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The Scientific Consensus Has Often Turned Out to Be Wrong

by John Spritzler

June 19, 2021

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Attention worshipers of scientific consensus! It often happens that the scientific consensus turns out to be wrong, and not only in the distant past, as this article will show. It's called a "reversal" when this happens. Read in this journal article about 396 modern medical reversals, i.e., when the consensus (a.k.a. standard of care) turned out to be wrong. (Read here an article focused on ten of these reversals.)


The Yale Journal of Biological Medicine reports:


"The phenomenon of reversal is real, and examples abound in recent years. A few striking ones follow. In the late 20th century, sudden cardiac death, particularly during the vulnerable period after myocardial infarction, was deemed a “world wide public health problem” [14]. A type of heart rhythm, premature ventricular contractions (PVCs), was thought to contribute to such deaths [15]. A new generation of antiarrhythmic therapy was developed with the ability to suppress PVCs up to 85 percent of the time [16]. Cardiologists began using these medications in widespread fashion. In the late 1980s, the Cardiac Antiarrhythmic Suppression Trial (CAST) was conducted to assess the safety of what was then commonplace [7]. Interestingly, recruitment for the trial was hindered by physicians who refused to let patients undergo randomization with a 50 percent chance of not receiving these medications [17]. Fortunately, the trial was completed and showed that these drugs (encainide, flecainide, and later, moricizine) conferred greater mortality than placebo, and their use was curtailed for this indication. "Vertebroplasty, the injection of medical cement into fractured bone, achieved widespread use without good evidence that it worked. First described in the late 1990s [18], vertebroplasty quickly gained popularity. In 2005, it was performed more than 27,000 times in the United States [19]. A pair of articles published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2009 conclusively showed that the procedure was no better than placebo by analyzing the outcomes of patients randomized to vertebroplasty or a sham procedure [20,21].


"Finally, in what remains a contentious issue, routine mammography screening for women in their 40s was questioned in 2009 [22]. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) “recommends against routine screening mammography in women aged 40 to 49 years.” That change from 2002 guidelines was in large part based on a randomized controlled trial (RCT) of mammography that appeared in The Lancet in 2006 [23]. It compared 54,000 women who were offered mammograms starting at age 39 with 107,000 women who were not offered them. It was large, well-done, and likely the best study to address this issue. It showed only a small decline in the breast cancer death rate after 10 years, which failed to meet significance. Overall, mortality of women in this age group did not change.


"Each of these examples represents a medical practice not surpassed by an alternative (replaced) but instituted in error (reversed). Atenolol may lower blood pressure, but is no better than placebo in increasingly survival. Class 1-C antiarrhythmics, used as described, increase mortality. Vertebroplasty is no better than sham-vertebroplasty in diminishing pain or promoting spine stability. And, because mounting data suggest that mammographic screening does not benefit women in their 40s, screening guidelines are changing. While one may disagree with the portrayal of any particular example, it seems implausible that one can disagree with every example. "Others have tried to quantify the rate of contradiction in medical literature. Ioannidis [24] has shown that 16 percent of highly cited articles were contradicted by future studies. In our previous work, we examined a large collection of high-impact literature and found that among articles making a claim regarding a medical practice, 13 percent were medical reversals [13]. Reversal is not a rare occurrence."


When Lynn Margulis disputed the scientific consensus, her article was rejected by a dozen journals. Then it turned out she was right, and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences


Read here and also here  how Lynn Margulis in 1967 refuted the consensus view on the origin of mitochondria in multi-cellular organisms--such as human beings--and how the consensus was shown to be wrong and had to reversed. Note that Margulis's groundbreaking article was first rejected by a dozen journals, because it disputed the consensus, before finally being published in one lower-tier journal. But because of her key role in challenging the consensus view of biologists, Margulis later was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1983 and was one of three American members of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences. She was awarded the William Procter Prize of Sigma Xi, an international research society, and the U.S. National Medal of Science in 1999. In 2008 she received the Darwin-Wallace Medal of the Linnean Society of London. She was a coauthor, with Dorion, of Encyclopædia Britannica’s article on life.

The Moral of the Story

Real science is always about skepticism, especially skepticism about any scientific consensus. In real science there is no such thing as an "established scientific theory." Scientific theories are never established; they are just the best explanation currently available for something. In real science nothing is ever proven. Evidence may be found in support of a hypothesis and sometimes lots of such evidence is found and no evidence found that refutes it. But proofs (as opposed to evidence) only exist in mathematics, which only can prove theorems based on accepting unproven prior axioms on faith (or "common sense.")

Anybody who asserts that something is true because a scientific consensus accepts it is worshiping authority, which is the opposite of how good science works. Don't worship authority.

What about the 97% scientific consensus on global warming?


There is no scientific consensus (97% or otherwise) for the hypothesis that human-produced C02 is causing CATASTROPHIC global warming. The consensus is for something very different. Read more about this here.

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