Science and Evolution

I found Dr Ringach’s recent blog so interesting I decided to comment on it section by section. The indented parts below are from his blog and the non-indented parts are my responses.

In response to my question of how one calculates the "predictive value of physics" Dr. Greek responded:

 "Newtonian physics [...] has a predictive value of 100%."

A reasonable statement, but certainly not the answer to my question.

 As I explained in my blog, physics as a modality does not need a predictive value in the form of positive predictive value and so forth. It has laws that are 100% predictive. The fact that Dr Ringach asks: “how one calculates the ‘predictive value of physics’?” reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of science. This is but one example of why, if Dr Ringach ever wants to debate me (an unlikely scenario), in order to participate I would require experts to judge these matters beforehand as well as during the debate itself. Answering nonsense in a debate is a fine but when the entire effort of the opponent is focused on misrepresenting facts then impartial experts are needed to instruct the audience.

Classical mechanics is in fact an excellent model of the physical world.  But classical mechanics is only one specific mathematical model.   To arrive at this successful model and others (such as quantum mechanics or relativity) numerous models were put forward and proved wrong.  A large number of theories were proposed, tested and disproved by an experiment, or found incapable of explaining existing data.  

That is not my understanding of the history of Newtonian physics but is certainly true of quantum mechanics and other aspects of physics. Dr Ringach asked about physics in general and I replied with an answer from Newtonian physics. But I agree that science proceeds by trial and error, learning from mistakes. As I have said before, it is also self-correcting although it may take centuries for some corrections to be made.

That’s how science works.  

Even children know this...   The “Cat in the Hat” knows this when he teaches them that (watch video below)

“Calculatus Eliminatus is the best friend that you've got. Calculatus Eliminatus always helps an awful lot. The way to find a missing something is to find out where it's not.” 

Indeed.  The way to find something is to find where it is not.  That's how science advances -- by disproving hypotheses.  Would it make any sense for anyone to single out some failed theories as argue that “physics as a modality is not predictive”?  Of course not...  It wouldn’t make any sense at all.

The above is simply a terrible representation of science and logic. The goal of science in any form and the modus operandi of science in any form is NOT to search where the answer is not. The procedure is to search for where you think the answers ARE. Remember the old story about the drunk looking for his lost care keys in the dark alley where he parked his car. He searched but found it difficult to search in the dark so went one street over and searched under a street light. When asked why he was looking there, instead of the dark alley, he replied that it was easier to look under the street light. There are an infinite number of wrong answers and wrong places to search. There is only one right answer and it is usually hard to find even if you are looking in the right place.

This applies to searching for answers about human disease and drug response. Cancer is probably the most well known example. We have cured cancer in mice hundreds of times. Everyone agrees on this! But the cures did not translate to humans. The reason for this lack of effectiveness is that society is funding research under the street light instead of in the dark alley. The keys are in the dark alley.

Similarly, in biomedical research scientists try to develop animal models of disease.  We learn from those that fail. 

This is true and is a major point. As I have stated repeatedly knowledge can come from studying animals. There are two problems with this knowledge. 1. It is not predictive for human response to drugs and disease. 2. Even when animal results correlate with human results the frequency of this is so low that one really must question whether using animals to search for this new knowledge is the best way to find knowledge about humans. The logical conclusion is that studying humans would be a better place to look for new knowledge about humans. Again I must emphasize: the research funding pie is finite. Society should have its money spent on the modalities that have the highest probability of answering questions that society wants answered. For example, how can we find a vaccine against HIV, a cure for specific cancer and so forth? There is no doubt that animal models provide us with knowledge but what is that knowledge worth and could society learn even more using a different research modality.

We discard or refine those that do not work and have, in fact, developed some very good models of diseases and used them successfully to develop therapies.  

This is an unsubstantiated claim as are similar claims Dr Ringach has put forth. If I claim that I developed an anesthetic technique or that therapy X was developed using rats or that autopsies led to the discovery of insulin, I need to provide a history of, say diabetes research in the 19th century outlining who did what and when, what techniques were and were not used and what came from those techniques, and so forth. Addressing any such issue usually involves lengthy papers published in peer review journals. I have provided a very abbreviated example of this on the AFMA website on the discovery of penicillin. If Dr Ringach or anyone else for that matter wants to argue history, he needs to provide academically acceptable arguments not mere claims.

Dr Ringach’s above statement is true where it says some animal models are discarded but the reason most, if not all, are not discarded is mainly due to the double standard that Dr Ringach is outlining. “We learn from models that mimic human response and we learn from models that don’t.” That is a true statement. It ignores whether the knowledge is predictive for humans and whether such models are the best way to obtain new knowledge about humans. But if you can convince society to fund your research regardless of where it leads, that is good job security.

Does it make any sense to compile some failures and argue that “animal research is not predictive”?  Of course not…  It wouldn’t make any sense at all.

If the question is, “Do animal models predict drug and disease response for humans?” then yes, it does make sense. If the question is, “Do we learn things from using animals?” then no, it does not. This raises the question of why are we doing animal-based research? As I have said many times, if you want knowledge for knowledge sake (a noble goal in the eyes of many, including my coauthor Niall Shanks) then using animals is a scientifically viable means of obtaining such knowledge. If the goal is finding cures and treatments for humans then studying humans, in all the myriad ways that can be accomplished, is a better.

So here is what Dr. Greek did.  He complied a book with some failed models, out-of-context citations of scientists that acknowledged some of their limitations and are trying to learn from them, added one cup of badly interpreted evolutionary biology and a pinch of irrelevant mathematical formulas to confuse the reader.  Then, he mixed everything together really well and argued he has cooked up a “proof” that the entire field of biomedical research using animals does not work.  The result is rubbish no reasonable scientist will find palatable.

The above is pure ad hominem and needs no refutation. The book speaks for itself and scientists who have read the book disagree with Dr Ringach’s interpretation. That being said, I feel compelled to point out that the “badly interpreted evolutionary biology” came from the author of God, the Devil, and Darwin (Niall Shanks). The foreword for God, the Devil, and Darwinwas written by Richard Dawkins and the book itself was listed by Sam Harris as one of the ten books he recommended in his excellent bookLetter to a Christian Nation. If the reader is to judge any of Dr Ringach’s musings by anything other than a proper study of the facts of our position, I suggest that he seriously consider the fact that Dr Ringach has criticized Niall Shanks’ expertise in evolutionary biology.

I appreciate, however, how is that those opponents of research that refuse to face the ethical dilemma brought up by the fact that animal research saves lives might cling to the hope that Dr. Greek's claims are true.  I see how such a belief could bring much relief to their minds.

Shanks has no problem with using animals in basic research, eats meat, wears leather, and is not even remotely interested in animal rights. Criticizing our position in this way once again underscores the ad hominem nature of Dr Ringach’s criticisms and raises the question of why Dr Ringach has the position he is advocating.


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