Move over, Galileo

Part II of the thimerosal-autism controversy will be ready soon, but first I’d like to bring up a somewhat related topic: the notion that the medical or scientific community will reject out-of-hand any theory they don’t “like”, because it’s cumbersome, inconvenient or threatening to the “establishment”. This is called the Galileo gambit, to commemorate how Galileo was persecuted by the church for having unorthodox ideas. Similarly, those referring to this logical fallacy hope to convince others that their ideas are being rejected merely because they’re unpopular. It’s a favorite of the proponents of the autism/mercury hypothesis as well.

In fact, nothing could be further than the truth today*. While scientists may initially scoff at what sounds like an outlandish idea, if it has a semi-plausible mechanism, the people proposing the idea can demonstrate that it works scientifically, and other research teams can replicate their results, the idea will indeed gain traction. Though the scientist’s name is often invoked as a modern Galileo (even by himself), Dr. Barry Marshall’s 1982 discovery that ulcer disease is caused by a bacterium, Helicobacter pylori, the methods he used to prove his theory and its eventual acceptance and reward by the medical community (Dr. Marshall and his colleague, Dr. Robin Warren, won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 2005), show exactly how such ideas can gain legitimate traction within the medical community.

Here’s the full story, in perspective.

You might want to compare this chain of events to the proponents of the mercury/autism hypothesis: despite nearly a decade of scientific research by many groups all over the world and millions of dollars spent, no reliable studies have shown any evidence of autism being a form of mercury poisoning, nor has removal of thimerosal from vaccines caused any difference in autism rates.

A case of medical persecution of sorts did happen with Dr. Semmelweiss, father of asepsis.

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5 Responses

  1. Wow. I learn so much STuff when I read your blog. You only learn how annoyed I am at my job when you read mine. NOt much of a trade off for you.

  2. Not at all, Pinky…I love reading your blog! And I learn a lot because I haven’t been too focused on L&D in my practice. A lot of what you write and take for granted causes long-forgotten brain cells of mine to stir…

    I was just thinking about you this morning, BTW, as I cleared out a shelf with years’ worth of old articles I’d printed out. I came upon my old EBM notes from my family med diploma course…JAMA had a series of articles about EBM, and the statistics you feel you need that you’d love. Go to Pubmed and search for this exact phrase: “users’ guides to the medical literature”. There are 20+ articles on the subject starting in 1993. Since you’re near a med library, it shouldn’t be any problem for you to get your hands on them.

  3. Thanks I will do that. I am going in to work tomorrow.

  4. The interesting thing about the story of Dr. Semmelwise is that as soon as there was real evidence for what he had proposed, it was put into use. And there weren’t any existing studies that disproved it at the time.

    So even he is not a good comparison for what the autism-thimersol people claim…

  5. Yes, but the treatment he got at the hands of the medical community was inexcusable. He didn’t, after all, stand to gain financially from his discovery even if it were false (contrast with Wakefield and co.’s obvious financial motivation…).

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