Assault on Science

As I write this, it is the end of an interesting week where the western worlds decline to pre-enlightenment understanding of science has continued. Obviously, when I said “interesting” I meant sad…

The really annoying leader of this decline has to be Mary Midgley, as Heather previously addressed, who seems to think that “Science” is some dark art that has no relevance on any other aspect of society. Oddly she seems to be calling for the implementation of social policies, laws and the like without any scientific input. Obviously the idea that laws should be formulated without any experiemental reason to think they would ever work – I mean we are innundated with such laws now… Who cares if it can be demonstrated that Law X doesn’t work, as long as we “feel” it is a good law… Well done Mary.

Next in the firing line is the case of Dawn Page and here “nutritional therapist,” Barbara Nash. In a nutshell Page followed Nash’s frankly crazy advice and suffered major brain damage. Bad Science has an excellent take on this – the media as a whole has ignored the general trend of crazy advice by self appointed “Nutritionists” and focused on Nash as a one-off crank… The sad reality is the western world is inundated with fruitloops like this who go on about Chakras, Detox and the like. The even sadder part is that we fall for this nonsense without having the basic scientific reasoning ability to question their basically insane claims. I am all for sticking it to “professionals” who abuse their position (and I think £801,000 was a trivial sum in this case) but, for Toutatis’ sake, why on Odin’s Earth didn’t Ms Page go to the bloody doctors when she felt sick. When uncontrollable vomiting set in, most normal people (you would hope) would go to the hospital, probably via a 999 call to an ambulance. Not Ms Page, who returned to her nutritional therapist for more advice. As I see it, this is where Nash commited the greatest crime. Rather than telling Ms Page to seek real help, she stuck to her woo. Stupid or greedy? Who knows? Who cares – it still screams criminal negligence as far as I can see.

Closing on the heels of the above, and a strong candidate for the worst abuse of scientific illiteracy is the media’s “feeding frenzy” on the decision by Ronald Herberman (Director of the University of Pittsborough Cancer Institute) to issue a warning to his staff to limit their use of mobile phones due to the risk of cancer. Now, I am going to assume that Herberman is a scientist and aware of the nature of scientific reasearch – and indeed, he did say the “evidence is controversial” that phones cause cancer. The same can not be said for the media vultures that descended on this…

First off, often decisions have to be made on “inconclusive” evidence, so that in itself is not a bad thing. By its very nature a scientific proof is still liable to be disproven at any moment. In this manner, it is perfectly reasonable (there is that word again) for Director Herberman to send a memo to his staff saying that, in his opinion, they should limit their use of phones. Does this count as “evidence” there is an increased risk of cancers forming in users of mobile phones. No. Does this mean the “scientific community” (in as much as one can exist) thinks there is a greater risk today than they did two weeks ago – again, no.

If you were to absorb any news from the UK this week, however, you would think this was fundamental proof that mobile phones are dangerous. New calls are all over about how phone masts cause “electrosensitivity” and similar woo. It seems that people have assumed, that because Dr Herberman has sent out this message it must be true and obviously because Dr Herberman works at a Cancer Institute he must be correct, notwithstanding the fact that Cancer Research UK reported (in February) that phone users were no more likely to get cancer than someone who had never touched a phone. Obviously, as journalists are functionally incapable of reading research they go with what ever seems to have the power to sell as many issues as possible…

The Guardian newspaper on Saturday identifies what it sees as the logic at work here (and sadly this is where Dr Herberman seems to fall down). First off, it explains the problem in trying to find out what is a “cause of cancer” with:

Here’s the thing. Almost everything that causes cancer does so by causing mutations in our cellular DNA that accumulate over years and often decades before culminating in a tumour. So to prove something increases a person’s cancer risk, scientists must often not only wait for years to see a significant peak in the disease, but also be able to rule out any other possible cause. That could be changes in diet, environmental factors, lifestyle, the list goes on.

Yes. It it hard trying to work out what causes cancer, this is one of the reasons we have so many “institutes” around the world looking into it. I don’t seem to recall any of them having solved the problem yet though. The Guardian finishes with: (emphasis mine)

The independent Stewart review into mobile phones in 2000 advised children to limit their use as a precaution. Dr Herberman is following the same logic. “We shouldn’t wait for a definitive study to come out, but err on the side of being safe rather than sorry later,” he said.

Wow. A fail for science there. I think that funding research institutes causes cancer. Rather than wait to see if any study can agree with this, why don’t we withdraw the funding now so we can err on the side of being safe rather than sorry later.

Shame on you Dr Herberman, you have opened the floodgates to woo….

One thought on “Assault on Science

  1. Woo is both easy and often does not entail negative consequences for its proponents, despite being almost always wrong, while actual science is hard and often results in benefits that are themselves hard to understand, even though it’s right much more often than woo. So it’s not surprising that many people believe in woo, but I wish they realized that they’re taking the easy road to falsehoods, and that teasing out the truth is expected to be hard work.

    Pity that those who peddle woo don’t usually suffer the negative consequences, where it’s often those that trust them who are harmed. And I wish more people actually cared about the truth, instead of the frequent masquerading of wishful thinking as “truth”.

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