Excellent piece in the Financial Post this morning.  Title in the paper edition: ” ‘Settled science’ is not an argument”.

<http://business.financialpost.com/2014/06/11/blinkered-thinking-in-academia/>
Excerpted from Dr. Arnold Aberman’s presentation at Lakehead University’s convocation May 30 in Thunder Bay, where he received an honorary doctor of science degree in recognition of his role in creating the Northern Ontario School of Medicine.
 

Recently in the United States, convocation speakers have been disinvited or otherwise made felt unwelcome because some members of the faculty or students did not agree with their opinions on different controversial issues – Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born women’s right activist, was prevented from speaking at Brandeis University in Massachusetts; Condoleezza Rice, the first female African American Secretary of State from speaking at Rutgers University in New Jersey; Christine Lagarde, IMF Managing Director from speaking at Smith College in Massachusetts and Robert Birgeneau, the Canadian-born physicist former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, from speaking at Haverford College in Pennsylvania.

It is a sad commentary on our times that academic institutions, which should be at the vanguard of protecting free speech, appear to be, at least at some universities, to quote Abigail Thernstrom, vice-chair of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, “islands of repression in a sea of freedom.” Evidently, there are those who feel that the minds of graduates are too fragile to be exposed to controversial views. I know that is not true about Lakehead graduates.

So I am grateful to Lakehead University – its leadership, faculty and students – for not inquiring about my political views before conferring this honorary degree and allowing me to address the graduating class. No one asked me my opinion on unrestricted abortion, the war on terror, free trade, or global warming.

Some claim that all these issues are either settled science or considered off-limits for discussion.

It was “settled science” when I was a medical student in the 1960′s that duodenal ulcers were caused by excess gastric acid, exacerbated by stress. Treatment then focused on reducing acidity and stress – either by pills, surgery or psychotherapy. I would have failed medical school and would not be standing before you today if, on my final exams, I wrote that ulcers were caused by infection.

Then in the early 1980’s Robin Warren and Barry Marshall of Australia isolated Helicobacter Pylori from patients with ulcer disease and concluded that these bacteria were the cause of duodenal ulcers. They did not have an easy time – after all this was against “settled science.”

As Barry Marshall recounted in his Nobel Prize lecture, his results were not believed, even though he had started successfully treating patients who had suffered with life threatening ulcer disease for years with antibiotics. So, in 1984, frustrated by the lack of acceptance of his discovery, Marshall decided to infect himself with H. Pylori – without discussing his plan with the ethics committee of his hospital. He became severely ill and biopsy showed colonization and classic histological damage to the stomach. He then treated himself successfully with antibiotics.

He still had a decade ahead of unsuccessful research grant applications and rejected manuscripts. Private investors had to fund the clinical trials that finally vindicated his research findings. In 2005, Warren and Marshall were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for their discovery.

And of course, the ulcer story is not unique.

In 1982, Dan Shechtman of Israel’s Technion University discovered quasicrystals, crystalline material whose atoms did not line up periodically, which, if true, violated over a century of crystallography “settled science.” His work was ridiculed by his colleagues for years. Linus Pauling, a 1954 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry himself, said that Shechtman was “talking nonsense” and that “there was no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasiscientists.” Eventually he was proved correct and in 2011 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

The “settled science” of the value of mammography in the early diagnosis of breast cancer has been challenged because of the incidence of false positives.

And most surprising, in the past month, a meta-analysis of 73 published studies of over 530,000 subjects found no relationship between cardiovascular disease and consumption of fatty acids. So much for that “settled science.”

So what can we learn from these examples. Not, of course, that there is no “settled science.” But that claiming “settled science” is a statement, not an argument. Truth is not discovered by voting. What is “settled science” today may be labelled a mistaken belief tomorrow.

So what is my advice to you, fellow graduates? Don’t follow the examples of Brandeis University, Rutgers University, Smith College, and Haverford College. You can’t learn in an echo chamber, welcoming only your ideas. Listen to those who you do not agree with – in fact, I urge, seek them out. Oppose their theories with facts, not with censorship. Be very suspicious of those who want to cut off debate with “this is against settled science.” Appealing to authority is a sign of weakness, not strength.

Arnold Aberman is former dean of the University of Toronto medical school.

 

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