This week's column by Ctein
Continuing from last time...into the realm of genuine crackpots. The problem with crackpots is that they can truly blind you with science, or at least with lengthy discourse and arguments about minutiae that you can't possibly fully dissect. Nor should you even feel obligated to try.
Crackpots exhibit many of the symptoms I described in Part 1. They're misunderstood geniuses; they see the truths that the whole scientific community has managed to miss or is suppressing because the rest of the community can't recognize their brilliance. Largely, this is the province of fiction. It's not impossible, but it's bloody damned unlikely.
Often they suggest darker, more malign motives keeping them out of the limelight. Again, it makes for gripping novels, but in the real world, scientific conspiracies are few and far between.
Sometimes they'll claim that other scientists have been bought off by the lure of grants and prestigious positions. The problem with this thinking is that all research involves money. Everyone gets paid for what they do. You can't use money to demonstrate that one scientific position is correct and another isn't. It's an ad hominem game that anyone can play, declaring the other side's information to be corrupted by money. And both sides do. It doesn't really help you, as a layperson, distinguish Good Science from Bad. It just reinforces people's prejudgements.
Some folks are just born crackpots, but the more serious cases start off as good scientists. They come up with a novel hypothesis that are entirely legitimate. But, when the science doesn't pan out, they can't let go of it. They just know they're right, so they keep looking and looking. Once in a blue moon their quest proves justified. More often, it destroys their careers and their reputation. It's extremely sad, because they frequently are brilliant and (formerly) productive scientists who just couldn't accept that they were wrong about something.
Most of these folks are harmless and just an annoyance in the scientific community. Occasionally, however, they're genuinely dangerous. Peter Duesberg was a well-respected virologist. In the 1980s, early in the AIDS crisis, he observed many peculiarities in the way AIDS worked that didn't fit standard models for infectious virus disease. He became convinced that AIDS was caused by environmental and lifestyle factors, not HIV.
In the early days of the epidemic, that was not implausible. Many researchers allowed for the possibility. But as work progressed, one after another those peculiarities got explained (the god of the gaps problem) and more and more infectious disease experts concluded, correctly, that Duesberg was wrong. Now, the overwhelming consensus is that HIV causes AIDS.
...Except Dr. Duesberg won't let go. Thirty years later, almost no one in the biomedical field believes him. This would not be a problem if he'd only destroyed his own reputation. Unfortunately, he has millions of believers worldwide. Some whole nations have adopted his crackpottery as national policy. Tens of thousands of people have died because of his Bad Science.
Arguably the worst kind of Bad Science is the outright, blatant fraud. This is relatively rare, but when it happens it can be extremely pernicious because it's very hard to detect. Most of the meta-warnings aren't present. These are people who know how to walk the walk and talk the talk, so even experts can't tell that they're in the presence of fraud. It only gets discovered when further work in the field contradicts their "discoveries."
The worst of these, in modern times, is the autism-vaccination connection promulgated by Dr. Andrew Wakefield. Like the anti-HIV rhetoric, this has killed tens of thousands of people outright and will kill more in the future. Dr. Wakefield published an utterly fraudulent paper in 1998 that reported that vaccines caused autism. Numerous further studies failed to replicate the connection, or did so erratically or at a much lower level than what Wakefield reported (that trend-line-in-results problem I described in Part 1). His results had been pretty well discredited when it was discovered that they were fabricated to begin with.
Folks like Duesberg and Wakefield go beyond Bad Science; so far as I'm concerned, this is genuinely Evil Science. I neither know nor care what their personal motivations are; I just know that they do massive harm in the world.
Most of that harm comes because laypeople honestly can't tell when they're being presented with Bad Science. Maybe these two columns will help to reduce that problem by some minuscule amount.
©2013 by Ctein, all rights reserved
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Geoff Wittig: "As a physician, I can categorically state that the utterly bogus vaccine-autism 'link' has caused immense mischief, suffering, and unnecessary death. Evil science is right. Vaccines have prevented more premature death than any medical tool we have at our disposal, including antibiotics. So it makes us want to beat our heads against the table when people tell us they 'don't believe in vaccines.' It's rather like not believing in gravity.
"Pertussis (whooping cough) is a bacterial infection that can be lethal in infants. As of 30 years ago it had become extremely uncommon in the U.S. due to high vaccination rates with a very potent vaccine. Many of my contemporaries had never seen a case of it. But last year we experienced a nasty little epidemic of pertussis in my area. I personally saw about a dozen cases. Several factors were in play, one of them the poorly understood tendency of pertussis to peak about every 12 years or so. Roughly 15 years ago we changed to a safer pertussis vaccine that is much less likely to cause fever in infants receiving it...but which unfortunately is also a bit less immunogenic, with immunity that is more likely to wane over time. In small part the spike in cases was an artifact of better testing which can now detect pertussis much more reliably. But mostly it was due to a an expanding pool of susceptible individuals who had never been immunized at all, or who had 'aged out' of prior immunity.
"In our area, ground zero for the epidemic was an affluent community with a large number of vaccine skeptics who had 'protected' their kids from vaccination. Such a pool of non-immune individuals can then propagate the infection into the larger population around them.
"Bad science isn't just a pie-fight in a technical journal. It can have dreadful real-world consequences."
Alan Hill: "Bad science happens all the time. Mostly it gets filtered out by the system (repeated experiments, referees etc.). But no system is perfect: in the case of Andrew Wakefield's paper in The Lancet, a most reputable journal, the system fell down.
"However the real problem comes when bad science is exploited by vested interests or people with an axe to grind. Wakefield's paper would have had very little consequence if certain sections of the British media, particularly The Daily Mail, had not hyped it up wildly, with global consequences. I suspect that a bad scientist is usually a naïve fool rather than an evil genius, but I would never trust a non-specialist who promotes an unorthodox scientific idea until I had examined his motivation very carefully."