October 28

Bucking Conventional Wisdom

2  comments

Today I spotted an interesting article by Tom Avril (Scripps-McClatchy News Service) titled in our local paper: Researcher counters meteor versus dinosaur theory of extinction.

The focus of the piece is a geoscientist, named Gerta Keller, who questions the universally-held belief that an enormous meteor that crashed into Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula eons ago was what wiped out the dinosaurs.

No one, including Dr. Keller, disputes the fact that the meteor did indeed crash near the Mexican coast, scattering molten debris as far as New Jersey. Likewise, no one, including Dr. Keller, disputes that a mass extinction event occurred in which the dinosaurs precipitously lost their dominion over the earth. The question, at least in Dr. Keller’s mind, is whether the two events are joined in causality.

She doubts, because she and her colleagues claim to have found evidence of the Mexican meteor’s debris embedded in sedimentary layers in locations in Texas and Mexico deposited 300,000 years before the dinosaurs became extinct. In the great scheme of 65 million years, 300,000 years plus or minus is only a 0.5% error, but in absolute terms, it’s a long long time.

She presented her evidence to her fellow wizards, who were mostly not amused:

Keller did not provoke angry shouts Tuesday, as she has in the past, but there was vigorous skepticism from some in the audience of several hundred scientists.

Obviously, she isn’t the first (nor will she be the last) scientist to shake up and anger the establishment with a view outside the mainstream. Galileo springs to mind. His travails with the ruling establishment of his day (which happened to be the Catholic Church) are the stuff of legend. And we all know who turned out to be right. Innovation rarely comes from the mainstream. If you’re interested in reading a fabulous book about his struggles, check out Dava Sobel’s Galileo’s Daughter. I read it years ago when it first came out and still find myself thinking about it.

But I digress…back to dinosaurs and meteors and embattled scientists of today.

When asked why she felt her novel theory generates such rancor among her peers, Dr. Keller responded:

“So many people have invested so much time on one theory,” she said of the Mexico-meteor concept. “It was a very sexy, very nice theory…Everybody can identify with it. Except the details don’t fit.”

And those last two lines really got me; I could identify with her plight. Advance a scientifically sound theory that runs counter to the mainstream view and get vilified for your trouble? Been there…got the T-shirt.

It hasn’t happened to us often, but I still recall one early morning radio interview years ago in which I was repeatedly called “Dr. Death” by my interlocutor, because I recommend eating meat as the cornerstone of a healthy human diet. It was a set up piece, as it turned out, in which the station manager interviewing me was a card carrying PETA vegan.

No amount of scientific evidence that I offered to support our meat-eating origins–not our obligate dependence on vitamin B12, found only in food from animal sources; or the structure of the human GI tract, much more like a carnivore’s being relatively short, with only one very acidic stomach and a gall bladder; or the carnivorous set of our eyes on the front of our skull; or the pointy canine teeth we still sport; or the many nutrient deficiencies of a vegan diet–could sway her beliefs.

She had her very nice, very sexy theory that she and her compatriots could identify with. And she didn’t give one whit that the details don’t fit. Her mind’s made up; don’t confuse her with the facts!

That’s blind adherence to an ideology and it’s dangerous. Unfortunately, it’s not so unlike the rabid fervor that surrounds the lipid hypothesis of heart disease or the firm belief that serum cholesterol must be artifically pushed lower and lower with medications or that the low fat diet is the healthiest diet or that saturated fat is evil incarnate. Positions firmly entrenched, widely believed, and canonized as sacred by an overwhelming percentage of the populus who seem not to care a whit that the details don’t fit. But woe be it to anyone who dares to suggest that maybe, just maybe the science isn’t there to support them.

As Dr. Keller put it: So many people have invested so much time on one theory…

Fortunately for us all, Mr. Avril’s article points out that there are at least a few open minds still left in the scientific community. One in the person of Dr. Kenneth Lacovara a paleontologist from Drexel university, who moderated the geoscientific session in which Dr. Keller presented her findings. As Mr. Avril reported:

Lacovara readily admits that science is not conducted by majority vote. The truth emerges when a researcher’s results are repeated. He directed his Drexel graduate students to attend Keller’s session so they could see science in action.

Because, as Dr. Locovara himself stated:

“This is really the scientific process. Gerta may be wrong. Most people say she’s wrong. But you put it out there… I may not agree with her, but I think it’s great what she’s doing.”

And so from this sane scientist, my quote of the year:

Science is not conducted by majoriy vote.

Words to live by.


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  1. I’ve been thinking in recent weeks that the reason change in nutritional or medical policy will take a long time to occur has more to do with the fact that people are very reluctant to admit they’re wrong than with the soundness of the information available to them as they make recommendations to their patients or clients. People don’t like to be wrong about something and they surely don’t like to admit it.

    Those people spent a lot of years and money getting those medical degrees or becoming a registered dietician or whatever. It is probably unthinkable to most of them to admit that their entire career has been based on faulty (or non-existent) science.

    Moreover, I’ve thought that medical professionals who MIGHT admit they were wrong might also believe they would then setting themselves up to be blamed for medical problems experienced by their patients, and if patients can blame a doctor or nutritionist for their problems, wouldn’t the next step be lawsuits or other similar trouble? I have read there actually may be a lot of “closet” practitioners of the low-carb diet who nevertheless continue to recommend the standard low cholesterol, low-fat line to their patients.

    Not just a few people, but thousands, maybe even millions would have to say “I was wrong” in order for the lipid hypothesis crusade to end. Entire industries and professions would have to experience fundamental change. Galileo’s conclusions seem self-evident to us now, but it was several generations after his death before his ideas began to take hold and be accepted. –Anne

    COMMENT from MD EADES: I totally agree with what you’ve said. Many people in medicine, research, and even popular diet book and cookbook publishing/writing have stakes their entire careers on the low fat hypothesis and it will be quite difficult (if not impossible) for them to make a 180 degree turn around. Some few can. I like to believe that if the science showed in a year or two that the reasoning behind the low carb diet were fatally flawed, Mike and I would be secure enough in our intellectual honesty to say so and be leading the charge to let people know. A wise man once remarked that scientific dogma changes when the old guard dies off. Sadly, that’s often the case.

    As to docs fearing being sued, I don’t think that wouldn’t really be much of a possibility, since medical malpractice is determined based on whether a physician adhered to the current standard of care in his/her community. That performance bar would protect against lawsuits for having recommended adhering to a low fat diet and taking drugs, since that’s essentially the standard (if totally wrongheaded) remedy.

  2. “Science is not conducted by majority vote.”

    wouldn’t it be great if everybody remembered this?
    One could be forgiven to think that it was the majority vote that sets medical policy everywhere these days. If enough people believe something to be true it has to be true….right???
    How foolishly gullible we have all become as a species the young are trained at school to accept the current “wisdom” as the only truth without being taught to criticise or comprehend. It is no wonder we are in so much trouble health wise – we are even insisting our dogs & cats should eat at least 30% carbs & fibre instead of the carnivore diet they should eat. I guess we know better than the intelligence that created everything in the first place. If not for sites like this there would be nothing to counter balance the skewed view of the world we are now expected to follow with out question, because of course our governments need to protect us from everything – including ourselves, lucky us !!!!

    COMMENT from MD EADES: I agree! And thanks for the kind words about what we do. We appreciate it.

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