Friday 4 September 2015


I'm a scientist, I've spent a lifetime pushing the frontiers and am now teaching our students in The Institute to critically evaluate data, to assemble evidence before taking a position, analyse accurately.  It's not in the job description, but I do my best to help them polish up their crap-detectors and examine their own prejudice and unconsidered certainties.

Last Summer, I put my oar in on an Italian controversy where science, politics, stem-cells and personalities were stirred together into a rather unpleasant brew, the whiff of which spread round the scientific world.  Nature took up a position because it was one the two principal authoritative general science weeklies available in the world - the other being Science published in America by AAAS. The controversy hinged on whether and in what circumstances sick people should be allowed access to therapies that hadn't [yet?] received the imprimatur of the FDA or its equivalents in Europe, China and elsewhere.  I think the answer is "Not often" and especially "Not if some Megacorp is making a load of money out of the product that hasn't been shown to work".  But I was annoyed about the hectoring and self-righteous tone of one of the articles that Nature was publishing.

Well Nature was at it again in February with an article When right beats might to note the publication of a report by the Italian Senate setting out what needs to be done before approval is given to new drugs. Actually the Senate recognised that the Agenzia Italiana del Farmaco had been doing pretty much everything right but that other arms of the government had been riding rough-shod over science because judges and politicians, if educated at all, have been through the Arts Block. No better way to win votes if a desperately sick child is given access to a controversial therapy through your political intervention; especially if you can arrange a photo-shoot in the hospital with Little Miss Intubated.  It's called compassionate grounds or last chance therapies, because in the case of Stamina, the corporation involved, the therapies worked no more often than if you waved candy-floss in the air near the patients hospital bed.

But it's a bit disingenuous of Nature to cast it as a David vs Goliath struggle because scientific medicine is not a clever stripling armed with a sling-shot.  No, it's a huge $multi-billion$ enterprise with a lot of vested interests and a lot of people living off the fat. The scientific agenda seems to work most of the time: it's brought us vaccines; cell-phones; jet-planes and jet-skis; 50 tons of spuds to the hectare; hoovers and washing-machines. There are unintended consequences too: 7 billion people have stripped the planet bare like a plague of locusts; once-upon-a-subsistence farmers are now living in tar-paper shanties in the barrios of Sao Paulo, Mumbai and Lagos; we have thousands of demented elders under the care of people who are not family.

I think the most invidious aspect of scientism [belief in the universal applicability of the scientific method and approach, to the exclusion of other viewpoints] is the uninspected assumption that scientists are not flawed by ambition, laziness, prejudice against women and foreigners, an unwillingness to be wrong, lack of compassion or a desire to be rich. I guess somebody has to point the finger at companies that are deluding their patients, if not themselves, that their investment is worth something. But in an ideal world that role would fall to tech-savvy investigative journalists while the scientists could do what they do best: pushing the frontiers.  Our state broadcaster RTE, for example, has had some success recently exposing scandals in the healthcare world: abuse of the handicapped and pharmacists finagling the books to claim extra loot from the government.  If you have a scientific training, you could do worse than get a job with a newspaper or TV station: you'll be the techiest dude in the press-room.

But back to Nature and their follow-up on the Stamina/Stem-cell/Senate business.  When Italian scientists are in the spotlight, it makes everyone outside that country think about the 2009 L'Aquila earthquake and the prosecution of the seismologists who made a wrong call on the likelihood of the Big One happening given a dribble of pre-shocks. The Nature editorial makes the lazy-arsed call to link the Stamina scandal with the L'Aquila one for the sole reason that they both happened over the last half-dozen years and happened in Italy.  From a desk in London, under deadline pressure to produce copy, it all looks like those Italian-johnnies are at it again doing something sketchy at the interface between science and politics. If you read two substantive comments to that editorial, you may take a different view about whether the seismologists were culpable [they were all exonerated last November]. Nowadays someone has to be blamed for every untoward event; it wasn't so at Lynmouth in 1952 or Flixborough in 1974. It's a bit like Papal Infallibility: the pope can be wrong when he puts a bet on a horse and it comes in last or has a senior moment in the monthly Curial Pub Quiz but, since 18 July 1870, he cannot be wrong when he speaks ex cathedra. Those scientists spoke up in rather certain terms while wearing their official hats after a convention had been called to assess the evidence that ancient  L'Aquila was likely to be shook to its medieval knees. I don't think they should be prosecuted but I wouldn't be surprised if some of them wish they could unsay their certainty that no earthquake would happen. Ordinary people have a duty of self-preservation: whether trained or not, we all have to decide what to do given what we know or believe to be true. If you went back home because people said it was safe to do so and you were sick of sleeping in your car, then you made a wrong call but it's not anybody's fault. Sometimes shit happens. Sometimes scientists are wrong.

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