Tuesday, 26 October 2010

I doubt, therefore I am - the limits of "skepticism"

Regular visitors to this blog will have heard me talk about how doubt is at the heart of conservativism – indeed, it is only my doubting that makes me a conservative. And I am grateful to find that the rationalist position fits well with Balfour’s philosophic doubt.

Chris Snowdon in his Velvet Gove, Iron Fist blog provides a link to an interview with John Ioannidis the author of “why most research findings are false”. In what seems to me a beautiful demolition of the “skeptic” obsession with scientific method as the only response to doubt, the article reports that:

He (Ioannidis) and his team have shown, again and again, and in many different ways, that much of what biomedical researchers conclude in published studies—conclusions that doctors keep in mind when they prescribe antibiotics or blood-pressure medication, or when they advise us to consume more fiber or less meat, or when they recommend surgery for heart disease or back pain—is misleading, exaggerated, and often flat-out wrong. He charges that as much as 90 percent of the published medical information that doctors rely on is flawed.

Yet we are enjoined to believe the researchers, to accept the exclusive use of evidence rather than judgment in decision-making and to take whatever academics place before us as truth rather than as something to be questioned and challenged – to be doubted. Not merely through a self-serving and excluding process of peer review but through the prism of our understanding.

Nature, the grande dame of science journals, stated in a 2006 editorial, “Scientists understand that peer review per se provides only a minimal assurance of quality, and that the public conception of peer review as a stamp of authentication is far from the truth.” What’s more, the peer-review process often pressures researchers to shy away from striking out in genuinely new directions, and instead to build on the findings of their colleagues (that is, their potential reviewers) in ways that only seem like breakthroughs—as with the exciting-sounding gene linkages (autism genes identified!) and nutritional findings (olive oil lowers blood pressure!) that are really just dubious and conflicting variations on a theme.

Doubt must be universal. It should be the starting point for our decision-making, the guiding factor in how we monitor and the central principle in evaluation. And mail order marketers will tell you – it’s all about test and learn. The science is never settled, the truth is never known.

There is only doubt.


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