When Science Is Wrong
    By Gerhard Adam | July 9th 2013 07:22 AM | 36 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Gerhard

    I'm not big on writing things about myself so a friend on this site (Brian Taylor) opted to put a few sentences together: Hopefully I'll be able...

    View Gerhard's Profile
    By now everyone is familiar with some of the more controversial topics in policy discussions featuring scientific topics, so that GMO foods or climate change are readily recognized as "hot button" items.  Without getting into those discussions, one of the arguments that is often made against a particular position is that the data is wrong, or that scientists are doing something wrong.  In effect, the implication is that science has been known to be wrong in the past and therefore we can expect that it could be wrong in its assertions now.

    In fact, one is often treated to various examples of what was once believed to be a legitimate scientific perspective and how it was overturned.  In some cases, improper examples like Newton's laws being extended by Relativity are used to illustrate such a scientific progression.

    I say that the example of Newton's laws is an improper example, because Newton wasn't really wrong.  Instead his ideas had to be extended to deal with newer information giving better explanations for more extreme conditions.  

    Instead I was considering some examples that came to light in a few articles this past week.  "Will we ever drop evolution's baggage?" and "Here Be Dragons: The Mythic Bite of the Komodo" both provided good examples of science that was simply wrong and new data was provided to make the point.

    Yet, the real issue here isn't that science was wrong, but rather why it was wrong.  This is the point that is often not questioned and it should be.

    In these examples if one were to look for the studies and data that supported the original positions one would find little or nothing.  In other words, the science wasn't wrong.  It was non-existent.  Instead what we find is that what was taken to be common knowledge were simply assumptions made on the part of those observing the particular phenomenon. The appendix was considered vestigial, not because of studies demonstrating it, but because of the assumptions that suggested that those having it surgically removed didn't appear to suffer any obvious negative effects.  As with the Komodo dragon, it was simply assumed that their bite was lethal because their mouths were supposedly laden with deadly bacteria killing any bitten victim with sepsis and ultimately death.

    It is from these examples that one has to question, what the basis is for much of what we consider to be scientific fact.  Is it evidence based or merely opinion based?  Regardless of how qualified such an opinion might be, it can still not be considered evidence.

    As a result, it is quite reasonable to argue that any scientific claim that is not backed by solid proof, cannot take credit for being scientific evidence.  Even the supposed philosophical arguments about proving a negative are not relevant [nor true (1)], because in the absence of explicit evidence one can only claim [at best] a probabilistic connection.  No matter how reassuring, it should be understood that it can still be wrong.

    There is a huge difference between stating that something can't happen versus merely thinking it can't happen.  

    As stated in the article about Komodo dragons:
    Scientists don’t always get things right the first time around, and sometimes, even the most careful observations can miss what’s really going on. In this case, the strange interaction between a novel meal option and a notorious beast confused early investigators.
    Yet, in truth, the author is being kind.  These weren't careful observations, they were assumptions with the skimpiest of supporting evidence, which is precisely why it was demonstrated to be a myth when it was actually investigated.  This isn't intended as a criticism of those making the initial observations.  Instead it is an observation in its own right, regarding how easily scientific opinions become scientific "facts" despite there being no corroborating evidence (2).

    When a claim is made for which all the variables aren't even known, then all such claims should be treated with caution and recognized as being the educated guesses that they are.  While some may protest that such a standard is too rigid, that complaint is simply ridiculous.  Science is in no hurry to be accurate.  Science doesn't operate on some deadline or time table to be accurate.  Economics, politicians, and advocacy have timelines.  Science moves at the pace necessary to advance understanding, not simply to satisfy a business plan or political poll.

    There have been many articles written about public perceptions of science, and more than enough insults hurled at those in various states of disagreement.  However, let's remember that it is one thing for science to be wrong, because something was truly misunderstood.  It's quite another when one finds that much of what science was wrong about is because no one ever actually studied the phenomenon they were making claims about.  That's just unscientific.


    (1)  Much is often made of how one can't prove a negative, but that's rubbish, since it is a quite legitimate position to take.  In fact, it is routinely done in science to demonstrate that a particular species has gone extinct [i.e. it no longer exists in a particular habitat], or that a particular pathogen does not cause a disease.  So, while this is a concept that is much bandied about, it is simply intellectual laziness on the part of those invoking it.

    Consider the positive assertion that there are white swans.  While true, it is trivial since it doesn't tell us anything about any other colors.  It doesn't preclude swans of different colors.  Therefore any definitive statement [positive or negative] is subject to being disproven.  So if I claim that there are ONLY white swans, or I say there are no black swans, the result is the same; it can be overturned with additional evidence.

    (2)  This can be seen by some of the debate surrounding GMO foods.  The original premise is scientifically valid in assessing "substantial equivalence" where the comparison is being made between individual components and determining that there is nothing rendering them individually dangerous, therefore the new result is considered to be equivalent and not representative of a new novel creation.  However, this is then often translated into the unsupported statement that it is "safe", which is then further translated into "it is absolutely harmless" which is ultimately elevated to the position that you must be a fool to think that it can hurt you.

    Such a claim is not now nor has ever been made by any responsible scientist.  The only valid scientific position is to state that based on the principle of substantial equivalence there is no basis for believing that this new GMO food introduces any danger.  It is not a statement of safety.  

    As a result, the scientific position is that there is no evidence to suggest that this product can cause harm and there is, at present, no data to suggest anything to the contrary.  Is this a scientific fact?  No, because the same individuals making such a claim will be quite ready to concede that they were wrong if a study demonstrates otherwise.  Consequently any such claim made in absolute terms is unscientific.


    I had a huge fight with someone at TAM (well he fought, I just nodded and cowered) but my own physician complained that for over 20 years she treated people incorrectly for ulcers.

    Her own father, a physician, also treated people for ulcers the same way. Bland diet, less stress, it's an illness of the businessman and the well to do... take ant acids. TAKE MORE antacids. You are obviously impeding your getting well by still being stressed....

    She said she had to deal with guilt as this was TOTALLY the wrong way to treat ulcers. In fact, taking too many ant acids (and she said she prescribed really strong ones) and changing the diet actually made ulcers worse.

    She said there was no evidence that this treatment worked, in fact, she herself noted it rarely worked. She blamed her patients. She even got some of her patients to retire, so they could have less stress, and instead they ended up bored and still in pain. THEN... some Australians figured out that in many cases, the treatment of choice is antibiotics. They did meet a lot of resistance (my friend at TAM kept telling me "Science is SELF CORRECTING! It worked! This was not a failure! No one was wrong!"), but now the treatment they suggested is standard and people are so much healthier and pain free because of their work.

    Science is self correcting, but this ulcer mis treatment with no data showing it worked, was the standard for too many years. At some point, someone had to say "This isn't working." My own doctor said she would just tell people to follow the diet and take the meds as a placebo, she knew it wasn't going to work but she figured this was the best science had.

    I'm 100% sure there is some illness being treated improperly even now. That's fine, science is self correcting. It's just easier to often blame the patient (they aren't following treatment correctly), than to really look at hard data and go "you know this isn't working, maybe we're wrong about what causes this." (It should be noted that poor people suffered from ulcers as much as rich people, but the stereotype of the businessman coming home and drinking was too ingrained). Yes there are ulcers that are caused by poor diet and other issues, but the majority of people coming in with an ulcer today get fast relief and aren't told to quit their jobs.

    Science didn't FAIL, it just didn't take a good long look at ulcer treatments for far too long. Oh and IF you find a new treatment that works, you get a Nobel Prize!

    The problem I've always had with this story is - why did it take so damned long for people to believe him? How did it get to the point he ended up having to drink a vial of the stuff, experimenting on himself, to get anyone to check it out? Especially if, as so many are saying, it was widely known that the standard treatment was little more than placebo voodoo treatment?

    You're using science way too broadly, though it makes for a clever title.  It would be like a climate change skeptic saying 'In the 1970s, science predicted an new Ice Age' - while technically, true, there were claims by members of the group broadly known as science, it was no more commonly believed than the claims of a herpetologist in the 1970s about Komodo.  It just wasn't important enough for many people to care to debunk it and the people who did got no media attention.

    Taking a snapshot in time and noting that 'X was once believed' will always be damaging - it often takes two years for many refutations to make it into journals and flaws in studies get far less attention.  The good thing about modern culture is that high-profile media cases do get debunked fast.  Seralini's rats and faster-than-light neutrinos are just recent examples.

    But they were exposed by other scientists. So science was not wrong, science was right. A few participants were wrong.
    Gerhard Adam
    You're missing the point.  Certainly people can be wrong, but there is data to refute and examine.  In many cases, there are simply unchallenged assumptions, a classic one is the perpetually mentioned peacock's tail.  Yet when someone actually looked at it, then there doesn't seem to be any correlation to sexual selection or fitness or anything. 

    While you may not think this is important, it is constantly mentioned with respect to evolution and natural selection despite there being no data to support its use.

    If assumptions can make it into the scientific literature and be used as a basis for interpreting other results, then the term science is not being used too broadly. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    I think you are using it too broadly. There is no mainstream consensus in biology that a peacock tail increased sexual selection, it was always speculation.  Plenty of people challenged it as science (they only let it go in a 'we don't know but this seems reasonable' way) yet you imply no one did but then state that 'someone' (who? Apparently not the biologists who all just blindly accepted it a sentence earlier) looked at it. It was an easy hook and so it got rehashed a lot, the same way anti-GMO beliefs are easy to understand and scare people about. 

    It's cherry-picking instances to support your belief, which you criticized as a technique in your article.  There is no science according to the parameters you outline, including Newton and certainly not Darwin. It's all just subjective interpretations made by flawed people, etc., etc. Like the Ice Age and Komodo poison, it's very 1970s thinking.
    Gerhard Adam
    ... it was always speculation.
    Based on what? 
    Giant sperm tails are the cellular equivalent of the peacock's tail, having evolved because females evolved reproductive tracts that selectively bias paternity in favor of males with longer sperm.
    Over the past quarter-century, the “costly signaling” hypothesis—that signal honesty can be ensured by appropriate signal cost—has emerged as the dominant explanation for this puzzle. First proposed by Zahavi (1, 2) to explain elaborate ornaments such as the peacock's tail, this hypothesis was later formalized by Grafen (3) and Godfray (4). A proliferation of theoretical models (515) and empirical tests (reviewed in refs. 1619) has ensued.
    The excessive tail plumes of the peacock which seem to attract the females are obviously deletorious to the survival of the individual.
    It's pretty clear that not only was not "always speculation", but for many it isn't speculative at all.

    As for all the people that challenged it, I'd love to see a single reference.  The only challenges came from those that actually conducted the research that I had written about previously. 

    Mundus vult decipi
    When a claim is made for which all the variables aren't even known, then all such claims should be treated with caution and recognized as being the educated guesses that they are.  While some may protest that such a standard is too rigid, that complaint is simply ridiculous.  Science is in no hurry to be accurate.  Science doesn't operate on some deadline or time table to be accurate.  Economics, politicians, and advocacy have timelines.  Science moves at the pace necessary to advance understanding, not simply to satisfy a business plan or political poll.

    I see this as the problem with Climate Change, we don't know all of the variables yet, and the politicians want to over turn society, and or fleece us of more of our money.

    The side effect is that the activist scientists hi-jacked the field for what 20 years?
    Never is a long time.
    Gerhard Adam
    I think what you're describing is what I consider to be a shift in science.  Perhaps I'm simply not as aware of historical behaviors, but it seems that science is becoming more and more like a business that has to deliver a "product".

    As a result, we find incomplete results accompanied by advocacy [which in my view is simply a variation of marketing] and then politicians and others climb on the bandwagon to take actions presumably to justify the expenditure in research.

    It seems that we have a kind of selection pressure that favors those that jump to conclusions rather than those that claim not to know.  Too often it seems that assumptions are being made based on the supposition that because a particular thing has occurred for a number of years that somehow that settles the issue.  It's like the claims that simply because there are an enormous number of planets that somehow the existence of intelligent life is guaranteed. 

    None of those are scientific claims, regardless of well informed the opinion might be.
    Mundus vult decipi
    I agree with everything except the second to the last sentence.
    Never is a long time.
    Gerhard Adam
    What?  That intelligent life is guaranteed?
    Mundus vult decipi
    But I accept there is no evidence, unless one accepts UFO's and aliens have/are visiting.
    Never is a long time.
    Gerhard Adam
    Opinion, hearsay, and anecdotes are still not scientific evidence.

    As I've said in other posts, while there may be a strong desire or belief that probability favors the existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy, it doesn't rise to the level of anything except opinion. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    I accept there is no evidence
    Never is a long time.
    Gerhard Adam
    So, then why say that you disagreed with the sentence?  :)
    Mundus vult decipi
    Because I think there are too many exoplanets to somehow think we're special and the only intelligent life in the Universe. While our sample size is small, we know intelligent life is possible. I just respect that it's not science because there's no proof. Of course there is us, one might think we're proof of intelligent life (course some would quibble on the intelligent part). Science requires evidence, either we're very, very special, which a lot of religious people would love to get as a concession from you, or we're not.
    Never is a long time.
    Gerhard Adam
    The problem with your argument is that you're presuming that life is "special" and therefore you're assigning some personal value to it.  From this, you're using your value system to presume that life must be prevalent.

    Invariably this is based on the assumption that without life the universe is a big waste of space.

    None of these are anything except human value interpretations.  You have to consider what happens to your argument if it turned out we were alone.  Would that suddenly drive some religious interpretation?  In my view these are nothing but anthropomorphic arguments and have no basis in anything.  They are merely projections of our own wishes and interpretations of the universe.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Really? I think it's you that have it all twisted up. I think life is anything but special, it's the end results of chemistry and time. Something the Universe has a lot of. I'm actually kind of dumb struck at your argument. While we will never know if there's no other life, we might learn there is life elsewhere. But I would expect there would be a lot of people who would give it a religious spin if we knew we were the only life in the universe. But you really deep down hate humanity, don't you?
    Never is a long time.
    Gerhard Adam
    Your statement makes no sense, and supports my claim regarding your anthropomorphism.  Life isn't about humanity.

    I personally suspect that we'll find lots of life, overwhelming it will probably be microbial.  I don't have a quarrel with that.  I have a quarrel with people taking their personal opinions and trying to shape them into facts.

    Intelligent life is an irrelevant discussion, because it is human gibberish.  It's based on the presumption that somehow we'll become pals, or that they will teach us the mysteries of the universe, etc.  It's complete rubbish, assuming that such intelligence even exists.  Even on Earth, there's already plenty of intelligent life and we uniformly treat it like shit. 

    Generally this argument always says that there is no claim of anything special which is why life is supposed to be abundant, but that's misleading, because if you scratch the surface you find that what they do think is special is our "intelligence".  People have no problem clinging to the concept of something being "special", they just want it to be focused on their interpretation of how the universe should work ... again, with humans at the center of it.

    So, if someone could definitely provide the answer that YES, there is life elsewhere, then what?  Are we going to go collect it?  Are we going to make friends?  Do we really care after that initial curiosity is satisfied?  Where's the upside to anyone in this?
    Mundus vult decipi
    You're just diving off into your little rant about intelligence, and how first contacts are bad. I said nothing about those things, and your comment on intelligent life said nothing about those things. It was about science, and I said I agreed without proof it wasn't science, but that doesn't mean that I don't think it is almost a guarantee. None of this other crap has anything to do whether it's science or not, and nothing to do with whether intelligent life exists or not either.
    Never is a long time.
    Gerhard Adam
    I get that.  The irony is that you're willing to practically guarantee the existence of something with nothing except faith.

    Yeah ... I agree, that's not science.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Not faith, a sample of one, and a unimaginably large number of attempts that we don't know the results of.
    Never is a long time.
    . . . perpetually mentioned peacock's tail. . . . 
    The only challenges came from those that actually conducted the research that I had written about previously.

    You should take every opportunity to link to your other articles. I wanted to read this, but the list of articles on your profile don't include titles that mention peacock's tails.
    Gerhard Adam

    Here's the link;  The Peacock Problem
    Mundus vult decipi
    Thanks. I eventually found it once I noticed the link to all your articles and after many pages. Never realized how many you've written. That was a very good article too.
    Gerhard Adam
    Thank you very much.
    Mundus vult decipi
    I'm somewhat confused. in your link: says the following:

    "The excessive tail plumes of the peacock which seem to attract the females
    are obviously deletorious to the survival of the individual. The more brilliant
    the plumes the more conspicuous the male to predators, and the longer the
    plumes the more difficult it may be for the male to escape predators or to
    move about during everyday activity."

    Zahavi says: " The more brilliant the plumes the more conspicuous the male to predators"

    ...but this is not a problem for peacocks since:

    "Females evolved dull coloration, which increases survival chances for this ground-nesting bird, since there is little male involvement in parenting and since the female is vulnerable to predation while incubating eggs on the ground."

    When Peacocks are not foraging, they can perch high in trees away from predators.

    Zahavi says: "and the longer the plumes the more difficult it may be for the male to escape predators or to move about during everyday activity."

    Actually, no. When a peacock is on the ground (as they most often are) foraging for snakes, insects, etc. and is threatened by a predator he is actually a fairly good flyer. Can't fly too high (heavy bird), but certainly capable of evading predators by flying to a perch high in a tree.

    Gerhard Adam
    I'm not sure I understand what your question is [or might be]. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat

    Time for a photo of a male peacock and his tail maybe? Very impressive isn't he? 

    Gerhard, I remember that I read your past article about peacock tails and their evolution and I plan  to reread it again soon as I'm still confused about it. I was confused about how the tail evolved because it would have made the male peacock easy prey but now I'm still not clear about what the proven or more generally accepted science is saying? Surely all those eyes, eyeballing the predator would also have acted as a big deterrent to many predators, wouldn't they? They would certainly put me off from messing with that bird.

    Presumably there have been plenty of scientific studies showing the effect of the spread tail upon potential peacock predators? They are quite aggressive birds, so that must also be a factor isn't it? One of them attacked my son when he was about three or four years old and we were feeding the birds in a children's animal petting enclosure with bird seed that we had bought there. It suddenly jumped up and bit him on the cheek, for no reason other than maybe the peacock was annoyed that my son was giving the bird the seed one at a time!  

    Anyway, I don't want to take the focus away from your very interesting article showing how sometimes science is wrong and that scientists are people and therefore capable of groupthink and bias, which is sometimes why they can continue to be wrong, even when the evidence is not supporting their conclusions and claims. The good thing though, is that usually some brave scientists eventually do risk their reputation and often their livelihood and question them and their wrong hypotheses and prove them to be wrong, by developing a new, better hypothesis to explain the data and so on, as they push back the frontiers of science and knowledge. We have to be very proud of those guys, I think they are worth their weight in gold :)
    My latest forum article 'Australian Researchers Discover Potential Blue Green Algae Cause & Treatment of Motor Neuron Disease (MND)&(ALS)' Parkinsons's and Alzheimer's can be found at
    Gerhard Adam
    Surely all those eyes, eyeballing the predator would also have acted as a big deterrent to many predators, wouldn't they?
    Well, for my own speculations on the topic, there is a paper that talks about the nature of conspicuous coloration as an anti-predator signal.

    It suggests that it is the contrast and not the specific imagery that plays a role.  The paper focuses on peacock butterflies and avian predators, but the same may hold true to varying degrees with other predators.  Perhaps the fanning of the tail and the appearance of all the contrasting "eyespots" creates the illusion of mobbing behavior to a predator. 

    Mundus vult decipi
    Hank said:

    "There is no mainstream consensus in biology that a peacock tail increased sexual selection, it was always speculation."

    Then you respond to Hank by citing Zahavi: 

    "The excessive tail plumes of the peacock which seem to attract the females are obviously deletorious to the survival of the individual."

    But you seem to refute Zhavai in your article:

    Which is why I am confused.

    Also Zahavi's statement, "The excessive tail plumes of the peacock which seem to attract the females are obviously deletorious to the survival of the individual," is by no means "obvious."

    Maybe if you've only ever seen a peacock in a zoo.

    On the other hand, if you live near someone who has peacocks, and the peacocks roam free on the person's property (feeding them so they stay on the property) then it's pretty darned obvious that they are able to avoid being eaten by all the coyotes running about
    Gerhard Adam
    I see.  Yes, my point to Hank was that this myth was being quoted as scientific "fact" in this paper, so the assertion that Hank made about it not being part of mainstream scientific consensus seemed flawed.  After all, when someone publishes a paper and uses phrases like "obviously deleterious", then it doesn't suggest that this is merely opinion.

    Yes, my links were intended to demonstrate that many scientists and studies referred to this mythology as given, despite there being little or no evidence of it being factual.  Just as you pointed out about their avoiding predation by coyotes [and supported by their lifespans of 12-20 years] indicates that the notion that the tail is somehow a great liability is more presumptive mythology.
    Mundus vult decipi
    You make it worse by staying with history and not looking at the systemic origin of the problem. Science is social. If you think that your favorite study about bird feathers is not going to be turned around by yet another study in a few years, you do not understand the huge pressure scientists are under. We absolutely MUST publish something "important" or we are fucked - there is no clearer way to say it! The scientific community's funding/hiring mechanisms do not give a flying fuck about truth. What about you look into the memristor case for example, or the misinterpretation of simple relativity theory by the super fashionable particle accelerator guys (these are issues you are fully able to understand if you wanted to!). Data being looked at or not has nothing to do with it! We can make anything out of any data, and that is what we do, or it is "bye bye sucker".
    Newton example is somewhat valid when trying to understand what science represents. Relativity is a completely different model than Newtonian. It is not an extension or correction to Newtonian model.

    It is all very simple. Stop making this more detailed than it needs to be. Scientist are people. People make mistakes. Therefore the application of science by flawed humans is going to have some flaws manifest themselves.

    Gerhard Adam
    You've completely missed the point.  This isn't about mistakes.  This is about making assumptions that are never verified which end up becoming scientific "facts".  Then when someone actually does the study it is discovered that the supposed "facts" were never accurate, but more importantly, despite claims to the contrary, no one had ever known ... they simply assumed it to be so.

    Mistakes are understandable and forgivable.  Assumptions, in science, are not.
    Mundus vult decipi
    My comment was more directed and the string of responses here and not the article itself.

    Science is an intangible thing. It in of itself is not really corruptible or failable. When people get involved they bring baggage. Any flaw in Science, is not a flaw in science but a perceived flaw in science due to human imperfection.

    My view of science is that is it a process like painting a wall. The wall was black and is being painted white. As our knowledge and understanding increase due to scientific discoveries the white expands outwards. The edge of human knowledge is where the white and the black meet. As we learn more the white creeps forward.