Friday, December 09, 2005

What is truth?

Actually, I don’t plan to answer this question, which philosophers have often pondered. However, I couldn’t resist the temptation to ask “What is truth?” after my previous blog asked: “What is love?” – and after I heard yesterday’s news that Merck may have concealed important scientific evidence regarding negative effects of Vioxx.

Important questions depend upon “science” for answers – whether it’s the extent of damage to the ozone layer, the efficacy of particular drugs, the effectiveness of social programs in reducing poverty, the impact of “No child left behind” on academic achievement – or anything else.

But “science” is not some abstract, pristine process of asking questions and obtaining the "right" answers. Scientific work comes out of a stew of value judgments, politics, history, and traditions (“scientific” traditions, and others); and it’s carried out by beings whose human frailty is no less and no more than anyone else’s. Obtaining “objective” data is a trickier process than we all might assume. As citizens, we all need some understanding of “scientific research” – how it works, and doesn’t work, as a tool for guiding significant decisions. We need to learn how to demand credibility, and how to look for it in statements purported to be “scientific”.

Over time, I’ll give my views on what that means.

In the meanwhile, remember the quip attributed to John Glenn regarding his thoughts just before taking off into space. "I looked around and suddenly realized that everything had been built by the lowest bidder."

Many of the medications we use, the technologies on which we depend, the services we hope are effective – actually have only established themselves on the lowest acceptable criteria. This is not bad. We can’t wait forever to get the final answer on everything there is to know about the long term effects of specific drugs, for example. However, the implication is that we must remain vigilant – always searching for new information, always investigating whether some initial findings were incomplete or misleading.

In addition, as the Merck/Vioxx experience illustrates (if indeed it’s true that researchers did not reveal three heart attacks associated with the drug during testing), we need to scrutinize the credentials of those who publish research, to identify potentially vested interests, and sometimes take measures to obtain alternate views.

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