Exposing PseudoAstronomy

November 30, 2011

A Follow-Up on How Science Works versus Creationism


Introduction

This is a short follow-up to my last post, “Mistakes in Science Apparently Means Creationism Is True.” In that fine piece of blogging, I talked some about how science is a process where we continually revise our knowledge based upon new observations and discoveries. Contrasted with creationism.

It was therefore apropos that I ran across this article on Ars Technica, “ How a collapsing scientific hypothesis led to a lawsuit and arrest .”

Article

The article in question was written by John Timmer, a faculty at Cornell Medical College. He got his Ph.D. in Molecular and Cell Biology (like my dad!) from University of California, Berkeley (not like my dad). So I’d say he’s reasonably qualified – while avoiding an argument from authority – to write about this topic.

In his article, Dr. Timmer tells the story of a small group of researchers thought they found a retrovirus associated with prostate cancer, and they later even linked it to people with chronic fatigue syndrome. I’m about as qualified to talk about medicine as any other lay person (so not much), but I can gather that this would be pretty darn important. A retroviral link means (a) a good test to see in who this may develop, and (b) a possible cure if we could get rid of that retrovirus. Their work was published in one of the two leading journals in the world, Science.

Then problems developed. I don’t want to take too much away from Dr. Timmer’s article, which I highly recommend reading. But, suffice to say, other people investigated these claims and tried to verify them. Nothing less than the country’s blood supply was actually at stake if their findings bore out. Problem was that no one could replicate them. And the main researcher’s (Judy Mikovits) co-authors started to walk away. Mikovits didn’t, ended up being fired for insubordination when refusing to share cell cultures as required, and then arrested for stealing her lab notebooks and other things.

So, as the title sums, a collapsing hypothesis led to a lawsuit and arrest, but also a good moment to illustrate how science works, especially in contrast with creationism.

How Science Works

Readers of my blog will recognize that I’ve said this before, but it’s important to get across. So I’ll try to shorten it this time. The scientific process requires duplication of findings. It requires testing of claims. It requires questioning and critiquing others’ results. It requires revision.

All of these requirements are how and why the process of science is incremental and self-correcting. Mikovits’ work made it into one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world. That does not mean everyone believed it nor that it meant it was “true.” Less than five years later, the paper has been retracted and the researcher has been pretty much disgraced in the scientific community and is facing significant legal issues due to misconduct and theft. The study was shown to be wrong. The scientific process is to thank for showing that.

(And now the obligatory “in contrast, creationism … .”) In contrast, creationism generally requires putting your fingers in your ears and shouting, “La-la-la, I can’t hear you!” when something contradicts their favored position. Or, they will accept the latest study whole-heartedly if it fits their paradigm, but not admit it was wrong if later retracted or shown to be wrong or misunderstood. I pointed to Earth’s magnetic field strength last time, this time I’ll choose comets and simply link to my blog (here, or here), or podcast (here).

Final Thoughts

Perhaps the worst part of the story in question is that a whole new subset of medical pseudoscience has cropped up because of Mikovits’ work. Before she came along, no people suffering from these really thought there was a retrovirus cause. Now some do, and “alternative” practitioners offer to test them for the non-existent retrovirus or offer antiretroviral agents as “cures.” Even though it’s now come out that the original study was simply wrong. But, unfortunately, that doesn’t change things once the idea is out there.

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