Distinguishing science from pseudoscience

When I was in college majoring in microbiology, we were taught that diseases like scrapie, Creutzfeldt-Jacob and kuru were caused by “slow viruses.” Over many years, it has become clear that misfolded proteins, not viruses, are the cause of these and other spongiform encephalopathies. Stanley Prusiner struggled for a long time to convince the scientific community of prions, for which he eventually got the Nobel Prize.

There are many historical examples of orthodoxy overturned by better science. Science thrives on paradigm shifts. But not every challenge to orthodoxy has equal merit. The molecular cell biologist Peter Duesberg is one of a handful of scientists who have challenged the HIV basis for AIDS. The success of anti-reverse transcriptase, HIV protease inhibitors and HIV integrase inhibitors in stopping AIDS seems to support the HIV hypothesis.

Science doesn’t deal in proof. Science deals in the weight of evidence. To critically assess the weight of evidence, though, requires expertise. Opinions are like nose hairs: everybody’s got ‘em. Ideas are cheap. What’s valuable is the evidence to advance those ideas.

The lay public seems to have a hard time distinguishing between arguments from authority and arguments from evidence. This is not only because scientific data is difficult to interpret without expertise, but because the internet offers a unlimited fund of pseudoscience that is difficult to distinguish from real science for those without the expertise.

As a scientist with significant expertise in molecular biology, cell biology and genetics/genomics, I find the willingness of people to be gulled by cranks and frauds to be troubling, since the data debunking the misinformation is a click or two away on Google.

Ask questions, my friends, but don’t forget to listen for answers.