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Ivo Vegter: Science Says Science Is Shoddy

Ivo Vegter, Daily Maverick

It’s a common refrain: if you’re sceptical of the latest headline-grabbing scientific papers, you’re a ‘denier’, who ‘rejects science’. But ‘science’ is not truth. Science is a procedure for discovering truth. There’s a difference. And while science is powerful, it is far from perfect. Happily, there is science that says so, and aims to improve matters.

Until last month, the best available scientific estimate of how many trees we had on Earth was 400-billion. As of this month, there are 3-trillion trees on earth.

Despite this dramatic under-estimate of tree numbers, this new research will not restore the Amazon forest to its mythical position as the so-called “lungs of the earth”. Trees play only a subordinate role in converting carbon dioxide to oxygen. The Amazon never was the lungs of the earth. The majority of the world’s oxygen is produced by phytoplankton in the ocean.

Such are the numbers, the bare facts of science, upon which great public policy decisions hang.

The Banting Diet, as made famous by sports scientist Tim Noakes, preaches the virtues of bacon, and who can argue with that? But if claims that a diet high in saturated fat and low in carbohydrates will prevent diabetes, cancer and heart disease sound too good to be true, they probably are.

One reason why Banting has become so popular is the idea that some people react negatively to gluten, which are proteins commonly found alongside starch in grains. It is well known that patients with Celiac disease, an uncommon and serious auto-immune condition that causes inflammation of the intestinal tract, cannot tolerate gluten. However, patients who do not suffer from Celiac disease have also been reporting adverse effects from eating gluten. They, scientists would have us believe, might suffer from something known as non-Celiac gluten intolerance.

Two years later, those same scientists discovered that what appeared to be gluten-sensitivity is more likely sensitivity to a group of sugars known as fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols (clumsily abbreviated as FODMAP). A follow-up study of self-diagnosed sufferers of gluten intolerance confirmed the culprit was FODMAP, not gluten.

Such are the flimsy facts of science upon which billion-dollar industries are built. In the US, about 1.8-million people suffer from Celiac disease, and 18-million (6%) claim to have non-Celiac gluten intolerance. Yet three times as many people buy gluten-free food, and a staggering 30% of the population would like to do so. The market for gluten-free products is worth north of $10-billion, and growing rapidly. This hive of food-marketing quackery is based on nothing more than a few speculative papers, since disproven by their own authors.

C Glenn Begley, former head of global cancer research at Amgen, a biopharmaceutical firm, began a project to replicate 53 academic studies considered to be landmarks in oncology. The result? Only six of the replication attempts succeeded, despite the fact that replication (verifying the conclusions given the same data) is a far lower hurdle than reproducability (reaching the same conclusions in an entirely new study).

A similar paper by Bayer, another pharmaceutical company, found that only 20% to 25% of published academic papers could be validated by replication. Many studies expand upon previous work without trying to validate the original research, and sometimes “an entire field” is built on such shaky foundations.

The reasons for these failures are many, but among them is pressure to publish significant findings. Sometimes, a result that was obtained only once was included in a paper “because it made the best story”. According to Ferric Fang, quoted by Reutersspeaking to a National Academy of Sciences panel: “The surest ticket to getting a grant or job is getting published in a high-profile journal. This is an unhealthy belief that can lead a scientist to engage in sensationalism and sometimes even dishonest behaviour.”

“Everything in science is based on publishing a peer-reviewed paper in a high-ranking journal. Absolutely everything,” Ivan Oransky, founder of the blog Retraction Watchtold the Washington Post. “You want to get a grant, you want to get promoted, you want to get tenure. That’s how you do it. That’s the currency of the realm.”

Such is the science on which billions of dollars in research funding, and millions of lives, hang.

According to a map published in 2005 by the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep), the world would have 50-million “climate refugees” by 2010. The claim was an exaggerated restatement of a guess by the legendary environmentalistNorman ‘heroic extrapolations’ Myers, who in 1979 made up the “40,000 per year” species extinction number that is still quoted by luminaries like Al Gore. Myers based his estimate on the total populations of regions that might be affected. Among his assumptions was that everybody would move. In reality, populations increased in the supposedly catastrophe-struck regions. Gavin Atkins of Asian Correspondent broke this story, and published a follow-up with more detail. Another retelling, with an archive of the offending Unep page and map, can be found here.

The UN’s response to the embarrassing non-appearance of 50-million refugees by 2010 was to remove the map from its website and simply substitute the discredited prediction with a new one: “The world will have 50-million environmental refugees by 2020”.

Such is the science on which major global policy initiatives are based.

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