Damned Heretics

Condemned by the established, but very often right

I am Nicolaus Copernicus, and I approve of this blog

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Qualified outsiders and maverick insiders are often right about the need to replace received wisdom in science and society, as the history of the Nobel prize shows. This blog exists to back the best of them in their uphill assault on the massively entrenched edifice of resistance to and prejudice against reviewing, let alone revising, ruling ideas. In support of such qualified dissenters and courageous heretics we search for scientific paradigms and other established beliefs which may be maintained only by the power and politics of the status quo, comparing them with academic research and the published experimental and investigative record.

We especially defend and support the funding of honest, accomplished, independent minded and often heroic scientists, inventors and other original thinkers and their right to free speech and publication against the censorship, mudslinging, false arguments, ad hominem propaganda, overwhelming crowd prejudice and internal science politics of the paradigm wars of cancer, AIDS, evolution, global warming, cosmology, particle physics, macroeconomics, health and medicine, diet and nutrition.

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Many people would die rather than think – in fact, they do so. – Bertrand Russell.

Skepticism is dangerous. That’s exactly its function, in my view. It is the business of skepticism to be dangerous. And that’s why there is a great reluctance to teach it in schools. That’s why you don’t find a general fluency in skepticism in the media. On the other hand, how will we negotiate a very perilous future if we don’t have the elementary intellectual tools to ask searching questions of those nominally in charge, especially in a democracy? – Carl Sagan (The Burden of Skepticism, keynote address to CSICOP Annual Conference, Pasadena, April 3/4, 1982).

It is really important to underscore that everything we’re talking about tonight could be utter nonsense. – Brian Greene (NYU panel on Hidden Dimensions June 5 2010, World Science Festival)

I am Albert Einstein, and I heartily approve of this blog, insofar as it seems to believe both in science and the importance of intellectual imagination, uncompromised by out of date emotions such as the impulse toward conventional religious beliefs, national aggression as a part of patriotism, and so on.   As I once remarked, the further the spiritual evolution of mankind advances, the more certain it seems to me that the path to genuine religiosity does not lie through the fear of life, and the fear of death, and blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge.   Certainly the application of the impulse toward blind faith in science whereby authority is treated as some kind of church is to be deplored.  As I have also said, the only thing ever interfered with my learning was my education. My name as you already perceive without a doubt is George Bernard Shaw, and I certainly approve of this blog, in that its guiding spirit appears to be blasphemous in regard to the High Church doctrines of science, and it flouts the censorship of the powers that be, and as I have famously remarked, all great truths begin as blasphemy, and the first duty of the truthteller is to fight censorship, and while I notice that its seriousness of purpose is often alleviated by a satirical irony which sometimes borders on the facetious, this is all to the good, for as I have also famously remarked, if you wish to be a dissenter, make certain that you frame your ideas in jest, otherwise they will seek to kill you.  My own method was always to take the utmost trouble to find the right thing to say, and then to say it with the utmost levity. (Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt for Life magazine) One should as a rule respect public opinion in so far as is necessary to avoid starvation and to keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny, and is likely to interfere with happiness in all kinds of ways. – Bertrand Russell, Conquest of Happiness (1930) ch. 9

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Going to extremes in advancing medicine

Today Larry Altman in the Times writes on Barry Marshall, the Australian who just won the Nobel with Robin Warren for finding the real cause and cure for stomach ulcers, experimenting on himself by swallowing the bacteria he was sure caused the ailment.

This was a brave act, even foolhardy, and in doing so Marshall joined a tradition of rare and dangerous self sacrifice in the cause of knowledge, sometimes ending in the death of the pioneer willing to experiment on himself.

Altman is an expert on the topic, since he wrote the book “”Who Goes First? The Story of Self-Experimentation in Medicine.” We have ordered it; it looks like a fascinating book.

Acts of this sort betray a fervent desire to prove a truth in science and medicine which may be over the top, since some have died from it But it is still admirable, since it serves society in seeking a cure:


In 1929, Dr. Werner Forssmann broke a taboo against touching the beating human heart. As an intern in Germany, he inserted a thin tube into a vein in his elbow and slid it into his heart. Other researchers went on to develop that technique of cardiac catheterization and opened up the modern era of cardiology. Dr. Forssmann shared a Nobel Prize in 1956 for the nine times he had catheterized himself. In one set of experiments, Dr. Forssmann was injected with a radio-opaque chemical as he tried to take X-rays of his heart, a now standard technique known as cardiac angiography

(show)

The New York Times

October 9, 2005

When the Doctors Are Their Own Best Guinea Pigs

By LAWRENCE K. ALTMAN, M.D.

BACK when the two Australian winners of this year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine suspected that the bacteria they were seeing in biopsies caused stomach inflammation and ulcers, critics insisted that the bacteria were just opportunists, not the culprits.

So one of the two, Dr. Barry J. Marshall, set out to prove the theory by following a traditional method of scientific research: he experimented on himself.

In 1984, Dr. Marshall gulped a potent cocktail of pure Helicobacter pylori bacteria. And promptly became ill. What’s more, his breath stank. Biopsies showed he had developed stomach inflammation that was not there before. Treatment cured the infection and Dr. Marshall stopped the experiment short of getting a full-blown ulcer. But he had made his point.

How many other Dr. Marshalls are out there – scientists who become their own guinea pigs?

No one knows because no one keeps tabs on the number of experiments performed on people in this country or elsewhere. For years, doctors used the initials of subjects, including their own, in reporting their studies, but stopped because of concerns that they were violating confidentiality. So, other than direct acknowledgment from a researcher, there is no way to know how often the tradition of self-experimentation is carried out today. But the anecdotal evidence that it goes on is rife.

Over the years, self-experimenters have made important contributions by developing drugs and vaccines, testing physiological theories and determining the role of vitamins and the causes of some diseases.

Only rarely have they killed themselves in the process.

Researchers cite a number of ethical and practical reasons for experimenting on themselves. Many scientists say they are applying the biblical golden rule to medicine – doing unto themselves before they do unto others. The practical reasons include knowledge of the risks, reliability and convenience.

Self-experimentation can be dated to at least the 16th century, when Santorio Santorio of Padua, Italy, weighed himself daily on a portable steelyard for 30 years. By measuring the weight of his food and drink and his bodily discharges and by recording how his body responded to various physiological and pathological conditions, Santorio made a crucial discovery. He identified a gap between the weight of what he ate and what he discharged, discovering that the body continually loses large but invisible amounts of fluid. Doctors calculate that loss, known as insensible perspiration, in the everyday care of patients.

In 1929, Dr. Werner Forssmann broke a taboo against touching the beating human heart. As an intern in Germany, he inserted a thin tube into a vein in his elbow and slid it into his heart. Other researchers went on to develop that technique of cardiac catheterization and opened up the modern era of cardiology. Dr. Forssmann shared a Nobel Prize in 1956 for the nine times he had catheterized himself. In one set of experiments, Dr. Forssmann was injected with a radio-opaque chemical as he tried to take X-rays of his heart, a now standard technique known as cardiac angiography.

Another German, Gerhard Domagk, won a Nobel Prize in 1939 for discovering the sulfa drugs. In later research, Dr. Domagk sought a substance that would kill cancer cells without harming normal ones. He sterilized extracts of human cancers and, after tests on animals, injected them into himself to learn whether they could be used as a cancer vaccine.

Modern anesthesia evolved from frolics that drew large audiences. In one such show in 1844, a Connecticut dentist, Horace Wells, observed a volunteer breathe nitrous oxide, gash his leg, and not note any pain until the effects wore off. The next day, Dr. Wells asked another dentist to administer the “laughing gas” to him and extract a tooth. When the gas wore off, Dr. Wells exclaimed: “It is the greatest discovery ever made. I didn’t feel as much as the prick of a pin.” He began using it on his patients. Ether, chloroform and other anesthetics followed, in part from additional self-experimenting.

One medical myth is that Walter Reed experimented on himself in Cuba in discovering that mosquitoes transmit yellow fever. But after pledging to be a guinea pig for the mosquito theory, Dr. Reed returned to the United States while two of the three other members of his team experimented on themselves. One died. Another barely survived. After Dr. Reed’s teammates made the crucial breakthrough, he returned to Cuba but never took his turn with a yellow-fever-carrying mosquito.

Lawrence K. Altman, M.D., senior medical writer for The Times, is the author of “Who Goes First? The Story of Self-Experimentation in Medicine.”

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