Joe Schwarcz: Not all facts are created equal

pentagonI often ask myself questions. “Is that a fact?” is perhaps the one that crops up most frequently. That’s because no day goes by without someone soliciting my opinion about an item they have come across on the web, read in some publication, seen on TV or heard from a friend. Here’s a sampling:

“The Pentagon is developing a virus that can be spread in the Middle East to prevent people from developing extreme religious views.” “Aspartame causes multiple sclerosis.” “Surgical dilation of veins that drain blood from the brain cures multiple sclerosis.” “Radiation from the Fukushima accident in Japan is killing North Americans.” “A Himalayan salt bath removes toxins from the body.” “Colon cleansing removes toxins from the body.” “Titanium dioxide in cheese causes cancer.” “Drinking alkaline water cures cancer.” “Our Creator made a perfect food in the super-grain, Salvia Hispanica.” “Eating any grain destroys your brain.” “Gluten causes autism.” “Vaccines cause autism.” “Global warming is based on erroneous data.” “Evolution is just a theory.” “Genetically modified crops kill bees.” “Cellphones kill bees.” “Neonicotinoid insecticides kill bees.” “The peer-reviewed literature is often faulty.”

So, are these facts? No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, maybe, yes.

The next question of course is, “How do I know?”

Indeed, how do we know anything when it comes to science? There’s no simple answer, because we rely on a combination of experience, plausibility based on established principles and, of course, peer-review. The latter is widely regarded as the cornerstone for building scientific knowledge, but the reliability of the system is increasingly being called into question. In the peer-review process, an editor sends a submitted paper to usually two or three “peers” who are experts in the field. They come back with criticisms, requests for revision and sometimes even ask for parts of the work to be repeated. The identity of the reviewers is not revealed to the authors of the paper.

After some back and forth, often some rewriting, the paper is published if the editorial staff is convinced the reviewers’ comments have been properly addressed. While top notch journals such as Science, Nature, The Lancet and The New England Journal of Medicine can in general be trusted for publishing papers that have been extensively reviewed by highly competent experts, faulty or fraudulent research can still slip through. That was the case with Andrew Wakefield’s notorious 1998 paper in The Lancet alleging a cause and effect relationship between vaccines and autism. In contrast to these top tier publications, the world is now flooded with less rigorous “open access” journals that are available to all without a subscription. All expenses are paid up front by the researchers who would like to see their work in print.

Many of these journals have questionable peer-review processes, as has now been exquisitely pointed out by a purposely flaw-ridden paper submitted to 255 open access journals to gauge how many would publish it uncritically. A frightening 157 accepted it for publication! It seems if you don’t pay for a subscription, you can’t get the same quality. Of course it would have been interesting to submit the spoof paper to top notch journals to see how many of those would reject it. Dr. John Ioannidis, a study design expert at Stanford University, believes that many lower tier traditional journals would also have been taken in by the hoax and that a large percentage of all published studies are at least somewhat unreliable. Nevertheless they get referenced and get woven into the fabric of science. That’s why many pet theories can be backed up by cherry-picking peer-reviewed references.

In science we don’t cherry pick. We shake the tree, collect all the cherries, mash them together and then taste. And that’s just what we have asked our speakers at this year’s Lorne Trottier Science Symposium to do. They are all experts at shaking. The above mentioned Ioannidis is a professor of medicine at Stanford whose paper on Why Most Published Research Findings are False has been the most-accessed article in the history of the Public Library of Science. He has been dubbed by the prestigious Atlantic magazine as “one of the most influential scientists alive.”

Timothy Caulfield is a Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta whose book, The Cure for Everything: Untangling the Twisted Messages about Health, Fitness and Happiness, is an entertaining and highly informative romp through the battlefield where good and bad science are engaged in fierce combat.

Dr. Eugenie Scott is an anthropologist who has forged a remarkable career as executive director of the National Center for Science Education in the U.S. with a particular specialty in explaining evolution to the public. She contends that proponents of antievolutionism and climate change denial use remarkably similar approaches to promote their views.

And speaking of denial, we come to Michael Specter, famed staff writer for the New Yorker and author of the bestseller Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives. Specter is also well-known for his detailed profiles of such celebrities as Lance Armstrong and Dr. Mehmet Oz. He is troubled by the fact that rapid technological advances have been met not just with skepticism but with denialism. No matter how powerful the data, people refuse to accept facts they don’t happen to like while accepting myths they like as facts.

No reservations, but early birds do get the best seats. Don’t expect, however, to be privy to any magical revelations about optimizing your health or eliminating scientific illiteracy. There aren’t any. But do expect a highly entertaining and educational evening as our speakers sift fact from myth, while recognizing that any conclusion is open to change as new knowledge accumulates. Science is not a collection of unalterable truths and certainty is elusive. And that’s a fact!

The symposium takes place at the Centre Mont Royal, 1000 Sherbrooke St. W., at Mansfield St. Scott and Specter speak on Monday starting at 5:30 p.m.; Ioannidis and Caulfield speak on Tuesday, also at 5:30 p.m. Q&A follows the presentations. Details: www.mcgill.ca/science/events/trottier-symposium.

 

Joe Schwarcz

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