Science on the cusp of mainstream


William Gibson has a deservedly famous quote: The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed. Normally this is applied to technology, like smartphone adoption.

But it also applies to scientific discoveries, which can occasionally take decades to go mainstream. And sometimes that unevenly distributed future becomes visible if you know where to look. It’s science on the cusp of mainstream.

We normally think of science working like the recent Higgs boson announcement. After lots of painstaking work a paper is published with a press release. And on that day the science goes mainstream and everyone is on board. That’s awesome. But occasionally the science is controversial and a long debate sets in. If that controversy is not really driven by the science itself but more by inertia or institutional bias, then it can become clear which side will prevail even before the scientific community is aligned. Doesn’t happen that often, but when it does it tends to be about something interesting. To be clear, I’m not talking about pseudo-science like vaccines causing autism or oil companies secretly blocking perpetual motion machines. I’m talking scientists duking it out by publishing papers, which if it goes on long enough will spill over into books intended for a general audience.

As a template for how this can happen, take the case of Helicobacter pylori bacteria causing ulcers, which is now mainstream.

Toward 1978 or so there were hints that stress and stomach acid weren’t necessarily the primary cause of ulcers, and in fact ulcers might be due to bacteria and treated with antibiotics. In 1983 Barry Marshall and Robin Warren published their first results along these lines. Those first papers weren’t well received. Eventually Marshall went to the extreme of infecting himself with  Helicobacter  pylori, getting an ulcer, and then treating himself with antibiotics to cure it. He published the paper in 1985. Total awesomeness here. Love this story. I remember it hitting the news at the time.  Poking around the NY Times website archives (as a stand in for general public views), as late as 1993 we have a Dr. James H. Lewis from Glaxo Pharmaceuticals saying “it is still too early to say that this is the best approach to treating ulcers.”

In 2005, while getting interviewed for winning the Nobel prize Marshall said, “The fact that the big drug companies who were supporting the journal articles ignored H. pylori was far more effective than actually saying that a bacterial cause was not true because if they had said it was false, or not important, they would have created a controversy and maybe media interest.”    Now Tagamet, a blockbuster drug which blocked stomach acid production and was used to treat ulcers, went off patent in 1994.  Not coincidentally the medical establishment came on board shortly thereafter and by 1996 and the NY Times could write without qualification that “most peptic ulcers are caused by a bacterial infection of the stomach”

I’m not a drug company conspiracy guy, so I think the complete out of the blue aspect of blaming bacteria for ulcers was a big part of the slow adoption. It took a lot of studies to swing the specialists over.  And even after the science was adopted, it took another 10 years or so before widespread uptake with doctors prescribing treatment to the new science. From a timeline point of view by 1985 it was clear a challenge was in the air, and let’s say by at least 1990 it was clear if you were paying attention how it would turn out. By 1995 it was agreed inside the medical expert community, and maybe only by 2005 when Marshall and Barry won their Nobel prize was it completely mainstream from a treatment point of view.  To sum up, there was a window of at least 5 and maybe as many as 10 years where an outside observer could see how this would pan out despite not knowing the science as deeply as the people in the trenches arguing it out.

With that template, I’ve got three candidates for science on the cusp of mainstream.  We’ll see if they die out or go big.

First Gary Taubes on insulin-carbs-obesity.  Since about 2000 Taubes has been one of the most prominent people advocating that obesity is a metabolic hormonal disorder.  It’s caused by insulin resistance brought on by consumption of sugar and refined carbs. In a nutshell, the kind of food you eat, in particular refined carbs and sugar, triggers obesity. Not the amount of food. What’s nice about this hypothesis is that in many ways it’s simpler to test treaments than the one it is trying to replace (calorie balance – where all calories are alike and through willpower you must exercise enough to match the amount of calories you eat).  Tabues first book on this topic came out in 2007 and I read his second one from 2011. A good example of where this debate stands showed up in the NY Times recently.  A study compared weight regain after weight loss on various diets, and the low carb diet won.  A first article on the study focused on how low carb diets are riskier than low GI diets (low GI means reducing only those carbs which spike insulin).  Then a few days later Taubes wrote about the same study summarizing the insulin-carb-obesity thesis.

The first thing to notice is that 10 years ago the insulin-carb-obesity hypothesis was considered a fad and mostly just ignored. Studies were hard to fund. At this point the studies are being funded and done, and they are getting reported and confirming the thesis. I suspect the low GI diets might win the day over pure low carb, but I think this is more a detail to work out rather than a game changer on the basic hypothesis. The second thing to notice is more subtle, which is that both of these are considered opinion pieces, not science or health news.  Furthermore, in March the NY Times and most of the media piled on to a paper saying red meat is bad for you. Why this matters is the science in that article was bad – take down here. The larger point is that for the media, diet is a random topic almost like fashion. Consistency is not even expected. At the most basic level this reflects a problem inside the health medical science community more than in the media, but the media play their part.

What’s next? My take is this will move along as more studies are done, but at this point it’s as much organizational inertia and embarrassment holding things back. After all, the medical establishment is still pushing “carbohydrates as 45 to 65 percent of total calories.” Reversing that advice and saying, whoops – sorry we gave you advice that made you fat is going to be a tough switch. On a personal note I cut back the carbs and dropped 15 pounds and haven’t looked back.

My second example is David Sloan Wilson and group selection. Evolutionary group selection was widely rejected in 1964 after George Williams and W.D. Hamilton trashed it and built up the the gene centered alternative of kin selection/inclusive fitness.  And it’s never really made a comeback. This might seem an arcane topic, but it is important because it implies deep things about human nature. Does biological altruism exist?  Are people naturally selfish? As a partisan of David Sloan Wilson, I’d say group selection was in fact correctly tossed out as it was then formulated in the 1960’s.  But 50 years later we’re at the point where modern group selection is mathematically equivalent to models of inclusive fitness and kin selection. But evolutionary biologists who are not specialists on this topic are oblivious and violently disagree. To illustrate, E.O. Wilson’s recent book this year (and the paper the year before) got ripped apart by Richard Dawkins and both were widely mocked. More devastating because more reasonable in tone was Steven Pinker’s recent take on the topic. These two are deservedly heavyweights in the field, but what’s interesting to me is that David Sloan Wilson clearly understands the critiques and while he can clearly explain the other sides arguments and their flaws, it’s far less clear that the other side (my partisan take) understands his points. They just reiterate what Williams and Hamilton published in the 1960’s. At this point it’s dicey to claim David Sloan Wilson will win out, so we’ll see where it goes. But I think for example Jonathan Haidt, who is influenced by David Sloan Wilson, is on to something when he says in his recent book The Righteous Mind that ”human beings are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee”. Given the recent ruckus about E.O. Wilson’s paper and book, which as David Sloan Wilson points out was flawed, I think group selection for most biologists is now more crackpot than ever. That is not stopping plenty of papers getting published using it successfully, but the stink won’t go away soon.  So mainstreaming is still a long time away.

A final short mention is for economist Scott Sumner from Bentley University.  Scott Sumner blogs at the money illusion and has risen slowly in reputation through his blog.  In particular he was one of the first to publicly recognize the current economic downturn wasn’t (directly) tied to the financial crises but was about a historic drop in aggregate demand. And the solution at the lower bound is QE. And the right way to run the Fed is through NGDP targeting. If those acronyms mean nothing to you, no worries. I may do a longer post later. But I wanted in particular to mention NGDP targeting in this post as it’s clearly another candidate for an idea that’s on the cusp of mainstream adoption. So if you’re into macro econ I’ll just give a plug here for Sumner’s blog.

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