Science Has Been Wrong Before

Frances Kelsey, MD, while working at the FDA, refused to approve thalidomide, sparing many US children the tragic birth defects the drug caused in other countries.
Frances Kelsey, MD, while working at the FDA, refused to approve thalidomide, sparing many US children the tragic birth defects the drug caused in other countries.

Doctors sometimes get things wrong.

Anti-vaccine folks like to bring that up as an argument.

They like it a lot.

And if doctors were wrong before, like about treating people with leeches, smoking cigarettes, or prescribing thalidomide, then why can’t they be wrong about vaccines?

Science Was Wrong Before Fallacy

It’s not just doctors though.

Science, in general, sometimes does get things wrong.

After all, we used to think that the earth was flat (some people still do), that we could figure out how to turn mercury into gold (alchemy), and that the earth was the center of the universe.

But scientists kept working on these issues, came up with new ways to think about them, confirmed them using the scientific method, and put things right.

“It’s not so much about being right or wrong, it’s about how you deal with the evidence that is available, and how you resolve uncertainty. Good scientists and doctors seek out new evidence when there is uncertainty, using good quality methods to answer important questions. Then, when the results are in, they don’t put their hands over their ears and eyes: they look at the new evidence, and change their minds if the evidence warrants a change.

What distinguishes quackery is not so much the kind of intervention being used, but rather, a disregard for those simple, fair principles. And to be clear, plenty of doctors and scientists are slapdash with respect to those principles, but it’s a matter of degree. Doctors can be slow off the mark to change, sometimes. There might be a degree of politics, especially in what questions get researched. But it’s unusual to find a doctor screaming outright in your face that night is day and black is white, when the evidence is right there; in the realm of quackery, that level of fruitcakery is much more common. ”

Ben Goldacre, MD

Of course, doctors and scientists aren’t always going to be right.

But whenever someone brings up thalidomide (but fails to mention that it was a pediatrician who first noticed it was causing birth defects or that Frances Oldham Kelsey, M.D., while working at the FDA, made sure that it was never even approved in the US), maybe mention all of the things doctors and scientists have gotten right – antibiotics, chemotherapy, food safety, fortification of foods to prevent nutritional deficiencies, seat belts and car seats, and of course, vaccines.

And when they bring up how doctors were wrong about smoking cigarettes, lead paint, or radiation exposure, bring up that:

  • John Lockhart Gibson was a doctor in Australia who noticed an association between lead paint and lead poisoning in 1904 and led a campaign to have most lead paint banned from inside homes in Australia in 1920 and later, with Sir Thomas Morrison Legge, by members of the League of Nations in 1922. And Dr. Alice Hamilton warned about lead paint and leaded gasoline as early as 1925, in a meeting with the Surgeon General, even if it would take many decades for other researchers to overcome the powerful effects of the industry backed research of Robert Kehoe and Dr. Joseph Aub. While lead in paint wasn’t banned in the US until the 1970s, the amount of paint in lead was reduced in the 1950s. And thanks to a pediatrician, Herbert Needleman, lead in gasoline was eventually banned too.
  • the first research that linked smoking and cancer came out in the 1950s and the the Surgeon General report warning about smoking followed in 1964
  • while scientists once thought that radiation wasn’t harmful and that X-ray machines could even be used as a way to get the best fitting shoes (the shoe fitting fluoroscope), there were many efforts to encourage safe use of medical radiology during the Golden Age of Radiology, from 1915 to 1940.

Doctors were also wrong about the dangers of sitting too close to the TV (the roots of that warning is probably about radiation from the first TVs though, which was kind of real), that stress was the main cause of stomach ulcers (it’s H. pylori bacteria instead), and that you should avoid peanut butter and other foods when you start your baby on solids.

Dr. Spock even recommended that mothers put their babies to sleep on their stomachs, which defies everything we now know about reducing a babies risk SIDS (safe to sleep)!

“As well as being a flawed argument, it also shows ignorance of how science works. Yes, science has been wrong, but the scientific method is self-correcting. And it is always scientists who have unearthed new evidence who do the correcting, never people who ignore the scientific method.”

Skeptico

Unlike most in the anti-vaccine community, when given new evidence, in all of these situations, most doctors changed their minds and the way they practice medicine.

And it was science and doctors who figured out they were wrong.

Contrast that with all of the times that the alternative medicine community have been wrong – secretin shots for autism, Lupron injections (chemical castration) for autism, laetrile for cancer, and shark cartilage for cancer, etc. Even though there was no science to support their initial use and they were proven to be ineffective, and in some cases dangerous, some still push their use. Just like they push the use of chelation as a treatment for autism.

Again, more often than not, science gets it right.

Just like when another doctor in Australia, Norman McAlister Gregg, discovered the link between rubella infections and congenital rubella infections way back in 1941. We soon had a vaccine which helped put an end to decades of rubella epidemics, miscarriages, neonatal deaths, and babies being born with severe birth defects, and yet, many in the anti-vaccine community still get it wrong about the need for the MMR vaccine.

What about the idea that science will always be wrong because their studies are biased and influenced by money and not by real science? That seemed to be how the cigarette and lead industries kept going for so long, and there are likely some effects of that in some nutrition guidelines, but that is all before medical journals required researchers to disclose any conflicts of interest they might have. So, whatever conspiracy folks might think, Big Pharma isn’t hiding the cure for cancer and isn’t using chemtrails to control people so they buy more vaccines and prescription drugs.

And the idea that science might eventually be proven wrong about a link between vaccines and autism? There is already overwhelming evidence that vaccines don’t cause autism.

The ‘science’ behind the anti-vaccine movement is also clear and it explains why they have been getting things wrong for over two hundred years.

What To Know About The Science Was Wrong Before Fallacy

Using the argument that science or medicine was wrong before, common among anti-vaccine folks, is a logical fallacy and a good way to lose a debate with someone who knows what they are really talking about.

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