P S E U D O S C I E N C E

 

by

 

Anthony S. Zummer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Presented To The Chicago

Literary Club

at The Cliff Dwellers

Chicago, Illinois

December 12, 2005

 

 

 

 

2005 Anthony S. Zummer


P S E U D O S C I E N C E

 

by

 

Anthony S. Zummer

 

We live in a sea of natural phenomenon. Some we understand. Some we think we understand. Some we believe we understand. Some we do not understand. Some we do not know that the phenomenon exists. Some self-anointed experts offer basic explanations and possible effect and use of these phenomenon. These self-anointed experts are not always accurate. When the so-called experts engage in speculation, they predicate their position on pseudoscience. Examples of pseudoscience espoused by self-anointed experts are legion. Tonight, we consider a few examples of pseudoscience at its best. Through the ages, man has observed that the dawn of each day starts with the sun rising in the east. The sun transverses the sky in the course of the day. It rises to its zenith for the day at noon, and sets in the west as nightfall begins. For thousands of years, man believed that the sun moved across the sky. The Holy Scriptures fortified man's belief that the sun moved across earth's sky. Thus, God could stop the sun from moving and have continuous sunlight in a selected part of the earth. The Bible records the fact that God stayed the sun for almost a whole day at Joshua 10:12-14:


"Then spoke Joshua to the LORD in the day when the LORD gave the Amorites over to the men of Israel; and he said in the sight of Israel, 'Sun, stand thou still at Gibeon, and thou Moon in the valley of Ai`jalon.' And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies. Is this not written in the Book of Jashar? The sun stayed in the midst of heaven, and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day. There has been no day like it before or since, when the LORD hearkened to the voice of a man; for the LORD fought for Israel."

 

There was no doubt that the earth is the center of the universe, and the sun travels around the earth. In the early 1600's, Galileo of Florence and Nicholas Copernicus of Poland studied the sun, the planets and the stars and corresponded regarding their findings and their conclusions. Galileo authored a book; the title being, Dialogue by Galileo Galilei on the two Chief World Systems, Ptolemaic and Copernican. The book argued that the Earth is not the center of the world, but rather the sun is the center of the world and the Earth travels around the sun. Galileo's proposition was considered to be heretical by seven princes of the Church who carefully studied Galileo's work and compared it with the sacred scriptures. The study by the seven cardinals resulted in a Papal Condemnation of Galileo which issued in June, 1633 finding in part:



"Whereas you, Galileo, son of the late Vaincenzo Galilei, Florentine, aged seventy years, were in the year 1615 denounced to this Holy Office for holding as true the false doctrine taught by some that the Sun is the center of the world and immovable and that the Earth moves, and also with a diurnal motion; for having disciples to whom you taught the same doctrine; for holding correspondence with certain mathematicians of Germany concerning the same; for having printed certain letters, entitled 'On the Sunspots,' wherein you developed the same doctrine as true; and for replying to the objections from the Holy Scriptures, which from time to time were urged against it, by glossing the said Scriptures according to your own meaning: and whereas there was thereupon produced the copy of a document in the form of a letter, purporting to be written by you to one formerly your disciple, and in this divers propositions are set forth, following the position of Copernicus, which are contrary to the true sense and authority of Holy Scripture: This Holy Tribunal being therefore of intention to proceed against the disorder and mischief thence resulting, which went on increasing to the prejudice of the Holy Faith, by command of His Holiness and of the Most Eminent Lords Cardinals of this supreme and universal Inquisition, the two propositions of the stability of the sun and the motion of the Earth were by the theological Qualifiers qualified as follows: The proposition that the Sun is the center of the world and does not move from its place is absurd and false philosophically and formally heretical, because it is expressly contrary to Holy Scripture. The proposition that the Earth is not the center of the world and immovable but that it moves, and also with a diurnal motion, is equally absurd and false philosophically and theologically considered at least erroneous in faith...We say, pronounce, sentence and declare that you, Galileo, by reason of these things which have been detailed in the trial and which you have confessed already, have rendered yourself according to this Holy Office vehemently suspect of heresy, namely of having held and believed a doctrine that is false and contrary to the divine and Holy Scripture: namely that Sun is the center of the world and does not move from east to west, and that one may hold and defend as probably an opinion after it has been declared and defined contrary to Holy Scripture. Consequently, you have incurred all the censures and penalties enjoined and promulgated by the sacred Canons and all particular and general laws against such delinquents. We are willing to absolve you from them provided that first, with a sincere heart and unfeigned faith, in our presence you abjure, curse and detest the said errors and heresies, and every other error and heresy contrary to the Catholic and Apostolic Church in the manner and form we will prescribe you. Furthermore, so that this grievous and pernicious error and transgression of yours may not go altogether unpunished, and so that you will be more cautious in future, and an example for others to abstain from delinquencies of this sort, we order that the book Dialogue of Galileo Galilei be prohibited by public edict. We condemn you to formal imprisonment in this Holy Office at our pleasure. As a salutary penance we impose on you to recite the seven penitential psalms once a week for the next three years. And we reserve to ourselves the power of moderating, commuting, or taking off, the whole or part of the said penalties and penances."

 

Galileo retracted his position about the stationary position of the sun and movement of the earth around the sun after spending some time in prison.

Copernicus, on the other hand, did not have to deal with the Church. Copernicus continued to publish his work that the earth revolves around the sun. Copernicus is now considered by some to be the father of modern astronomy, which is predicated upon the earth traveling around the sun. There still may exist some individuals on this earth who accept the literal word of the Holy Scripture that the earth is the center of the world. Those individuals are in the minority since the landing of Apollo on the moon in 1969.


Astronomy was not the only natural phenomenon which was infected with error. The care and treatment of the human body was fraught with pseudoscience. George Washington, commander of the American Revolutionary War Army and First President of the United States of America, was stricken with pneumonia on December 13, 1799. He was cared for by his personal physician, Dr. Craik and two consulting physicians, Drs. Dick and Brown. In spite of having his veins cut to let the bad blood flow out of his body, Washington died the next day, December 14, 1799.

Henry Clutterbuck, MD, a member of the Royal College of Physicians, presented a paper in London in 1840, entitled On the Proper Administration of Blood-Letting, for the Prevention and Cure of Disease. He wrote:

"The importance of blood-letting, as a medicinal agent, in comparison with other means of cure, is shown in various respects...it is the least equivocal of remedies: its good effects, when properly administered, are, in most cases, so immediate and striking as not to be mistaken...In short, blood-letting is a remedy which, when judiciously employed, it is hardly possible to estimate too highly."

 

He also considered the various methods of blood-letting.

 

"Different methods are in use for taking away blood from the system, for therapeutic purposes; as, 1st by phlebotomy, or venesection, where the blood is drawn from one or more of the larger external veins that are conveniently situated for the purpose; 2dly, by arteriotomy, or the puncture of an artery, which is sometimes resorted to; 3dly, by scarification of the superficial vessels, with or without the aid of the syringe, or cupping-glass; 4thly, by leeches, which are likewise in frequent use. These different modes of abstracting blood from the system have their respective advantages and disadvantages, which require discussion, the one mode being often applicable, where the others are less appropriate."

 

There may be some members of the medical community who may continue to endorse blood-letting as a cure today. However, it does not seem to be in great favor.


The Church and self-important bodies continued to issue pronouncements about physical phenomenon which were not clearly understood well into the early 1800's. An interesting example of such pseudoscience relates to Robert Fulton's steamboat.

Fulton was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1765. His father died just before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War when Robert was eight. Robert was raised in genteel poverty. He was socially acceptable, became a painter, and had the good fortune to have one or more benefactors. He went to England in 1786 and accepted the patronage of Viscount William Courtney. While he was in England, he learned about Watts steam engine and how it could produce motive power.

Fulton went to France where he met Joel and Ruth Barlow. The Barlows accepted him and introduced him into Paris society. Through the Barlows, he met Robert N. Livingston, who had been sent to France by President Thomas Jefferson to negotiate the right of American vessels to sail the lower Mississippi. Livingston was fascinated with Fulton's idea of a steam powered boat and the two became partners on a handshake.


Fulton proposed to Citizen General Napoleon in 1802 that the French government finance Fulton's construction of a self-propelled boat operated by steam. The French Academy of Science called the steam powered boat "an insane idea, a gross blunder and absurdity." The Catholic Church, being infallible, declared a steam powered boat to be a heresy stating:

"In the beginning, fire and water were separated by special ordinance from the Creator, and man has no right to join together what He has put asunder."

 

In spite of the opposition by the Catholic Church and the French Academy of Science, Fulton and Livingston built a steam powered boat. On August 9, 1803, the Fulton steamboat traveled three miles per hour on the Seine River in Paris.

Fulton and Livingston returned to the United States. Fulton proceeded to build a steam powered boat with Watts steam engine as the source of power. In August of 1807, Fulton's steamboat, the Clermont, made its maiden voyage on the Hudson River between New York and Albany. Thus, though the French Academy of Science thought the idea absurd and the Church considered it heresy, the steam powered boat became the vehicle of choice for commerce in the United States in the early 1800's.


The automobile, another means of transportation, made its importance felt in the United States at the start of the twentieth century. It changed the way of life for America. It also produced an interesting quirk in American city architecture. The automobile was fueled by gasoline. The fear of a gasoline fire was heartily recognized by many experts. Fire experts and city fathers wished to protect the homes of the citizenry from the likelihood of a gasoline fire. In order to protect dwellings, ordinances were enacted that required that an automobile garage be positioned at a safe distance from a dwelling. Thus, the dwelling would have some degree of protection should there be a gasoline fire in the structure housing the automobile.

The result of this concern for gasoline fires can still be seen in some towns and villages that do not have alleys. Garages are placed at the back of the property, spaced away from the dwelling, and a driveway extends from the street through the length of the property to the garage. This concern for the likelihood of gasoline fires began to wane with the passage of time. By the third decade, the ordinances no longer required that the garages be spaced away from the dwelling and attached garages became popular and generally accepted.


Pseudoscience is still in vogue in medicine. In the late 1980's, a theory was propounded that chronic fatigue syndrome was created by prolonged exposure to environmental level power line frequency electromagnetic fields. There were newspaper articles, magazine articles and television reports of how persons and animals living near power lines were adversely effected because of fundamental disruption of the central nervous system. Though this theory was espoused by pseudoscientists, there was no clear evidence that the electromagnetic frequency is the cause of chronic fatigue syndrome. The advocates seem to be diminishing since there is no clear scientific evidence to support the causes of chronic fatigue syndrome.

Evidence is often produced in a courtroom to advance a case that a certain disease is caused by a particular substance, so that the damaged party has a right of recovery from someone who produces the substance. Dr. Gary Ordog was trained in emergency medicine. He spent 17 years at the Martin Luther King/Drew Medical Center in Los Angeles. He now holds himself out as an expert witness in lawsuits to testify that mold can cause a terrifying array of diseases from lung cancer to sclerosis of the liver. His rate for expert testimony is $9,800, plus $975 per hour. Dr. Ordog's testimony is often the basis for a judgment against a defendant for diseases caused by mold. On the other side, the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine says that mold exposure does not cause significant diseases. It leaves it to a jury to decide whether mold is the culprit in a given case.


Cancer of the lungs caused by prolonged inhalation of asbestos results in the sufferer dying by suffocation. The prenitious effect of asbestos lead to a number of lawsuits against producers of asbestos and users of asbestos. These lawsuits caused a demise of some companies and decimated the assets of the shareholders. On the other hand, it made fortunes for some plaintiff's lawyers, as well as physicians. The Rand Corporation estimates that over Forty Billion dollars has been awarded in compensation to sufferers of asbestos poisoning. In order to provide for persons who are suffering from asbestos poisoning, trusts have been set up wherein a person suffering from asbestos poisoning need only show that the individual is suffering from asbestos poisoning, then that individual receives compensation from the trust. The typical way of showing that someone is suffering from asbestos poisoning is to provide a medical history of the individual showing exposure to asbestos, along with x-rays showing how the lungs are effected by the asbestos. The x-rays are accompanied by a report by a radiologist to form the basis for recovery from the trust.


An industry has developed for the collection of compensation from various asbestos and silicosis trusts. A law firm will engage in a medical screening company to screen individuals to determine whether individuals are suffering from asbestos poisoning. The screening company will go into an area where asbestos had been produced or used and advertise that free screening will be available to persons who were exposed to asbestos and possibly compensation will be recovered for those who are unfortunate enough to suffer from asbestos poisoning. The screening company will rent a ballroom, American Legion hall, or some other area. Portable x-ray equipment will be installed. Employees will interview the prospective claimants to establish their medical history and exposure to asbestos. The prospective claimants are x-rayed. The x-rays are then read by a radiologist. The medical history and x-rays are then submitted to the trust by the law firm to collect compensation for the claimant after the costs of the examination and attorney's fees are deducted.

At least one radiologist has spent his entire working time reviewing x-rays in the last ten years. Ray A. Harron was graduated from New York Medical College in 1957. He completed an internship at the U.S. Marine Hospital in 1958. He was a radiology resident in New Orleans and then moved to West Virginia in 1961 where he practiced as a radiologist for more than 30 years. In the mid-1990's, he stopped treating patients and began reading x-rays and identifying possible cases of dust-related diseases. In 1994, his medical reports supported fewer than 2,000 claims from the Manville trust. The next year, the number grew to 6,000. He averaged 6,430 reports each year thereafter.


Dr. Harron reviewed as many as 150 x-rays a day and produced medical reports for $125 for each x-ray. Additionally, if he had to travel from West Virginia, he might charge an additional basic charge of $10,000 for travel expenses. Dr. Harron's credibility came into issue before Judge Janis Graham-Jack in the U.S. District Court in Corpus Christi, Texas. Judge Jack found that when Dr. Harron first examined 1,807 x-rays for asbestos litigation, he found them all to be consistent with asbestos and not with silicosis. After re-examining the x-rays of the same 1,807 people for the silicosis litigation, Dr. Harron found evidence of silicosis in every case. The judge found that the diagnoses were manufactured for money and imposed sanctions on one of the plaintiff law firms. Judge Jack wrote:

"The record does not reveal who originally devised this scheme, but it is clear that the lawyers, doctors and screening companies were all willing participants."

 

The Manville trust no longer accepts claims based upon Dr. Harron's expert opinion.

Different sides on a medical question are always of interest. The question is whether pseudoscience is in place.

Obesity is now one of the buzz words in medicine. In March, 2004, four scholars from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report stating that 400,000 people a year in the United States were dying early as a result of obesity. More importantly, obesity may pass smoking as the country's leading cause of death. One of the scholars was Julie Gerberding, who earlier compared the obesity epidemic with the plagues of the middle ages. The media found the announcement to be particularly newsworthy and there were over 1,400 articles on the mortality competition between smoking and obesity.



In April, 2005, a research report offered a different perspective. This report was led by Center for Disease Control and Prevention epidemiologist, Catherine M. Flegal. This later report estimated that obesity-driven deaths were 112,000 and added that moderately overweight people gained some protection from the extra poundage so that net deaths from overweight were in the neighborhood of 26,000. The new finding removed obesity from a marauding killer to 7th place in the list of causes of death published by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention behind gun-related incidents. The second report showed that there were major statistical errors in the first report. The most egregious error dealt with the population sample which was the basis for the first report. A standard approach for epidemiological studies is to first gather health data on a cross section of the population in some past period. Then over time, observe death rates of different groups in the sample. There are three large population samples which are customarily used. One sample was created in 1971-73. Another in 1976-80 and a third in 1988-94. The first paper which provided the media basis for the widely reported news only used the first sample for its follow-up study. Thus, it used the mortality rates of the obese and the non-obese put together in the early 1970's. This distorted reality that obesity causes deaths primarily because it is associated with higher levels of cardiovascular disease. The treatment of heart attacks and strokes has improved steadily and enormously over the past 30 years. Obviously, obesity was far more life threatening to the first population than those in the latter samples. Thus, generalizations drawn from the first group are not transferrable to those who are obese today or even those who were obese in the years covered by later samples. The second study showed that obesity-caused deaths declined by 63%. Pseudoscience is alive and well even in the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Personal prejudice is often disguised as morality which is predicated upon a questionable scientific opinion. The morning-after pill has generated heated national debate. Some pharmacists refuse to fill prescriptions for the morning-after pill on moral grounds, that is, the pill causes an abortion.

There are many theories about the morning-after pill, but the mechanics of the morning-after pill or Plan B pill is still unclear. The morning-after pill is designed to be taken by a woman to prevent pregnancy after having had unprotected sex the night before. The National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists take the position that the pill effects contraceptive prevention of pregnancy. The operation of the pill prevents the egg from being released from the ovary. Thus, the sperm does not impregnate the egg and there is no pregnancy that follows.

On the other hand, the Family Research Council and the Catholic Conference of Illinois take the position that the pill is one that causes abortions.


The anti-abortion doctors and the anti-abortion activists argue that the pill does not always block ovulation. Rather, if the egg has left the ovary and has become impregnated with the sperm. In those cases, the pill would abort the early embryo by "probably causing changes in the uterine lining." This change in the uterine lining prevents the fertilized egg from attaching itself to the uterus and proceed to grow. This change in the uterine lining may be the same as the change in a uterine lining which occurs with a nursing mother who may not become pregnant for approximately six months. Another postulate is that the pill causes the egg to coat so that the sperm is unable to penetrate the coating and impregnate the egg.

The problem for both sides is that there is no way to determine when fertilization has taken place inside the body. Thus, the position as to what happens when an egg has left the ovary is unclear and some positions are predicated on pseudoscience.

It is difficult for scientists to acknowledge ignorance especially when representatives of the news media are seeking definitive answers. Furthermore, definite pronouncements by scientists are reported by the media while those scientists who plead ignorance are ignored. Thus, the media encourages pseudoscience. The next time an announcement is made that scientists have discovered something, a question should be raised as to what evidence supports the disclosure. It may be more prudent to withhold blind acceptance and comment "Really?"