From coronavirus to climate change, scientific discussion has been stifled by the ‘settled science’ trope. As a long-term analyst and careful critic of medical papers it annoys me. In 2000 I began a column in the journal of the British Society for Rheumatology (conveniently titled Rheumatology) trawling the journals for interesting, unusual or bizarre pieces of research, which I would dissect for my readers. Five years as a columnist honed my critical eye.
One cornerstone of medical research is the null hypothesis. You set up an idea and try to find something that knocks it down. A parallel concept is that of the Black Swan, where a plan is derailed by an unexpected event. In each case a single observation or fact which disposes of the hypothesis is sufficient for its abandonment. Bill Stott encapsulated this in a brilliant cartoon in Punch some years ago.
arious doctors have described how one of their teachers would tell them that, after five years, half the things they had been taught would be shown to be wrong, and the problem was that you didn’t know which half. But it underpins the argument that medicine – and by extension science – is not a static subject and is always subject to change. There are endless examples of how scientific consensus has been disrupted by a contrary observation which pulls the whole house down. Some are well-known, some less so. Here are a few. As you will see there are different mechanisms and causes.