Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Aspirin science

I thought I'd reproduce what John commented a couple of days ago, as I thought it was rather pithy:
"One of my favourite economists, not himself a religious man, wrote this about science and values: 'Why should one be frightened, I asked, of taking a stand on judgments which are not scientific, if they relate to matters outside the world of science? To recognise the claims of science in fields where scientific method was applicable was one thing; to attempt to claim scientific sanction for judgments of questions not capable of scientific proof was another. The one was an obligation on rational man; the other, the stratagem of spiritual uncertainty. Was it not only the timidity of an age which had lost all confidence in ultimate values which led us to attempt to claim "scientific" justifications for attitudes which in the nature of things could not be justified (or refuted) by appeal to laboratory methods?'"

We heard this morning that scientists have revised their advice about aspirin as a prophylactic against heart attacks, unless you've already had stroke or previous episodes. Not so long ago, I received advice to take half an aspirin a day from a doctor (not my GP) in the light of my chloresterol. The Drugs and Therapeutics Bulletin now reports the risk of internal bleeding offset any potential advantage. According to the BBC, 'Between 2005 and 2008, the DTB said four sets of guidelines were published recommending aspirin for the "primary prevention" of cardiovascular disease - in patients who had shown no sign of the disease.
These included people aged 50 and older with type 2 diabetes and those with high blood pressure.' Many thousands have, not unreasonably, followed the 'scientific' advice. 'But the DTB said a recent analysis of six controlled trials involving a total of 95,000 patients published in the journal the Lancet does not back up the routine use of aspirin in these patients because of the risk of serious gastrointestinal bleeds and the negligible impact it has on curbing death rates.' What do you know? The scientists have changed their minds.... Last night we heard Prof Nutt on the World Tonight pontificating on politicians' inability to grasp the difference between 'belief' and 'fact'. 'They believe it, and because they believe it, because they're politicians, they think it IS true. And that's why they think they don't need experts, because they think they know the truth, and they don't. They're confused. They think their beliefs are facts and they're not....' No doubt the advice we were given about aspirin - until this morning - was given because of 'facts'. Isn't it time for a bit of intellectual humility all round? One of my favourite quotations comes from the unlikely figure of Oliver Cromwell: 'I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken', which I think he said to his fellow Puritans.

1 comment:

  1. CS Lewis in 1925 (before he became a Christian):

    'It will be a comfort to me all my life to know [ie having studied philosophy] that the scientist and the materialist have not the last word: that Darwin and Spencer undermining ancestral beliefs stand themselves on a foundation of sand, of gigantic assumptions and irreconcilable contradictions an inch below the surface.'

    So, not a surprise then that our scientists, not just our politicians, seem unaware of the blurred lines between 'fact' and belief in their pronouncements.