Tag Archives: THINCS

How to kill a hypothesis

“Why do people insist on defending their ideas and opinions with such ferocity, as if defending honour itself? What could be easier to change than an idea?” J.G. Farrell.

When the orbit of Neptune was found to be irregular, and not to follow classical Newtonian physics, it was suggested that, perhaps, the laws of physics may break down in deep space. Others, rather more pragmatically, suggested that there was another planet out there, interfering with the orbit of Neptune. It was just too far out, and dim, to be seen.

That planet, no longer called a planet, was Pluto. Once observed, it accounted for the distortions in the orbit of Neptune.

When the orbit of Mercury was found to be irregular, and not to follow classical Newtonian physics, it was suggested that there was another invisible planet orbiting closer to the sun. This planet was named Vulcan.

Of course there was no planet Vulcan. The reason why classical Newtonian physics did not accurately predict the orbit of Mercury is because the mass of the sun bent time and space. Classical Newtonian physics had to be replaced by Einstein’s theory of relativity.

What does this tell us?

It tells us that it is very difficult to know if an apparently contradictory observation actually refutes a scientific theory. It also tells us that you can use ad-hoc hypotheses (there is another planet out there) to support a cherished central hypothesis, and that this is a valid scientific technique.

But at what point do you have to admit defeat? How many contradictory observations can you dismiss before you must accept that the game is up, and that your hypothesis is wrong?

I think about this a lot. Mainly with regard to the cholesterol hypothesis, or the diet-heart hypothesis, or whatever term is now current. I have seen evidence that directly refutes this hypothesis again and again and again and….indeed…again.

If anyone wishes to debate this issue with me, I can produce far more evidence contradicting it, than supporting it. Yet still it stands, untouched. In fact I would suggest more people believe in this hypothesis than at any time in human history. Billions of people also take statins to lower their cholesterol levels. As you can imagine, this is more than a little frustrating.

How can you convince people that this hypothesis is wrong? I have tried in many, many, different ways. As have other members of THINCS (The International Network of Cholesterol Skeptics).

Yes, I have helped to convince many thousands of people that cholesterol has nothing to do with heart disease, or cardiovascular disease, or atherosclerosis, or unstable atherosclerotic plaques…

Indeed, stepping sideways for a moment, one of the major difficulties in this area is that the terminology shifts and swirls in front of you, making it impossible even to pin down what you are talking about.

At one time the experts were quite happy to tell us that a raised cholesterol level caused heart disease. Now we have ‘good’ cholesterol and ‘bad’ cholesterol, and ‘light and fluffy’ bad cholesterol and ‘small and dense’ bad cholesterol (which really should be called ‘evil’ cholesterol, I suppose). We have the ratio of good to bad cholesterol, apob-100 levels, particle numbers, sub-fractions of good cholesterol, dyslipidaemia, LDL particle size, or number,  or…..the list goes on and on.

How can you argue against a scientific hypothesis when the damned thing will not stay still from day to day?

That, however, is a bit of a side-issue, although I have come to realise that this constant creation of new types of cholesterol, and sub-fractions, and ratios, is all part of the game that is played to protect the cholesterol hypothesis from refutation. How can you refute a hypothesis that can change into any shape it likes? Answer, you can’t.

Anyway, in my efforts to work out how to change ideas in the wider population I have spent a great deal of time looking at the history of scientific thought. I wanted to gain any insights I could into how people managed to kill off hypotheses in the past.

As part of my education I have tried not to get too depressed by fellow thinkers on the subject. Such as Max Plank, who said:

‘A scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.’

In short, his view is that you should forget trying to convince people. They will never, ever, change their minds. Max Plank, by the way, was the man who published Einstein’s special theory of relativity (against great opposition).

Another of my scientific heroes is Wilfred Trotter. A man you are unlikely to have come across. Unfortunately, however, he was not much help either:

‘The mind likes a strange idea as little as the body likes a strange protein and resists it with similar energy. It would not perhaps be too fanciful to say that a new idea is the most quickly acting antigen known to science. If we watch ourselves honestly we shall often find that we have begun to argue against a new idea even before it has been completely stated.’

I could fill hundreds of pages with quotes saying the same type of thing. Essentially, people love the ideas they have grown up with, and become deeply emotionally attached to them. Changing them is painful; they dislike and fear new ideas and, will bring forth all the powers of their intellect to do so.

Things are made all the more difficult when you try to convince people who have spent large amounts of their professional life studying a specific area. When someone has become an ‘expert’ in something, and their reputation, and position of authority, is inextricably linked to a certain hypothesis, you are not just attacking an idea, you are attacking them. As noted by Leo Tolstoy:

‘I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth, if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives.’ Leo Tolstoy

Despite all of this being rather depressing, it has all helped me to establish one clear rule. Do not bother trying to convince people who are ‘experts’ in heart disease that the cholesterol hypothesis is wrong. It is a complete waste of time and energy. The only people who can be convinced are inquisitive people who do not have too much invested in this particular hypothesis.

I have also worked out another rule. Facts are almost completely ineffective at convincing people of anything. Recently, I was reading an article on Daniel Kahneman, Nobel prize winner in economics. He was discussing the irrationality of the financial system. He made many interesting points. For example:

The way scientists try to convince people is hopeless because they present evidence, figures, tables, arguments, and so on. But that’s not how to convince people. People aren’t convinced by arguments, they don’t believe conclusions because they believe in the arguments that they read in favour of them. They’re convinced because they read or hear the conclusions from people they trust. You trust someone and you believe what they say. That’s how ideas are communicated. The arguments come later.’

Once again, if this is true, what can be done? How to change ideas…..

I leave you at this point with a small section of dialogue from the film Inception:

Dom Cobb: ‘What is the most resilient parasite? A bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm?’

Arthur: ‘Uh, what Mr. Cobb is trying to…’

Dom Cobb: ‘An idea. Resilient, highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate. An idea that is fully formed, fully understood. That sticks, right in there somewhere.’

[he points to his head]

The cholesterol hypothesis is one of the most resilient parasites of all. How to kill it off? All suggestions welcome.