Skepticism about science and medicine

In search of disinterested science

We are being routinely misled about health and diet

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2017/03/24

Most of what the media make a fuss about over health or diet should not be believed.

It should not be believed even as it cites peer-reviewed articles or official guidelines. All too often the claims made are based on misuse of statistics and are an abuse of common sense.

That little rant was set off by a piece in the august New York Times: “Pollution leads to greater risk of dementia among older women, study says”).

Alarms were triggered:
“Older women”: Only among older and not younger? Women but not men?

The original article did not improve my mood:
The pollution actually studied was “fine particulate matter, P.M. 2.5, 2.5 micrometers or smaller in diameter”: What about 2.5 to 3, say? Or 3 to 4? And so on.
“Women with the genetic variant APOE4, which increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, were more likely to be affected by high levels of air pollution”:
Is this asserting that there’s synergy? That the combined effect is not just the added effects of the two factors? That pollution is not just an independent risk factor but somehow is more effective with APOE4 carriers? So what about APOE3 or APOE2 carriers?

The New York Times piece mentioned some other studies as well:
“[P]renatal exposure to air pollution could result in children with greater anxiety, depression and attention-span disorders”.
“[A]ir pollution caused more than 5.5 million premature deaths in 2013”.

With those sort of assertions, my mind asks, “How on earth could that be known?”
What sort of study could possibly show that? What sort of data, and how much of it, would be required to justify those claims?

So, with the older women and dementia, how were the observational or experimental subjects (those exposed to the pollution) distinguished from the necessary controls that were not exposed to pollution? Controls need to be just like the experimental subjects (in age, state of health, economic circumstances, etc.) with the sole exception that the latter were exposed to pollution and the controls were not.
For the controls not to be exposed to the pollution, obviously the two groups must be geographically separate. Then what other possibly pertinent factors differed between those geographic regions? How was each of those factors controlled for?

In other words, what’s involved is not some “simple” comparison of polluted and not polluted; there is a whole set of possibly influential factors that need somehow to be controlled for.

The more factors, the larger the needed number of experimental subjects and controls; and the required number of data points increases much more than linearly with the number of variables. Even just that realization should stimulate much skepticism about many of the media-hyped stories about diet or health. Still more skepticism is called for when the claim has to do with lifestyle, since the data then depend on how the subjects recall and describe how they have behaved.

The dementia article was published in Translational Psychiatry, an open-access journal from the Nature publishing group. The study had enrolled 3647 women aged between 65 and 79. That is clearly too small a number for all possibly relevant factors to have been controlled for. Many details make that more than a suspicion, for example, “Women in the highest PM2.5 quartile (14.34–22.55 μg m −3) were older (aged ≥75 years); more likely to reside in the South/Midwest and use hormonal treatment; but engage less in physical activities and consume less alcohol, relative to counterparts (all P-values <0.05. . . )” — in other words, the highest exposure to pollution was experiences by subjects who differed from controls and from other subjects in several ways besides pollution exposure.

At about the same time as the media were hyping the dementia study, there was also “breaking news” about how eating enough fruit and vegetables protects against death and disease, based on the peer-reviewed article “Fruit and vegetable intake and the risk of cardiovascular disease, total cancer and all-cause mortality — a systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies”.

Meta-analysis means combining different studies, the assumption being that the larger amount of primary data can make conclusions stronger and firmer. However, that requires that each of the individual studies being drawn on is sound and that the subjects and circumstances are reasonably comparable in all the different studies. In this case, 95 studies reported in 142 publications were analyzed. Innumerable factors need to be considered — the specific fruit or vegetable (one cannot presume that apples and pears have the same effect, nor cauliflower and carrots); and the effects of different amounts of what is eaten must somehow be taken into account. There are innumerable variables, in other words, permitting considerable skepticism about the claims that “An estimated 5.6 and 7.8 million premature deaths worldwide in 2013 may be attributable to a fruit and vegetable intake below 500 and 800 g/day, respectively, if the observed associations are causal” and that ‘Fruit and vegetable intakes were associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and all-cause mortality. These results support public health recommendations to increase fruit and vegetable intake for the prevention of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and premature mortality.” Skepticism is yet more called for since health and mortality are influenced to a great extent by genetics and geography, which were not controlled for.
The authors deserve credit, though, for the clause, “if the observed associations are causal”. What everyone should know about statistics is that correlations, associations, never prove causation. That law is almost universally ignored as the media disseminate press releases and other spin from researchers and their institutions, implying that associations are meaningful about what causes what.

It is easy enough to understand why considerable skepticism should be exercised with claims like those about mortality and diet or about dementia and pollution, simply because studies to test these claims properly would need to include much larger numbers of subjects. But an even greater reason to doubt such claims, as well as claims about newly approved drugs and treatments, is that the statistical analyses commonly used are inherently flawed, most particularly by a quite inadequate criterion for statistical significance.

Almost universally in social science and in medical science, statistical significance is defined as p≤0.05: the probability that the results are mere coincidence, owing just to random chance, is less than 5%, in other words less than 1 in 20.

Several things are wrong with that. Among the most serious are:

  1. That something is not a coincidence, not owing to random chance, does not tell us what it is owing to, what the cause is. It is not necessarily the experimenter’s hypothesis, yet that is the assumption made universally with this type of statistical analysis.
  2. 1 in 20 is a very weak criterion. It means that 1 in every 20 “statistically significant” conclusions is wrong. Do 20 studies, and on average one of them will be “statistically significant” even though it is wrong.
  3. That something is statistically significant does not mean that the effect is meaningful.
    For example, after I had a TIA (transient ischemic attack, minor stroke), the neurologist automatically prescribed the “blood thinner” Plavix, clopidogrel, as lessening the risk of further strokes. I am wary of all drugs since they all have “side” effects, so later I searched the literature and found that Plavix is statistically significantly better at decreasing risk than is aspirin, p = 0.043, better than p≤0.05. However, the relative efficacies found were just 5.83% compared to 5.32%; to my mind, not at all a significant difference, not enough to compensate for the greater risk of “side” effects from clopidogrel than from aspirin which has been in use for far longer by far more people without discovery of seriously dangerous “side” effects. (Chemicals don’t have two types of effect, main and side, those we want and those we don’t want. “Side” effects are just as real as the intended effects.)

Many statisticians have pointed out for many years what is wrong with the p-value approach to statistics and its use in social science and in medical science. More than two decades ago, an editorial in the British Medical Journal pointed to “The scandal of poor medical research” [i] with incompetent statistical analysis one of the prime culprits. Matthews [ii] has explained clearly point 1 above. Colquhoun [iii] explains that p ≤ 0.05 makes for wrong conclusions even more often than 1 in 20 times: “If you use p=0.05 to suggest that you have made a discovery, you will be wrong at least 30% of the time”. Gigerenzer [iv] has set out in clear detail the troubles with the commonly used p-value analysis.
Nevertheless, this misleading approach continues to be routine, standard, because it is so simple that many researchers who have no real understanding of statistics can use it. Among the consequences is that most published research findings are false [v] and that newly approved drugs have had to be withdrawn sooner and sooner after their initial approval [vi].
Slowly the situation improves as systemic inertia is penetrated by a few initiatives. A newly appointed editor of the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology (BASP) announced that p-value analyses would no longer be required [vii], and soon after that they were actually banned [viii].

In the meantime, however, tangible damage is being done by continued use of the p-value approach in the testing and approval of prescription drugs, which adds to a variety of deceptive practices routinely employed by the pharmaceutical industry in clinical trials, see for example Ben Goldacre, Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients (Faber & Faber, 2013); Peter C. Gøtzsche, Deadly Medicines and Organised Crime: How Big Pharma Has Corrupted Healthcare (Radcliffe, 2013); David Healy, Pharmageddon (University of California Press, 2012). Gøtzsche and Healy report that prescription drugs, even though “properly” used, are the 3rd or 4th leading cause of death in developed countries.

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[i] D G Altman, BMJ, 308 [1994] 283

[ii] Matthews, R. A. J. 1998. “Facts versus Factions: The use and abuse of subjectivity in scientific research.” European Science and Environment Forum Working Paper; pp. 247-82 in J. Morris (ed.), Rethinking Risk and the Precautionary Principle, Oxford: Butterworth (2000).

[iii] David Colquhoun, “An investigation of the false discovery rate and the misinterpretation of p-values”, Royal Society Open Science, 1 (2014) 140216; http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsos.14021

[iv] Gerd Gigerenzer, “Mindless statistics”, Journal of Socio-Economics, 33 [2004] 587-606)

[v] (John P. A. Ioannidis, “Why most published research findings are false”, PLoS Medicine, 2 [#8, 2005] 696-701; e124)

[vi] Henry H. Bauer, Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth, McFarland, 2012, Table 5 (p. 240) and text pp. 238-42

[vii] David Trafimow, Editorial, Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 36 (2014) 1-2

[viii] (David Trafimow & Michael Marks, Editorial, BASP, 37 [2015] 1-2; comments by Royal Statistical sociry[viii] and at https://www.reddit.com/r/statistics/comments/2wy414/social_psychology_journal_bans_null_hypothesis/)

Posted in media flaws, medical practices, peer review, prescription drugs, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Speaking Truth to Big Pharma Power

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2017/03/18

Some time ago I recommended the newsletter of Mad in America, a diligent and reliable commentary on the flaws of modern psychiatric medicine.

A recent issue had links to a superb series of articles by David Healy, a psychiatrist who has spoken truth to Big Pharma and to the conventional (lack of) wisdom, at considerable personal cost. Healy also founded a website with information about dru side effects, RxRisk:
Tweeting While Psychiatry Burns
Tweeting while Medicine Burns (Psychopharmacology Part 2)
Burn Baby Burn (Psychopharmacology Part 3)

Also useful in this newsletter, link to a report of a meta-analysis confirming the Minimal Effectiveness and High Risk of SSRIs

Posted in conflicts of interest, medical practices, politics and science, prescription drugs, science is not truth, scientific culture, scientists are human | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Money has corrupted science, including some individual scientists

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2017/03/11

Some years ago, I had blogged about “The business of for-profit ‘science’”, pointing out that “A number of trends, in society as a whole as well as in science and medicine, have led to the present dysfunctional state of affairs. It is not the result of conspiracies or overt evil-doing . . .”.

Systemic change means that just “doing what everyone does” results in bad things for the public as a whole. An obvious illustration at the moment is that politics has become so pervaded by “spin” that truth has essentially disappeared from what politicians and their spokespeople say, with consequences that everyone should fear.

But that “normal” behavior has become dysfunctional does not entail that there is not also deliberate additional mischief being done, and things that seem so out of order that they ought to be criminally prosecutable.

One aspect of present dysfunctionality in scientific activities is the proliferation of what has been aptly described as predatory publishing on-line of what seem on their face to be scientific journals but whose entire raison d’être is to make money for the publishers from the fees paid by author. The steadily updated list of apparently predatory publishers and journals inaugurated by Jeffrey Beall was no longer on-line as of some time between 12 and 18 January 2017, but the Wayback Machine makes an earlier version available .

Admittedly, every active, publishing researcher knows that peer review and editorial judgments are far from infallibly expert and impartial, but the predatory journals have no quality control at all, illustrated by the acceptance of entirely fake articles, for instance in Open Information Science published by Bentham Science (Jessica Shepherd, “Editor quits after journal accepts bogus science article”, 18 June 2009 ); the editor of another Bentham journal, Open Chemical Physics, resigned after an article she had never seen was published, a piece that alleged the presence of “nanothermite” particles in the dust from the Twin Towers terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 (Thomas Hoffmann, “Chefredaktør skrider efter kontroversiel artikel om 9/11”, 28 April 2009; Denis G. Rancourt, “Editor in Chief resigned over the Harrit et al. nanothermite paper”, 11 November 2010).

Beall had listed more than 1100 publishers, some of which publish hundreds of ”journals” where “article processing charges” run from a few hundred dollars upwards to more than $1000. Any honest researcher with results of any importance seeks publication in a long-established and respected journal, so all this “publication” by the predators is sheer waste, much of it money that had been awarded to scientists as research grants. Bentham Science, perhaps iconic of the more prominent predators, lists well over 100 journals. In 2013, Science published the report of a sting operation in which fake manuscripts with obvious flaws were sent to a number of open-access journals; more than half the fake articles were accepted for publication (John Bohannon, “Who’s Afraid of Peer Review? A spoof paper concocted by Science reveals little or no scrutiny at many open-access journals”, Science 342 [2013] 60-5).

Of course not all mainstream print journals manage always to detect even obvious deficiencies, but predatory journals leave other clues, for example, that they continually solicit people for submissions and to serve as editors and on editorial boards (e.g. D. H. Kaye, “Flaky academic journals”, 21 December 2016; Gunther Eysenbach, “Black sheep among Open Access Journals and Publishers”).

Legitimate journals employ copyeditors, but the predators do not. Recently I benefited from e-mails that revealed yet further deceitful money grubbing. Bentham Science journals suggest that authors get (and pay for) copy-editing and language improvement services offered by Eureka Science — whose staff happens to be the same people who also run Bentham Science. The “two” companies also pretend to be separate entities in the arranging of conferences, for example the International Conference on Drug Discovery and Therapy (six since 2008).

Conferences can be real money-makers. For the 2017 International Conference on Drug Discovery and Therapy, registration fees range from about $500 for mere attendees to, for speakers ~$1000 (academic) o r~ $1600 (corporate) (the approximate “~” because fees vary a bit according to when they are paid). Invited speakers pay the same fees as non-invited, which strikes me as odd. When I’m invited to speak I’m offered expenses, even an honorarium; but then I haven’t been active in mainstream science research for quite some time. The Conference organizers do offer free travel and accommodation to a few eminent people, say Nobel Prize winners, since having those attend lends apparent legitimacy to the proceedings. These meetings can be lucrative indeed for the organizers: the 2015 International Conference on Drug Discovery and Therapy listed more than 360 registrants.

The identity of Bentham Science and Eureka Science was revealed to me by Fiona Hayden, self-described as a researcher in the field of corporate ethics with a special interest in the STM publishing industry. She discovered that
Ø      Bentham Science hides its identity and location.
Ø      It organizes conferences but tells potential audience that it is just a media partner, that the organizer is a different company.
Ø      It asks authors to pay for grammar and English editing to its own company with the different name Eureka Science.
Ø      It does not allow its employees to disclose on their social media accounts that they work for Bentham Science.
Ø      It puts people who expose them on a black list.

The version of the black list Hayden sent me had about 30 names. The criterion for inclusion seems to be anyone who might be a whistleblower about improper happenings: one person on the list whom I had known reasonably well was an activist for integrity of academic ideals; another has been one of the most prominent advocates of respectable high-quality open-access publishing.

At one of the “Eureka” conferences, several of the staff had identified themselves as Bentham employees to Hayden and her colleagues, who also identified by name and e-mail address several individuals active in “both” companies, which are registered in Karachi as Information Technology Services (ITS). Among the registrants at the 2015 Conference on Drug Discovery and Therapy, about 15 were Bentham employees listed as ITS or Eureka.

ITS, Bentham Science, & Eureka Science are one and the same, owned by retired Professor Atta-ur-Rehman who is always president or vice president of Eureka conferences (Fiona Hayden e-mail, 2 March 2017). While serving as Chairman of the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan, Atta-ur-Rehman had been warned about the publishing of fake journals in Pakistan (Q. Isa Daudpota [professor at Pakistan’s Air University], “Scourge of fake journals”, 30 November 2011, ).

I had posted recently about The Scourge of Wikipedia; Wiki’s unreliability is illustrated by its Google summary for Bentham Science, which makes it appear as a perfectly respectable mainstream outfit instead of the reality:

Fiona Hayden also supplied links to some articles by a range of authors deploring predatory publishing and other sad aspects of contemporary science:

http://www.dcscience.net/2011/12/16/open-access-peer-review-grants-and-other-academic-conundrums/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4315198/

http://neurodojo.blogspot.de/2015/04/how-much-harm-is-done-by-predatory.html

http://www.acc.org/latest-in-cardiology/articles/2013/05/10/16/21/straight-talk-predatory-publishers

http://blog.pokristensson.com/2010/11/04/academic-spam-and-open-access-publishing/

http://www.editage.com/insights/simple-steps-authors-can-follow-to-protect-their-research-from-predatory-publishers

https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn17288-crap-paper-accepted-by-journal/

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Predatory publishing exists because of how the whole enterprise of science has been corrupted by outside interests and the overweening pursuit of financial profit. I deplore what Bentham/Eureka/ITS does, though the conferences are evidently found useful, given that they attract so many attendees. Meeting fresh faces from distant places can be a rewarding experience, as I found at a couple of the Conferences on the Unity of the Sciences  despite that they were organized by the Unification Church, many of whose other activities I deplore.

The degree to which “normal” mainstream science has succumbed to financial corruption may be illustrated by the Institute of Global Environment and Society, established by a professor at George Mason University. It has cashed in on the hysteria over climate change  by garnering “82 federal grants and 3 contracts from 5 agencies totaling $26,222,420 from Fiscal Year 2008 to FY 2016: (Source: www.USASpending.gov)” and spending most of it on salaries:

“IGES 2014 Income: $3,846,141 including $3,832,383 federal contributions; 2013 income $4,186,639 including $4,174 658 federal contributions; IGES spent $3,296,720 on salaries in 2014; $3,194,792 on salaries in 2013”. Principals of IGES moreover had the gall to urge criminal action against “global warming deniers” — Political correctness in science, 2017/03/06.

Not that long-established scientific publishers abstain from money grubbing, also profiting exorbitantly from open-access publishing designed to extract more money from authors and their patrons: Nature also publishes more than 30 open-access on-line journals as well as 42 journals with “hybrid open access” with per article fees between $1350 and $5200 for different journals. Elsevier charges fees ranging between $500 and $5,000, depending on the journal, for “open access” publishing.

It may be that predatory publishing will inevitably continue so long as science continues to be characterized by cutthroat competitiveness and judgments made by quantity of research grants and of publications.

There may be an analogy with drug trafficking or prostitution: so long as the demand exists, entrepreneurs will find profitable ways to satisfy the demand. So long as scientific careers call for long lists of publications, sleazy publishers will continue to exist.

 

Posted in fraud in science, funding research, peer review, science is not truth, scientific culture, scientists are human | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The scourge of Wikipedia

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2017/03/07

Searching my files, I see that Wikipedia has featured quite often on my blogs; the article titles illustrate some of the stimuli:

Knowledge, understanding — but then there’s Wikipedia;  The Wiles of WikiHealth, Wikipedia, and Common Sense; Facebook: As bad as Wikipedia, or worse?Lowest common denominator — Wikipedia and its ilkThe unqualified (= without qualifications) gurus of Wikipedia; Another horror story about Wikipedia; The Fairy-Tale Cult of Wikipedia;  Beware the Internet: Amazon.com “reviews”, Wikipedia, and other sources of misinformation.

Four decades ago, as the Internet was coming into general use, the anticipated benefits and drawbacks were being discussed quite assiduously, at least in academe. Enthusiasts pointed to the advantages of low-cost, rapid publication of research; skeptics wondered what would happen to peer review and quality control. But I am not aware of any voices that foresaw just how abominable things would become as the cost of blathering on-line is virtually zero and there is no control of quality, no fact-checking, no ethical standards, and pervasive anonymity. No one seems to have foreseen the spate of predatory publishing of purportedly scientific research.

It has always been almost impossible to undo the consequences of lies, as too many people believe that the presence of smoke always proves the presence of fire; now, in the Internet age, it has become totally impossible to eradicate the influence of lies because of the speed with which they spread. I have too many friends who pass along stuff that strikes me immediately as unlikely to be true, and that snopes.com reveals to be not true, yet this stuff comes to me no matter how often I ask my friends to check snopes first.

I don’t use Twitter, Snapchat, or any other social media, though I am formally listed in LinkedIn and Facebook after I didn’t want to offend friends who asked me to join. Having tried Facebook and found it nothing but time-wasting obsession with trivia, I tried to disconnect from it. It wasn’t straightforward, but eventually I seemed to have succeeded as a screen assured me that I had successfully closed my account. But the next statement undercut that: I was assured that any time I wanted back in, I could log on with my old password and would fine all my material still there. When Facebook boasts of its huge membership, I wonder how many of those they count belong to my group, people who don’t use it at all and tried to get off.

At any rate, I recognize purely as a outsider how the damage done on the Internet is abetted and exacerbated by Twitter, with its encouragement of thought-bites to shorten attention spans even more, or by something like Snapchat where evidence disappears as soon as the alternative fake news has been disseminated. The contemporary political hullabaloo about fake news and alternative facts brings home that a sadly significant portion of the population exercises no skepticism or critical thought when statements are emotionally congenial.

All this is whistling in the wind, so I was pleased to find a large-circulation British newspaper laying out the faults of Wikipedia in considerable detail: “The making of a Wiki-Lie: Chilling story of one twisted oddball and a handful of anonymous activists who appointed themselves as censors to promote their own warped agenda on a website that’s a byword for inaccuracy”.

Admittedly, the Daily Mail is no TIMES, and some of its content competes with tabloids and the ilk of National Enquirer; and its ire was aroused not by the intellectual damage done by Wikipedia but by a smear that labeled the Daily Mail as an unreliable source — shades of pots and kettles.

The Daily Mail story, credited to Guy Adams, deserves wide dissemination for its valuable analysis that includes detailed biographical information about someone who might well be iconic of trouble-making trolls on the Internet; and for its exposure of how Wikipedia is impervious to correction, is controlled by largely anonymous and often self-appointed “editors”, and is rather scandalously dishonest about its finances: the governing Foundation, which advertises itself as non-profit and solicits for donations on many Wiki pages, has about 280 staff with average salaries of ~$110,000, a former executive director having garnered ~$320,000.

The British Guardian did neither itself nor the public a service by covering the Wikipedia dissing of the Daily Mail by treating Wikipedia as though it were more factually reliable and more ethical than it is: Jasper Jackson, “Wikipedia bans Daily Mail as ‘unreliable’ source” (8 February 2017). People who have tried to get errors corrected on Wikipedia are unlikely to agree that “No matter how hard Wikipedia’s volunteers work, wrong and sometimes defamatory entries will inevitably appear, with editors engaged in a game of whack-a-mole to correct them” (Jasper Jackson, “‘We always look for reliability’: why Wikipedia’s editors cut out the Daily Mail”, 12 February 2017). Some of the editors work to preserve the defamatory stuff. See my blog posts cited above for illustrations.

Posted in media flaws, peer review | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Political Correctness in Science

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2017/03/06

Supposedly, science investigates via the scientific method: testing the validity of hunches (hypotheses) against reality and allowing reality to establish beliefs, thereby discarding disproved pre-judgments, hunches, prejudices, biases. Scientific theories. are determined by facts, evidence.   Science is empirical, pragmatic; it does not accept beliefs on authority or from tradition.

Historians, philosophers, sociologists, scholars of Science & Technology Studies have long recognized that this view of science is mythical (i), but it continues to be taught in schools and in social-science texts and it is the conventional wisdom found in the media and in public discourse generally. A corollary of the misconception that scientific theories have been successfully tested against reality is the widespread belief that what science says, what the contemporary scientific consensus is, can safely be accepted as truth for all practical purposes.

So it seems incongruous, paradoxical, that large numbers of scientists should disagree violently, on any given issue, over what science really says. Yet that is the case on a seemingly increasing range of topics (ii), some of them of great public import, for instance whether HIV causes AIDS (iii) or whether human-generated carbon dioxide is the prime cause of global warming and climate change. On those latter matters as well as some others, the difference of opinion within the scientific community parallels political views: left-leaning (“liberal”) opinion regards it as unquestionably true that HIV causes AIDS and that human-generated carbon dioxide is the prime cause of global warming and climate change, whereas right-leaning (“conservative”) opinion denies that those assertions constitute “settled science” or have been proved beyond doubt. Those who harbor these “conservative” views are often labeled “denialists”; it is not to be countenanced that politically liberal individuals should be global warming skeptics (iv).

In other words, it is politically incorrect to doubt that HIV causes AIDS or that human-generated carbon dioxide is the prime cause of global warming. It requires no more than cursory observation of public discourse to recognize this pervasive phenomenon. Governments and Nobel-Prize committees illustrate that those beliefs are officially acted on as though they were established truths. One cadre of mainstream scientists even wants criminal charges laid (v) against those who question that global warming is caused primarily by human-generated carbon dioxide. So political correctness is present within the scientific community in the USA.

I’m of a sufficient age to be able to testify that half a century ago it would not have occurred to any researchers in a democratic society to urge the government to prosecute for criminal conspiracy other researchers who disagreed with them. Declaring certain scientific research programs as politically incorrect and therefore substantively without merit, and persecuting those who perpetrated such research, characterized totalitarian regimes, not free societies. Stalin’s Soviet Union declared wrong the rest of the world’s understanding of genetics and imprisoned exponents of it; it also declared wrong the rest of the world’s understanding of chemical bonding and quantum mechanics. Nazism’s Deutsche Physik banned relativity and other “Jewish” science.

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Political correctness holds that HIV causes AIDS and that human-generated carbon dioxide is the prime cause of global warming. Those beliefs also characterize left-leaning opinion. Why is political correctness a left-wing phenomenon?

In contemporary usage, political correctness means “marked by or adhering to a typically progressive orthodoxy on issues involving especially ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or ecology” (vi) or “conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated” (vii), evidently “progressive” or “liberal” or Left-ish views. But those descriptions fail to capture the degree of fanatical dogmatism that can lead practicing scientists to urge that those of differing views be criminally prosecuted; political correctness includes the wish to control what everyone believes.

Thus political correctness has been appropriately called “liberal fascism”, which also reveals why it is a phenomenon of the ultra-extreme Left. Attempted control of beliefs and corresponding behavior is openly proclaimed, unashamedly, by the extreme Right; it is called, and calls itself, fascism, Nazism, and needs no other name. But the Left, the “liberals”, claim to stand for and to support individual freedom of belief and speech; so a name is needed for the phenomenon by which proclamations of liberal ideals are coupled with attempts to enforce adherence to particular beliefs and social norms. Political correctness is the hypocrisy of self-proclaimed liberals functioning as authoritarian fascists.

That hypocrisy pervades political correctness, I was able to observe at first hand during my years in academic administration. People say things they don’t mean, and that they know everyone knows they don’t mean, and no one dares point to the absence of the Emperor’s clothes. For instance, the Pooh-Bahs assert that affirmative action means goals and not quotas, even as hiring practices and incentives demonstrate that they are quotas. For innumerable examples gathered over the years, see the newsletter I edited from 1993 until my retirement at the end of 1999 (viii).

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Science had represented for a long time the virtues associated with honest study of reality. Around the 1930s and 1940s, sociologist Robert Merton could describe the norms evidently governing scientific activity as communal sharing of universally valid observations and conclusions obtained by disinterested people deploying organized skepticism. That description does not accommodate researchers urging criminal prosecution of peers who disagree with them about evidence or conclusions. It does not accommodate researchers lobbying publishers to withdraw articles accepted for publication following normal review; and those norms do not describe the now prevalent circumstances in which one viewpoint suppresses others through refusal to allow publication or participation in scientific meetings (ix).

Science, in other words, is not at all what it used to be, and it is not what the popular view of it is, that common view having been based on what scientific activity used to be. It has not yet been widely recognized, how drastically science has changed since about the middle of the 20th century (x). Among the clues indicative of those changes are the spate of books since the 1980s that describe intense self-interested competition in science (xi) and the increasing frequency of fraud, again beginning about in the 1980s, that led to establishment of the federal Office of Research Integrity. That political correctness has surfaced within the scientific community is another illustration of how radically different are the circumstances of scientific activity now compared to a century ago and by contrast to the outdated conventional wisdom about science.

Political correctness began to pervade society as a whole during the same years as science was undergoing drastic change. The roots of political correctness in society at large may be traceable to the rebellious students of the 1960s, but the hegemony of their ideals in the form of political correctness became obvious only in the 1980s, when the term “political correctness” came into common usage:

The origin of the phrase in modern times is generally credited to gallows humor among Communists in the Stalin era (xii):

“Comrade, your statement is factually incorrect.”
“Yes, it is. But it is politically correct.”

That political correctness is in contemporary times a Left-ish phenomenon is therefore true to its modern origin.

How seriously political correctness corrupts science should be obvious, since it more than breaks all the traditional norms. Those norms are often summarized as universalism, communalism, disinterestedness, skepticism — taking for granted as well simple honesty and absence of hypocrisy. Nowadays what was taken for granted no longer applies. It is simply dishonest to assert that something has been proven beyond doubt when strong contrary evidence exists that is taken seriously by competent researchers. One cannot, of course, look into the minds of those who assert certainty where there is none (xiii), but among possible explanations, hypocrisy may be the least culpable.

Science cannot be isolated from the rest of society, so the incursion of political correctness into science is understandable. Moreover, what used to be the supposedly isolated ivory tower of academe is nowadays the very epicenter where political correctness breeds and from where it spreads. Whatever the causes may be, however, it is important to recognize how science has changed and that it can be corrupted by the same influences as the rest of society.

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i        Henry H. Bauer, Scientific Literacy and Myth of the Scientific Method, University of Illinois Press 1992; http://www.press.uillinois.edu/books/catalog/77xzw7sp9780252064364.html.

ii       Henry H. Bauer, Dogmatism   in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth, McFarland 2012.

iii      Henry H. Bauer, The Origin, Persistence and Failings of HIV/AIDS Theory, McFarland 2007.

iv      Henry H. Bauer, “A politically liberal global-warming skeptic?”, 2012/11/25; https://scimedskeptic.wordpress.com/2012/11/25/a-politically-liberal-global-warming-skeptic.

v       Letter to President Obama, Attorney General Lynch, and OSTP Director Holdren, 1 September 2015; http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2015/09/19/letter-to-president-obama-investigate-deniers-under-rico.
The original pdf posted in 2003 at http://www.iges.org/letter/LetterPresidentAG.pdf is no longer there. The Wayback Machine says, “The letter that was inadvertently posted on this web site has been removed. It was decided more than two years ago that the Institute of Global Environment and Society (IGES) would be dissolved when the projects then undertaken by IGES would be completed. All research projects by IGES were completed in July 2015, and the IGES web site is in the process of being decommissioned”.
As of March 2017, however, a Google search for “Institute of Global Environment and Society” led to a website with that header, albeit augmented by “COLA”: http://www.m.monsoondata.org/home.html accessed 4 March 2017. Right-leaning Internet sources offer insight into this seeming mystery: http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2015/09/22/lead-climate-scientist-behind-obamarico-letter-serious-questions-answer/ and http://leftexposed.org/2015/10/institute-of-global-environment-and-society, both accessed 4 March 2017.

vi      http://www.dictionary.com/browse/politically-correct?s=t (accessed 4 March 2017).

vii     https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/politically%20correct (accessed 4 March 2017).

viii    https://web.archive.org/web/20131030115950/http://fbox.vt.edu/faculty/aaup/index4.html.

ix      Ref. ii, especially chapter 3.

x       Henry H. Bauer, “Three stages of modern science”, Journal of Scientific Exploration, 27 (2013) 505-13; https://www.dropbox.com/s/xl6jaldtx3uuz8b/JSE273-3stages.pdf?dl=0.

xi      Natalie Angier, Natural Obsessions: The Search for the Oncogene, Houghton Mifflin 1987; David H. Clark, The Quest for SS433, Viking 1985; Sheldon Glashow with Ben Bova, Interactions: A Journey through the Mind of a Particle Physicist and the Matter of the World, Warner 1988; Jeff Goldberg Anatomy of a Scientific Discovery, Bantam 1988; Stephen S. Hall, Invisible Frontiers: The Race to Synthesize a Human Gene, Atlantic Monthly Press 1987; Robert M. Hazen, The Breakthrough: The Race for the Superconductor, Summit 1988; David L. Hull, Science as a Process: An Evolutionary Account of the Social and Conceptual Development of Science, University of Chicago Press 1988; Robert Kanigel, Apprentice to Genius: The Making of a Scientific Dynasty, Macmillan 1986; Charles E. Levinthal,. Messengers of Paradise: Opiates and the Brain, Anchor/Doubleday 1988; Roger Lewin, Bones of Contention: Controversies in the Search for Human Origins, Simon and Schuster 1987; Ed Regis, Who Got Einstein’s Office: Eccentricity and Genius at the Institute for Advanced Study, Addison-Wesley 1987; Bruce Schechter, The Path of No Resistance: The Story of the Revolution in Superconductivity, Touchstone (Simon and Schuster) 1990; Solomon H. Snyder, Brainstorming: The Science and Politics of Opiate Research, Harvard University Press 1989; Gary Taubes, Nobel Dreams: Power, Deceit, and the Ultimate Experiment, Random House 1986; Robert Teitelman, Gene Dreams: Wall Street, Academia, and the Rise of Biotechnology, Basic Books 1989; Nicholas Wade, The Nobel Duel: Two Scientists’ 21-Year Race to Win the World’s Most Coveted Research Prize, Doubleday 1981.

xii     Jon Miltimore, “The historical origin of ‘political correctness’”, 5 December 2016, http://www.intellectualtakeout.org/blog/historical-origin-political-correctness; Angelo M. Codevilla, “The rise of political correctness”, Claremont Review of Books, Fall 2016, pp. 37-43; http://www.claremont.org/download_pdf.php?file_name=1106Codevilla.pdf.

xiii    Henry H. Bauer , “Shamans of Scientism: Conjuring certainty where there is none”, Journal of Scientific Exploration, 28 (2014) 491-504.

 

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Modern medicine: danger to public health and public purse?

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2017/02/23

Healthcare costs in the USA are now unmanageable, as illustrated by the common bankruptcies of people without good insurance and, just now, by the realization that the Republican promise to “repeal and replace Obamacare” is unworkable if many Americans are not to lose the insurance help they currently have.

One way to reduce costs that is not talked about, and that is unlikely to gain much traction until the crisis becomes catastrophic, would be to call a halt to medical  treatments that do harm rather than good. It comes as a surprise to learn, for example, that prescription drugs, used as prescribed, are the 3rd or 4th leading cause of death in developed nations (Gøtzsche, Peter C. Deadly Medicines and Organised Crime: How Big Pharma Has Corrupted Healthcare. Oxford & New York: Radcliffe, 2013
Healy, David. Pharmageddon. University of California Press, 2012).

A recent article at ProPublica and in  The Atlantic has much information  about unnecessary, often harmful practices that continue in routine medical practice:

When Evidence Says No, But Doctors Say Yes
Years after research contradicts common practices, patients continue to demand them and doctors continue to deliver. The result is an epidemic of unnecessary and unhelpful treatment.
David Epstein, ProPublica    February 22, 2017
This story was co-published with The Atlantic.”

The interests vested in present ways of doing things are many and powerful — clinics, hospitals, professional guilds, but chiefly the pharmaceutical industry. So it will not be easy to change the system, despite the fact that dozens of books and articles over the last few decades have described in documented detail what’s wrong with modern medicine.

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Science: A Danger for Public Policy?!

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2017/02/08

Public policies rely on advice and consent from science about an ever wider range of issues (environmental challenges, individual and public health. infrastructure and its safety, military systems). Surely this is unquestionably good, that public policies are increasingly pragmatic through respecting the facts delivered by science?

No. Not necessarily, not always.

The central problem is that science — humankind’s understanding of nature, of the world — doesn’t just deliver facts. Science is perpetually incomplete. On any given question it may not be unequivocal.

The media, the public, policy makers, the legal system all presume that a contemporary consensus in the scientific community can be safely accepted as true for all practical purposes. The trouble is that any contemporary scientific consensus may later prove to have been wrong.

If this assertion seems outlandish —theoretically possible but so unlikely as to be ignorable in practice — it is because the actual history and nature of science are not widely enough understood.

The contemporary scientific consensus has in fact been wrong about many, perhaps even most of the greatest advances in science: Planck and quantums, Wegener and drifting continents, Mendel and quantitative genetic heredity; the scientific consensus and 1976   Nobel Prize for discovering the viral cause of mad-cow diseases was wrong; that stomach ulcers are caused by bacteria had been pooh-poohed by the mainstream consensus for some two decades before adherents of the consensus were willing to examine the evidence and then award a Nobel Prize in 2005.

Historical instances of a mistaken scientific consensus being have seemingly not affected major public policies in catastrophic ways, although one possible precedent for such unhappy influence may be the consensus that supported the eugenics movement around the 1920s, resulting in enforced sterilization of tens of thousands of people in the USA as recently as the latter half of the 20th century.

Nowadays, though, the influence of science is so pervasive that the danger has become quite tangible that major public policies might be based on a scientific consensus that is at best doubtfully valid and at worst demonstrably wrong.

The possibility that significant public actions might be dictated by an unproven scientific consensus was explicitly articulated by President Eisenhower. His warning against the potential influence of the military-industrial complex is quite often cited, but little cited is another warning he gave in the same speech:

“in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.”

That can happen when a contemporary scientific consensus is accepted as practical truth, as settled science. The crucial distinction could hardly be explained more clearly than Michael Crichton did in an invited lecture at CalTech:

“Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough. Nobody says the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. . . . It would never occur to anyone to speak that way.”

Crichton had in mind the present-day scientific consensus that human-caused generation of carbon dioxide is chiefly responsible for rising global temperatures and associated major climate-change. The fact that there are highly competent public dissenters — including such winners of Nobel Prizes as Ivar Giaever (Physics 1973), Robert Laughlin (Physics 1998), Kary Mullis (Chemistry 1993) — demonstrates that human-caused global warming is a consensus, not the unanimity associated with such “settled science” as the Periodic Table of the chemical elements or that E=mc2.

The proponents of human-caused global warming constitute an effective elite. Since they represent the contemporary consensus, they largely control peer review, research funding, and which research gets published; and they hold important positions in the halls of power of individual nations as well as in such international organizations as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The history of science is unequivocal: Contemporary scientific consensuses have been wrong on some of the most significant issues. Those who determine public policies would do well to seek an impartial comparison and analysis of the substantive claims made both by proponents of a mainstream consensus and by those who claim that the evidence does not prove that consensus to be unquestionably correct.

In absence of an impartial comparative analysis, public discourse and public actions are determined by ideology and not by evidence. “Liberals” assert that the mainstream consensus on global warming equals “science” and anyone who properly respects the environment is supposed to accept this scientific consensus. On the other side, many “conservatives” beg to differ, as when Senator Inhofe flourishes a snowball. One doubts that most proponents of either side could give an accurate summary of the pertinent evidence. That is not a very good way to discuss or to make public policy.

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This little essay had been offered as an Op-Ed to the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times. the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Financial Times (London), and USA Today. That it appears here confirms that none of those media stalwarts wanted to use it.

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How Science Has Changed — notably since World War II

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2017/01/01

The way science is usually mentioned, including its history, seems to imply a fundamental continuity in the development of modern science from its origins around the 16th-17th centuries (Galileo, Newton) to the present time, via the understanding of heredity (Mendel, much later DNA), of evolution (Darwin, Lynn Margolis, many others), of atomic structure and chemical bonding, of relativity and quantum mechanics, and much else.

One can certainly discern a continuity in these discoveries and accumulations of facts and the development of ever-better, more encompassing explanations. But the nature of scientific activity — who does science and how they do it — is best understood not as a continuum over this period but as three clearly distinguishable stages in which the interaction of science with society as a whole is significantly different: what the social place of scientists is, how their work is supported, how the fruits of science are disseminated and how they are accepted (or not accepted) outside science itself.

To understand the role of science in today’s worlds it is essential to understand this history.

The birth of “modern” science is credited uncontroversially to “The” Scientific Revolution of the 17th century, but there is not equally general recognition that there have been three distinctly and significantly different stages of scientific activity since then.

In the first stage, a variety of people — clergy, craftsmen, aristocrats, entrepreneurs —were seeking to satisfy their curiosity about how the world works; truth-seeking was effectively in the hands of amateurs, people doing it for the sake of doing it, truth-seeking was their chief controlling interest. Missteps taken at this stage resulted chiefly from the inherent difficulty of making discoveries and from such inherent human flaws as pride and avarice.

The second stage, roughly much of the later 19th century and first half of the 20th, saw science becoming a career, a plausible way to make a living, not unlike other careers in academe or in professions like engineering: respectable and potentially satisfying but not any obvious path to great influence or wealth. Inevitably there were conflicts of interest between furthering a career and following objectively where evidence pointed, but competition and collegiality served well   enough to keep the progress of science little affected by conflicting career interests. The way to get ahead was by doing good science.

In the third and present stage, which began at about the middle of the 20th century, science faces a necessary change in ethos as its centuries-long expansion at an exponential rate has changed to a zero-sum, steady-state situation that has fostered intensely cutthroat competition. At the same time, the record of science’s remarkable previous successes has led industry and government to co-opt and exploit science and scientists. Those interactions offer the possibility for individual practitioners of science to gain considerable public influence and wealth. That possibility tempts to corruption. Outright fraud in research has become noticeably more frequent, and public pronouncements about matters of science are made not for the purpose of enlightenment on truths about the natural world but largely for self-interested bureaucratic and commercial motives. As a result. one cannot nowadays rely safely on the soundness of what authoritative institutions and individuals say about science.

For a full discussion with pertinent citations and references, see my article “Three Stages of Modern Science”, Journal of Scientific Exploration, 27 (2013) 505-13.

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Anti-psychotic drugs: initial benefit, long-term harm

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2016/08/03

Recently (Trust medical science at your peril (2): What is the evidence, especially in psychiatry? ) I recommended the newsletter of Mad in America  for disseminating reliable information about psychiatric matters. A recent issue of the Newsletter has links to a very thorough examination of the evidence that anti-psychotic drugs make things worse if used long-term: “The case against antipsychotics — A review of their long-term effects”, by Robert Whitaker (July 2016).

There is considerable support for the hypothesis that psychotic episodes are associated with heightened sensitivity to dopamine. Anti-psychotics ameliorate such episodes by blocking dopamine receptors. These drugs appear to be beneficial immediately, and for perhaps as long as a couple of years. However, once exposed to the drugs, withdrawal almost always has severe bad effects.

It appears that the brain tries to overcome the blocking of the dopamine receptors by increasing the number of these receptors. That takes appreciably long time, apparently many months if not years, so the consequences become significantly important only eventually. That explains why withdrawal brings even worse symptoms than the original ones were, and why long-term treatment is more harmful than beneficial. The drugs must be used forever, and their cumulating “side” effects are very debilitating.

Non-drug treatment of schizophrenia and other psychoses, sometimes teamed with short-term drug use, has much better long-term outcomes than does continual medication; better outcomes in terms of better all-around functioning and fewer relapses.

 

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What to believe? Science is a red herring and a wild-goose chase

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2016/07/24

To be certain about things is reassuring. It allows feelings of safety, security.

For knowledge, for understanding the world, humankind seems to have turned at first to what could be inferred from the spirits of things — the spirits associated with or inherent in everything: in mountains, in trees, in bodies of water. The spirits could be understood, at least partly, because they were similar to people in having emotions and desires.

Eventually — quite recently, only a few thousand years ago — the plurality and hierarchies of spirits and gods yielded to monotheistic religions in most parts of the world. Even more recently, and only in the most powerfully developed countries, religion yielded to science.

That is to say, traditional religion yielded to scientism, the religion of science. Even the monotheistic gods have emotions and desires, but science doesn’t. So knowledge became entirely impersonal, at least in principle.

Nowadays, then, for real certainty we look to science. “Scientific” stands for unquestionably true. Science is the gatekeeper of truth. “Science” and “scientific” are mediators of being certain, being sure about something.

Consequently, a great deal of arguing to-and-fro has to do with whether something is scientific:
Does it emerge from use of the scientific method?
Is it reproducible?
Is it falsifiable?

And if a claim doesn’t satisfy those criteria or equivalent ones then it’s dismissed as not scientific, or as pseudo-science, or as just plain not to be believed.

That’s an indirect way of judging believability, and arguments about whether something is scientific can be and have been highly abstract, complicated, and sophisticated as technical philosophical discourse tends to be.

Instead, why not go directly at the issues of certainty and truth and just ask, what does it take to be justifiably and reliably certain about something?

In any case, although we use science as mediator of certain truth, we’ve also learned that contemporary scientific knowledge and understanding really isn’t always reliably true. Even when an explanation has been based on tangible evidence, and withstood challenges and tests — if it’s properly scientific, in other words — we’ve learned that it may be misleading. Scientific progress with periodic scientific revolutions has continually revealed flaws, deficiencies, errors, in what were for a time the most widely and fully accepted scientific theories.

If something has always happened in the past, can we be certain that it always will happen in the future? We’ve learned that we cannot be quite certain.

When an explanation has always worked in the past, can we be certain that it always will work in the future? We’ve learned that we cannot be quite certain.

When tangible things are sub-divided into their ultimate components, those turned out to be nothing like objects accessible to direct human observation. They do not fit our concepts of particles or energy, although many of their reactions can be calculated using sometimes particle equations and sometimes wave equations. They behave sometimes as though they were locatable, delimited in space-time, and at other times appear to be “non-local”, not so delimited.

In other words, we’ve learned that we cannot get certain and humanly comprehensible understanding of everything about the whole of the natural world. It’s surely time to accept that, that human beings will never attain complete certainty.

That could be liberating. It would make more feasible pragmatic, non-ideological communication and cooperative action — if only we could be rid of the ideologues: the true believers in a religion, including the true believers in scientism, the religion of science. Anyone who claims complete certainty has insufficient warrant for that claim. The world and its behaviors can be known only within degrees of probability. Instead of arguing about whether something is scientific or whether it is true, we ought to be discussing plausibility, likelihood, utility, risk.

Instead of dismissing as pseudo-science the claims that Loch Ness Monsters are real animals, we should be content to say, “Feel free to believe that if the evidence seems to you sufficiently convincing. For my part, I’ll wait until someone shows me an actual specimen or an indubitable bit of one”. And similarly with yetis and other cryptids, and with UFOs, and with all other anomalous or Fortean reports or claims.

Instead of arguing over being for or against vaccination, we should ask for the statistical data of harm possibly caused by each specific vaccine. For instance, since in many countries the chance of becoming infected by polio is less than the risk of contracting polio from the oral vaccine. perhaps official sources might be less dogmatic about enforcing use of that particular vaccine (“Polio vaccines now the #1 cause of polio paralysis”; “Oral polio vaccine-associated paralysis in a child despite previous immunization with inactivated virus”; “Bill Gates’ polio vaccine program caused 47,500 cases of paralysis death“).

And so on. For every drug and every treatment, we should demand that the Food and Drug Administration require data on NNT and NNH — NNT: the number of patients needed to be treated in order that 1 patient benefit, compared with NNH: the number of patients who must receive a drug in order to have 1 patient experience harm [How (not) to measure the efficacy of drugs].  That would go a long way to decreasing the number of people nowadays being killed by prescription drugs, which are the 3rd or 4th leading cause of death in First-World countries (Peter C. Gøtzsche, Deadly Medicines and Organised Crime: How Big Pharma Has Corrupted

Healthcare [Radcliffe, 2013]; David Healy, Pharmageddon [University of California Press, 2012]).

We need more data and less dogmatism.

 

 

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