Facts don’t matter … until they do
I am grumpy because I now understand why Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.”
As a bioanalytical chemist, I've aspired to the idea thatfacts count, and that my goal should be to deliver them to facilitate the verybest decisions. We speak of evidence-based medicine. Is there another kind? Isuppose there is magic. I tell my colleagues in academia and business that itis our duty to "get good numbers, numbers that can be trusted."
A favorite quote from founding curmudgeon John Adamssuggests that "facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, ourinclinations or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state offacts and evidence." The wisdom of Pasteur's "theory guides, but experimentdecides" should be known and respected by every experimentalist. "Only datathat supports my favored theory" is, however, a contrary and very commonreality.
This summer, I've come conclusion that Adams also had itwrong, and "our wishes, our inclinations and the dictates of our passion arebest not altered in the light of contrary facts." This seems to be a force thatis too often with us. Consider the bankruptcy of a major city, the events ayear ago in Libya, the spin of clinical trial results, the arguments overclimate change, the value of a college degree, publishing wishful scienceversus real science, hydraulic fracking, the role of guns in committing orpreventing crime, the few who are gay, K-12 education, healthcare reform andmuch more. Such topics commonly elicit a selection of data, or even making someup to support an argument. When we have unknown unknowns or even knownunknowns, few acknowledge their existence.
Millennia from now, archeologists for a future sentientspecies may conclude from our artifacts that "the homo sapiens showed definite signs of intelligence, but appear tohave become extinct due to a full reliance on their emotions rather than data."Let me list some facts that I feel are irrefutable, but too often rejected. Youcan then hang this column by your coffee pot and start the debate.
The temperature of the atmosphere has been warming onaverage, and the only scalable solutions we know of today are nuclear power andpopulation reduction. Those remedies we do discuss are acceptable, butincremental. To stimulate debate, I proposed a cap-and-trade system forchildren. You will be allowed two as a cap and can only have more if you tradefor the rights with another child-producing unit somewhere else on theplanet. Let the negotiations begin.
The autism spectrum is tragic, but associating it withvaccines is the triumph of imagination over data. In some locations, measles isresurging. That's a fact. All members of our species are distinct individuals;we are not born biologically equal.
Over time, we become much less equal. We can hope to beviewed as equal under the law, but not in a clinical trial. No clinical trialcan really guarantee a result for any individual. Let it be known that thefirst time anyone is prescribed a drug, they are in a clinical trial and hadbetter pay attention. No drug can be universally safe and effective. That's afact.
While teachers are important and should be both respectedand accountable, commitments from society, families and students are the moreimportant variables. You are not entitled to an education that you don't workto achieve. At best, you are entitled to an opportunity for an education.Likewise, when educated, you are not entitled to a job or anything else beyondentering a competition with others. That's a fact.
Animals in preclinical pharmaceutical research are primarilyof value when they fall over dead in large numbers. They have proven unable toguarantee efficacy in humans or detect adverse events in humans at a low rateof incidence such as one in 10,000, or even more. Animal research can stop agreat project prematurely or let a risky one pass. This is uncomfortable.That's a fact.
I am grumpy because I now understand why Sen. Daniel PatrickMoynihan said, "You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled toyour own facts." Having opinions and selecting facts to support them is notnew, but is at an epidemic stage. Debaters ought to first inventory the knownknowns and go from there. I'm afraid our reduced attention span, multitaskingand electronic media have combined to reduce the signal and increase the noise.That will make it harder for the archeologists from other solar systemswondering about the reasons for our demise.
Peter T. Kissinger isprofessor of chemistry at Purdue University, chairman emeritus of BASi and adirector of Chembio Diagnostics, Phlebotics and Prosolia.