It has become fashionable in the media recently to lament the apparent lack of faith people have in science today. “Anti-vaxxers,” in particular, are often singled out for censure as “anti-science.” Nowhere is this trend better exemplified than in a March 2015 National Geographic cover story written by Joel Achenbach: “Why Do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?” A diorama of a moon landing graces the magazine’s cover, and the article’s caption reads “We live in an age when all manner of scientific knowledge — from climate change to vaccinations — faces furious opposition. Some even have doubts about the moon landing,” erroneously implying that all scientific “doubt” springs from the same source and is of equal value or validity — or lack thereof – and that “doubting” the validity of science with regard to vaccines and genetically modified organisms is equivalent to “doubting” climate science, evolution, and moon landings.
As a geeky Physics major who happens to be quite proud of my father’s contribution to the moon landings (he was part of the team responsible for the lunar module’s antenna and communication system), and yet has the temerity to question the science and wisdom behind the current vaccine schedule and widespread dissemination of genetically modified organisms, I finally find myself irritated enough by this journalistic trend to rebut to the popular conception of those who question vaccine science as “anti-science.”
Despite his title, Achenbach makes the case that (all) people who “doubt science” are not in fact “reasonable.” Rather, they are driven by emotion – what he calls “intuitions” or “naïve beliefs.” “We have trouble digesting randomness,” he says, “our brains crave pattern and meaning,” implying that we use our own experiences or “anecdotes” to see pattern and meaning where there actually is none – insisting on believing things that are counter to the evidence.
I find Achenbach’s piece fascinating – well-written and persuasive, yet built upon logical inconsistencies and false assumptions that, taken together, make a better case against his thesis than for it – at least with regard to vaccine science. He quotes geophysicist Marcia McNutt, editor of Science magazine, as saying, “Science is not a body of facts. Science is a method for deciding whether what we choose to believe has a basis in the laws of nature or not.” And he himself claims, “Scientific results are always provisional, susceptible to being overturned by some future experiment or observation. Scientists rarely proclaim an absolute truth or absolute certainty. Uncertainty is inevitable at the frontiers of knowledge.”
Having studied science pretty intensively at Williams College, including a major in Physics and concentrations in Astronomy and Chemistry – there were semesters it felt like l lived in the science quad – I fully concur with these statements. Sitting through lecture after lecture laying out elaborate scientific theories that were once accepted and used to further scientific knowledge and then discarded when it became clear they did not account for all the available data, it would have been hard not to be aware that scientific results are provisional and subject to change when a more complete picture is developed. And indeed, information received by the Hubble Telescope and continuing work conducted by people like Stephen Hawking have changed the landscape in Astronomy and Physics rather dramatically since I graduated in 1983.
The episodic nature of scientific progress
In his 1962 seminal work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, philosopher Thomas Kuhn instigated a revolution of his own – in our understanding of how science and scientific understanding progress. Kuhn’s main idea was that science does not simply progress by the gradual accretion of knowledge but is instead more episodic in nature, characterized by periods of “normal science” — “puzzle-solving” that is guided by the prevailing scientific paradigm – punctuated by periods of intense “revolutionary science,” when the old paradigm gives way to a new paradigm that better explains the totality of observed phenomena. The old paradigm is never given up lightly or easily in the face of new evidence. In fact, an established paradigm is generally not abandoned until overwhelming evidence accumulates that the paradigm cannot account for all the observed phenomena in scientific research and an alternative credible hypothesis has been developed. Wikipedia summarizes it well,
As a paradigm is stretched to its limits, anomalies — failures of the current paradigm to take into account observed phenomena — accumulate. Their significance is judged by the practitioners of the discipline. . . But no matter how great or numerous the anomalies that persist, Kuhn observes, the practicing scientists will not lose faith in the established paradigm until a credible alternative is available; to lose faith in the solvability of the problems would in effect mean ceasing to be a scientist.
When The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was first published it garnered some controversy, according to Wikipedia, because of “Kuhn’s insistence that a paradigm shift was a mélange of sociology, enthusiasm and scientific promise, but not a logically determinate procedure.” Since 1962, though, Kuhn’s theory has become largely accepted and his book has come to be considered “one of “The Hundred Most Influential Books Since the Second World War,” according to the Times Literary Supplement and is taught in college history of science courses all over the country.
It would seem likely that a journalist writing a high-profile article on science for National Geographic would not only be aware of Kuhn’s work, but would also understand it well. Achenbach seems to understand the evolution of science as inherently provisional and subject to change when new information comes in, but then undercuts that understanding with the claim, “The media would also have you believe that science is full of shocking discoveries made by lone geniuses. Not so. The (boring) truth is that it usually advances incrementally, through the steady accretion of data and insights gathered by many people over many years.”
This statement is patently false. First off, the mainstream media tends to downplay, if not completely ignore, any contributions of “lone geniuses” to science, as exemplified by the 2014 Time magazine cover story proclaiming “Eat Butter! Scientists labeled fat the enemy. Why they were wrong.” Suddenly, everyone was reporting that consumption of fat, in general, and saturated fat, in particular, is not the cause of high serum cholesterol levels and is not in fact bad for you. “Lone geniuses” (also known as “quacks” in the parlance of the old paradigm) understood and accepted these facts 25-30 years ago and have been operating under a completely different paradigm ever since, but it wasn’t until 2014 that a tipping point occurred in mainstream medical circles and the mainstream media finally took note.
Secondly, “the steady accretion of data and insights gathered by many people over many years,” what Kuhn calls “normal science,” cannot by its nature bring about the biggest advancements in science – the scientific revolutions. Also from Wikipedia,
In any community of scientists, Kuhn states, there are some individuals who are bolder than most. These scientists, judging that a crisis exists, embark on what Thomas Kuhn calls revolutionary science, exploring alternatives to long-held, obvious-seeming assumptions. Occasionally this generates a rival to the established framework of thought. The new candidate paradigm will appear to be accompanied by numerous anomalies, partly because it is still so new and incomplete. The majority of the scientific community will oppose any conceptual change (emphasis mine), and, Kuhn emphasizes, so they should. To fulfill its potential, a scientific community needs to contain both individuals who are bold and individuals who are conservative. There are many examples in the history of science in which confidence in the established frame of thought was eventually vindicated. It is almost impossible to predict whether the anomalies in a candidate for a new paradigm will eventually be resolved.Those scientists who possess an exceptional ability to recognize a theory’s potential will be the first whose preference is likely to shift in favour of the challenging paradigm (emphasis mine). There typically follows a period in which there are adherents of both paradigms. In time, if the challenging paradigm is solidified and unified, it will replace the old paradigm, and a paradigm shift will have occurred.
That paradigm shift will usher in a scientific revolution resulting in an explosion of new ideas and new directions for research. Achenbach recognizes this tension between the bolder and more conservative scientists to a degree:
Even for scientists, the scientific method is a hard discipline. Like the rest of us, they’re vulnerable to what they call confirmation bias — the tendency to look for and see only evidence that confirms what they already believe. But unlike the rest of us, they submit their ideas to formal peer review before publishing them.
Scientific consensus relies heavily on the flawed process of peer review
Achenbach acknowledges that scientists are human beings and, as such, are subject to the very same biases and stresses to which other human beings are subject, but implies that those biases are somehow held in check by the magical process of peer review. What Achenbach fails to mention, however, is the fact that the process of peer review is hardly a “scientific” discipline itself. In fact, peer review is so imperfect in practice that Richard Smith, former editor of the prestigious British Medical Journal, described it this way in his 2006 article, “Peer review: a flawed process at the heart of science and journals”:
My point is that peer review is impossible to define in operational terms (an operational definition is one whereby if 50 of us looked at the same process we could all agree most of the time whether or not it was peer review). Peer review is thus like poetry, love, or justice. But it is something to do with a grant application or a paper being scrutinized by a third party — who is neither the author nor the person making a judgement (sic) on whether a grant should be given or a paper published. But who is a peer? Somebody doing exactly the same kind of research (in which case he or she is probably a direct competitor)? Somebody in the same discipline? Somebody who is an expert on methodology? And what is review? Somebody saying `The paper looks all right to me’, which is sadly what peer review sometimes seems to be. Or somebody pouring (sic) all over the paper, asking for raw data, repeating analyses, checking all the references, and making detailed suggestions for improvement? Such a review is vanishingly rare.
What is clear is that the forms of peer review are protean. Probably the systems of every journal and every grant giving body are different in at least some detail; and some systems are very different. There may even be some journals using the following classic system. The editor looks at the title of the paper and sends it to two friends whom the editor thinks know something about the subject. If both advise publication the editor sends it to the printers. If both advise against publication the editor rejects the paper. If the reviewers disagree the editor sends it to a third reviewer and does whatever he or she advises. This pastiche—which is not far from systems I have seen used—is little better than tossing a coin, because the level of agreement between reviewers on whether a paper should be published is little better than you’d expect by chance.
That is why Robbie Fox, the great 20th century editor of the Lancet, who was no admirer of peer review, wondered whether anybody would notice if he were to swap the piles marked `publish’ and `reject’. He also joked that the Lancet had a system of throwing a pile of papers down the stairs and publishing those that reached the bottom. When I was editor of the BMJ I was challenged by two of the cleverest researchers in Britain to publish an issue of the journal comprised only of papers that had failed peer review and see if anybody noticed. I wrote back `How do you know I haven’t already done it?’
In the introduction to their book Peerless Science, Peer Review and U.S. Science Policy, Daryl E. Chubin and Edward J. Hackett, lament
Peer review is not a popular subject. Scientists, federal program managers, journal editors, academic administrators and even our social science colleagues, become uneasy when it is discussed. This occurs because the study of peer review challenges the current state of affairs. Most prefer not to question the way things are done – even if at times those ways appear illogical, unfair and detrimental to the collective life of science and the prospects of one’s own career. Instead, it is more comfortable to defer to tradition, place faith in collective wisdom and hope that all shall be well.
In short, exactly what Achenbach does.
Problems with scientific research run much deeper than peer review
Dr. Marcia Angell, former editor-in-chief of the also-prestigious New England Journal of Medicine makes the case that the problems with scientific research, especially with respect to the pharmaceutical industry, go much deeper than peer review issues, however. In May 2000 she wrote an editorial in the NEJM that asked “Is Academic Medicine for Sale?” about the increasingly blurry lines between academic institutions (and their research) and the pharmaceutical companies that pay the bills. The editorial was prompted by a research article written by authors whose conflicts-of-interest disclosures were longer than the article itself. In 2005, Angell wrote The Truth About the Drug Companies: How They Deceive Us and What to Do About It, a book that Janet Maslin of The New York Timesdescribed as “a scorching indictment of drug companies and their research and business practices . . . tough, persuasive and troubling.”
What determines who will be among the bold scientists who usher in a paradigm shift and who will be the more conservative scientists opposing it? I submit that it is those very scientists who can extrapolate from their own experiences and observations, i.e. “anecdotes,” and synthesize them with their understanding of the scientific research to-date who possess the “exceptional ability to recognize a theory’s potential.” In other words, those who can take a step back from the “puzzle-solving” of “normal science” enough to see the bigger picture. Pediatric neurologist and Harvard researcher, Dr. Martha Herbert, describes this eloquently in her introduction to Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s book, Thimerosal: Let the Science Speak:
What is an error? Put simply, it is a mismatch between our predictions and the outcomes. Put in systems terms, an “error” is an action that looks like a success when viewed through a narrow lens, but whose disruptive additional effects become apparent when we zoom out.
Why do predictions fail to anticipate major complications? Ironically the exquisite precision of our science may itself promote error generation. This is because precision is usually achieved by ignoring context and all the variation outside of our narrow focus, even though biological systems in particular are intrinsically variable and complex rather than uniform and simple. In fact our brains utilize this subtlety and context to make important distinctions, but our scientific methods mostly do not. The problems that come back to bite us then come from details we didn’t consider.
Once an error is entrenched it can be hard to change course. The initial investment in the error, plus fear of the likely expense (both in terms of time and money) of correcting the error, as well as the threat of damage to the reputations of those involved — these all serve as deterrents to shifting course. Patterns of avoidance then emerge that interfere with free and unbiased conduct of scientific investigations and public discourse. But if the error is not corrected, its negative consequences will continue to accumulate. When change eventually becomes unavoidable, it will be a bigger, more complicated, and expensive problem to correct – with further delay making things still worse.
Personally, I think a large part of the brewing paradigm shift in medical science (which I expect to predominate in the near future) comes from the very tension that Herbert describes between the view of bodies, biological systems, as machines that respond predictably and reliably to a particular force or intervention and the view of bodies as “intrinsically variable and complex.” Virtually every area of biological research has identified outliers to every kind of treatment or intervention that are not explainable in terms of the old paradigm, arguing for a more individualized approach to medicine that takes the whole person into account. For instance, it is clear that most overweight people will lose weight on a high-protein/very low-carbohydrate diet such as Dr. Robert C. Atkinspromoted or the Paleo Diet that is all the current rage. What is not clear, however, is how an individual will feel on that diet, which feeling will determine to a large degree the overall outcome of the diet strategy. Some will feel fantastic, while others will feel like the cat’s dinner after it has been vomited up on the carpet. Logically, one can see that it doesn’t make sense to make both types of people conform to one type of diet. “One size” does not fit all. There are those who believe that all we need is more biological information about a particular system in order to reliably predict outcomes, but there is a good deal of evidence to show that this may never be the case as biological systems appear to be as susceptible to subtle energetic differences as they are to gross chemical and physical interventions. The old paradigm of body as predictable machine has no mechanism to account for the effectiveness of acupuncture on easing chronic pain or the difference thatgroup prayer can make in the length of a hospital stay. The biological sciences may be giving way to their own version of quantum theory, just as Newtonian physics had to.
Intuition as a characteristic of scientists who perform “revolutionary science”
The ability to “utilize this subtlety and context to make important distinctions” that Herbert describes constitutes the difference between the scientific revolutionaries and those who will continue defending an error until long past the point that it has been well and truly proven to be an error. It is an ability that Albert Einstein possessed to a larger degree than most. Einstein felt that “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.” And that “All great achievements of science must start from intuitive knowledge. I believe in intuition and inspiration . . . . At times I feel certain I am right while not knowing the reason.” Interestingly, another well-known scientist whom many consider to have been “revolutionary” was known to place a great deal of emphasis on intuition. Jonas Salk, the creator of the first inactivated polio vaccine to be licensed, even wrote a book called Anatomy of Reality: Merging Intuition and Reason.
Gavin de Becker, private security expert and author of the 1999 best-selling book The Gift of Fear, upended the prevailing idea that the eruption of violent behavior is inherently unpredictable by explaining how we can and do predict it with the use of intuition. Like Einstein and Salk, far from denigrating intuition as an irrational response based on “naïve beliefs,” de Becker considers intuition a valid form of knowledge that does not involve the conscious mind. He teaches people to recognize, honor and rely upon their intuition in order to keep themselves and their loved ones safe. In fact, if we could not do so and had to rely solely upon our conscious minds to protect us from danger, chances are very good human beings would no longer walk the earth.
Anenbach makes the argument that our intuition will lead us astray, encouraging men to get a prostate-specific antigen test, for instance, even though it’s no longer recommended because studies have shown that on a population level the PSA doesn’t increase the overall number of positive outcomes. But there are people whose first indication of prostate cancer was a high PSA result, and those people’s lives may have been saved due to having that test. Who is to say that the person requesting the test will not be among them? In other words, intuition is not necessarily wrong just because it encourages you to do something that is statistically out of the norm or has yet to be “proven” by science. Anenbach, says that
To be confident there’s a causal connection between the