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Monday, January 18, 2010

Anti-science can be a lethal game

Simon Jenkins may scoff about swine flu estimates, but HIV/Aids has taught us not to wait to see how deep a pile of bodies gets

It is disappointing to see Simon Jenkins continue his attacks on scientistsattempting to explain complex concepts of risk about a new strain of virus to an ignorant public whose main source of information is an often hysterical media. From his opening paragraph Jenkins presents a unique interpretation of the dangers of swine flu based on his understanding of comments from public scientists. He accuses Sir Liam Donaldson of bandying "about any figure that came into his head, settling on '65,000 could die'". This figure was in fact a worst case scenario, as the article linked to in Jenkins' piece clearly indicates.
Jenkins cites BSE/CJD as a previous example of scare story about science that came to nought, claiming that "it would 'lead to 136,000 deaths' – a spurious exactitude used to convey plausibility". Again the cited article makes clear that this is an estimated upper limit in a worst case scenario. One might also be curious about where Jenkins came across the phrase "the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence," which he calls a classic Rumsfeld-ism. In fact it is a misquote from Carl Sagan's Demon Haunted World, where it is used to illustrate the dangers of arguing from ignorance.
But this isn't about Jenkins' lack of scholarship, this is about a reflexive, unthinking attitude to science and risk assessment that can go drastically, horribly wrong. In the early 1990s, when Jenkins was editor of the Times, he supported the then Times science correspondent, Neville Hodgkinson, who advocated the arguments of Peter Duesberg, a now notorious individual, who doubted the links between HIV and Aids. At this point in time Duesberg's theories were already considered wrong by the scientific community, yet this did not stop the Times from lending its support.
In December 1993 Jenkins wrote an article in which he claimed that fears over Aids were simple scaremongering, predictions of fatalities were wrong, and drug company funding was distorting the public debate, thus, the link between HIV and Aids should be questioned. This position was untenable given the current state of the literature. Interestingly the arguments in that piece are almost identical to those Jenkins wields today against the dangers of swine flu.

What Jenkins fails to understand is that scientific arguments are not constructed by rhetoric, but by the tedious and often slow process of evidence-gathering and interpretation. Sometimes, especially so in the case of a rapidly spreading disease, an official response is required before the scientific picture is clear. This response is based on a risk assessment from the contemporaneous evidence and can often seem to be wrong given hindsight benefiting from up-to-date evidence. Even so, governments are not responding in the firm belief that the worst is happening, they will be prepared for a wide range of possibilities, from slight to serious. The impact of the epidemic will become more apparent as the state of knowledge improves and the response modified accordingly. However, it is undesirable for governments to sit back and wait and see how deep the pile of bodies becomes before a serious response begins.

Perhaps the best example of sitting back and waiting for disaster comes from the way in which South Africa dealt with Aids under Thabo Mbeki. Influenced by Duesberg and Hodgkinson, among others, Mbeki doubted the link between HIV and Aids and declined to make anti-retroviral drugs publicly available. It has been estimated that more than 300,000 deaths occurred because of this in South Africa alone.
Being wrong about an epidemic can be lethal. Jenkins might be right in assuming that the dangers of swine flu and BSE/CJD were overestimated, but he was wrong about Aids. Being right two out of three times might be a winning strategy in games of poker, but when being wrong results in hundreds of thousands of deaths it is hard to argue that the game is worth playing given the stakes.

1 comment:

  1. Show me the graves and I'll show you the graves of the 300,000 in the USA killed by AZT. Your 300,000 is an estimate, but mine is an official USA statistic. See also MedSeminar.pdf by Henry Bauer. He shows that HIV is not even infectious using just official USA statistics with no financial reason to overestimate anything.