As a result of COVID-19, science has been thrust into the center of the toxic culture war surrounding vaccines. One side of the aisle believes that the scientific status quo is beyond questioning. The other believes that personal experience and anecdotes trump peer-reviewed research.
Both positions are wrong. Scientific dogma can and should be challenged. However, pseudo-science and personal anecdotes are not the way to do it. We do not progress our collective understanding of the world through hearsay and gut feeling; we do it through rigorous scientific inquiry.
History tells us that no scientific dogma should be beyond skepticism. In the 1960s, scientists of the day said that stomach ulcers and gastritis were caused by lifestyle issues like stress. In 1982, Dr. Barry Marshall and Dr. Robin Warren looked at the tissues of those with stomach ulcers and noticed there was an unidentified bacteria in virtually all cases.
Their findings were dismissed by the scientific community. As they were not even able to conduct experiments on humans, one of the doctors actually drank the bacteria – and got very ill with stomach ulcers as a result.
This act of scientific bravery eroded the dogma and allowed fruitful research to be conducted on the bacteria. In 1996, 14 years after their discovery, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the treatments that stemmed from this finding. Marshall and Warren received the Nobel Prize in 2005.
The point here is not that the FDA was wrong. The point is that our understanding of medicine can and should evolve in the face of new findings. But it’s only additional scientific research, and not anecdotal evidence or personal bias, that will make that happen.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, medical misinformation can be fatal. But then, so can incorrect medical instruction. In the 20 years I’ve worked in medicine, a lot has changed. Many things we believed as dogma have been disproven: You’re now less likely to have your tonsils needlessly removed, your stomach tied to avoid traveling blood clots, and your back operated on for unrelated conditions.
We must remember: The plural of anecdote is not data. You can give as many real-world examples as you like of cases when stress has exacerbated a stomach ulcer. Without the scientific data, your gut feeling will remain nothing more than that: a gut feeling.
It’s in our nature as humans to be resistant to change. New ideas that challenge the dogma, even in the cold, sober world of science and medicine, are met with resistance. There’s nothing wrong with challenging the narrative; it’s just that the evidence needs to be backed up the right way.
COVID-19 is not the first disease to be mired in misinformation, nor will it be the last. Between the 1960s and 1980s, an alternative cancer treatment called Laetrile gained popularity. Made from the pits of apricots that contain cyanide, popular anecdotes of the day claimed that it was effective in treating cancer.
Scientific studies provided no evidence to support its supposed benefits, but that did not stop thousands of patients – including influential Hollywood icon Steve McQueen – from traveling to Mexico and beyond to visit Laetrile clinics.
Laetrile was free. It was not a product of big pharma and, as such, people believed there was a conspiracy in place to block access to this non-profit-making drug that would cure them. This medical misinformation led sick people in need of traditional chemotherapy to hang their hopes on something that had never been proven to be effective. Indeed, many died from Laetrile poisoning.
As humans, we are sometimes more attracted to anecdotes and storytelling than we are to data and evidence.
This dangerous instinct can kick in when we hear people talking about what they did that led to their COVID-19 recovery. Some of us forget that there is more than a 98 percent chance that any COVID-positive individual will recover.
Who, then, is the judge of what is medical misinformation and what is scientific debate? The scientific status quo can only be challenged with double-blinded, peer-reviewed studies.
COVID-19 must serve as a lesson for both scientists and the public at large. The vaccine debate has eroded trust in the scientific community. In order to bring it back, we need to shine a light on how, and why, scientific research is conducted. Research must not be a walled garden that is only understandable to the select few. It must be made available to, and understandable for, the public at large.
Ultimately, science is not a set of facts, but a system. It’s the same system that ended smallpox and gave us penicillin, antibiotics and insulin shots. We are right to be skeptical of any scientific status quo. However, the only way to support that skepticism is through data, not anecdotes.
Science and skepticism are both worth defending. Disinformation isn’t.
Jonathan Baktari, MD, is an internal medicine, pulmonary and critical care medicine physician and the CEO of e7 Health, a vaccine health clinic.