Monday, July 18, 2011

Reversals of consensus in medical science

My so-far fruitless quest continues for precedent to the denialist claim of incompetence and corruption in climate science. Some skeptics rely on the Galileo Fallacy - "people laughed at Galileo, people are laughing at me, therefore I am Galileo". Others try and find a more reasonable precedent in the last several centuries, and look to medical science as an example.


So there's an interesting blog post on a paper (the paper's behind a paywall, sadly) on medical retractions, claiming a 13% reversal rate on prior consensus for medical practices. To me, that's kind of high and uncomfortable in thinking about medicine, but its application as precedent doesn't quite work. First, these are claims of reversal, not a broad acceptance that the previous consensus was incorrect. And we're talking about consensus that e.g., a previous surgical practice was helpful when a new study contradicts it, a relatively technical level of detail in medical science. Claims that adding CO2 doesn't warm the planet is closer to contradicting germ theory in medical science, a fundamental consensus that hasn't been overturned.

The paper author also thinks the time interval for reversals to occur is about a decade. The modern consensus on climate goes back at least to the mid-1980s, or late-1800s if you consider the basic science. No precedent here. (UPDATE: per the comments, no consensus in the 1800s on the human effect, but there was a consensus about greenhouse gases and CO2. See the link for more info.)

Skeptics have used ulcers as one example of consensus reversal. It would be interesting to see whether the previous belief that stress caused ulcers was a best guess rather than a foundational theory in medicine. More to the point, though, what does a denialist with an ulcer do for treatment today? I suspect the smarter ones usually rely on consensus, rather than make "argument from authority" statements and attempt to rethink medical science for themselves. When you're looking to take action or make policy, trying to cast aside consensus and reinvent science on your own isn't likely to lead to a happy outcome.

So the quest continues.

35 comments:

Anonymous said...

May be of relevance? http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jul/15/bad-science-studies-show-we-get-things-wrong

OT. Whilst looking for that I found this :) http://www.badscience.net/2011/06/kids-who-spot-bullshit-and-the-adults-who-get-upset-about-it/

AnonySpilopsyllus

Paul Daniel Ash said...

"But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown." Carl Sagan (h/t shewonk)

Anonymous said...

I feel like plate tectonics is perhaps the best pseudo-relevant example that I've seen contrarians throw up...

but yes, for 99% of my daily needs, I go to the consensus.

-M

dhogaza said...

"It would be interesting to see whether the previous belief that stress caused ulcers was a best guess rather than a foundational theory in medicine."

Remember that while Helicobacter pylori causes the majority of ulcers, there are still a significant percentage of ulcers which aren't associated with being infected by Helicobacter pylori.

So the "overturning of consensus" was significant but partial, and the fact that conventional explanations that relate back to excess stomach acid (not stress per se), excess consumption of drugs like aspirin, etc do explain *some* ulcers helped to mask the discovery of the infectious cause.

Because if you think about it, explanations that fit a subset of cases are in some ways worse than explanations that can be rejected with 100% confidence.

Marion Delgado said...

Really good post, Eli.

Anonymous said...

there is a Spanish denier that often uses the example of Helicobacter. I thought it was his', (he says so) but now I realize it is common in other places. He is not original neither in that.

mickey-minnie

Anonymous said...

Actually, Arrhenius's theory was almost immediately rejected on the now familiar grounds that the CO2 bands he implicated would almost immediately become saturated. And that view was the consensus for around 50 years. Even after it became apparent that the saturation of the bands wouldn't prevent global warming, you really couldn't say that AGW became the consensus view until the issue became notorious in the press in the 70s and 80s.

My favorite rejection of the medical consensus is in the Woody Allen movie Sleepers where the men of the future are shocked to discover that Allen's character had avoided fried foods and saturated fat.

Jeffrey Davis

Greg said...

Worse than strictly medical research reversals are "nutrition science" reversals. Like "fat is bad", then "fat is good"...
The trick here is multifold. First a lot of what people think they know about nutrition has been exaggerated or distorted by the press (i.e. has the legitimacy of the so-called 1970's global cooling). Next, a large amount of nutrition science has been funded by large agribusiness, with predictable biases. Third, it's just not a mature science.

I realize this isn't what Eli was asking, but it's handy to have thought about prior to the next time some denier says we don't understand the climate because the government just revised the food pyramid again.

carrot eater said...

Two of you appear to think this was written by Eli.

I provide two hints:
- it is signed by somebody else
- it isn't endearingly (or hopelessly, pick your carrot) obfuscated.

EliRabett said...

Eli's posts are learning experiences.

Brian said...

Jeff Davis - I think the wiki article I linked to has it right, when it described the first 50 years after Arrhenius as "controversy and disinterest" rather than consensus against Svante. Mostly I don't think climatologists paid the idea much attention, and he did get some support, e.g. Guy Stewart Callendar. I agree though that consensus that our changes to CO2 overwhelm other forcings appeared in the 1980s.

JCH said...

Next they'll be telling me I don't have to drink 9 glasses of, oh, sorry, I gotta go.

Anonymous said...

That stress caused ulcers was never a dominent 'theory' - it was more the fall back best guess.

The cause of some ulcers was known to be NSAIDS, but the overall aiteology was considered to be uncertain.

Part of the problem for the H. pylori explanation to be acceptedd was that a lot of people have H. pylori but only some get an ulcer

And it was eventually proven via real science, not blog-science.


Anonymous Etc.

Anonymous said...

"Arrhenius's theory was almost immediately rejected on the now familiar grounds that the CO2 bands he implicated would almost immediately become saturated."

The other half of the argument to ignore CO2 was the theory that humans couldn't contribute much to CO2 rise. That was firmly debunked in the 1950s, first in the seminal Revelle & Suess paper where they laid out all the necessary science to understand why CO2 could have a short residence time but a long perturbation lifetime but weren't quite able to accept their own conclusions, and a year later by Bolin & Eriksson (I think?).

-M

Greg said...

Sorry Brian - I must have not noticed when posts other than Eli's started showing up ... is this now officially a group blog, or is it just the occasional guest post?

Anonymous said...

Snow Bunny says:

The first satellite expedition to Venus in the mid-60s showed high temperatures, 743F degrees. A few scientists knew 'greenhouse gasses' caused it; most geophysicists and geologists seemed not to have heard of them before. After that, the possibility of global warming due to adding CO2 was understood throughout the space sciences community, although at that CO2 emissions were much less.

The use of changes in medical 'science' consensuses to debunk physical science is just egregious. Many fields in medicine were not soundly developed until recently decades; ignorance was filled in with 'old doctors tales'. I should point out (with some bitterness) they didn't even get gestation length of human babies right until a decade or two ago. Many women went past their 'due' dates and the doctors didn't even notice the statistics for 2000 years.

It is harder to sort out medical cause and effect than in most physical sciences, including climate science. Laboratory experiments in physical science are readily conclusive (forgetting the Milliken oil drop experiment). Not so easy to replicate the conditions in the human tummy in a flask! There seem to have been some awful blind spots in medicine. Not until this decade has serious study of the effects of head injuries on affect and behavior been undertaken.

The continental drift controversy in geology, finally resolved by geophysicists with plate tectonics, is more of an American phenomenon, or so I was told. The American schools trained geologists that only crackpots believed in continental drift. Why, I don't know. The Europeans were not so adamant. Geology half a century ago was focussed on local features; you learned to analyze a small area in depth but the only guiding principle was Uniformitarianism.

I think deniers should be roasted for comparing physics and chemistry to medicine. It's apples and oranges. The continental drift example is a case of a physical science that was off-track for too long, but it is a rare example. I can't think of another. Normally, there are controversies at the boundaries of physical science, settled by more data. The science from Newton's time is a correct as when Newton played with a prism.

EliRabett said...

Greg, sort of, but Eli has to encourage Brian and John to write harder so he can retire.

bigcitylib said...

The Pre-Clovis debate in Archealogy may fit the bill a little closer. Dillehay has claimed that he was denied gigs at conferences and overlooked for appointments because of his work at the Monte Verde site, and others who argued for PreC dates in America have made similar complaints. Although here again the "consensus" that was eventually overturned was apparently restricted to the U.S. Getting PreC claimes into European journals was supposed to have been quite a bit easier.

dhogaza said...

Snow Bunny:

"The continental drift controversy in geology, finally resolved by geophysicists with plate tectonics, is more of an American phenomenon, or so I was told. The American schools trained geologists that only crackpots believed in continental drift."

Note, though, that the Americans were right because "continental drift" as proposed was physically impossible.

Once the mid-atlantic rift was found and plate tectonics put together as a theory - and AFAIK american geologists were a big part of it - resistance folded.

It's actually as though it were initially proposed that stress (continental drift) accounted for ulcers (the jigsaw-puzzle fitness of the shapes of the continents) was overturned by the fact that infection (plate tectonics) inferred by observation overturned the earlier hypothesis.

Rattus Norvegicus said...

dhogaza,

John McPhee's "Assembling California" has a good look at this story. Well worth the read, but I assume you are familiar with his work.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Jay Cadbury, phd.

I know you have great fear of Monckton, which is why you only take cheap shots at him behind a computer screen and never dare go head to head against him in public, but I was wondering if you saw his recent debate in Australia?

In case you didn't, he absolutely ripped your boy to shreds. Frankly, I am a little surprised at how fast you guys cut and run. Keep it up though and you will always being known as a big talker with no action. I'll bet the farm on Monckton versus anyone, including Hansen and Santer.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Jay Cadbury, phd.

@Dhogaza
Doubt you will respond to me because you consistently duck and cover when you see my name appear but how about the case of John Harrison?
The consensus was that he was wrong for half his life. Now gee, I wonder if the "consensus" was doing that out of fact or because they wanted to cash in on the money for making a device that measures longitude.

Furthermore, will you admit that we are below average levels of co2 and below the GAT? I doubt you will, coward.

EliRabett said...

Hmm, Eli understands that Wiley loves candy bars.

J Bowers said...

If Monckton had won a debate before an AGU meeting audience I'd genuinely be impressed. I hear Monckton might need a new logo after the clerk of the parliaments handed him his ass in a sling with a cease and desist. Perhaps Jay could help him out with that, he being such an admirer.

shewonk said...

"I suspect the smarter ones usually rely on consensus, rather than make "argument from authority" statements and attempt to rethink medical science for themselves. When you're looking to take action or make policy, trying to cast aside consensus and reinvent science on your own isn't likely to lead to a happy outcome."

Quit using reason to refute hogwash! It hurts the skeptics' brains.

dhogaza said...

Dr. J 'Cadbury":

"I know you have great fear of Monckton, which is why you only take cheap shots at him behind a computer screen and never dare go head to head against him in public"

I've watched Dr J and you're no Dr J, and ...

Australia's passing its carbon tax, thank you very much.

Grand victory for the Discount Viscount!

How you think people fear this turd who is likely to end up in a criminal trial in the UK if he keeps up his false claims of having a seat in the House of Lords, is beyond me.

dhogaza said...

Cadbury, so-called PhD:


"Doubt you will respond to me because you consistently duck and cover when you see my name appear but how about the case of John Harrison? The consensus was that he was wrong for half his life."

It was an engineering problem, and in the end, his engineering solution won the day.

What does this have to do with science of any kind?

He built clocks, and they could be measured, and eventually he won the engineering race.

But there was no science involved, it was all about engineering design and manufacture.

Lord grant us opponents with greater intellect than Cadbury, so-called PhD.

Marion Delgado said...

I wonder how Monckton supporters sort out all his claims? Do they think they're ALL true? or do they have some methodology for ranking them in order of credibility? If Monckton's cured cancer and AIDS and so on, why do they persist? How'd he make money in probabilistic combinatorics? If he means his Eternity puzzle (Eternity ended early), how's it probabilistic? If he's in the House of Lords, why's the House of Lords say he's not? And we could go on and on.

Jay Cadbury's crackpot index is consistently quite high, mostly for the "I bet this won't be posted, cowards" nature of his posted comments. Very appropriate for a discussion on Google Galileos.

This is fairly deranged: "Furthermore, will you admit that we are below average levels of co2 and below the GAT? I doubt you will, coward."

Anonymous said...

Dr. Jay Cadbury, phd.

@Dhogaza

Right it was entirely an engineering problem and it had nothing to do with the reward sum of half a king’s ransom. You missed my point, it’s about the money. The scientists you are supporting stand to lose tons of money if they’re wrong. The skeptics have nothing to gain, which is why I trust them. Well, that and I think the top ones are smarter people. When it’s officially announced global warming is a hoax, some oil baron isn’t going to come along and hand them a big bag of money.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Jay Cadbury, phd.

@shewonk

You can keep talking about the science all you want. Congratulations, you have 5-10 far left activist scientists who have co-opted the peer review journals, way to go. You’re just some stupid girl with a bleeding heart mentality. I bet I could sell you some magic beans for the fatted calf, lady. I’ll put a green box outside my house and you can put money in it to help fight global warming. I call it the stupid tax. The stupider you are, the more you pay. Here’s all the science we need to know that none of you has the guts to admit.

1. Earth is below its average temperature.
2. Earth is below its average atmospheric levels of co2.
3. It’s a fact that since the temperature has been higher and the storms worse, you have no way of distinguishing between a human cause and a natural one.

Any of you care to explain why you keep lying and claim the world is warming? And if you want to trot out the “trendy trend” argument, the last 40 million years the trend was cooling. I don’t think a warming trend from 1800 or 1850 or wherever you want to start cancels out a 40 million year trend, so sorry.

toto said...

Dr Cadbury/Shoosh has apparently found a new playground to mess with.

The scientists you are supporting stand to lose...


... not a single penny, since they're mostly tenured professors, i.e. the closest thing you can get to "unmoveable" without actually being a mountain.

Mark said...

"The skeptics have nothing to gain, which is why I trust them." Bahahahahaha! As has been documented here, and at Shewonk's blog, and numerous other blogs, many "skeptics" are indeed lining their pockets with money that is either directly from the fossil fuel industry or funneled (laundered?) through such "think tanks" as the Heartland Institute, AEI, CEI, etc. Nothing to gain, indeed.

J Bowers said...

"The skeptics have nothing to gain, which is why I trust them."

You should change your name to Mark.

990 Finder. Go fishing. Start with Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide.

Paul Daniel Ash said...

"if you want to trot out the “trendy trend” argument, the last 40 million years the trend was cooling."

Even better: if you want to go back four billion years or so, surface temperature was a LOT hotter...

Andrew said...

I feel like plate tectonics is perhaps the best pseudo-relevant example that I've seen contrarians throw up... but yes, for 99% of my daily needs, I go to the consensus. -M