Here is peculiarity for us to ponder over Christmas. Why is it that those who are keenest to claim they are ‘defending science’ quite so ignorant about scientific method?
Last week, I had a stab at defending Robert F. Kennedy Jnr from his critics, without mentioning the main direction of attack from the supposedly ‘liberal’ wing of the Democrats.
Equally, as some of those attitudes seem to have transferred themselves to my eldest son, who is back from university this week for Christmas – it is worth reminding myself how the attack will emerge.
Forewarned is forearmed, as they used to say…
In fact, the main attack on Kennedy has come on the basis of his detailed critique of mercury in vaccines – and I challenge anyone who does not know the facts of the matter to read Kennedy’s specific criticisms of the chemical compound thimerosal, rarely mentioned by his critics, and not feel that he knows more about the subject than they do.
Thimerosal is a long-standing organomercury, which was phased out from most vaccines in the USA and Europe after 1999. Or was it? Thereby hangs a long argument…
Following Kennedy’s well-publicised report on the subject, in 2015, he wrote a book co-authored by two senior academics from Harvard Medical School.
It is hard to see why he is ‘anti-science’ here. Quite the reverse, in fact – he has an open mind, as scientists are supposed to have.
Back in 2010, those who are now so po-faced about anti-science in the UK were enjoying a jolly good jape at the expense of the homeopaths by demonstrating outside Boots while swallowing large doses of homeopathic pills.
Now, I know that homeopathy should be respected and taken seriously, not just because I’ve seen its effects on members of my own family – but because, some years ago, I nearly died from the effects of homeopathic treatment for eczema.
These kinds of indications are enough proof for me.
Now let’s have a look at the broader and more traditional view of science than the one currently being pedalled.
The idea that anything worth knowing would have already been discovered by researchers is nonsense. Because it is a funded business getting research projects off the ground, there is an in-built bias against any research that might offend the establishment or frighten the horses – when even might imply less than a complete faith in vaccines, for example.
Take the massive study by the American Academy of Sciences on Gulf War Syndrome which published three reports from 2013. They studied everything that could possibly have been related – except for the one area which, in the UK at least, was for many the main contender: the cocktail of vaccinations that service people had administered before they were sent to the Gulf.
As a funder, would you want to risk being associated with Andrew Wakefield, disgraced for first linking childhood vaccines to the rise of autism?
And in the UK, I remember all too well, how those researching BSE and Mad Cow Disease were harassed by the security services when it looked likely that they might discover a link with human CJD. Which luckily emerged anyway.
Nobody involved with filling in the forms for funding research is going to risk their position in that way.
I may not know a great deal about the issues under discussion here, but I have been steeped in the philosophers of science, like Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper, and so I know that they should never make the assumption that everything is already known and understood.
That is so, also, of all corners of science. In fact, go right back to Copernicus or Galileo and you can see how scientists are supposed to behave when they surface new knowledge – despite those who want to narrow the debate.