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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.

Posted in consensus, global warming, media flaws, politics and science, science is not truth, science policy, scientism, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Trust medical science at your peril (2): What is the evidence, especially in psychiatry?

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2016/07/15

All too often, the evidence turns out to be nothing more than statistical association: “Trust medical science at your peril: Correlations never prove causation”.

A particular example of confusing association with causation is the reliance on biomarkers:

“The Institute of Medicine Report, Evaluation of Biomarkers and Surrogate Endpoints in Chronic Disease (IOM 2010), finds that none of the commonly used biomarkers is a valid measure of the illness it supposedly tracks. As to subsequent treatment, Järvinen et al. have pointed out that ‘There are no valid data on the effectiveness . . . [of] statins, antihypertensives, and bisphosphanates’ (the last, e.g. Fosamax, are prescribed against osteoporosis) — British Medical Journal, 342 (2011) doi: 10.1136/bmj.d2175.
That last quote is surely an astonishing assertion, given that innumerable individuals are being fed statins and blood-pressure drugs and bisphosphanates not because they feel ill in any way but purely on the basis of levels of biomarkers (bone density in the case of bisphosphanates)” (Everyone is sick?)

Supporting evidence is sadly lacking for a wide range of accepted, standard medical practices. For at least a couple of decades, insiders and well-informed observers have described and documented the failings of modern medicine: “What’s wrong with present -day medicine”.

Bad as things are with the treatment of physical illnesses, they are much worse where psychiatry is involved. This blog post was stimulated by the informative article, “In Search of an Evidence-based Role for Psychiatry” by John Read, Olga Runciman, & Jacqui Dillon.

I had learned of it through the Newsletter of Mad in America, an excellent website dedicated to disseminating reliable information about psychiatric matters. One can sign up for the Newsletter at http://www.madinamerica.com/mia-newsletter-signup/.

 

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Trust medical science at your peril: Correlations never prove causation

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2016/06/28

It was a long-known empirical fact that poverty, vagrancy, criminality, and apparently deficient intelligence all correlated with heredity to a considerable extent; they all ran in families and clans. The scientific confirmation that characteristics of animals are passed on from generation to generation, and the Darwin-Wallace explanation of evolution by natural selection of the fittest, made it possible to understand those aspects of human society. It was an obvious, scientifically sound conclusion that human societies could be steadily improved by restricting reproduction of the less fit and expanding the fertility of the fittest. Hence the eugenics movement, promoted by the most progressive, liberal people who were also the best educated, with an apparently justified faith in the reliability of what was at the time the most up-to-date the scientific knowledge (Trust science at your peril: Beware of scientism and political correctness). Those circumstances led to forced sterilization of tens of thousands in America and reinforced Nazis in their doctrines and practices of mass killing of the unfit — Jews, gypsies, homosexuals (Edwin Black, War Against the Weak, 2003).

Only in hindsight did the flaws and errors of the earlier scientific consensus become clear. We now appreciate that environmental and developmental influences can modify heritable traits quite dramatically. “Ill-bred” can be the result of social, economic, environmental factors as much, perhaps even more than any pre-ordained verdict of genetics; and “well-bred” individuals can spring from what might seem the least promising hereditary stock. In other words, the observed correlation between undesired social characteristics and clans was misinterpreted through neglecting the variable of environmental effects.

One lesson to be drawn is that bad science, wrong science, what some even call pseudo-science, can remain the accepted scientific consensus for decades, even in quite modern times, say, the middle of the 20th century. It is unlikely that a mere half-a-century later our societies have become immune from assuming that a mainstream scientific consensus must be true to Nature. Nothing guards our times from treating unjustified, misguided scientific claims as good science.

Unwarranted claims coming from scientists continue to be accepted if they appear minimally plausible and if they are consistent with world-views and vested interests of financial, social, or political powers.

The most sweeping lesson that remains to be learned is that correlations must never be taken as demonstrating a cause-and-effect relationship: there might always be in play an unsuspected variable. One of the earliest axioms taught in Statistics 101 is that correlations never prove causation. The evident correlation between biological kinship and undesirable behavioral traits was not a cause-and-effect relationship.

Many or most people have never learned that basic truth that correlations are not causes. Many others “know” it as a generalization but fail to apply it in specific instances, when an evident correlation could plausibly reflect cause and consequence — just as a genetic basis for undesirable characteristics seemed quite plausible to educated and expert people not so long ago.

Indeed, a large swath of modern medical practices is based on mistaking mere correlations for evidence of causation (“Correlations: Plausible or implausible, NONE prove causation”). For example:

HPV and cervical cancer

The National Cancer Institute offers a great deal of information about this:

Human papillomaviruses (HPVs) are a group of more than 200 related viruses. . . Sexually transmitted HPV types fall into two categories:
— Low-risk HPVs, which do not cause cancer but can cause skin warts (technically known as condylomata acuminata) on or around the genitals, anus, mouth, or throat. For example, HPV types 6 and 11 cause 90 percent of all genital warts. HPV types 6 and 11 also cause recurrent respiratory papillomatosis, a less common disease in which benign tumors grow in the air passages leading from the nose and mouth into the lungs.
— High-risk HPVs, which can cause cancer. About a dozen high-risk HPV types have been identified. Two of these, HPV types 16 and 18, are responsible for most HPV-caused cancers. . . .
>> Cervical cancer: Virtually all cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV, and just two HPV types, 16 and 18, are responsible for about 70 percent of all cases . . . .
>> Anal cancer: About 95 percent of anal cancers are caused by HPV. Most of these are caused by HPV type 16.
>> Oropharyngeal cancers (cancers of the middle part of the throat, including the soft palate, the base of the tongue, and the tonsils): About 70 percent of oropharyngeal cancers are caused by HPV. In the United States, more than half of cancers diagnosed in the oropharynx are linked to HPV type 16 (9).
>> Rarer cancers: HPV causes about 65 percent of vaginal cancers, 50 percent of vulvar cancers, and 35 percent of penile cancers (. . . .) Most of these are caused by HPV type 16.

The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention offer advice on avoiding HPV cancers:

— Bivalent, quadrivalent and 9-valent HPV vaccines each target HPV 16 and 18, types that cause about 66% of cervical cancers and the majority of other HPV-associated cancers in both women and men in the United States. 9-valent HPV vaccine also targets five additional cancer causing types (HPV 31, 33, 45, 52, 58) which account for about 15% of cervical cancers. Quadrivalent and 9-valent HPV vaccines also protect against HPV 6 and 11, types that cause anogenital warts.
— Quadrivalent and 9-valent HPV vaccines are licensed for use in females and males; bivalent HPV vaccine is licensed for use in females.
What percent of HPV-associated cancers in females and males are caused by the 5 additional types in the 9-valent HPV vaccine?
— About 14% of HPV-associated cancers in females (approximately 2800 cases annually) and 4% of HPV-associated cancers in males (approximately 550 cases annually) are caused by the 5 additional types in the 9-valent HPV vaccine.

What evidence is there for these extremely specific claims of causation?

None, actually. The cited facts are merely that the stated strains of HPV have been detected in those proportions of those cancers. Those correlations don’t begin to indicate causation.

It may be worth recalling that the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention in the early 1990s had officially stated, on the basis of the same sort of data (epidemiology, i.e. correlations), that cervical cancer was an AIDS disease, caused by HIV.

One may sympathize with medical researchers for the impossibility of conducting experiments that would be capable of proving cause-and-effect; ethical, legal, and moral restraints make it unfeasible to use human beings as experimental guinea pigs. There would also be practical barriers: To determine whether a given treatment, in this case a vaccine, actually prevents cancer, a clinical trial would be necessary that spanned over decades and enrolled large numbers of human guinea-pigs, some of whom (controls) would not get potentially-cancer-preventing vaccine.

However, the inability to obtain proof does not justify proclaiming as fact, as these official agencies do, causative relations that are no more than speculation based on statistical correlations.

[The vaccines] “Gardasil and Cervarix have not been shown to be of any significant health benefit. They have been demonstrated to cause serious injuries. It’s scandalous that they were ever approved, and it’s scandalous that they remain on the market.

And they are far from alone on those scores among new prescription medications introduced in the last couple of decades” (Deadly vaccines, 2013/04/17 http://wp.me/p2VG42-24).

Alzheimer’s Disease

Sleep disorders may raise risk of Alzheimer’s, new research shows
Sleep disturbances such as apnea may increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, while moderate exercise in middle age and mentally stimulating games, such as crossword puzzles, may prevent the onset of the dementia-causing disease, according to new research to be presented Monday

A daily high dose of Vitamin E may slow early Alzheimer’s disease

Again, these are correlations speculated to be possible causes.

Semantics no doubt plays a role. One could report that sleep disorders, and lack of vitamin E, seem to be associated with a risk of Alzheimer’s. Medical jargon puts it like this: “sleep disorders, and lack of vitamin E, are risk factors for Alzheimer’s”. Then the media and public conclude that “risk factor” means something that tends to cause the associated effect.

See also “60 MINUTES on aging — correlations or causes?

Biomarkers

It is not feasible to test treatments for chronic conditions by actual outcome, because one would have to wait a couple of decades to determine whether regimen A or drug B reduces morbidity and mortality apparently associated with high blood pressure, or high cholesterol, or high blood sugar, or low bone density, etc. All those are statistically correlated with increased morbidity and mortality. They are risk factors.

Present-day medical dogma makes them biomarkers for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, bone fracture, in other words indicators of whether the disease is present. But that is tantamount to making those quantities measures of actual risk, in other words regarding them as measures of what causes those ailments, in other words equating risk factors with causes.

Official reports, however, as well as the many studies on which those reports are based, find that biomarkers are not proper measures of risk after all. See:

“Everyone is sick?”

“‘Hypertension’: An illness that isn’t illness”

“Cholesterol is good for you”

 

Unfortunately, they were not joking

“Magical statistics: Hearing loss causes dementia”

 

The overall lesson:

“Don’t take a pill if you’re not ill”

The ignorant acceptance of correlations as capable of demonstrating causation is greatly reinforced in medical matters by the pharmaceutical industry, which sells drugs as palliatives and preventatives based on nothing more than correlations with biomarkers.

Posted in conflicts of interest, consensus, media flaws, medical practices, prescription drugs | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Trust science at your peril: Beware of scientism and political correctness

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2016/06/25

Science is, ideally, a quest for authentic understanding of the world, of everything in the universe. Scientism is a religious faith which preaches that only science is capable of gaining such authentic understanding and that contemporary scientific claims are for all practical purposes true.

In reality, science is a perpetually unfinished quest. The history of science tells of false trails followed, of errors made, of misguided theories held dogmatically long after the evidence had turned against them, of researchers motivated by self-interest and influenced — corrupted, in a sense — by conflicts of interest.

Science has progressed marvelously, but the progress has not come steadily and linearly, it has come through continual correction of minor errors as well as periodic scientific revolutions in which former dogmas were discarded and replaced by different theories, different beliefs, different dogmas, sometimes to an extent capable of changing world-views.

Those realities have been described and documented in many articles and books over many decades (1), yet the conventional wisdom seems ignorant of them. In the popular view, science deploys the scientific method which guarantees getting things right through scrupulous adherence to facts, so that the scientific consensus on any given topic at any given time can supposedly be relied on quite safely to guide personal and public actions.

People who question the mainstream view, the official positions disseminated by such bodies as the National Academy, the Royal Society of London, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, the World Health Organization, etc., are dismissed as ignoramuses on a par with those who still believe that the Earth is flat, and they are denigrated, attacked, and suppressed as “denialists” — for example, the eminently qualified scientists who question whether HIV really causes AIDS (2), or whether carbon dioxide is the prime cause of global warming (3), or whether the universe began in a Big Bang about 13 billion years ago (4).

In other words, the officially accepted conventional wisdom functions as an exercise of scientism, proclaiming as true — as not to be questioned — any contemporary claims that have the imprimatur of a prevailing scientific consensus.

The most common popular, mass-media-disseminated beliefs about science fall in line with the official scientistic conventional wisdom. Prominent popularizers of the scientistic faith include people sometimes described as the “New Atheists” — see for instance Curtis White in The Science Delusion (Melville House, 2014), who names among others Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Bill Mahler. Self-styled “Skeptics” (for instance Michael Shermer and the late Martin Gardner) are also apostles of scientism, as illustrated in associated publications (Skeptic, Skeptical Inquirer).

But promiscuously indiscriminate faith in currently accepted scientific knowledge is unwarranted. One does not need the immense scholarly literature (1) to recognize that, it is already obvious from first principles and fundamental logic:

–>      Science is carried out by human beings and is therefore inherently fallible.

–>      Scientific theories are neither uniquely determined nor proved by any amount of factual evidence. The proverbial black swans demonstrate that no matter how comprehensive or long-standing any given body of evidence and associated explanations may be, no matter that an hypothesis may have been thoroughly tested and accepted via the scientific method, there may remain lurking in the unknown unknown some bits of data that can disprove the accepted theory instantly and devastatingly.

The popular adherence to scientistic dogmas is immensely dangerous because it may support public policies that cause tangible damage, sometimes on a large scale. Historical examples are fairly well known, but their lesson has not been learned; perhaps because a corollary of contemporary scientistic faith seems to be the notion, implicit if not explicit, that even if science was fallible in earlier times, today’s science is so advanced, so sophisticated, that it is no longer dangerously fallible. That and similar corollaries are acts of faith unsupported by evidence, thereby confirming that scientism is a quasi-religious faith: it is unshakeable, embraced as absolutely and self-evidently true.

A couple of recent books (5) describe the considerable damage done by public policies based on a scientific consensus which remained active during something like half of the 20th century: the policies of forced sterilization of purportedly feeble-minded individuals. This was an exercise in eugenics, a program intended to improve the national genetic stock, and it was supported and justified by the prevailing scientific consensus.

In reviewing these books, David Oshinsky focuses on the Supreme Court’s 8-to-1 decision in 1927, written by the revered Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and agreed to by the “liberal” Jewish Louis Brandeis as well as by 6 other Associate Justices, upholding the forced sterilization of those judged to be mentally defective: “Was it an isolated misstep or something more: an indictment of Justice Holmes and the Progressive movement he appeared to embrace?” (6).

Oshinsky describes the IMBECILES book by Cohen as “a superb history of eugenics in America, from its beginnings as an offshoot of social Darwinism — human survival of the fittest — to its rise as a popular movement, advocating the state-sponsored sterilization of ‘feeble­minded, insane, epileptic, inebriate, criminalistic and other degenerate persons’.”

The point I want to make here is that the forced sterilization of tens of thousands of Americans, which continued in some States into the 1960s, is nowadays described as an outrage based on pseudo-science, yet it had relied on what was regarded at the time as perfectly sound science supported fervently by individuals whose reputation remains that of progressive reformers: as well as Justices Holmes and Brandeis, strong advocates of this eugenic program included other “progressive icons like Theodore Roosevelt and the birth control champion Margaret Sanger . . . . people who combined ‘extravagant faith in science and the state with an outsized confidence in their own expertise.’ . . . Science didn’t lie” (6).

This notion that science doesn’t lie, that it can always be believed, is a tenet of scientism, and it is baseless, quite wrong, as already noted. Yet this notion, this subconscious scientism continues to corrupt public discourse. Scientism is a faith held unwittingly by most popular media, including such elites as the New York Times; and it is held, again unwittingly, by today’s sociopolitical progressives or liberals.

When some claims by some scientists seem plausibly consistent with liberal, progressive programs, activists seize on them, make dogmas of the claims, and denigrate and attack those who disagree as unscientific denialists.

This circumstance is what has come to be called in recent decades “political correctness”: certain views are to be accepted as so self-evidently correct, objectively true — and by the way ethically and morally sound — that disagreeing with them is virtually a criminal act; and indeed actions that are politically incorrect may bring sanctions. Contemporary illustrations of such sanctions are the penalties imposed by colleges and universities on students and faculty who make politically incorrect statements, including the mere use of a word or a phrase that acts as a “trigger”, a “micro-aggression” that makes some individual belonging to a certified-discriminated-against minority feel uncomfortable (7).

That something is politically correct is shown when people who have no direct specific knowledge about a topic express with certainty a dogmatic opinion about it. They have obviously taken this opinion on faith, from sources congenial to them on ideological grounds, which may be based religiously, socially, politically — at any rate, not on actual evidence about the matter.

Contemporary scientific claims that have attained the status of politically correct include that HIV causes AIDS and that human-caused liberation of carbon dioxide is the prime cause of climate change. The manner in which media and individuals refer to these matters is an immediate proof that opinions about them are politically correct, not evidence-based.

For example, the vigilantes who most assiduously and viciously attack those who question whether HIV causes AIDS include an economist (Nicoli Nattrass), a graduate student (Ken Witwer), a psychologist (Seth Kalichman), a lawyer (Jeanne Bergman), an activist (Nathan Geffen) and others, all of whom feel qualified, despite their lack of appropriate qualifications, to denigrate eminent molecular biologists with deep knowledge of the subject, and even to demand that the National Library of Medicine remove a journal from MEDLINE (8).

Left-leaning media (say, MSNBC) treat HIV=AIDS as indisputable settled science; right-leaning media (say, Fox News) doubt that HIV causes AIDS.

Left-leaning media treat as indisputably settled science that human activities are responsible for global warming and climate change; right-leaning media doubt or deny that.

Nature, however, will not be mocked, and the truth is not determined by human ideologies. Public policies (and also private actions, of course) had best be based on the soundest, most probing and skeptical assessment of current knowledge-claims in light of the indisputable fact that no contemporary scientific consensus represents guaranteed truth.

If the present scientistic, politically correct beliefs about HIV/AIDS and about climate change are as misguided as were the scientistic, politically correct beliefs about mental deficiency and eugenics, then immense harm is being done and will continue to be done. Unfortunately, the plain evidence is that HIV does not cause AIDS (9, 10), and the notion that human activities are responsible for global warming and climate change is suggested only by highly complicated, sophisticated, and fallible computer programs that have already been wrong about the global cooling in the 1940s to 1970s and the lack of appreciable warming since about 2000 (4).

Forced sterilization as part of a eugenic program to improve the fitness of the population was supported by progressive reformers and by eminent medical and scientific experts. That physical traits are transmitted from one generation to another was known, scientifically as well as popularly. That behavioral characteristics are similarly transmitted was not obviously wrong, and when sanctioned by experts it became the conventional wisdom. So feeble-minded-ness, epilepsy, poverty, criminality and other socially undesirable characteristics came to be targets for elimination, by quarantining or sterilizing people and families where such characteristics had been noted (11). There was not sufficient dissent within expert communities to prevent what is now recognized as pseudo-science from becoming accepted as settled science, during the early decades of the 20th century: “Less than 100 years ago, America’s finest minds were convinced the nation was threatened by sexually insatiable female morons” (12). Those finest minds included, as well as the earlier mentioned progressive reformers, David Starr Jordan, a biologist specializing in ichthyology, an activist for peace, an eminent educator — president of Indiana University and later founding president of Stanford University — and moreover so concerned with distinguishing good science from bad science and pseudo-science that he had written a book about it (13), as well as works about eugenics (14).

So policy makers might be excused for succumbing to the “scientific” evidence supporting eugenics — a century ago. Nowadays, though, there is no similar excuse for sticking with the theory of HIV/AIDS or with the claim that it is indisputably settled science that global warming and climate change are humanly caused. Competent, qualified experts have published and spoken copiously, pointing to the deficiencies of the present scientific consensuses on these matters. It is past time that these whistle-blowers, these “denialists”, be attended to; that the actual evidence be attended to.

 

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(1)    For example, among dozens or hundreds of worthwhile works:
Bernard Barber, “Resistance by scientists to scientific discovery,” Science, 134 (1961) 596-602
Henry H. Bauer, Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method (University of Illinois Press, 1992)
Michael Crichton, “Aliens cause global warming” (Caltech Michelin Lecture), 17 January 2003
Daniel S. Greenberg, Science, Money and Politics: Political Triumph and Ethical Erosion (University of Chicago Press, 2001) & Science for Sale: The Perils, Rewards, and Delusions of Campus Capitalism (University of Chicago Press, 2007)
Paul R. Gross & Norman Levitt, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994)
Susan Haack, Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate (University of Chicago Press, 1998) & Defending Science — within Reason (Prometheus, 2003)
Ernest B. Hook, (ed). Prematurity in Scientific Discovery: On Resistance and Neglect (University of California Press, 2002)
David Knight, The Age of Science: The Scientific World-View in the Nineteenth Century (Basil Blackwell, 1986)
Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago Press, 1970, 2nd ed., enlarged)
Derek J. de Solla Price, Little Science, Big Science … and Beyond (Columbia University Press, 1963/1986; the 1986 edition contains additional chapters)
Gunther Stent, “Prematurity and uniqueness in scientific discovery,” Scientific American, December 1972, pp. 84-93
John Ziman, Real Science—What It Is, and What It Means (Cambridge University Press, 2000)

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

(3)    Henry H. Bauer, “A politically liberal global-warming skeptic?”, 25 November 2012

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

(5)      IMBECILES: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck by Adam Cohen (Penguin Press, 2016)
ILLIBERAL REFORMERS: Race, Eugenics and American Economics in the Progressive Era by Thomas C. Leonard (Princeton University Press, 2016)

(6)    David Oshinsky, review of (5), New York Times Book Review, 14 March 2016

(7)    A rather random selection of pieces about micro-aggression:
“Microaggression theory”“21 Racial Microaggressions you hear on a daily basis”;
“Ten things you didn’t know were racist”“Microaggression”“Microaggression Theory: An assault on everyday life”“Microaggressions: Power, privilege, and everyday life”

(8)    Letter of 5 August 2009

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

(10) Henry H. Bauer, The Case against HIV

(11) Edwin Black, War against the Weak, Thunder’s Mouth Press (2003)

(12) Farhad Manjoo, “Progressive genocide”, reviewing Better for All the World: The Secret History of Forced Sterilization and America’s Quest for Racial Purity by Harry Bruinius

(13) David Starr Jordan, The Higher Foolishness, Bobbs-Merrill (1927)

(14) David Starr Jordan, The human harvest; A Study of the Decay of Races through the Survival of the Unfit (American Unitarian Association, 1907); The Heredity of Richard Roe; A Discussion of the Principles of Eugenics (American Unitarian Association, 1911)

Posted in conflicts of interest, consensus, denialism, global warming, media flaws, politics and science, science is not truth, science policy, scientism, scientists are human | Tagged: , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

“Dark matter” and dinosaur extinction

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2016/01/06

“Everyone” knows that the collision of an asteroid with Earth damaged the environment so much that the dinosaurs died out and only much smaller creatures survived. Many also know that the impact crater, the Chicxulub crater, has been found beneath the surface near the Yucatan peninsula. Just consult Wikipedia, or Google for more sources.

Except: Google also turns up some reservations, for instance “What really killed the dinosaurs? New challenges to the impact theory” (BBC program).

Several decades ago already, paleontologist Dewey McLean (as well as some other geologists and paleontologists) had made the case that the dinosaur extinction was brought about by climate changes owing largely to the enormous volcanic activity associated with the Deccan Traps (a region in India) —
see Dewey M. McLean, “Impact winter in the global K/T extinctions: no definitive evidence”, pp. 493-503 in Global Biomass Burning: Atmospheric, Climatic, and Biospheric Implications, ed. J. S. Levine, MIT Press, 1991.
(McLean’s somewhat lonely public dissidence is mentioned in my book, Dogmatism in Science and Medicine [McFarland 2012, pp. 97-8]. I knew McLean, we worked at the same university.)

Donald Prothero is also a paleontologist. Recently he posted the following in a book review on amazon.com:
“that the impact at the end of the Cretaceous is the primary cause of the extinction of dinosaurs has been discredited in recent years. . . . the consensus has now swung to the idea that the massive Deccan eruptions in India and Pakistan were far more important to the end-Cretaceous extinctions.”

Prothero’s review is of the book by Lisa Randall, Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe, which postulates the presence in the Milky Way (our galaxy) of a disc of “dark matter” that somehow periodically liberates comets or asteroids that go on to cause periodic extinction events on Earth.
In his amazon.com review, Prothero also debunks the notion that extinctions follow an identifiably periodic pattern.

My own trouble with Randall’s speculation is that “dark matter” is no more than a fudge factor necessary to make Big-Bang cosmology fit the observed facts. There is no shred of direct empirical evidence that “dark matter” exists.
Things just don’t add up in Big-Bang cosmology. Actual observations of quasars and galaxies do not jibe with calculations based on the known force of gravity and on the presumption that redshifts reflect speed relative to Earth (Doppler effect).
There isn’t enough gravity. So “dark matter” was invented to yield that needed extra gravity. “Dark matter” is associated with “dark energy”, for which we have no evidence either.
All this “dark” stuff is supposed to make up more than 90% of the universe, at the same time as “dark” is the euphemism for “we know nothing about it, we just need it to make the equations balance”.

This collection of science fiction is treated respectfully by the media.

But there is a much simpler explanation for the failure of Big-Bang cosmology to fit the observed facts. There is strong evidence that redshifts of quasars do not always result purely from Doppler effects, that quasars are associated with the creation of new matter which has an inherent redshift:
— see Halton Arp, Quasars, Redshifts and Controversies (Interstellar Media 1987) and Seeing Red: Redshifts, Cosmology and Academic Science (Apeiron 1998); for a summary, see pp. 113-18 in Dogmatism in Science and Medicine.

Which all goes to show, as many others besides me have often remarked, that “What everyone knows is usually wrong (about science, say)”.  On all but the most non-controversial issues, TED talks and Wikipedia entries are among the sources most likely to be wrong, moreover wrong dogmatically, insistently, aggressively, uncompromisingly, as they treat every contemporary (and thereby temporary) mainstream consensus as Gospel truth.

A pervasive problem is that mainstream dogmas are taken as truth by people outside the particular field of knowledge:
Randall is a physicist, so she is not familiar with the range of views among paleontologists and geologists.
On the matter of HIV/AIDS, one finds economists like South African Nicoli Nattrass (The AIDS Conspiracy: Science fights back) and political scientists like Courtney Jung (Lactivism: How feminists and fundamentalists, hippies and yuppies, and physicians and politicians made breastfeeding big business and bad policy) getting the facts totally wrong, even citing mainstream sources incorrectly.
Many social scientists get a whole lot wrong about science, as when Steven Shapin asserted that scientists don’t value their technicians appropriately (p. 142 in Fatal Attractions: The Troubles with Science, Paraview Press 2001).
No one is immune, because we cannot look at the primary evidence on every topic of interest, so we have to decide, more or les by instinct, which mainstream beliefs to accept, at least provisionally, and which to doubt enough that further digging is called for. I went wrong by accepting mainstream views about UFOs and about homosexuality,  for example, and I’m probably wrong on some other issues where I haven’t yet woken up to it. But at least I’m aware of the problem. The media, though, apparently are not aware of it, nor are the publishers who put out books like Nattrass’s or Jung’s or Randall’s.

 

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Who looks at evidence? Almost no one

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2015/06/28

I’ve been a crank for a long time about Loch Ness Monsters, frustrated because I can’t get people to look at Tim Dinsdale’s 1960 film which shows quite clearly a huge animal swimming in Loch Ness, submerging while still throwing up a massive wake.

For more than a decade, I’ve been a crank about HIV not causing AIDS, frustrated because I can’t get people to look at the clear evidence that HIV tests don’t track something infectious, and that the numbers in plain sight on the website of the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, rates of sexual transmission at less than 1 per 1000 acts of unprotected intercourse, mean that HIV cannot cause an epidemic.

Now I’ve become a crank about human-caused climate change, frustrated because people won’t look at the clear evidence that carbon dioxide has been increasing steadily even as the global temperature was level or dropping form the 1940s into the 1970s, when the experts were predicting an Ice Age; and as the global temperature has not increased since the end of the 1990s.

Why don’t people look at evidence?

Because, I’ve finally realized, they don’t want to risk having to change their mind. There is no positive incentive and plenty of negative incentive. It’s beyond cognitive dissonance, which is to evade the significance of evidence after having come across it. It’s obviously even better not to have come across the evidence at all.

On human-caused climate change (HCCC), disbelief is expressed loudly and publicly by “conservatives” (in my view more accurately described as reactionaries) who have that opinion for the wrong reasons, namely the belief that economic free markets are the most important thing and regulating anything is bad.

“Liberals” or “progressives”, on the other hand (who are actually not liberal or progressive but simply knee-jerk politically correct) don’t look at the evidence because they don’t need to, it’s of no interest to them, they would take their stance that humans cause environmental damage no matter what. And they maintain perfect deniability, they are blameless, they were just accepting what the authorities, the experts, have been saying loudly and incessantly.

Most of my family and friends treat my “reactionary” stance on HCCC as a minor flaw, allowing me space because I tend to get caught up in Quixotic stuff all the time. They have no interest in looking at the evidence because they are completely comfortable with the notion of HCCC because it fits their anti-reactionary political views — which I happen to share. If it turns out that this HCCC is mistaken, there would be all sorts of undesirable consequences, in particular that reactionary views might appear to have been vindicated.

I was distressed when Stephen Colbert took HCCC as proven. I am not happy when all the MSNBC crowd does so, but they’ve become too extreme for me anyway and I rarely watch. But I was very unhappy when Jon Stewart took HCCC as proven. And Pope Francis may have been the last straw (in the wind, as far as ever changing public opinion). Though I did get a sort of sardonic enjoyment from the pundits who pointed out that the Pope knew what he was talking about because he had been a chemist. And I am getting continuing Schadenfreude over the contortions of the Republican presidential candidates as they are forced to comment on the Pope’s encyclical.

Evidence-seeking, I realize, is an obsession of perhaps the tiniest minority there is. On the dangers of modern medical practice, there are just a few dozen voices crying out publicly in the wilderness. On HIV/AIDS, there is our Rethinking AIDS  group of some dozens of people, with a few thousand more quietly agreeing. On HCCC, there are a few academic types like myself who got here because of the evidence, and who subsist uncomfortably in the association with people whose political and social views we do not share, to put it mildly.

I’m beginning to accept that none of the items in my bucket list will see the light of an enlightened day within my lifetime: Nessie discovery, rejection of HIV=AIDS, rejection of carbon-dioxide-is-hurting-us.

But I do remain curious about how the “authorities” will adjust when reality eventually catches up with them irrevocably.

[Corrected 8 August 2015 in paragraph 7]

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Climate–change beliefs are politically and not scientifically determined

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2015/05/09

I had inadvertently posted this on my HIV/AIDS blog:

It’s nice when elaborately technical academic discourse supports what one already knew.

I had pointed out (A politically liberal global-warming skeptic?) that Fox News and its devotees (Republicans, conservatives, political right-leaners) deny that human-generated carbon dioxide has been proven to cause global warming (later morphed to unfalsifiable “climate change”) whereas MSNBC and its devotees (Democrats, liberals, political left-leaners) take as settled science that human-generated carbon dioxide has caused climate change including an increased rate of exceptional events.

That observational fact has now been scientifically re-proven by experts in cognition, decision-making, law, psychology: “The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks”, Nature Climate Change, 2 (2012) 732-5. The estimation of risk from climate change correlated positively with cultural or political world-views but negatively with scientific literacy and numeracy.

The experts concluded with another finding that everyone should already have known, namely, that facts don’t persuade people: “One aim of science communication, we submit, should be to dispel this tragedy of the risk-perception commons . . . . A communication strategy that focuses only on transmission of sound scientific information, our results suggest, is unlikely to do that. As worthwhile as it would be, simply improving the clarity of scientific information will not dispel public conflict so long as the climate-change debate continues to feature cultural meanings that divide citizens of opposing world-views.” “Members of the public with the highest degrees of science literacy and technical reasoning capacity were not the most concerned about climate change”.

The authors of this study accepted as given that human-generated carbon dioxide has been proven to cause global warming, climate change, and disastrous corollaries for our way of life. They presume that the risk is real AND MAJOR, and that estimates of it differ only as a result of perceptions, which of course are influenced by world-views. But if this is not accepted as axiomatic, then their findings can be interpreted in a much more straightforward way:

The more one knows and understands about science, the greater one’s numeracy and scientific literacy, the more is one able to recognize that human-generated carbon dioxide has NOT been proven to cause global warming.

Thus even a political liberal like myself becomes unwilling to accept that the risk from human activities is significant once he looks into the actual evidence. The prevailing belief in human-caused climate change comes from cherry-picking and misinterpreting historical data, in particular the time periods being considered, together with besotted infatuation with and obeisance to computer models — forgetting Computer Science 101: GIGO, Garbage In, Garbage Out.

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Probabilistic causation, misinterpreted probabilities, and misdiagnosing mental illness

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2015/01/25

Some people want everyone to accept what “science” says, even when they cannot really justify that from the actual evidence and facts.

For instance, Donald Prothero in Reality Check (Indiana University Press, 2013), spends countless words saying things like “nothing in real science is 100% proven” (italic emphasis in original) mixed in with “if something has a 99% likelihood of occurring, or being true, then this level of confidence is so overwhelming that it would be foolish to ignore it” (p. 32). He illustrates this by the high likelihood of injury or death if one jumps off a building.
Then comes a typical piece of misdirection about the likelihood of getting cancer if one smokes, because “the link between cancer and smoking is about 99%”.
In the first place, the evidence for jumping off a building and for cancer causing smoking are of an entirely different order. In the second place, no source is given for the claim of “about 99%” for the cancer-smoking link.
The observable evidence about jumping off buildings is quite direct, no inferences needed. On the other hand, the link between cancer and smoking is based on inferences from data that are probabilistic: analyzing records from people who have smoked varying amounts for varying lengths of time and applying statistical tests of significance.
But most subtly misleading or deceitful is that “about 99%” assertion. A similar point crops up in a number of quite different matters. Probabilities cannot be turned around, one might say they are not “commutative”. (A + B is commutative because it equals B + A. There are many operations in mathematics that are not commutative.)
If someone dies of lung cancer, there is a high likelihood that smoking may have been a causative factor; but that is not the same as saying that smoking is highly likely to cause death by lung cancer, and the second statement does not follow from the first. The commutated probability that a smoker will die of lung cancer is not very high:
“Smoking accounts for 30 percent of all cancer deaths and 87 percent of lung cancer deaths” but “fewer than 10 percent of lifelong smokers will get lung cancer”
(Christopher Wanjek, “Smoking’s many myths examined”).

I. J. Good discussed this general issue in relation to the trial of O. J. Simpson for the murder of his wife, given the acknowledged circumstance that Simpson was an habitual wife-batterer. Alan Dershowitz, assisting the defense, had pointed out that only about 0.1% of wife-batterers go on to actually kill their wives. But this was misleading. The pertinent probability must be calculated as follows: Given that a wife is murdered, and given that the husband is an habitual wife-batterer, what is the probability that the husband did it? Good showed that it was greater than about 1 in 3 (Nature 375 [1995] 541). In a later piece, Good reported that Dershowitz’s 0.1% was itself misleading, and the correction raised the pertinent probability from >1/3 to about 90% (Nature 381 [1996] 481).
The probability that the murdered wife of a battering husband was killed by the husband is high. The commutated probability that a wife-batterer will actually kill his wife is very small.

It is quite damaging to public and personal health that such basic issues concerning probabilities are so little understood among doctors. For example, what is the probability that a woman between 40 to 50 years of age and with no manifest symptoms or family history of breast cancer actually has breast cancer if her mammogram is “positive”? A survey of doctors yielded estimated probabilities of >50%, many of them at about 90%; but the actual probability is only 9% (Steven Strogatz, “Chances are”).
A fundamental point is that no test is 100% specific and 100% accurate. All tests have some probability, even if only small, of yielding a false positive. If a particular condition is rare, then the likelihood of a positive test being false can be quite high: in low-risk populations, a high proportion of “positives” are actually false positives (Jane M. Orient, Art & Science of Bedside Diagnosis, 2005).
The probability that a woman with breast cancer will have a positive mammogram is very high. The commutated probability that a woman with a positive mammogram has breast cancer is not high.

This sort of issue is very damaging when it comes to diagnosing mental illness, discussed at length in Saving Normal by Allen Frances and The Book of Woe by Gary Greenberg (both 2013; see my essay review in Journal of Scientific Exploration, 29 [2015] 142-8). The critical problem is that there exists no objective diagnostic test for a mental illness, diagnosis has to be gauged on the basis of observable symptoms. One classic procedure for diagnosing depression is the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale (HAM-D). It was evolved in the 1950s by British doctor Max Hamilton, who was seeking a way to measure efficacy of anti-depressants, using his depressed patients as guinea pigs (see for example Gary Greenberg, The Noble Lie, 2008, p. 55 ff.). Hamilton came up with 17 items — for instance insomnia, feelings of guilt, sleep, appetite — rated on scale of 0 to 4 or 0 to 2, with a possible maximum total of 52. There is nothing objective here since the assigned points depend on what the patient says and what the tester concludes; and the diagnosis also uses arbitrary cut-off points: 0-7 = normal, 8-13 = mild depression, 14-18 = moderate depression, 19-22 = severe depression, ≥23 = very severe depression. But the point here is not about subjectivity or arbitrariness of the diagnosis, but the fact that HAM-D was evolved by looking at patients who had already been diagnosed as depressed severely enough to require treatment, even hospitalization. However, the fact that depressed patients frequently accumulate high scores on this questionnaire does not entail the commutated reverse, that anyone who scores more than 7 is to some extent “depressed” or at ≥18 severely depressed.

Confusion about what statistics and probability mean, about interpreting such data with their seemingly accurate numbers, is a hazard in public discourse on a host of matters in science and in medicine. Misinterpretation is common and damaging.

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Anti-obesity surgery: Weight loss prevents Alzheimer’s? (Anti-obesity fuss IV)

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2014/09/05

Being obese is bad for you, so everyone is saying just now; everyone including professional societies, official agencies, and drug companies who sell mind-altering drugs to curb your appetite that may also cause “potentially life-threatening serotonin syndrome . . . . confusion, Cognitive Impairment, disturbances in attention or memory . . . , Psychiatric Disorders including euphoria and dissociation, . . . depression or suicidal thoughts” [emphasis added] as well as priapism (erections lasting longer than 4 hours) [1].

Lest this possibility of literally fatal harm suggests that the possible benefit is not worth the risk and dissuades potential customers for these drugs, we’re now told that the drugs might not only harm the brain, they could actually do the very opposite too:

“Weight-loss surgery can boost brain power and ‘cut the risk of developing Alzheimer’s’”

  • Scientists in Brazil found gastric bypass surgery can affect brain activity
  • Found the operation curbed changes in the brain associated with obesity
  • They noted improvements in planning, strategising and organising
  • Researchers also found evidence operation could reduce risk of Alzheimer’s

All this from a study of just 17 obese women, comparing them before bariatric surgery and 24 weeks after surgery.

“[S]ome areas of their [obese women’s] brains metabolised sugars at a higher rate than normal weight women. . . . in a part of the brain linked to the development of Alzheimer’s disease . . . . Since bariatric surgery reversed this activity, we suspect the procedure may contribute to a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. . . .

The new research focused on a procedure known as a Roux-en-Y gastric bypass (RYBG) which combines the two types of bariatric surgery.

Brain scans and a range of psychological tests were used to assess its effect over a period of six months. . . .
bariatric surgery seemed to improve the performance of the obese women in a test of ‘executive function’. . . . the brain’s ability to connect past experience and current action . . . involved in planning, organising and making strategic decisions. Other tests measuring various aspects of memory and thinking ability showed no change after bariatric surgery”.

 

The original article on which this account is based is Marques et al., “Changes in neuropsychological tests and brain metabolism after bariatric surgery”, Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, 26 August 2014: jc.20142068. Its 6 pages are replete with speculation and do nothing to decrease my skepticism that lack of improvement in “various aspects of memory and thinking ability” could accompany improved performance in “planning, organising and making strategic decisions”.

This speculation is without any reasonable basis at all because Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) is far from well understood. It is simply not known that there is “a part of the brain linked to the development of Alzheimer’s disease”. There is considerable evidence against the mainstream hypothesis that AD is characterized by amyloid plaques [2].

TV’s 60 Minutes of 31 August 2014 reported results of continuing research with cohorts of old (≥90 years) people, observing their behavior and cognitive abilities together with in vivo recording of brain activity. The researchers expressed surprise that the amyloid plaques and tau tangles thought to be the cause of AD were present in some people who showed no signs of dementia; while some individuals with dementia had no sign of amyloid plaques or tau tangles. Instead, there were indications that tiny strokes had effectively killed small parts of the brain, strokes so small that the affected individual would have had no immediate indication of their occurrence.

 

Lay people might regard those findings as further evidence that amyloid and tau have nothing to do with AD, or indeed with dementia in general.
Those who believe that science rejects hypotheses when the evidence contradicts them might also imagine that the mainstream is now discarding the notion that AD is caused by accumulation of plaques of amyloid protein.

But that’s not what happens in the real world. The researchers suggested on 60 Minutes that maybe the brains of non-demented individuals with tau tangles and amyloid plaques had found some way or other to “get around” those indications of AD . . . . They didn’t try to explain why some AD victims had no tau tangles or amyloid plaques.

 

Those of us who are familiar with the ignoring of evidence that contradicts mainstream dogmas recognize this as routine, cognitive dissonance in the service of mainstream denialism.

 

————————————————————

[1] Belviq®, revised 08/2012

[2]  Pp. 108-9 in Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth, McFarland (2012)

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Autism and Vaccines: Can there be a final unequivocal answer?

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2014/08/24

The suggestion that early MMR vaccination of babies can result in autism — first made by Andrew Wakefield et al. in 1998 — has been given new life by the revelation that Dr. William Thompson of (or formerly of? or soon to be formerly of?) the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention has admitted to collaborating in a scheme to disprove any correlation between MMR vaccination and autism. CNN is also charged with complicity by deleting its article about this, see for example Celia Farber’s “CNN complicity in media blackout of CDC MMR Vaccine whistleblower deepens” and earlier blog-posts. The Liberty Beacon cites a number of published studies that support a vaccine-autism connection: “New published study verifies Andrew Wakefield’s research on Autism – Again (MMR Vaccine causes Autism)”.

The literature about this, pro and con, is enormous. Typically for such matters, the published material is highly polarized, which means highly biased. On one side, defenders of mainstream medicine over-react against any suggestion that any vaccination could be harmful; on the other side a fairly well-grounded suspicion that the mainstream can be wrong while never admitting it combines with anecdotal accounts from personally affected families as well as those who recognize that Wakefield has been treated unfairly, to say the least.

At some future time, relatively unbiased observers will sift through this enormous literature in an attempt to clarify the “scientific facts” as well as the social aspects of the controversy. In the meantime, there are very sound reasons for remaining on the fence, rejecting the claims made on both extremes. Perhaps the strongest reason is that the general question is unanswerable in the universal absolute form in which it is commonly framed: “Does MMR vaccine cause autism?” That asks whether the vaccine causes autism, presumably quite often if not always. But the Wakefield et al. publication only suggested that it had happened in a few cases.

A better question would be, “Can MMR vaccine cause autism?”

After all, there is no disagreement that many vaccines can harm a few individuals, though the reason may not always be evident — perhaps an allergic reaction, perhaps something unique about an individual’s precise condition at the time of vaccination, perhaps something unusual about an individual’s immune system in general or at times. No matter the reason, the fact is acknowledged, to the extent that public funds are available to compensate the small proportion of such unfortunate outliers from the more common experience of lack of harm [1].

The mainstream defense, that MMR vaccine does not cause autism, is based on statistical analysis. That can legitimately be stated as, “There is no statistically significant evidence”, which does not rule out that some small proportion of babies do react to MMR vaccine in a manner that predisposes to autism.

This point is not specific to the MMR-vaccine controversy, it is very generally applicable to clinical trials, drug approval, and proper medical practice: Medical “science” as incorporated in clinical trials delivers only statistical answers, whereas patient-doctor interactions should be on an individual basis, recognizing that any given individual may react differently than do most people [2]. In a sense, this is the sort of situation described by Alvin Weinberg as “trans-scientific” [3]: A question can be framed as though it could be answered “scientifically” when in reality it cannot, because there is no absolute universal answer, only a probabilistic one.

As Healy [2] points out, anecdotal evidence in medicine should not be dismissed automatically as “unscientific” and therefore to be completely disregarded. When administration of a drug produces an immediate or almost immediate effect, that should not be discounted just because not every person or patient reacts in the same way.

There exists no system that could potentially convert anecdotal evidence into widely useful information, but such a system can be envisaged in this age of information technology. If all data from all patients were archived and made mutually accessible, the rates of rare “side” effects and atypical reactions would become evident over time. For example, one might find that a small proportion of babies given MMR vaccine at early age do in fact seem to become more likely to develop autism.

At the moment, though, such data are not available. Decisions need to be made in absence of conclusive evidence. The issue then becomes, to what degree should informed parental consent be decisive as to the administration of MMR vaccine?

This question brings in not only the scientific uncertainty but also larger sociopolitical and even religious factors. Should Christian-Science parents be allowed to eschew antibiotics or blood transfusions for their children?

Such extreme cases make bad laws and may never have fully satisfying answers or outcomes. But for most intermediate situations, mainstream institutions ought to practice a degree of humility in the face of uncertainty and not overplay the evidence at their disposal. Since it is far from impossible that some babies might suffer autism after early vaccination with MMR, why not allow parents to choose between MMR and separate vaccines? And how strong are the data showing an advantage of earlier as opposed to later vaccination?

Sizable amounts of data have indicated that the mercury-containing vaccine preservative thimerosal has no statistically significant damaging effect. But since organic mercury compounds are known to be harmful, might not a few babies be harmed by even the small amount of thimerosal in these vaccines? It is not irrational, surely, for parents to wish to avoid even a small risk if the potential benefit is also not large.

The issue of informed consent in medical practice is in itself complicated. In most situations, patients are not given the opportunity to be truly informed, in part because physicians themselves may be uninformed or misinformed: cholesterol-lowering statins and blood-pressure-lowering drugs and bone-density-increasing drugs are prescribed promiscuously in absence of genuine evidence that their benefits outweigh the damage from their “side” effects [4].

The claim of whistleblowers and cover-ups should not be dismissed as conspiracy theorizing. As George Bernard Shaw pointed out, all professions are a conspiracy against the lay public. All bureaucracies, which means most institutions, have self-preservation and self-preferment as their highest goal. A massive organization like the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention makes public statements through an administrative hierarchy at whose public end are press and public-relations staff whose mission is to parrot the institution’s official positions, which do not normally include an admission of being wrong about anything.
Does MMR vaccine cause autism?
Perhaps God knows. We humans cannot be sure that it never does, only that most commonly it seems not to — which does not entail, however, that it never does, nor that it has no harmful effect at all on brain function even if autism does not ensue.

—————————————————————–

[1] National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program
[2] David Healy, Pharmageddon, University of California Press, 2012
[3] Alvin M. Weinberg, “Science and trans﷓science”, Minerva, X (1972): 209-22
[4] Järvinen et al., The true cost of pharmacological disease prevention, British Medical Journal 2011: 342d2175;
doi: 10.1136/bmj.d2175

 

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