Question: What do the following items have in common?
- Microwave ovens
- In-vitro fertilisation
- Washing hands before treating patients
- Genetically modified foods
Answer: They were all once feared.
Fridges: Before the advent of the now-banned CFCs a leaking fridge could kill. To this day, people fear silly things about fridges, like the “dangers” of something as harmless as banana skins turning brown. Refrigeration has saved countless otherwise unsuspecting lives from the very real danger of fatal food poisoning.
Microwaves: Microwave ovens, cellphones and WiFi all use electromagnetic radiation and so have been subject to irrational fears about causing cancer.
Fear, of itself, is not a bad thing as fear is often a catalyst for self-preservation. Stand too close to a snake or the edge of a building and you’ll probably experience a little fear. Move a little closer and your mind will demand you move back, but that’s healthy as another step forward could be disastrous.
When fears become irrational, though, they are extremely damaging. It’s OK to have concerns about a technology like microwave ovens or cellphones or genetically modified foods or whatever, the key is to seek unbiased scientific research to see if that concern is warranted or not.
In-vitro fertilisation: When IVF came out in the 1970s, critics said it was “unnatural,” which is interesting as this position is based on the overly simplistic assumption is that “natural” is always good, therefore “unnatural” is bad. There’s a slight problem with this idea, though, as there’s plenty of “natural” substances that can kill you; cyanide, botulism, the vast majority of mushrooms, etc.
And once you realize how little, real “natural” food there is in the world (ie, food that hasn’t been modified by mankind through selective breeding), you see through this myth quite quickly. Certainly, there is a distinction between processed and unprocessed foods that generally correlates to how healthy foods are, but the term “natural” should be used with caution as it is often misleading.
When it comes to IVF, critics feared children produced by this “unnatural” means would have horrible birth defects, higher rates of cancer as well as other diseases, and that they would die young. IVF, we were told, would destroy the family as the unit of society. To this day, the Roman Catholic church still considers IVF “morally unacceptable,” which says far more about the Roman Catholic church than it does about IVF.
Vaccinations: Vaccines are wonderful Essentially, vaccines provide target practice for your immune system. By providing weakened or dead forms of a particular microbe, toxin or its proteins the body’s own immune system is taught how to defeat a deadly pathogen before being exposed to the potentially crippling or fatal microbe in the wild.
UNICEF estimates that vaccines save nine million lives every year. Even diseases like measles, that seem petty from our Western perspective, kill over a million children each year. These deaths are entirely preventable through the widespread adoption of vaccination.
Fear has been described as False Evidence Appearing Real, and nowhere could that be any more true than in the case of a parent’s fear of vaccines.
Worse still, Muslim extremists recently murdered aid-workers providing life-saving polio vaccinations to children in Pakistan. Stupidity like this is enough to make you wonder which century you’re living in, as such irrational behaviour should have disappeared with the Dark Ages.
Washing hands: As for washing hands, how could that be controversial?
Who could object to such a simple act of hygiene being conducted by doctors and nurses? Well, pretty much the entire medical profession of Europe in the mid 1800s!
When Dr Semmelweis first proposed that disease was spread within hospitals by unclean hands he was ridiculed by the medical establishment. Even after he demonstrated the value of washing hands in slightly-chlorinated water and accurately recorded a massive drop in death rates within his wards, the idea of hand washing was still belittled as unscientific.
Semmelweis came to his conclusion in Europe more than a decade before the American Civil War where 65% of casualties died from infection (primarily due to poor hygiene in field hospitals). More Americans died in the Civil War than in all other wars combined, and yet most of those deaths could have been prevented with the simplest of hygienic measures had the message of Semmelweis been heeded.
Call me paranoid, but hospital hygiene is still a major concern today. The US Dept of Health and Human Services considers hospital infections in the top 10 killers in the US, with upwards of a hundred thousand needless deaths per year. The availability of hand sanitizers in patient rooms/wards should reverse this trend, but recent stats are hard to find.
Anyway, as you can see, the debate is over.
The debate is over in terms of washing hands. The debate is over when it comes to refrigerators, microwaves, vaccinations and IVF. And yet, that’s not the whole story.
Science demands transparency. Science demands honesty. When it comes to science, neither you nor I have the luxury of picking and choosing the results we want.
Yes, the debate is over, but only at the level of general acceptance. When it comes to vaccines and IVF, or even microwaves and fridges, good science continues to examine the evidence. After all, that’s what led to the ban on CFCs that, for half a century, seemed like such a good idea. CFCs were a great idea for mankind, but not for the environment as they damaged the ozone layer, and science exposed that. The same is true when it comes to developing new vaccines or new treatments in IVF. Each of these needs to be tested, but the overall concept is sound.
And so, on one hand, the debate is over. On the other, it’s just beginning. If you like, the subject has changed. Instead of looking to validate these concepts, the debate has shifted to efficacy.
When it comes to genetically modified foods, the debate about the validity of the concept is also over. But that doesn’t mean blind acceptance of GMO, this debate has shifted to one of efficacy and implementation.
Earlier this month, I posted the transcript of a speech by Mark Lynas called “The debate is over,” taking the title from his comments, but really the title should have been “The debate is complex, but proceeding well.”
There’s a danger in over-simplistic statements, and yet there is a need to move beyond the question of accepting GMO to how it can be regulated properly and used in the best interests of not only humanity but nature itself.
Good science is about examining the evidence objectively and without bias. Sounds easy, but more often than not the toughest part of science is found in removing the human element.
One helpful tool in this regard is meta-analysis, that is, the analysis of the scientific analysis of a concept. In other words, watching the watchmen, policing the police.
A recent meta-analysis of breast cancer trials exposed a worrying bias toward whitewashing results.
- 1/3 of the breast cancer trials under examination did not show a statistically significant outcome for the treatment under investigation but still reported as positive based on secondary benefits, ie. The therapy didn’t increase longevity but patients had less side-effects than those undergoing standard treatments
- 2/3 of trials reported adverse side-effects but under-reported the extent of these side-effects when the treatment was deemed effective
- Over half of the papers focused on other, less important aspects of the trial so as to appear to have a positive outcome
It’s tempting to hear something like this and think the results were massaged because of funding concerns, but the analysis showed this trend occurred for trials conducted by academic institutions and the medical industry.
In those with outcomes that were either negative or did not show a statistically significant benefit, spin was used frequently to influence positively the interpretation of the results
No one likes to fail or look bad. And yet in science null outcomes are entirely acceptable and should be applauded. You can learn as much by observing what doesn’t work as you can by tracking what does, but spin obscures reality, and that’s never good for science.
As these were phase III clinical trials, researches must have felt compelled to find “something” to justify why the trial had advanced through phases I & II, but they should have had the courage to stop the bandwagon.
Meta-analysis is an exciting field of research. In essence it looks for trends and patterns in how scientists report their results, looking for inconsistencies and human biases that obscure the real outcome.
Naomi Oreskes’ book Merchants of Doubt is a landmark work in this regard, revealing how a handful of dissenting scientists fraudulently undermined the science of climate change, instilling doubt rather than debate.
Oreskes’ meta-analysis revealed disturbing patterns of circular references, things like the Heritage Foundation would cite the Competitive Enterprise Institute who quoted the Marshall Institute, only all three organisations had the same founders and, on close examination, the Marshall Institute was found to be citing the Heritage Foundation to start with, bringing the illusion full circle.
Honesty and transparency are not optional in science.
When it comes to genetically modified foods there’s a need for good science to prevail. Commercial considerations must be secondary to the interests of the planet as a whole, but this is promising technology.
They say, fire is a good servant, a lousy master, and the same is true of genetic engineering. I’d like to see meta-analysis conducted on GMO research, but I’m not afraid of genetic modifications, as we’ve been modifying the genes within our foods for thousands of years.
Perhaps Dr Karl Kruszelnicki’s response to a question about GMO is the best answer of all.