Thursday, January 31, 2013

Reading Science' Tea Leaves

"Free markets do not guarantee social outcomes, only economic outcomes."

This simple, obvious notion seems difficult for many. Perhaps overwhelmed by the legacy of science, we are unable to resist the desire to apply equations where they can not be affirmed. Sometimes it seems as if we are impatient with science's constraints, as if it has no heart and clearly would follow our path if it could only escape itself.

Or perhaps we are like an energetic Jane Austen character, full of confidence in how things should and must go.

Naivete can be forgiven. But dismissive arrogance is a harder blunderer. There are entire schools of economic and sociological thought out there, encountering the world and each other like armies in the night, doing untold damage as they feel their way along. They create a self-supporting structure, courts and journals, university chairs and grants. Most important, they generate new generations of believers.

The history of duodenal ulcer disease is instructive. Many of the luminaries of medicine were involved in its meticulous revelation. Complex studies, experiments, trials with surgery and medicines were undertaken by centers of medical excellence. Procedures were developed, medicines approved and epidemiological interactions highlighted high risk people as its victims. Complex relationship with acid producing glands, nerve supply to those glands, the brains connection to those nerves all combined over the years to build a stately dome of interrelated factors that physicians systematical blocked, treated and surgically removed. Decades later an Australian group tried to convince the medical community that all the work and the elegant structure it created was lovely nonsense, that the cause of ulcer disease was a bacterium. The initial response was laughter; the Australians were invited to events for comic relief. But, as things turned out, they were right. Medicine, the history and precedence created by medicine's great leaders, the consensus were all wrong.

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