Upside-DownOrdinary people don’t care very much about science because it’s largely irrelevant to them. They think scientists are smart people who study strange things for obscure reasons. Scientists generally don’t explain their experiments, which is understandable because they are hard to explain, and lay people don’t care anyway. The amazing thing is that lay people don’t seem to care why scientists do what they do, notwithstanding that the public is paying all the bills. Even if you assumed that all public-funded research is worthwhile, questions of priority should necessarily arise because the amount of funding isn’t infinite. But serious questions regarding priority for scientific funding are as rare as Diogenes’ honest man. For example, the government spends billions of dollars to discover the Higgs boson, but nothing to discover the hazards of cell-phone EMFs. Such upside-down priorities are inevitable results of society’s disinterest in the science it funds.

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Crafty Man

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CraftyThe crafty man’s teacher had been a famous scientist who had prospered on government funds and whose students had grown to prominence and taken their places on the government study sections that reviewed proposals for research support. When the crafty man applied for grants, his study section viewed his applications like requests for help from a family member. The section members who were not already in his family were discreetly invited to visit his school, where they were entertained well and paid honoraria. The study section smiled on his applications and those of his students. In turn, he and his students smiled on the applications of the members of the study section and their students. So it has gone for three generations.

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DoctorClinical thinking differs from scientific thinking. Clinicians use intuition as well as logic. They typically offer informed guesses rather than complete solutions. They are as much concerned with the value of a diagnosis as with its accuracy. Probabilities are important in clinical diagnosis, which is a holistic approach to the patient.

Do you want the Federal Communications Commission to think like a clinician when it ponders the question of safety of cell phones? Alternatively, would you like the FCC to wait until God sends an angel with objectively certain evidence of harm before the agency officially announces that there might be a problem with cell phones?

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VoteIf you recognize that experts in biology and medicine always state their facts using words connected with feelings and opinions, you will immediately see that their facts are more or less subjective. The best they can do is to consistently follow a method that had been arrived at through a democratic process where the voters were practicing biological and medical experts. On the other hand, the meaning of the biological and medical facts in the world is always strictly a matter to be decided by the people and their politicians, not by the biological and medical experts.

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Probabilities

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RiskDespite the inherent uncertainty and unpredictability regarding how EMFs will affect individual persons, we live in a world where the future more or less resembles the past, that is to say, in a world that is broadly lawful and deterministic. To properly accommodate this reality we must confine our inferences and claims regarding EMF risks to statistical statements, as we do with other risks.

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InsidiousThe power companies needed scientific mumbo-jumbo to advance their economic-based interests regarding EMF safety, so they bought the doubt, confusion, and lies that they needed from Richard Phillips and others like him. The companies’ reaction to the threat they faced was instinctive, like a snake-bite.

The government approach to the EMF hazards issue, in contrast, was more insidious. Governor Hugh Carey of New York wanted a powerline. Achieving this goal required that EMFs not cause any biological changes in the bodies of the citizens of the state who lived along the route of the line. Otherwise, the powerline could not be labeled safe and could not be built for the amount of money he had to spend. When he told the people that the powerline would be safe, they trusted him in a way they normally don’t trust power companies.

The situation was the same with the U.S. foreign service officers in the Moscow embassy. They knew about the Russian microwave beam, but they believed the CIA’s Sam Koslov when he told them that the beam and the high cancer rate among the embassy officers were not linked. They just did not suspect their government would lie to them, and experiment on them.

The situation was also the same with Captain Paul Tyler of the Navy, who desperately did not want EMFs to be a health risk because he thought recognizing that fact would imperil the ability of the armed forces to defend our country. The people in Michigan believed him when he said that the huge antenna the Navy wanted to build would be perfectly safe. It was as if he put a sedative in the water supply so that the people could not distinguish dream and reality.

We expect to be misled by power and cell-phone companies because that’s part of the process for producing profits. We need to be equally skeptical regarding spokesmen for governmental executive agencies.

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When my NIH grant came up for renewal I felt reasonably confident because I had been productive by NIH standards, and I was the only investigator in the U.S. who was funded by NIH to study powerline health risks, but my application was rejected by the Radiation Study Section. One of the members of that Study Section was Melvin Sikov, who worked at Battelle Pacific Northwest Laboratories, which had vast research support from the Electric Power Research Institute for EMF studies on mice, rats, and pigs. I complained to Catharine Wingate, the Executive Secretary of the Study Section, about what appeared to me to be a conflict of interest. She said that the Study Section members were “people of science,” and that she couldn’t imagine that Sikov would allow his judgment to be influenced by “personal considerations.” I doubted that. What I learned for sure was that the anonymous reviewer of my proposal thought that funding it would be a complete waste of government money because “far superior” research on EMFs was being done elsewhere.

Science people

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Suitors

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Bride PriceApplications for federal grants to do research always present an over-rosy picture of the preliminary work that had been done. The applications also make impossible promises for what would be done during the grant period and provide self-serving encapsulations of how important the work would be. The game is to out-promise your competitors while not sounding ludicrous. There is no other limitation on the promised benefits because the government has no mechanism to compare the results it gets for its grant dollar with what the applicant promised.

It’s like a suitor who promises a maiden’s father to pay a goat as a bride price, but isn’t required to actually deliver the goat. The suitor needs only to out-promise his competitors and persuade her father that he could deliver as promised.

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The Problem

Eye of the BeholderI think it is a biomedical fact that environmental electromagnetic fields (EMFs) such as those from powerlines and cell telephones are health hazards, but all the industry experts I’ve ever known disagree with me, at least publicly. Their opinions are less rational and less respectful of biomedical science than mine. Nevertheless because they have always spoken from the bully pulpit, they succeeded in making indiscriminate denial of responsibility for inadvertently causing EMF hazards seem as natural as the law of gravity.

I understand why industry experts are generally more persuasive than I among laymen and officials of government agencies who don’t have the time or inclination to give the EMF issue more than a passing glance. Companies have the rights to advertise, engage in creative exaggeration, and even tell outright lies. Political decisions by executive agencies normally favor societal stability over individual health. People are busy.

The volume and repetition of the misleading industry message about EMF safety, and its generally favorable reception in the corridors of political power are two good reasons ordinary people tend to disregard consideration of the causative role of EMFs in their diseases. But I think a more crucial reason is the pervasively popular misconception of what biomedical science is and how it works.

Laymen commonly assume that grammatically opposite statements such as EMFs are health hazards and EMFs are not health hazards are mutually exclusive in the sense that the truth of one excludes the truth of the others. Actually, however, grammatically opposite biomedical facts are a necessary consequence of the canonical method of biomedical science. This popular misconception of biomedical science is the soil in which the seeds of doubt and confusion about EMF hazards planted by industry and watered by government are able to take root and grow.

My aim here is to explain why both statements are simultaneously true. My goal is to lessen the importance of the misconception in accounting for the unhappy situation in which people blunder into making themselves sick. I will not address the problem of which fact is truer, but rather will focus on why EMFs are health hazards and EMFs are not health hazards are both plausible biomedical facts.

Necessity for an Empirical Approach

To explain how grammatically opposite statements can both be biomedical facts an inquiry is needed into what biomedical facts are and how they are made. They do not come from holy books but rather are the product of a broadly used but poorly explicated method-based enterprise called biomedical research.

The textbook definitions and philosophical explanations of biomedical research that I know about are fatally inadequate. The definitions are grossly simplistic (the stuff you get when you Google “scientific method”), or solipsistically irrelevant (the opinions of Popper, Kuhn, Hempel, and Kitcher). These attempts were failures because they didn’t even come close to describing what I and my colleagues who also are professional biomedical research scientists really do, day in and day out. What the community of biomedical scientists does is the sole valid standard for identifying what biomedical research is. (I am not addressing what it was, or what any particular philosopher thinks it ought to be, but rather what it is in modern times.)

An understanding of what biomedical scientists do can be gleaned from an analysis of biomedical research described in scientific journals. I randomly chose Issue 5248 of the prestigious journal Science, published January 26, 1996, but any issue of any journal would suffice because the insights gained don’t change.

The biomedical facts contained in the 16 reports in the Issue fell into two broad classes, inferential and observational (Table). Grammatically opposite biomedical facts regarding observations are essentially nonexistent because measurement methods and observational techniques are generally well-established and agreed upon among experts. For example, I have never seen a serious disagreement among scientists regarding the validity of observations of the intensity, frequency, or dynamical properties of environmental EMFs. Disagreements regarding biomedical measurements sometimes occur but, for our purposes, they are inconsequential. I will therefore focus on the cognitive biomedical facts in the reports in order to identify the nature of inferential biomedical facts (Figure).

Inferential Biomedical Facts

The report dealing with why normal cells usually do not grow when they become attached to a substrate (10) was a typical example of how a biomedical fact was determined. The authors presented measurements of the concentration of CDK inhibitors and the amount of phosphorylation that occurred in a particular type of cell when the cells were attached to glass, and compared those values with similar measurements in unattached cells of the same type. Given what was generally known about how cells stick to glass, the authors concluded that the observed changes in concentration and phosphorylation were a reasonable explanation for why cell-sticking occurred.

I personally don’t accept the author’s reasoning because the molecular biology of cell adhesion involves numerous other mechanistic processes, changes in any of which are equally reasonable explanations for the observations. So, the authors (and the editor of Science) have their opinion, and I have mine. In other words, the statements “CDK concentration changes make cells stick” and “The evidence does not indicate that CDK concentration changes make cells stick” are both biomedical facts (which statement is more true in the sense of more justified is not the kind of issue I’m addressing here). A similar analysis can be carried out for every other report in the issue.

The term most frequently employed in the reports to describe the link between the study measurements and the putative inferential biomedical fact was “suggests”, but many other euphemisms were used in the other reports involving inferential biomedical facts (Table) including: “indicate”; “may have been instrumental”; “not unreasonable”; “results in”; “may be one of the mechanisms”; “consistent with”; “provide direct evidence for”; “is the most likely”; “is involved in”; “raised the possibility”; “believed that”; “may underlie”; “provide insight into”; “support a determining role”; “orchestrated”; “does not readily account for”; “showed”; “confirmed the role of”. The English language is rich in expressions that invite the reader to believe what the writer believes. The critical point is that none of the asserted biomedical facts requires acceptance because there are always variables other than those evaluated by the authors that could have been responsible for their observations. In other words, whatever biomedical claim one regards as a fact, the judgment of biomedical factness is always partly subjective, just as is the case for other kinds of human judgments.

Second Dimension of Subjectivity

A distinctly different subjective dimension regarding inferential biomedical facts arises whenever a similar or related study is performed by other investigators. Consider the biomedical fact urged by the authors that changes in CDK concentration and phosphorylation caused loss of cell anchorage (10). Assume that another group performed a similar study but did not find the same results. Although replicability is the hallmark of scientific validity, a failure to find something is not good evidence that the thing sought doesn’t exist because anybody can find nothing. Consequently a negative report cannot automatically be interpreted as undercutting the reliability of a positive report. In actual scientific practice, the attitude adopted toward a mixed state of evidence depends on the interests of the person or group doing the evaluation. An author of a review article would typically hedge a decision (“The data is conflicting, and no firm conclusion is possible”). But sometimes hedging is not a viable option, as when one conclusion or the other would materially influence the design of particular experiments. In these cases, various factors are normally considered including the extent of the evaluator’s faith in the ability and honesty of the investigators, the reputation of the laboratories, whether they were in industry or academia, the track record of the investigators, insider information, and style of presentation of the results. Some evaluators will consider the relative prestige of the investigators’ institutions or their nationalities. The number of factors that may be considered is indeterminately large. The point is that, in the face of mixed results, which is commonly the case, the cognitive value of the scientific evidence in a particular area depends on who is evaluating it, and why. There is no necessarily right or wrong means of performing these analyses.

Third Dimension of Subjectivity

A still further dimension of subjectivity regarding what constitutes a biomedical fact involves the process by which it is given meaning in the world outside the laboratory. Consider the conclusion that vigilance caused an increase in brain blood flow (12). Assume that exactly the same change in blood flow occurred when subjects were exposed to EMFs. To avoid the difficulty of mixed results from different studies discussed above, assume further that the study was exactly replicated many times, and always with the same result. Would the totality of that evidence indicate the existence of a health hazard to individuals exposed to environmental EMFs? Because a change in blood flow accompanies every cognitive act and every sensation, it could be argued that changes in brain blood flow caused by EMFs were normal physiological responses, and thus not hazardous. On the other hand, a change in blood flow also accompanies every pathological change, and perhaps the adopted decisional rule should be to err on the side of caution and tentatively regard the exposure as a hazard, at least in the case where the exposure is involuntary. Either way, it is clear that the validity of the putative biomedical fact will be made, not found.

Biomedical Facts Like Jury Decisions

The reports in Issue 5248 clearly revealed that there are multiple dimensions of uncertainty associated with biomedical facts. The reports showed that inferential biomedical facts generated by experts while following the canonical method of biomedical research are inherently problematical in the sense that reasonable scientists may differ profoundly regarding the degree of validity of the facts.

It is indubitably the case that the formation of biological generalizations by extrapolation of cell, animal, and human data to form judgments regarding health risks fundamentally involves non-empirical elements. That’s not to say that biomedical facts like those relating to EMF safety are entirely subjective, only that they contain subjective elements, like the decision of a jury. The jury metaphor works well at two levels. It illuminates the inherently mixed subjective–objective nature of human judgment regarding any factual claim. The metaphor also highlights the notion that a judgment entails a numerical justification scale, like preponderance of the evidence for civil trials (>50%), clear and compelling in first-amendment cases (>75%), and beyond a reasonable doubt in criminal cases (>95%).

Conflicts resulting from differing subjective elements are particularly acute in epidemiological studies. In these studies, hugely and explicitly non-empirical decisional principles such as Koch’s postulates and Hill’s criteria are commonly used to rationalize idiosyncratic denials of EMF hazards.

The subjective elements are non-empirical reasoning principles and therefore cannot be determined by the data, but only on the basis of policy or purpose. Biomedical data never speaks for itself but rather is always spoken for, so its ultimate meaning is always in the eye of the beholder.

People can differ regarding what conclusions are well justified, so naturally they can differ regarding what biomedical facts the data suggests. Considering the fundamentally divergent interests of the EMF industry, the involuntarily exposed laymen who have a serious interest in minimizing their environmentally-triggered illnesses, and the government, it is not surprising that these three stakeholder groups do not see eye to eye to eye. EMF industry leaders don’t want to cause your cancer, but their interest in you not getting cancer is less than yours.

Table

Figure

References

  1. Grotzfeld, R.M., Branda, N. and Rebek Jr., J. Reversible encapsulation of disc-shaped guests by a synthetic, self-assembled host. Science. 271:487–489, 1996.
  2. Nguyen, T.N., Lee, P.A. and zur Loye, H.-C. Design of a random quantum spin chain paramagnet: Sr3PuPt0.5Ir0.5O6. Science. 271:489–491, 1996.
  3. Brannon, J.C., Cole, S.C., Podosek, F.A., Ragan, V.M., Coveney Jr., R.M., Wallace, M.W. and Bradley, A.J. Th-Pb and U-Pb dating of ore-stage calcite and paleozoic fluid flow. Science. 271:491–493, 1996.
  4. Linnen, J., Wages Jr., J., Zhang-Keck, Z.-Y. and Fry, K.E., et al. Molecular cloning and disease association of hepatitis G virus: A transfusion-transmissible agent. Science. 271:505–508, 1996.
  5. Baljon, A.R.C. and Robbins, M.O. Energy dissipation during rupture of adhesive bonds. Science. 271:482–484, 1996.
  6. Doye, J.P.K. and Wales, D.J. The structure and stability of atomic liquids: From clusters to bulk. Science. 271:484–487, 1996.
  7. van Cappelen, P. and Ingall, E.D. Redox stabilization of the atmosphere and oceans by phosphorus-limited marine productivity. Science. 271:493–496, 1996.
  8. Phillips, A.N. Reduction of HIV concentration during acute infection: Independence from a specific murine response. Science. 271:497–499, 1996.
  9. Chandrasekharan, U.M., Sanker, S., Glynias, M.J., Karnik, S.S. and Husain, A. Angiotensin II-forming activity in a reconstructed ancestral chymase. Science. 271:502–505, 1996.
  10. Fang, F., Orend, G., Watanabe, N., Hunter, T. and Ruoslahti, E. Dependence of cyclin-E-CDK2 kinase activity on cell anchorage. Science. 271:499–502, 1996.
  11. Weber, G.F., Askhar, S., Glimcher, M.J. and Cantor, H. Receptor-ligand interaction between CD44 and osteopontin (Eta-1). Science. 271:509–512, 1996.
  12. Kinomura, S., Larsson, J., Gulyás, G. and Roland, P.E. Activation by attention of the human reticular formation and thalamic intralaminar nuclei. Science. 271:512–515, 1996.
  13. Wiedau-Pazos, M., Goto, J.J., Rabizadeh, S., Gralla, E.B., Roe, J.A., Lee, M.K., Valentine, J.S. and Bredesen, D.E. Altered reactivity of superoxide dismutase in familial amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Science. 271:515–518, 1996.
  14. Acton, S., Rigotti, A., Landschultz, K.T., Xu, S., Hobbs, H.H. and Krieger, M. Identification of scavenger receptor SR-BI as a high density lipoprotein receptor. Science. 271:518–520, 1996.
  15. Vito, P., Lacaná, E. and d’Adamio, L. Interfering with apoptosis: Ca2+-binding protein ALG-2 and Alzheimer’s disease gene ALG-3. Science. 271:521–525, 1996.
  16. Feldman, D.E., Brainard, M.S. and Knudsen, E.I. Newly learned auditory responses mediated by NMDA receptors in the owl inferior colliculus. Science. 271:525–528, 1996.
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Free Will A rumor circulated about a doctor in Switzerland who had discovered a youth-restoring enzyme. A very old billionaire industrialist and benefactor of a famous medical school asked a scientist on the school’s faculty to investigate whether the treatment actually worked. Brimming with faith in the ability of the scientific method to yield clear and certain knowledge, and mindful of the industrialist’s influence on the administrators of his school, the scientist made the arduous trip to the doctor’s mountaintop laboratory to investigate the matter.

The scientist gained the doctor’s cooperation and began observing his clinical practice and studying his records, looking for measurements of something evidencing the youthful vigor that would allow the treatment’s effectiveness to be objectively assessed. The doctor had measured many different endpoints before and after the old men were injected, and had made many behavioral observations that involved the ability to perform in real-world situations. The pre- and post-treatment results had sometimes differed, but there was no obvious best choice of measurement type or amount of change of a particular behavior that clearly indicated increased vigor. And that was only part of the difficulty the scientist had in interpreting the meaning of the data. He struggled with the problem of how to assess whether any particular case of improvement was actually due to the enzyme injection or was simply a chance result. He worried that the good results might be due to one or more uncontrolled factors, vitamins for example.

As he reflected on the evidence he felt increased poignancy regarding the potential causal role of unknown factors. Progressively he realized that the scientific method was not completely objective, as he had once imagined, but more nuanced and partly human. Ultimately he saw that the scientific method, at its core, depended on man’s will regarding the meaning of what the method produced. And since man has free will, he can choose his own facts by choosing what observations mean. God can know what a thing really is, a scientist cannot.

Nevertheless the industrialist expected a definitive answer. The scientist considered reporting the gist of what he learned, that on rare occasions it seemed likely that some old men had improved, at least as indicated by the babies they had fathered. He thought he might say that he just didn’t know what would happen if the old man traveled to Switzerland and took the treatment. It might rejuvenate him, as it appeared to have done in some cases. But the scientist realized that his hope of becoming department chairman would never be fulfilled if the industrialist made the difficult trip and his treatment failed. On the other hand, dismissing the treatment as pure bunk would resonate with the old man’s idea that the truths of science were certain and surely would end his interest in the treatment, leaving him disappointed but grateful for the effort that had been made on his behalf to find the truth.

In the end, feeling obligated by the circumstances and his own best interests, the scientist reported that the treatment was a failure. In due course he became chairman of his department, but he never went further because his path was blocked by other men more skilled than he in attaching meaning to events.

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