery that are still waiting to be vindicated as having minor usefulness. Certainly there are a large quantity of traditional herbal medicines that have barely been studied for their worth. The reverse is true too – some alternative remedies that many people accept as fact – like crystal healing or homeopathy – have been found to have no more effect on people than that of a placebo. Yet the placebo effect is real and useful too.

Students of the psychology of advertising are well aware that once you are over a certain age (coincidentally the age that a typical PhD student graduates), you are unlikely to revise your preferences or opinions. Advertising companies regard marketing goods to people over the age of thirty-five as pointless. The beliefs that you formed in your younger life are now fixed, you no longer move with the times, and you become more and more out of touch with new ideas. My parents often complain about how “set in their ways” my grandparents are. Predictably, I find myself saying the same about them to my contemporaries, though I too am approaching the critical age!

The same is true in science. It has been said that science moves forward funeral by funeral. People, especially respected people like scientists, don’t like changing their opinions about things: if one invests a lot into one’s opinions it puts one’s ego at stake; it’s embarrassing to admit that one is wrong, it undermines one’s authority and also damages one’s commercial ability to earn money. So science grinds forward reluctantly, only as one set of people are replaced by another, and one paradigm is able to be replaced by another.

Most people cannot accept observed fact as knowledge unless they have an underlying theory to explain the facts too. It has never been enough to observe that the sun rises in the morning and falls in the evening, people have to understand why. In pre-Enlightenment times the undisputed belief was that God had made it so. Today we point to the spin of the Earth. It is this gap between fact and theory that turns a paradigm into either a science or a belief, and sometimes the dominant theory about why or how something works comes to overshadow the evidence, and as New Scientist says, that bad behaviour of “dropping observations or data points based on a gut feeling that they were inaccurate.” Gut feelings are just feelings. They are not science. Only controlled, factual observations are science.

When I was a teenager we were set to do an experiment in our science class. The experiment was to monitor the temperature of a beaker of boiled water every few minutes until it cooled down. For the first few minutes, I was in control of the observation. I wrote down the temperature, but as I had particular ideas about what the water would do, I rounded the temperature up or down by a couple of degrees. I dropped observations based on a gut feeling they were inaccurate. I made a beautiful straight line on the graph. Then my friend took over from me, and very soon it became clear that the temperature of the water had not been making a straight line, but a curved one. I had innocently been fabricating my data. When I realised what I had done, I learned my lesson and I promised never to repeat my mistake.

Good science is work based on the scientific method. The scientific method is this: form a theory based on previous observations; find a way to test your observations; record the observations without prejudice; use the observations to disprove your theory (in philosophy, you can never truly prove your theory). There are numerous crucial points where science can go wrong: flawed premises, shoddy research methods, manipulation of data, inferring proof based on statistically insignificant figures (this is most usually the method used to ‘prove’ the cholesterol hypothesis), downright lying, and money.

A lot of ‘science’ today is carried out by people who have vested interests in the outcome of the research. The testing of new medical drugs is entirely self-regulated by the medical industry. People who have vested interests in getting results all too often are the people who are making the results. This is a serious conflict of interest. It is too easy to be so convinced of the truth of a theory so that one distorts or covers up the evidence in order to prove that theory. It is too easy to blind people with science. It is too easy to establish a paradigm with given facts and causes that may have little relation to the reality. The matter is that if you say something for long enough and loud enough and add enough scientific terms into your sentences, people will start to believe you. Science really is based on trust, and the people who run science are not necessarily trustworthy one hundred percent of the time.

I have this nightmare sometimes. In my nightmare I am in a world where people are blinded. They have their paradigm – their beliefs – about the way the world works and they refuse to change them in the light of reason, logic, and evidence. Sometimes they hang on to these beliefs because the beliefs make them feel secure, or they feel their observations of the world should align with their moral code, or they don’t like to be wrong, sometimes because they like to feel ‘spiritual’ or ‘intuitive’ or ‘mystical’ or they believe in God, or because they just don’t understand what they’re being told, and sometimes merely because they don’t like change.This is a nightmare world, a place of the dark ages, of drunkenness and faith. It is indeed a spiritually bankrupt world, for what is spirituality but a quest for the truth?


Written by alienrobotgirl

10 January, 2006 at 8:22 pm

One Response

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  1. […] really astonishingly bad news. What has gone wrong with the US? I’ve spent a fair bit of time criticising the scientific community for poor scientific method, for being riddled with silly and outdated beliefs, and for burying its […]

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