The Quest For Objective Truth

The quest for objective truth is much more difficult than many people realize.  It requires integrity, perseverance, and the ability to assess our own weaknesses and prejudices.  My perspective is that of a practicing physician of over forty years and my interaction with life, death, suffering, healing, and recovery.  I also have a strong basic science background.

Many of the so-called progressives believe that we all have a personal truth and one cannot say that one truth speaks for all.  That position is anemic on scientific principles and moral clarity.  Progressives are mistaking truth for opinion. 

The most fundamental approach to finding the truth of the nature of the universe is through physics.  The first giant intellect of physics was Sir Isaac Newton.  His inverse square law of gravitational attraction and his laws of motion were the bedrock of science for centuries.  His notions were testable and reproducible and seemed the ultimate truth.  He is also credited with the invention of calculus.  But the whole paradigm of physics changed with Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, Erwin Schroedinger, Max Planck, Edwin Hubble, and many others in the twentieth century.  They brought us a plethora of new, testable ideas such as the General and Special Theories of Relativity, quantum physics, subatomic particles, and many more.  The context here is that it is still an exciting time to study physics, as there seems no end to discoveries.

As we move farther from basic science into the applied sciences, the acquisition of truth becomes ever more elusive.  In Hamlet, Queen Gertrude sternly admonishes her adviser Polonius to give her "more matter with less art."  I like to think of this as the sine qua non of modern medicine.  The emphasis is to strive for evidence-based medicine (more matter), and the art of medicine is often downplayed.  But the subjective art of medicine is a valuable, though imprecise tool.  Using all of the tools of observation,  an impression is formed.  And yet, that impression may not be the truth.  People don't have bar code identifiers.

The gold standard for assessment of therapies is the randomized, controlled clinical study.  But even when we think we have a brilliant and conclusive study, we can be dead wrong.  For example, chronic hypertension is associated with an increase in myocardial infarction, stroke, and kidney failure.  A class of anti-hypertensives known as beta-blockers was shown to lower blood pressure effectively.  But it did not lower the risk of heart attack or stroke.  We were looking at the wrong end point.  Other medications are better at this prevention.   For more on this, read Ending Medical Reversal, Improving Outcomes, Saving Lives by Vinayak K. Prasad.

Another facet  we have to contend with in medicine is self-deception.  There are three manifestations of this.  The first of these is the placebo effect.  Although it sounds cynical, this was the most effective clinical tool used in medicine for centuries.  We still use this effect inadvertently and even overtly to our advantage.  When patients are given a placebo, a harmless faux treatment that they believe will help them, they have a 30-50% improvement in their condition, depending on the malady.  This is not imaginary.  There is a real physiological effect, and the exact mechanism is not clearly defined.  Even if you tell some of the placebo group he is getting a placebo, up to 20% of such people will still have a positive outcome.  Clinical studies are invalid if the placebo effect is not controlled for.

The opposite of the placebo effect is the nocebo effect.  This happens when people are convinced that something harmless is, in fact, harmful, and they can become very ill.  We all know many people who are convinced they are ill when there is nothing wrong.

A third kind of self-deception is when people are taking or doing something harmful to themselves but firmly believe they are getting better.  An extreme example of this happened nearly one hundred years ago.  William J.A. Bailey, a self-proclaimed doctor of questionable character, had several companies and sold concoctions.  His most lethal was the patent medicine called "Radiothor," laced with small doses of radium.  It was recommended to an East Coast socialite, Eben Byers, after he suffered a shoulder injury.  He was promised that it had near miraculous healing power.  Between 1927 and 1932, Byers consumed around 1,400 bottles of this, all the while slowly dying of radiation poisoning.  On his deathbed, he had a brain abscess, several cancers, missing teeth, and a rotting mandible.  He begged for just one more bottle of his precious potion, convinced that it would finally cure him.  Self-deception is powerful.

When governments foist a false scientific narrative, the results are often destructive.  One such debacle occurred in the Soviet Union from mid-1920s to 1964 and was centered on a botanist, Trofim Lysenko.  The modern scientific community accepted Mendelian genetics to explain inherited traits.  Lysenko believed in an older view that plants and seeds could be acclimated to extreme elements, whereupon the offspring would be resistant.  His ideas became the official dogma of Russian botany.  With Stalin as his ally, opposing views were suppressed.  Russian scientists who disagreed were ostracized, imprisoned, or executed.  Lysenko destroyed Russian genetic science.  The Russian people suffered many crop failures and other privations for this.  This pairing of false science with government control is known as Lysenkoism.

Today, Lysenkoism is alive and well in climate science.  Our climate is a nonlinear, chaotic system influenced by scores of variables.  To think a single variable, the life-giving carbon dioxide, is the world's thermostat is both naïve and nonsensical.  Just as with Lysenko's false botany, governments have embraced climate alarmism.  Skeptics have been ostracized but not yet fined or imprisoned.  This has the flavor of totalitarian control.

We see evidence of false narratives all around us.  Trump Derangement Syndrome is a big nocebo effect.  And a whole generation of college students are rejecting their God-given right to individual freedom for the false narrative of Marxist glory.  They fail to see that their indoctrination is as healthy to society as Radiothor was to Eben Byers.

As a practicing physician, I have to remain cognizant of the biases and errors that are rampant in medical studies.  A prudent stance is that new studies are  wrong until proven right.  There are very few visionary Einsteins.  It makes sense not to be the first to adopt a new idea, nor the last.

The quest for objective truth takes great wisdom, and we frequently fall short.  Following false theories and dogmas causes real suffering for individuals and society.  We must forge on for the sake of ourselves and our progeny.

Roger Taylor is a physician in private practice.  His medical degree is from the University of Chicago.  He has a plethora of interests.

The quest for objective truth is much more difficult than many people realize.  It requires integrity, perseverance, and the ability to assess our own weaknesses and prejudices.  My perspective is that of a practicing physician of over forty years and my interaction with life, death, suffering, healing, and recovery.  I also have a strong basic science background.

Many of the so-called progressives believe that we all have a personal truth and one cannot say that one truth speaks for all.  That position is anemic on scientific principles and moral clarity.  Progressives are mistaking truth for opinion. 

The most fundamental approach to finding the truth of the nature of the universe is through physics.  The first giant intellect of physics was Sir Isaac Newton.  His inverse square law of gravitational attraction and his laws of motion were the bedrock of science for centuries.  His notions were testable and reproducible and seemed the ultimate truth.  He is also credited with the invention of calculus.  But the whole paradigm of physics changed with Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, Erwin Schroedinger, Max Planck, Edwin Hubble, and many others in the twentieth century.  They brought us a plethora of new, testable ideas such as the General and Special Theories of Relativity, quantum physics, subatomic particles, and many more.  The context here is that it is still an exciting time to study physics, as there seems no end to discoveries.

As we move farther from basic science into the applied sciences, the acquisition of truth becomes ever more elusive.  In Hamlet, Queen Gertrude sternly admonishes her adviser Polonius to give her "more matter with less art."  I like to think of this as the sine qua non of modern medicine.  The emphasis is to strive for evidence-based medicine (more matter), and the art of medicine is often downplayed.  But the subjective art of medicine is a valuable, though imprecise tool.  Using all of the tools of observation,  an impression is formed.  And yet, that impression may not be the truth.  People don't have bar code identifiers.

The gold standard for assessment of therapies is the randomized, controlled clinical study.  But even when we think we have a brilliant and conclusive study, we can be dead wrong.  For example, chronic hypertension is associated with an increase in myocardial infarction, stroke, and kidney failure.  A class of anti-hypertensives known as beta-blockers was shown to lower blood pressure effectively.  But it did not lower the risk of heart attack or stroke.  We were looking at the wrong end point.  Other medications are better at this prevention.   For more on this, read Ending Medical Reversal, Improving Outcomes, Saving Lives by Vinayak K. Prasad.

Another facet  we have to contend with in medicine is self-deception.  There are three manifestations of this.  The first of these is the placebo effect.  Although it sounds cynical, this was the most effective clinical tool used in medicine for centuries.  We still use this effect inadvertently and even overtly to our advantage.  When patients are given a placebo, a harmless faux treatment that they believe will help them, they have a 30-50% improvement in their condition, depending on the malady.  This is not imaginary.  There is a real physiological effect, and the exact mechanism is not clearly defined.  Even if you tell some of the placebo group he is getting a placebo, up to 20% of such people will still have a positive outcome.  Clinical studies are invalid if the placebo effect is not controlled for.

The opposite of the placebo effect is the nocebo effect.  This happens when people are convinced that something harmless is, in fact, harmful, and they can become very ill.  We all know many people who are convinced they are ill when there is nothing wrong.

A third kind of self-deception is when people are taking or doing something harmful to themselves but firmly believe they are getting better.  An extreme example of this happened nearly one hundred years ago.  William J.A. Bailey, a self-proclaimed doctor of questionable character, had several companies and sold concoctions.  His most lethal was the patent medicine called "Radiothor," laced with small doses of radium.  It was recommended to an East Coast socialite, Eben Byers, after he suffered a shoulder injury.  He was promised that it had near miraculous healing power.  Between 1927 and 1932, Byers consumed around 1,400 bottles of this, all the while slowly dying of radiation poisoning.  On his deathbed, he had a brain abscess, several cancers, missing teeth, and a rotting mandible.  He begged for just one more bottle of his precious potion, convinced that it would finally cure him.  Self-deception is powerful.

When governments foist a false scientific narrative, the results are often destructive.  One such debacle occurred in the Soviet Union from mid-1920s to 1964 and was centered on a botanist, Trofim Lysenko.  The modern scientific community accepted Mendelian genetics to explain inherited traits.  Lysenko believed in an older view that plants and seeds could be acclimated to extreme elements, whereupon the offspring would be resistant.  His ideas became the official dogma of Russian botany.  With Stalin as his ally, opposing views were suppressed.  Russian scientists who disagreed were ostracized, imprisoned, or executed.  Lysenko destroyed Russian genetic science.  The Russian people suffered many crop failures and other privations for this.  This pairing of false science with government control is known as Lysenkoism.

Today, Lysenkoism is alive and well in climate science.  Our climate is a nonlinear, chaotic system influenced by scores of variables.  To think a single variable, the life-giving carbon dioxide, is the world's thermostat is both naïve and nonsensical.  Just as with Lysenko's false botany, governments have embraced climate alarmism.  Skeptics have been ostracized but not yet fined or imprisoned.  This has the flavor of totalitarian control.

We see evidence of false narratives all around us.  Trump Derangement Syndrome is a big nocebo effect.  And a whole generation of college students are rejecting their God-given right to individual freedom for the false narrative of Marxist glory.  They fail to see that their indoctrination is as healthy to society as Radiothor was to Eben Byers.

As a practicing physician, I have to remain cognizant of the biases and errors that are rampant in medical studies.  A prudent stance is that new studies are  wrong until proven right.  There are very few visionary Einsteins.  It makes sense not to be the first to adopt a new idea, nor the last.

The quest for objective truth takes great wisdom, and we frequently fall short.  Following false theories and dogmas causes real suffering for individuals and society.  We must forge on for the sake of ourselves and our progeny.

Roger Taylor is a physician in private practice.  His medical degree is from the University of Chicago.  He has a plethora of interests.