Skepticism about science and medicine

In search of disinterested science

Posts Tagged ‘fallibility of science’

Why skepticism about science and medicine?

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2020/09/06

My skepticism is not about science and medicine as sources or repositories of objective knowledge and understanding. Skepticism is demanded by the fact that what society learns about science and medicine is mediated by human beings. That brings in a host of reasons for skepticism: human fallibility, individual and institutional self-interest, conflicts of interest, sources of bias and prejudice.

I have never come across a better discussion of the realities about science and its role in society than Richard Lewontin’s words in his book, Biology as Ideology (Anansi Press 1991, HarperPerennial 1992; based on 1990 Massey Lectures, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation):

“Science is a social institution about which there is a great deal of misunderstanding, even among those who are part of it. . . [It is] completely integrated into and influenced by the structure of all our other social institutions. The problems that science deals with, the ideas that it uses in investigating those problems, even the so-called scientific results that come out of scientific investigation, are all deeply influenced by predispositions that derive from the society in which we live. Scientists do not begin life as scientists, after all, but as social beings immersed in a family, a state, a productive structure, and they view nature through a lens that has been molded by their social experience.
. . . science is molded by society because it is a human productive activity that takes time and money, and so is guided by and directed by those forces in the world that have control over money and time. Science uses commodities and is part of the process of commodity production. Science uses money. People earn their living by science, and as a consequence the dominant social and economic forces in society determine to a large extent what science does and how it. does it. More than that, those forces have the power to appropriate from science ideas that are particularly suited to the maintenance and continued prosperity of the social structures of which they are a part. So other social institutions have an input into science both in what is done and how it is thought about, and they take from science concepts and ideas that then support their institutions and make them seem legitimate and natural. . . .
Science serves two functions. First, it provides us with new ways of manipulating the material world . . . . [Second] is the function of explanation” (pp. 3-4). And (p. 5) explaining how the world works also serves as legitimation.

Needed skepticism takes into account that every statement disseminated about science or medicine serves in some way the purpose(s), the agenda(s), of the source or sources of that statement.

So the first thing to ask about any assertion about science or medicine is, why is this statement being made by this particular source?

Statements by pharmaceutical companies, most particularly their advertisements, should never be believed, because, as innumerable observers and investigators have documented, the profit motive has outweighed any concern for the harm that unsafe medications cause even as there is no evidence for definite potential benefit. The best way to decide on whether or not to prescribe or use a drug is by comparing NNT and NNH, the odds on getting benefit compared to the odds of being harmed; but NNT and NNH are never reported by drug companies. For example, there is no evidence whatsoever that HPV vaccination decreases the risk of any cancer; all that has been observed is that the vaccines may decrease genital warts. On the other hand, many individuals have suffered grievous harm from “side” effects of these vaccines (see Holland 2018 in the bibliography cited just below, and the documentary, Sacrificial Virgins. TV ads by Merck, for example in August 2020 on MSNBC, cite the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention as recommending the vaccine not only for girls but also for boys.

For fully documented discussions of the pervasive misdeeds of drug companies, consult the books listed in my periodically updated bibliography, What’s Wrong with Present-Day Medicine.
I recommend particularly Angell 2004, Goldacre 2013, Gøtzsche 2013, Healy 2012, Moynihan, & Cassels 2005. Greene 2007 is a very important but little-cited book describing how numbers and surrogate markers have come to dominate medical practice, to the great harm of patients.

Official reports may be less obviously deceitful than drug company advertisements, but they are no more trustworthy, as argued in detail and with examples in “Official reports are not scientific publications”, chapter 3 in my Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth (McFarland 2012):
“reports from official institutions and organizations . . . are productions by bureaucracies . . . . The actual authors of these reports are technical writers whose duties are just like those of press secretaries, advertising writers, and other public-relations personnel: to put on the actual evidence and conclusions the best possible spin to reinforce the bureaucracy’s viewpoint and emphasize the importance of the bureaucracy’s activities.
Most important: The Executive Summaries, Forewords, Prefaces, and the like may tell a very different story than does the actual evidence in the bulk of the reports. It seems that few if any pundits actually read the whole of such documents. The long public record offers sad evidence that most journalists certainly do not look beyond these summaries into the meat of the reports, given that the media disseminate uncritically so many of the self-serving alarums in those Executive Summaries” (p. 213).

So too with press releases from academic institutions.

As for statements direct from academic and professional experts, recall that, as Lewontin pointed out, “people earn their living by science”. Whenever someone regarded as an expert or authority makes public statements, an important purpose is to enhance the status, prestige, career, profitability, of who is making the statement. This is not to suggest that such statements are made with deliberate dishonesty; but the need to preserve status, as well as the usual illusion that what one believes is actually true, ensures that such statements will be dogmatically one-sided assertions, not judicious assessments of the objective state of knowledge.

Retired academic experts like myself no longer suffer conflicts of interest at a personal or institutional-loyalty level. When we venture critiques of drug companies, official institutions, colleges and universities, and even individual “experts” or former colleagues, we will be usually saying what we genuinely believe to be unvarnished truth. Nevertheless, despite the lack of major obvious conflicts of interest, one should have more grounds than that for believing what we have to say. We may still have an unacknowledged agenda, for instance a desire still to do something useful even as our careers are formally over. Beyond that, of course, like any other human beings, we may simply be wrong, no matter that we ourselves are quite sure that we are right. Freedom from frank, obvious conflicts of interest does not bring with it some superhuman capacity for objectivity let alone omniscience.

In short:
Believe any assertion about science or medicine, from any source, at your peril.
If the matter is of any importance to you, you had best do some investigating of evidence and facts, and comparison of diverse interpretations.

Posted in conflicts of interest, consensus, fraud in medicine, fraud in science, medical practices, peer review, politics and science, science is not truth, scientific literacy, scientism, scientists are human, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Who guards the guardians? Who guards science?

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/06/24

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? This quotation attributed to Juvenal describes the inescapable dilemma as to how societies can be governed .

Today’s guardian of reliable knowledge is science. It is the acknowledged authority on the natural world, on what exists in the world and on how those things behave. Most governments accept as reliable, as true for all practical purposes, whatever the current scientific consensus is: on matters of health, the environment, the solar system, the universe. The mass media, too, accept that scientific consensus; and that largely determines what the general public believes, “what everyone knows”.

Nowadays in that category of “what everyone knows” there are literally innumerable things; among them that the universe began with a Big Bang; that ghosts and Loch Ness Monsters do not exist; that HIV causes AIDS; that hypertension causes heart attacks and strokes; that carbon dioxide released by burning fossil fuels is causing climate change and bringing more frequent and more extreme and more damaging events like hurricanes; etc., etc.

But what guards against the scientific consensus being wrong?

Nothing and nobody.

That really matters, because the history of science is crystal clear that contemporary science, the contemporary scientific consensus, has almost invariably been wrong until further progress superseded and replaced it.

That steady improvement over the centuries gave rise to a comforting shibboleth, that “science is self-correcting”. At any given moment, however, the scientific consensus stands possibly uncorrected and awaiting future “self”-correction. One cannot justifiably assert, therefore, that any contemporary scientific consensus is known to be unquestionably true. It is not known with absolute certainty that the universe began with a Big Bang; that ghosts and Loch Ness Monsters do not exist; that HIV causes AIDS; that hypertension causes heart attacks and strokes; that carbon dioxide released by burning fossil fuels is causing climate change and bringing more frequent and more extreme and more damaging events like hurricanes; etc., etc.

Nevertheless, contemporary society treats these and other contemporary scientific consensuses as true. This amounts to what President Eisenhower warned against: that “public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite” [1]. Science can indeed mislead public policy, as when tens of thousands of Americans were forcibly sterilized in the misguided belief that this improved the genetic stock [2]. Science is far from automatically or immediately self-correcting [3].

I’ve wondered how Eisenhower could have been so prescient in 1960, because the conditions that conduce to public policies being misled by science were then just beginning to become prominent: the massive governmental stimulation of scientific activity that has produced today’s dysfunctional hyper-competitiveness, with far too many would-be researchers competing for far too few reliably permanent positions and far too little support for the resources that modern research needs [4]. Moreover, the scientific consensus is guarded not only by the scientists who generated it, powerful societal institutions are vested in the correctness of the scientific consensus [4]: It is virtually inconceivable, for instance, that official bodies like the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, the World Health Organization, and the like would admit to error of the views that they have promulgated; try to imagine, for example, how it could ever be officially admitted that HIV does not cause AIDS [5].

SUGGESTION TO THE READER:
Reflect on how you formed an opinion about — Big-Bang theory? Loch Ness Monsters? Ghosts? Climate change? … etc. etc. Almost always it will not have been by looking into the evidence but rather by trusting someone’s assertion.

Who has the interest, time, and energy to study all those things? Obviously we must take our beliefs on many matters from trusted authorities; and for a couple of centuries the scientific consensus has been a better guide than most others. But that is no longer the case. The circumstances of 21st-century science mean that society needs guardians to check that what the scientific consensus recommends for public policy corresponds to the best available evidence. On many issues, a minority of experts differs from the scientific consensus, and it would be valuable to have something like a Science Court to assess the arguments and evidence pro and con [6].

I’ve had the luxury of being able to look into quite a few topics because that was appropriate to the second phase of my academic career, in Science & Technology Studies (STS). Through having made a specialty of studying unorthodoxy in science, I stumbled on copious examples of the scientific consensus treating, in recent times, competent minority opinions well within the scientific community with the same disdain, or even worse, as that traditionally directed towards would-be science, fringe science — Loch Ness Monsters, ghosts, UFOS, and the like.

In Dogmatism in Science and Medicine [7], I pointed to the evidence that the contemporary scientific consensus is wrong about Big-Bang theory, global warming and climate change, HIV/AIDS, extinction of the dinosaurs, and more, including what modern medicine says about prescription drugs. The failings of the scientific consensus in modern medicine have been detailed recently by Richard Harris [8] as well as in many works of the last several decades [9]. That the scientific consensus is wrong about HIV and AIDS is documented more fully in The Origin, Persistence and Failings of HIV/AIDS Theory (McFarland, 2007). Why science has become less believable is discussed in [4], which also describes many misconceptions about science and about statistics, the latter bearing a large part of the blame for what’s wrong with today’s medical practices.

But my favorite obsession over where the scientific consensus is wrong remains the existence of Loch Ness “Monsters”, Nessies. It was my continuing curiosity about this that led to my career change from chemistry to STS, which brought many unforeseeable and beneficial side-effects. My 1986 book, The Enigma of Loch Ness: Making Sense of a Mystery [10], showed how the then-available evidence could be interpreted to support belief in the reality of Nessies but could also be plausibly enlisted to reject the reality of Nessies. However, the book’s chief purpose was to explain why seeking to “discover” Nessies was not a sensible task for organized science.

Now in 2018 quite proper science, in the guise of “environmental DNA”, has offered a good chance that my belief in the reality of Loch Ness “Monsters” may be vindicated within a year or so by mainstream science. I plan to say more about that soon.

—————————————————————–

[1]  Farewell Address to the Nation, 17 January 1961
[2]  “Bauer: Could science mislead public policy?”
[3]  Science is NOT self-correcting (How science has changed — VII)
[4]  Science Is Not What You Think — how it has changed,
why we can’t trust it, how it can be fixed
(McFarland, 2017)
[5]   “OFFICIAL!   HIV does not cause AIDS!”
[6]    For a detailed history and analysis of the concept of a Science Court,
see chapter 12 in [4]
[7]    Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth (McFarland, 2012)
[8]    Richard Harris, Rigor Mortis — How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions (Basic Books, 2017)
[9]    What’s Wrong with Present-Day Medicine, a bibliography last updated 17 April 2017
[10]  The Enigma of Loch Ness: Making Sense of a Mystery, University of Illinois Press, 1986;
in Cassette Book format, RC 25592, narrated by Richard Dorf, 1988;
U.K. edition, Stirling (Scotland): Johnston & Bacon 1991;
re-issued by Wipf & Stock, 2012

Posted in conflicts of interest, consensus, funding research, global warming, media flaws, medical practices, peer review, politics and science, prescription drugs, resistance to discovery, science is not truth, science policy, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

 
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