This slightly dated story is a good one for all time – and, especially, it is a good excuse for comments on our dystopian times of confusion. It is the story of Sir Richard Doll.
The first two paragraphs of the article set the stage (click here for more on this subject):
‘Cancer research hero Sir Richard Doll was lauded for being instrumental in discovering the connection between smoking and lung cancer. With a knighthood, an Oxford University building devoted to cancer research named after him within his lifetime, freedom of the city of Oxford, a seemingly unassailable reputation and international awards falling to him, Doll dominated the UK cancer epidemiology scene for more than 50 years.’
‘But two scientific papers, “The Causes of Cancer: Quantitative Estimates of Avoidable Risks of Cancer in the United States Today,” […] which he wrote with Professor Richard Peto and “Effects of exposure to vinyl chloride. An assessment of the evidence”, […] which he wrote alone have long been regarded by leading scientists in Sir Richard Doll’s field as using evidence which might be deemed to massively underplay the risks by using parameters which are seemingly obviously wrong.’
Today wanting to have one’s cake and eat it too has become a veritable intellectual epidemic. More or less explicitly, we claim that we have surpassed beliefs and superstitions and that our actions – and policies – are established on the basis of science. What a comfortable and self-deceiving thought.
Doll’s story is a confirmation of the self-deception, for in reality we call “science” only those data or conclusions that suit our preconceived beliefs. The rest becomes junk science, or corruption. In the past, war and other animosities where the consequence of the idea that “my god is better than yours” — where God was representing a set of philosophies, values and pre-conceptions summed up in the word “belief”. Today doctors and epidemiologists "speak for God" instead of priests and popes; but then as now, factions fight each other on the grounds of whose god is better or more truthful.
What to do when a god has his shoes in both fields? This seems to be the case of Sir Richard Doll, who "discovered" the statistical link between smoking and cancer (although he actually swiped the epidemiology from the Nazis who did it long before him to suit their own health-related beliefs), although Doll (like anyone else to date) could not scientifically prove any causality. Since the belief that “smoking is bad for you” was already there (and an explanation for lung cancer was badly needed), Doll became a national hero. Like all heroes, his reputation had to be pristine so that his word could be nothing but the truth. In spite of that, he was totally ignored when he said that he would not have any problem being surrounded by environmental smoke, as the clear implication was that the fears about passive smoking had no foundation. That was some sort of a minor transgression, however, that could be “forgiven” in light of the "good" that he did to humanity by confirming the belief that “smoking is bad”.
In the meantime, epidemiology – a "soft science" by definition because it can NEVER establish causality – was already brought to the level of "hard science" to suit the belief.
But something happened that was unfixable: “god” used the same (junk) science to go against another belief – that concerning the harms of asbestos. This incredibly useful substance, employed for 20 centuries since the time of Rome, became another tobacco because of statistical associations with an increased number of cancers amongst those who worked to extract it, and thus they were intensively exposed to it. That of course is not the exposure that every-day people get. In fact, their exposure would be millions of times less; but, as we know, if 1,000 grams of a substance kill you, one gram will kill you 1,000 times less – but death is death regardless of the quantity! So the substance was banned – and ditto for vinyl chloride.
Just as happened for tobacco, society decided to believe that ANY amount of those substances was a killer – real science be damned! – and anyone who said differently just belonged to either jails or funny farms. Indeed, the article we are linked to explains how Doll intentionally excluded entire age ranges and, to add insult to injury, ‘asbestos exposure danger was what he termed "a pretty outside chance."’ In terms of every day exposure, he was absolutely right – but that was not what activists wanted to hear. And, worst of all, Doll got money from the chemical industry! Clearly, the power of guesses and the influence of opinions changes with the funding source that we do not like.
Let’s pull it all together and see the logic of this.
· Doll became a god when he validated the belief that “smoking causes cancer” without ever being able to prove it scientifically. One of his last public appearances was before a Scottish High Court, when he could not convince judge Nimmo Smith that smoking causes cancer (click here to read the entire decision). That decision, of course, was quickly buried by the international media because contrary to the widespread belief and against the political agenda of social control (and pharmaceutical marketing) of the ministries of “health”.
· Although still a god, Doll was ignored when he said that passive smoking is an insignificant danger for the health of non smokers, as that did not suit agendas and beliefs – although it did not go directly against the main antismoking agenda.
· The god fell from the sky altogether when he used the same statistical junk science and manipulations he used for smoking and cancer, but this time to exonerate asbestos-related cancer – and thus he went directly against another predetermined set of beliefs (‘asbestos kills, always’). That was simply unforgivable.
· Doll was a god when he catered to the beliefs on smoking and a “clean” god to boot, because he took his money from public institutions. The implication is that public institutions are honest, clean, unbiased and only interested in the truth. They are credible because they are always keen to promote prohibition and regulation — even in the absence of hard scientific evidence: prudence first of all, regardless of the cost! It follows that a scientist who gets dough from the state directly or indirectly is a “clean” scientist as he gets “clean” money – and once again caters to predominant popular beliefs, fears and paranoia.
· As we said, Doll became a demon when he used the statistical trash science for asbestos the other way around – and got private money. It follows that a scientist who gets dough from private entities directly or indirectly is a “dirty” scientist because he gets “dirty” money – and he usually does not cater to popular beliefs, hysteria and paranoia.
· Public money is “clean” because it is dispensed by bureaucrats who are most often incompetent beside being personally lobbied and influenced by private interests such as those of Big Pharma. Conversely, private money is “dirty” because it comes from private interests such as those of Big Tobacco or Big Chemicals, the latter being Big Pharma ‘s unlucky twin.
· Private is “bad”, public is “good”. Nothing new here, as any good Communist can confirm. Ergo, science is “science” only when financed by public money, and caters to both the predominant opinion and special agendas of the activists that push them. Please note that healthists and environmentalists call that “common sense”.
There is a mechanism to prevent all that. It is called REAL hard science; that is, verifiable, quantifiable, measurable, empirical and repeatable experimentation. Repeatable experimentation means that the hypotheses must yield predictable/reproducible results. In science, something is not true until it is demonstrated according to those parameters. Anything else remains possible and should be explored – but, until it is demonstrated, is called an unknown.
Such mechanism, however, is no longer acceptable: we don’t want to wait for science to tell us what’s true and what’s not: we don’t have time for that – we have to act on our paranoia and agendas now, before it’s too late!! We therefore want “science” to confirm what we have already decided to believe. Thus, multifactor epidemiological trash becomes science – but not when it does not suit our beliefs – hence the need to adopt “elastic” political and ethical rules!
Now, is that sick… or is that sick? Make up your mind: if multifactorial epidemiology is trash science, then it is so for everything – including smoking. If it is not, then it is so for everything – including asbestos or whatever is in the political target today. If public funding is the only way for a scientist’s work to be credible, so be it; but, in that case, NO STUDY should even be published unless is publicly funded. While that would not speak for free scientific enquiry and intellectual freedom, at least it would speak for coherence. In that case, however, the constellation of Big Pharma financed studies should disappear from scientific journals as well.
In summation, are we talking about science, or are we catering to public prejudice? There is no doubt in our minds: today we are catering to beliefs.
But then, what do we need science for?… After all, the Middle Ages did not need any; but they did not claim to be a “scientific” society, either.
Gods and demons are still with us.