Reviews of The epidemiologists
Some early comments
September 12, 2004
Why must medical research resort to quackery?
Dr James Le Fanu
It is difficult to know how to respond to the sheer idiocy of what nowadays passes for medical research. Even the most distinguished centres of learning are at it – such as the investigators at Harvard University who last year offered some further so-called "insights" into the causes of breast cancer.
Now this, as we all know, is a most grievous illness, which though more readily treatable than in the past, still blights the lives of thousands of women every year. It is also, perplexingly, becoming increasingly more common, especially in younger women, and clearly it would be very useful to understand why, the better to do something to prevent it.
The Harvard researchers reported their findings from an investigation into the lifestyle of 120,000 nurses, from which it emerged that those eating on average one egg a day could reduce their risk of the disease by almost 20 per cent.
They also found, by some extraordinary coincidence, precisely the same effect in those eating on average one hot dog every day. This was, however, eclipsed by broccoli, where apparently every additional serving reduced the risk by a quarter.
That is the good news; the bad is that every glass of wine a day increases the risk by six per cent, although, if correct, a woman would have to knock back 12 drinks a day for 30 years for this to be a serious threat – by which time no doubt she would already have succumbed to a combination of brain damage and liver failure.
These findings cannot possibly be true and, indeed, the insouciance with which the Harvard researchers report them suggests that they think so too. It would, after all, be very important indeed if alcohol really did increase the risk of breast cancer, and a daily diet of eggs, hot dogs and broccoli reduced it.
This parody of science has been a familiar lament in this column over the years but now, thanks to John Brignell, a former professor of industrial instrumentation, we know why. Prof Brignell has, as his field of expertise would suggest, always been concerned with the value of precise measurement, on whose integrity and accuracy so much of human society depends. If we don't get the measurements right, buildings will fall down and machinery grind to a halt.
There are clear parallels here with medicine, where accuracy is equally important, but when Prof Brignell came to investigate the research examining the links between lifestyle and disease,
he discovered such "systematic lying on a grand scale", such a "complete travesty of the truth", that he decided to write a book about it.
It is, he points out, intrinsic to the human condition to want to understand why things happen: why the sun rises and sets, why the tides ebb and flow and why one person gets a particular illness and another doesn't.
The problem of course is that "causes" in nature are invariably concealed from view and it is necessary to find some way of making them apparent. Hence the enormous success of the microscope in the 19th century, allowing scientists to visualise for the first time the minuscule bacteria that cause infectious diseases.
The modem-day equivalent is the search for the causes of illness in the infinite complexity of people's lives by comparing those with and without some condition and then inferring that any obvious difference must be a contributory factor. This clearly works when comparing the disease profile of smokers with non-smokers, but when "the cause" is due to some unknown biological agent, such studies will be unable to identify it and, instead, wrongly infer that some aspect of lifestyle is responsible.
The interest of Prof Brignell's book is his lucid exposition of the many ways the researchers, deliberately or otherwise, fail to distinguish truth from mere conjecture, providing the never-ending stream of health scares with which we are by now so familiar.
This type of scientific research not only trivialises a serious matter but also manages to obscure what is known about the causes of breast cancer and what can or cannot be done about it.
Thus the rise in incidence in recent years is clearly related to changing patterns of reproduction, and the effect that this might have on the exposure of the tissue of the breast to female hormones. There seems no doubt that those who delay having children until their thirties and then breastfeed them for just a few weeks have a moderately increased risk of the disease. But this is not necessarily something that one can do much about.
It is scarcely realistic to suggest that all women should have their first baby early, before the age of 20, produce lots of them and breastfeed them all for several months. So, instead, medical researchers advise that they should avoid alcohol and eat more eggs and hot dogs. Quackery rules OK.
From Warning Signs by Alan Caruba
Manufacturing Scares for Profit and Power
Some years ago I discovered a website, Number Watch, maintained by a Professor Emeritus of Industrial Instrumentation who resides in England. It was and is devoted to debunking the many scare campaigns that assail and afflict us daily via idiotic headlines in newspapers and other stories broadcast on radio and television. John Brignell, like myself, was so incensed by these deliberate lies, many of which have caused the needless deaths of millions, that he has devoted himself to attacking them.
When his book, Sorry, Wrong Number, was published a few years ago, I was pleased to enthusiastically endorse it for the way he demonstrated the distortion of statistics to advance bad and false "scientific" claims. He has recently published The Epidemiologists: Have They Got Scares for You! The best and easiest way to purchase one or both is to visit www.numberwatch.co.uk. Suffice it to say they both have garnered great reviews.
I have come to know Prof. Brignell via his lively, witty, monthly commentaries on his website, through his books, and the occasional exchange of emails. In his most recent book, he initially guides the reader through to an understanding of how "scientific" data can and is routinely distorted or simply invented out of thin air to achieve short-term fame or long-range campaigns to ban anything or force lifestyle changes on people by getting politicians to write bad laws based on bad "science."
"After a couple of centuries in which science, representing the triumph of reason, had revolutionized human life and tripled life-span, it was now reduced to the status of necromancy or astrology", writes Prof. Brignell in his new book. "As I researched the subject I began to discover a systematic lying on a grand scale, reaching into the upper strata of our society."
One branch of science, in particular, receives the attention of his new book. Epidemiology began as an effort to determine the real causes of epidemics that took hundreds and thousands of lives. In our modern era, many are unaware of the effect on history that disease has had. From the Bubonic plague to Malaria, Smallpox, Influenza, Typhus ad Typhoid, Cholera and Tuberculosis, among others, disease has decimated vast populations and still has the capacity to do so. The recent outbreak of SARS in China sent shock waves of fear through the entire world.
At a time when neither physicians, nor the public had any idea of what germs were or how rapidly they multiplied given the right circumstances, people believed such epidemics were the result of "bad air" poisoned by the emissions from swamps or other sources. Indeed, Malaria comes from the Italian translation for bad air. Sanitation in large cities and small was virtually non-existent.
Not until the scientific methods were developed to identify the true sources of disease, along with the development of the statistical testing of scientific hypotheses, were these diseases identified and the means found to avoid their spread. This took several centuries, beginning seriously in the 1700s with the rise of the Age of Reason.
Today, however, the media spread the contagion of "junk" science based on the most worthless claims made, as often as not, in formerly respected science journals. Often, the claims are nothing more than a public relations "news" release by some institution that wants to gain attention for its "researchers" and "scientists." Time and again, when such claims are found to be baseless, that news goes unreported.
Throughout his new book, Prof. Brignell repeats, "Correlation is not causation." It is the one lesson he wants to reader to retain because all junk science claims are replete with the words, "might", "may" and "could." Something might cause cancer. Something may trigger heart disease. Something you eat could make you fat. Over and above all these claims is the most obvious condition of mankind. As one gets older, they become more likely to become ill from some cause.
The corruption of science is vast. As Albert Einstein once pointed out, "Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former."
Stupidity or just plain old ignorance contributes greatly to these "modern times" in which millions of people succumb daily to the latest or most on-going scare generated by environmentalists and, in the case of Prof. Brignell’s new book, scares by epidemiologists concerning diet, i.e., food and drink of every description, campaigns waged against the proper use of pesticides, chemicals that attack disease-spreading insects and rodents, or herbicides, chemicals that attack weeds that reduce the capacity for farming large quantities of wheat, rice, corn and all the other food products available through modern agriculture.
Then there are the lies about radon, chlorine, salt, and even vitamin supplements, to name just a few of the campaigns cited in The Epidemiologists.
Behind all this scare mongering is the quest for power and profit. The many organizations that have proliferated to control our lives, our choices, our freedom to enjoy anything and everything that tastes or feels good, exist for both the gratification of exercising power and, in many cases, for the millions of dollars that can flow to such organizations through donations, sales, and government grants.
Learn how to spot fallacious logical arguments. Develop your capacity for critical reading, and discover how emancipating it is to free yourself of the endless stream of lies that passes for science in the public interest these days.
Referring to one such study, Prof. Brignell calls it "a festival of numerical prestidigitation."
It is this combination of rock solid knowledge, a raging skepticism, and a talent for the felicitous phrase that makes his latest (and previous) book so worth reading.
From Henry Thorton
|Author: Louis Hissink|
|The epidemiologists – Have they got the scares
for you! By John Brignell, Brignell and Associates, Great Britain, 2004.
Hot of the press, this latest book by John Brignell outing the charlatans amongst us is most disturbing. Disturbing because what I, and I suppose most of us, read in the newspapers and assume to be accurate, is anything but - the amount of rank bull dust masquerading as scientific fact published by the media is astonishing.
John Brignell retired early from his Professorship of Industrial Instrumentation at the University of Southampton to write about the abuses of measurement – leading to his first book – Sorry – wrong number! Published in 2000. Since then he has set up his website “www.numberwatch.co.uk” where hapless individuals and organisations are roundly castigated for various numerical crimes. I inadvertently scored a hit there too – which arose from a misunderstanding of how we in the mining industry compute statistics – but it did lead to a very succinct analysis of global warming statistics and another demonstration that global warming is a sham.
But back to this book – as the title suggests, it has something to do with epidemics and hence the medical profession and the health-care industry. The book starts off with a good start by repeating two newspaper headlines in the UK – The Independent , June 5 2001 - “Pets double children's risk of asthma attacks” and the from the BBC a few days earlier “Keeping pets prevents allergies”.
Assuming that the both The Independent and the BBC got their information from the same source, how could such contradictory statements be published? Or how about “Pain killers prevent cancer”, yet at another time “Regular pain killer use linked to cancer”. Clearly the newspapers are obviously quoting scientific studies, perhaps it was because scientists were contradicting each other, or is it.
Damning as it is, Brignell sums it up nicely by writing that “science, ..had revolutionised human life and tripled life-span, ..was now reduced to the status of necromancy or astrology. Brignell's expertise was in avionic instrumentation and from what one reads, it was the published baloney in his daily morning newspaper which prompted his first opus - “Sorry, wrong number”. Having finished that area of science, he then discovers another branch of science that also seemed to have degenerated into a corrupt travesty – epidemiology – the science of epidemics.
What concerned him more than anything was how the very people who sought to introduce scientific rigour into the science of epidemiology inadvertently provided the means of its corruption. In order to do that, of course, one needs to go back into history and discover how it all began, and when and why it started to go wrong, and who the villains were. Epidemiologists are not always the bad guy, it seems, and to find that out, you will of course have to buy the book.
The early chapters deal with the early history of epidemiology, the terrible epidemics which plagued humanity. Then follows the discovery of what actually caused disease, and importantly a summary of one of the pioneers of statistics, and the irony of his legacy. The came Social Theory – which turned scientific medicine upside down and changed the world.
The second half of the book deals with the overwhelming amount of material available to us on almost every imaginable topic of medicine. Of course the author also shows how the present situation came about, looking at the tools of the trade and the fallacies. And of course nothing like picking the bones of a few pertinent examples.
Inside the cover, or at least on page ii of the flyleaf we find a Time Chart of disease – starting from 2000 BC to today, and covering everything in between. How, one would think, could all this be covered in such a slim volume of some 200 pages? Well fortunately Brignell doesn't, but he does focus on the essentials and some pertinent real case histories.
Most importantly he does spend some time on Social Theory – and don't make the mistake I made by looking up a dictionary – my Chambers does not have an entry for it, and googling on the Internet doesn't yield anything precise either. And that is precisely the problem – what on earth is Social Theory? Having suffered the requirement myself in my undergraduate days to do one or two “humanities” subjects, I guess Social Theory had to have its origins in that part of Academia, and as Brignell puts it “The study of kings and queens had been largely replaced by the study of the masses, Social History,..”. Just this little instance of the difficulty to get a precise meaning of Social Theory starts to explain what has happened over time.
Brignell points to one individual Thomas McKeown who wrote two influential books, “The role of Medicine” and "The Origins of Human Disease”. It seems that McKeown accidentally became Professor of Social Medicine, as the result of some funding of a Trust which wanted a specific chair of Social Medicine. The best way of showing what then happened was the disease of Tuberculosis (TB) – which if I read Brignell right, was regarded by McKeown as a disease of poverty, being one of infectious type, while those of affluence were non-infectious diseases. Personally this categorisation of disease is a load of nonsense, which Brignell then expertly shows to be so in the rest of his chapter on Social Science. (Social Theory can be thought of as one of the most influential philosophical developments in human history bequeathing us the Nanny State and the environmental quangos).
Usually diseases are caused by something, and Brignell rightly uses the furphy of cigarette smoking causing lung-cancer as his next demolition job. My late father, a physician and surgeon, always maintained that individuals who developed cancer of the lung, also tended smoke cigarettes, and that the cigarette smoking was a symptom, and not the cause of lung-cancer.
Other chapters discuss statistics, in a highly readable form, then a brief description of the tools of the trade, essential knowledge to unravel the pronouncements of science published in the mass-media, while the chapters Body parts, Substance Abuse, Tobacco Road, and Cancer are pretty obvious what they deal with.
The Chapter Holocaust was another matter – and what, I thought, has this well known WWII event to do with the subject of his book – and of course it wasn't what you think it was, it was actually Foot and Mouth Disease in the UK and how the Brits managed to completely stuff it up – veritably a holocaust of the intelligence type. They and they alone, with their stupid scientific advisors decided to cull all the culprits, with the equally culpable epitome of bureaucracies, the European Commission.
A rather interesting observation was made on page 96 when the author discusses SIP's Single-Issue-Parties where groups of fanatics form political parties. This is usually a non event except in societies in which proportional representation operates, and then indeed we are politically affected by these minority fanatics. The Greens, for example, managed to gain a virtual monopoly of the environment ministries of Europe and forced environmentalism onto those hapless Europeans. As the Ice age doom theory literally froze in the middle 1960's, the Greens then reversed direction and starting screaming the opposite – global warming.
“The ease with which a specious theory such as global warming can be imposed on the world constitutes a textbook example of political chicanery”. And once a theory reaches a critical mass of acceptance, no matter how stupid or scientifically specious, it becomes established fact.
The rest of John Brignell writes about means you have to buy the book from his website but I can assure it was a riveting read – I finished it in two nights in bed.
This book is a welcome relief for the usual pseudo-science we are deluged with in the media. It is an excellent source of fact, and lists and explains important concepts so that anyone can separate the wheat from the chaff in their daily newspaper.
All in all a significant contribution to the demolition of quacks, charlatans and junk-science.
John Brignell has devoted his life to the art of measurement in science and engineering, teaching initially at the City University of London and later the University of Southampton where, for twenty years, he was Professor of Industrial Instrumentation. He has a raft of awards and fellowships, but what caught my attention was his dedication to debunking the many environmental, food, energy, and other hoaxes intended to influence our lives through legislation and other mandates. His website, www.numberwatch.co.uk is an opportunity to discover that Great Britain is as much awash in mindless regulations and failed government programs as our own. His first book, Sorry, Wrong Number, reflects how this affects both Brits and Yanks. I was delighted to recommend it when it was published and am now twice as pleased to recommend The Epidemiologists: Have They Got Scares for You! ($29.00). Published in the UK, you can purchase a copy by contacting Prof. Emeritus Brignell via his website. His new book educates the reader to a better understanding of how science is frequently deliberately corrupted and then used to frighten people into believing that everything they eat, drink and breathe is going to kill them. Thus, initially, the reader gets a crash course in some fundamental scientific concepts. Thereafter, he demonstrates how the public is led astray by weasel words and twisted data. This is an extraordinarily entertaining book!