Mistakes were made – but by who?


How often do we see ads like this promoting a product by claiming scientific support that doesn’t exist. All in the interest of profit.

We are all wrong at times – usually a lot more often than we think, or are happy to acknowledge. But the only person who doesn’t make a mistake is the person who is not doing anything – and that is a mistake in itself. Humanity didn’t get where it is today by refusing to act on our best knowledge – even when realising that our knowledge is inevitably  imperfect.

So why do people sometimes resort to the argument that science has made mistakes? They certainly cannot suggest a better alternative. I can only conclude they do this to attack a current scientific consensus they disagree with. A pathetic argument but one often used. Particularly by people who don’t have a scientific leg to stand on.

The trope of scientific mistakes

The Skeptical Raport put it this way in a recent article (Debunking the “mistakes science made” tropes?:

“The antivaccinationists, creationists, anthropogenic global warming deniers, and whomever else pretends to use science to actually deny science frequently focus on a trope covering the mistakes science made.  And then they produce a list of historical events that “prove” that science is wrong. Of course, this indicates more of a misunderstanding of what is science and the history of science than it is a condemnation of science. But your typical science denier is probably not going to let facts get in the way of maintaining faith in their beliefs.”

The article spends some time discussing the nature of scientific knowledge and the scientific method. It states:

“Yes, science does find errors, all the time. In fact, one of the goals of the scientific process is precisely what defines scientific skepticism, a term frequently co-opted by science deniers, which is a process of evaluating a claim based on the quality and quantity of evidence supporting that claim. A real scientist (or scientific skeptic) is looking for errors, because it is a part of the process.”

The excitement of finding a mistake

Working scientists will know the excitement that comes with finding one’s first ideas have been proven wrong by experiment. Or that we can show that a published scientific idea has just been destroyed by our experiment. Mistakes and incorrect hypothesis are exciting when we find them because they open the door to a better, more complete, knowledge that we can be responsible for.

This searching for, and discovery of, mistakes is an important driver for the improvement of scientific knowledge:

“Because science is not based on dogma or faith, it is self-challenging and self-critical, uncovering errors is part of the process that makes good science. And science is unbiased. The proper method of science is not to invent a conclusion, then find evidence that supports it. It actually works by gathering all of the evidence, deciding which is high quality and which is junk, then determining where that evidence leads.

“And as opposed to science deniers, who think that they have the one truth, real science makes mistakes and uncovers it rather rapidly.”

The smoking is healthy myth

The article goes on to discuss several  examples used by those who wish to claim that science is often wrong. I will only deal with the “Science said smoking is healthy” myth – it is one often used by anti-fluoride and anti-vaccination campaigners. The article says:

“But really, did any real scientist claim that smoking was healthy?Smoking tobacco was prevalent through the native American tribes well before the advent of modern science. There was no Native American CDC, FDA or Board of Physicians to approve the use of tobacco as “safe and effective.”

In fact, those Native Americans and Europeans who picked up the habit believed in all kinds of nonsense about tobacco, including that it cured cancer. This wasn’t “science” pushing these beliefs, but it was the traditions of the world at the time that put inordinate faith in various herbs and how they could cure various maladies. In fact, thinking smoking or tobacco was healthy was advertised by the woo-pushers of the time (who are barely different than the woo-pushers of the modern world).

An article inThe Lancet in 1913 warns “that tobacco smoking can give rise to constitutional effects which diminish the resisting power of the body to disease”

“By the 1930’s, real science observed the increase in lung cancer from smoking. The Nazis banned cigarette smoking in the 1930’s because of the known health effects. . . . In 1950, the Journal of the American Medical Association published an article by Martin Levin that linked smoking and lung cancer. By the mid-1950’s, numerous epidemiological studies showed a profound increase in lung cancer risk for smokers. The Royal College of Physicians (UK) warned against smoking in 1962. The Surgeon General of the USA warned against smoking in 1964. The CDC has warned against smoking for over 50 years.”

“Yes, tobacco advertisers used to make ads that showed doctors smoking, or worse, endorsing cigarettes. But that wasn’t the “science” of the time. Big Tobacco (a truly evil lot of characters) said just about anything to get people to smoke, whether it was showing doctors smoking or that smoking made you sexy. But they weren’t using peer-reviewed science, these ads were worse than anecdotes, because they were outright lies and mischaracterizations. Science had already concluded that cigarettes were unhealthy a half century before those ads.”

“Once real epidemiological studies were published in peer-reviewed journals, the attitude about smoking changed almost immediately in the medical and general scientific community. And that’s how real science works–it self-corrects.”

As the author says of this particular myth:

“As a suggestion to the science deniers–quit using this trope. It shows how ignorant you are of history, the scientific method, and reality.”

Blaming science for the errors of others

Often these myths about scientific errors boil down to inability to see who made the real errors.  The article quotes Emily Willingham who wrote the following about science in an article in Forbes:

“That said, other ways of viewing of our world clearly carry greater weight for people than science or evidence does. If evidence and data were the only factors in human decision-making, the epic debates humans engage in about whether vaccines eradicated smallpox or whether global climate change is real wouldn’t exist. Even though science is the ultimate lens for truly understanding what underlies our entire existence, we obviously use other, frequently more myopic lenses available to us.

And that leads me to the faults of science. Humans do science, and because we bring our own personalized lenses and biases to whatever we do, science will involve error. But the wonderful thing about science is that it’s a self-correcting process that over time, disciplines itself. How did we discover the real effects of tobacco or DDT that ultimately were revealed? Science made those revelations, and science provided the data everyone needed to know the truth.”

Let’s acknowledge up front that science makes mistakes. But let’s also acknowledge that anti-science campaigners are using these myths inappropriately – blaming science for social mistakes made by governments, business interests or other opinion drivers in society.

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23 responses to “Mistakes were made – but by who?

  1. Smoking is a subject which can demonstrate the usual two-valued approach. What the Indians smoked was not laced with sugars to increase sales and nitrates to keep it burning. And I don’t think they used milk which is high in calcium thereby I hypothesise requiring more of the body’s store of vitamin D to metabolise. Vitamin D promotes cell-differentiation and differentiated cells don’t proliferate I believe.

    Withdrawal from smoking needs great care since the depression suicide risk may be greater than the risk from continuing smoking.


  2. soundhill,

    “I believe” – a phrase which is the underlying basis of many religions, but with no place in science.

    Interesting that you apply it here to your knowledge of smoking, calcium and vitamin D.

    For the knowledge of others, even twist tobacco (no sweeteners or nitrates) is carcinogenic. Sweeteners and nitrates used in tobacco for smoking and in other forms of chewing tobacco have undergone testing according to the legal requirements of the USA and have not been shown to be carcinogenic.

    Perhaps, soundhill, you should read up on the science, as Ken demonstrated in this blog, instead of relying on your beliefs?


  3. Stuartg: “Sweeteners and nitrates used in tobacco for smoking and in other forms of chewing tobacco have undergone testing according to the legal requirements of the USA and have not been shown to be carcinogenic.”

    Based on a paucity of study:

    “In summary, the impact of flavor-related additives on the toxicity, carcinogenicity, and addictive properties of tobacco products has not been thoroughly studied. In addition to the known harmful properties of these compounds, they may potentiate the effects of other known smoke constituents or alter the way people smoke cigarettes. These additives may also increase the initiation and continuation of smoking in the population.”



  4. soundhill,

    Sweeteners: also used in food and drink in the USA as well as tobacco products, therefore extensively studied by the FDA before being allowed into food products.

    Nitrates: prescription medications, used since WWI, extensive data on the lack of carcinogenic properties.

    You are cherry picking again in order to support your beliefs. Your reference refers to many compounds in tobacco and smoke that are proven harmful or carcinogenic but sweeteners and other additives “may” (or may not?) potentiate that harm – it’s hardly a definitive statement of the science, is it?


  5. soundhill1

    Stuartg, I said sweeteners to increase sales. Maybe via appetite. Are they proven safe when burnt? “This investigation clearly showed that aspartame concentrations less than 40 mg/kg body weight /day (acceptable daily intake of the US Food and Drug Organization) increased food intake and body weight gain in young hamsters. It caused histopathological changes in vital organs (liver and brain), especially damage in the brain even at low concentrations. Therefore, FDA & concerned organizations should be revised ADI of aspartame for children after its prevalence in food products. Exposure and susceptibility to chemical substances are more between children to smaller body weight, long-term effects from early exposure and immaturity of body systems.” http://pubs.sciepub.com/jfnr/4/3/4/


  6. soundhill,

    As usual, you are diverting from Ken’s point. Mistakes are made by scientists, but are self corrected by the process of science.

    You manage to illustrate his point in that you never admit to a mistake because you do not follow the scientific method. You have beliefs – “I believe” – rather than using science. You do not allow self-correction of errors.

    “I said sweeteners to increase sales.” No, you believe that you said that, but you actually didn’t. That’s what happens with belief instead of science. Go back and read your own comments. You said sugars, not sweeteners. I was the person who, for accuracy, introduced the term sweetener. Then you introduced aspartame.

    As scientists know, but you may not, aspartame is a dipeptide, not a sugar. Strictly speaking, it wasn’t included in your original comment.

    However, you asked “Are they proven safe when burnt?” For your education, science tells us that the products of burning sugars are carbon dioxide and water; those of aspartame are carbon dioxide, nitrogen and water – so, yes, the products of burning sugars and aspartame are “safe”. After all, we breathe them in and out ever minute of every day that we are alive. I can’t be bothered looking up the structure of all the other sweeteners used, but since they are all organic molecules then aspartame is likely to be representative.

    Looking at the reference you gave in your 1:43 am comment:
    – 40mg/kg/day of aspartame, for the average human, is the equivalent in sweetness to over half a kilogram of table sugar. That’s a heck of a lot of sweetening!
    – aspartame cannot be absorbed across the gut wall as an intact molecule, so it never appears in the blood and never has measurable blood levels.
    – the gut digests aspartame into its individual amino acids (phenylalanine and aspartate) before they are absorbed across the gut wall.
    – those amino acids are identical in properties and action to the same amino acids digested from steak, chicken, eggs, fish, tofu…
    – the body uses those same amino acids to produce its own peptides and proteins.
    And finally, a question not considered by the authors of your reference – what are the histological differences expected when one group of animals eats more than another group because the researchers failed to control for diet?


  7. soundhill,

    Are you going to return to topic (the self correction of errors by science, anti-science using myths to try to discredit science) or going to divert further?


  8. In all but 5 countries the addition of manufactured fluoride compounds to community water supplies to treat/prevent the disease of tooth decay has been self corrected. Unfortunately NZ is one of the few where the scientific method has been ignored in favour of a blind adherence to the outcomes of confirmation studies of previous studies of dubious quality on which the decision to fluoridate was based. The claimed efficacy of CWF has become ingrained by virtue of the use of clever marketing such as that used in the Chesterfield ads rather than by any ongoing primary research into the claims made by the opponents of fluoridation.


  9. soundhill1

    Stuartg but you don’t get complete combustion in a cigarette, so sugars may form tars. I don’t know what the incomplete combustion of non-nutritive sweeteners may produce. But I was more concerned with the increase in consumption sweeteners, of which sugar is one, bring about.

    One of the errors made, sometimes by scientists, but moreso by people using what they try to create a perception as science to promote a product, is the two-valued approach. That approach is used very much to try to bend people’s behaviour and beliefs, as Ken’s political pictures can illustrate.


  10. TA Crosbie,


    Canterbury is one of the areas of New Zealand that does not have fluoridated water. Anti-fluoridationists are proud of that. Yet it has masses of dental decay. Overall, over a third of preschoolers have been treated for dental decay; for some communities the figure is over half.

    Compare that incidence of tooth decay with areas of New Zealand which fluoridate. Now tell me why Canterbury, in spite of relatively high socio-economic standing, has higher incidence of tooth decay than higher deprivation areas that have been fluoridated.


  11. soundhill,

    You believe “you don’t get complete combustion in a cigarette, so sugars may form tars.” May, or may not? Citations are needed to support your belief that there is incomplete combustion of sugars (in those cigarettes that have sugars – not all do) and that sugars in cigarettes form tars (isn’t it more likely that small molecules get completely combusted where the massive molecules of the plant material are incompletely combusted?) I’m not bothering to look it up – you can do it yourself, but don’t cherry pick.

    “I was more concerned…” You have no need to worry about it, the evidence contradicts your belief structure – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3296517/

    BTW, science does not promote a product, advertisers do. As Ken said, it was the woo-pushers who initially promoted tobacco, then later on it was advertisers for the tobacco companies. Science said that tobacco/cigarettes were unsafe. Nowhere did science promote tobacco. You’re guilty of the same two-valued approach that you try to condemn.


  12. Trev – when the science shows that community water fluoridation is safe and effective how can you say experts ignore the scientific method when the advocate for this social policy?

    Do you not know what the scientific method is?

    Now that you have given your personal opinion on the science behind CWF what abo0uit telling us which studies you rely on for your opposition to CWF?

    Seriously, how do you justify your position scientifically?

    While we are at it. Yesterday I was banned, yet again, from commenting on an internet site which had claimed to be balanced and interested in truth but was in fact anti-fluoride (The Methven Fluoride Facts facebook group). Every anti-fluoride site internationally has banned me when I have commented – and this started happening just after the conclusion of my debate with Paul Connett 2 years ago.

    Clearly a deliberate decision motivated by Paul’s poor performance.

    As a member of the intert=national anti-fluoride movement, how do you justify banning scientists from input into your discussions?


  13. soundhill1

    Canterbury would have rather low soil pH compared to a lot of North Island food growing areas. So molybdenum would be less available, resulting in poorer tooth health. It is also at greater latitude than many fluoridated areas so residents would have less vitamin D from UVB sunlight. Vitamin D is necessary for calcium metabolism – tooth health.


  14. Stuartg, I don’t think you read your ref. It gives over 30 compounds produced in sugar pyrolysis. Also it does not mention odour or smell which are very much involved in appetite and have a lot to do with what we say to be the taste of food.


  15. soundhill1

    Ken perhaps you would consider this forum as you work to increase confidence in science?: http://endotoday.com/endotoday/perm_EBM_hijacked.pdf


  16. soundhill,

    A direct quote from my reference:

    “The potential impact of using sugars as tobacco ingredients was further assessed in an indirect manner by comparing published data from markets with predominantly American-blend or Virginia-type (no added sugars) cigarettes. No relevant difference was found between these markets for smoking prevalence, intensity, some markers of dependence, nicotine uptake, or mortality from smoking-related lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. In conclusion, thorough examination of the data available suggests that the use of sugars as ingredients in cigarette tobacco does not increase the inherent risk and harm of cigarette smoking.”

    As I said, the evidence contradicts your belief structure.

    Perhaps you were the one who didn’t read the reference?

    Now, “you don’t get complete combustion in a cigarette, so sugars may form tars.” I asked you before, but you appear to have ignored the request: where are your citations to support this belief of yours? (I’ll understand if you don’t produce any, since beliefs rely on faith rather than evidence).


  17. By the way, soundhill, in case you didn’t understand, my reference was in direct reply to your statement “But I was more concerned with the increase in consumption sweeteners, of which sugar is one, bring about.”

    As I said, you have no need to worry about that, the evidence allows your concerns/beliefs to be discarded.

    Now, do you agree with Ken that all people, including scientists, make mistakes (with the single exception, of course, of yourself), that science includes a self correction method for those mistakes, and that the woo-masters blame science for social mistakes made by governments, business interests or other opinion drivers in society?


  18. soundhill1

    Stuartg as your ref said Virginnia-type and American-blend in the particular smokes they studied were similar in sugar. American-blend loses its sugar by enzymatic processes in curing and is brought back up by addition of sugar. As people may have been going for less tar by when that study was written, manufacturers may have been avoiding adding the extra sugar they used to in earlier years, the causative years for much smoking cancer. Do you belong to an institution with access to this 1972 paper?: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ijc.2910090325/abstract
    “The risk of lung cancer is greater in cigarette smokers than in cigar or pipe smokers. In Great Britain, which has a very high lung-cancer death rate, cigarette tobacco (flue-cured) has a high sugar content (up to 20%) while cigar tobacco (aircured) has a low sugar content (0.5—2%)”

    I admit one mistake: that I implicated nitrate addition and have since learned that *in some respects* it may reduce trouble by causing hotter burning. I haven’t read of its relation to nitrosamines which however do appear to be related to tobacco crops heavily nitrate fertilised.


  19. soundhill1

    Stuartg: “and that the woo-masters blame science for social mistakes made by governments, business interests or other opinion drivers in society?”
    Please refer me to average science not influenced by them.


  20. soundhill,

    You obviously didn’t read Ken’s original blog – I quoted Ken’s last sentence.

    Who do you mean by “them” – the woo-masters? Someone else? What is “average science”? Asking vague questions like that one encourages cherry picking until you find something that satisfies your beliefs. It points to someone who does not allow science to self-correct.


  21. soundhill1

    Stuartg did you read the Ioannidis article I cited? So much of science is in Ken’s categories: of business interests or other opinion drivers in society, and some maybe social mistakes made by governments. For example Marsden fund stuff is all under public policy. Occasionally you may get some university researcher following their own interest. But universities are not rich.
    Another category of course is military, which I suspect moved years ago from physics and chemistry to biology.
    Amalgam mixing “self corrected,” but probably not until a lot of dentists suffered, knowing its mental effects.


  22. You are away with the birds, Brian, making such slanderous comments with no evidence. Come on – what business interests control the Marsden Fund?

    Typical conspiracy theory nutter. Determined to discredit the only effective way we have of understanding reality just so weirdos can insert their own mythology.

    Bit late for that in this day and age.


  23. soundhill1

    I see things like the Marsden Fund cooperating in granting with the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation which is in with Monsanto and Roundup Ready GMO alfalfa.


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