Why science isn’t gospel

I’m reading an excellent and beautiful book by Gerald N. Callahan, Ph.D., called Faith, Madness, and Spontaneous Human Combustion: What Immunology Can Teach Us about Self-Perception.

Is that a terrific title or what? I fear that this book might not have gotten as wide an audience as it deserves. I don’t think that non-fiction books on immunology are all the rage just now, unfortunately.

Callahan writes with the eye of an artist and pen of a poet. Who else would introduce immunology by drawing parallels to a pointillist painting by Georges Seurat? This is no arid intellectual text. His world is filled with color and emotion, with detailed observations and startling truths.

I find it fun to read. In fact, it’s one of those books that I read very slowly, because I keep going back to re-read paragraphs, savor an image, or ponder what he shares.

In the second chapter, on “Self and Antiself,” he talks about something that is generally known in scientific circles but which is not usually discussed publicly. Namely researchers’ tendency to fudge data (consciously or not). To analyze the results of a study and then announce that what they set out to demonstrate, was in fact, exactly what they found (except that it wasn’t — the study was an utter failure in terms of what it was supposed to demonstrate). To “clean up” non-conforming or divergent data. In short, to lie.

Back when I was a fledgling graduate student, one of my professors said to me, “Oh, but you haven’t figured it out yet, have you? Ninety-five percent of what’s in the literature is just shit.” Now this was said about academic psychology, and people working in various fields of science might quibble about whether or not my professor’s estimate was exaggeratedly high. But on the whole, she nailed it.

Callahan gives a couple of very prominent examples:

Gregor Mendel, the nineteenth-century Austrian monk who laid the groundwork for modern genetics, and his contemporary Louis Pasteur, the father of microbiology and the theory of infectious diseases, both lied about the results of their research. The lies are apparent in the near perfection of their reported results. Peas don’t behave as precisely as Gregor claimed they did to prove his theory of inheritance. And Louis’s flasks must have been contaminated with bacteria and molds more often than he reported, because the techniques for sterilization available to him were simply not good enough to so routinely prevent so completely contamination of his culture media.

Both of these eminent scientists falsified their data — deliberately misrepresented their experimental results to support their preconceived notions. And even if they themselves didn’t doctor the data, as some have claimed, they were both good enough scientists to have recognized the ruse.

What does this mean? I suppose that if you think in black and white terms, it undermines the entire scientific endeavor, but I don’t see it that way.

I have never encountered perfection except in nature. We are flawed and imperfect beings, doing the best that we can.

I used to think that the worst lies were of the “dog ate my homework” variety, but those are not the most hurtful ones. The lies we tell ourselves, oblivious to our real intentions, are the ones that hurt people — and scientific inquiry — the most.

But that is why it takes a fair measure of skepticism to successfully wade into the medical literature. No pilot study of a dozen people really proves anything. Nor does a researcher’s off-the-cuff comment at a conference. No single study, no matter how huge or ambitious, proves anything.

And even if it did, the question then becomes: Well, what exactly does it really prove? Correlation is not causation. A bunch of kids get vaccinated and later become autistic, and outraged parents are terrified to get their kids vaccinated. Why? Even if every child who became autistic was vaccinated, that doesn’t prove that the vaccinations, themselves, caused the autism.

It amazes me that we can live in a world so permeated by residual neurotoxins and industrial waste, and then be so certain that two random events are locked together in a tight cause-and-effect relationship.

I wrote the article about the Norwegian cough syrup to try to help my readers begin to see how arcane and unexpected connections can be. As much as I am fascinated by the Akin, et al., pilot study that found evidence of abnormal mast cells in some of its subjects, it’s much too soon for people to run around saying that idiopathic anaphylaxis (IA) is actually mastocytosis.

Meaningful findings can be replicated. Replication is the check-and-balance for our own self-deception. If a certain result can be obtained only in my lab, I have to question my procedures and inherent biases. Over time, truth will out, but it can only emerge completely once we get over so many of the prejudices and pet notions we drag around with us.

Callahan GN. Faith, Madness, and Spontaneous Human Combustion: What Immunology Can Teach Us about Self-Perception New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press. 2002.

Akin C, Scott LM, Kocabas CN, Kushnir-Sukhov N, Brittain E, Noel P, Metcalfe DD. Demonstration of an aberrant mast-cell population with clonal markers in a subset of patients with “idiopathic” anaphylaxis. Blood. 2007; 110:2331–3.

Copyright © 2009 by Candace L. Van Auken. All rights reserved.

I am a writer and an activist for people who are disabled by chronic illness. I am also interested in issues related to the LGBTQIA community and to women making music.

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Posted in Immunology, Philosophy of science, Research
One comment on “Why science isn’t gospel
  1. BarbaraRyan says:

    “I used to think that the worst lies were of the “dog ate my homework” variety, but those are not the most hurtful ones. The lies we tell ourselves, oblivious to our real intentions, are the ones that hurt people — and scientific inquiry — the most. ”

    I think that is an excellent point. I think it can also be expanded to the fields of medicine and medical treatment, specifically in the ways that we diagnose illness and how prejudice and expectation can infuence it.

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December 2009
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