Self Expression Magazine

Science Vs. Pseudoscience – The Alzheimer’s Vaccine in 2017

Posted on the 13 October 2015 by Jhouser123 @jhouser123

I was watching CNN last week, and there was a segment featuring Ann Romney (wife of politician Mitt Romney) promoting her new book.  For those of you who are unaware, Ann struggles with MS, and in an effort to help others with similar ailments she has established the Ann Romney Center for Neurologic Diseases (hosted here through the Brigham and Women’s Hospital).  I wasn’t paying much attention, but suddenly I heard the words “a vaccine against Alzheimer’s by 2017.”  I nearly spilled my coffee.  I honestly thought she had just unloaded a massive hoax on national television.

I was in shock.  Surely no rational person could think that a neurodegenerative disease like Alzheimer’s could be vaccinated against, and even if one did exist you can’t tell me that activating the immune system within the brain doesn’t come with short- and long-term side effects.  I did what I usually do when something insane happens: I sat down at my computer, logged into my blog, opened a new post, and started researching.  This post, however, took a very different direction than I had initially intended.

After about 10 minutes of googling and reading, I had discovered several studies in mice and even a clinical trial in humans showing the success of multiple Alzheimer’s vaccine candidates.  Apparently if you prime the immune system against the beta-amyloid protein you can actually direct the microglia in the brain to degrade the plaques that are currently thought to cause most of the major symptoms of the disease.  If you target individuals after the identification of early plaques but before the onset of symptoms, it should be able to completely prevent the progression of the disease.

I tell this story for a reason, and it sort of goes back to the last post about my plastic dinosaur. Everything I knew about Alzheimer’s Disease from studying it in Neurobiology and seeing it used in countless case studies on genetics, brain physiology, and aging told me that there was no reason to believe a vaccine could exist.  I reacted without knowing any of the facts, and would have quickly passed a naive judgment on the internet without a second thought. Luckily I knew any position on the subject I could offer would have to be defended from a place of reason and evidence, not merely an assumption that I had all the necessary information.

This should highlight the difference between good science and so-called “pseudo-science”.  Good science changes constantly based on the most accurate and accepted evidence available, while pseudo-science will only dig its heels in deeper to avoid its position being declared false.  A good scientist possesses a trait that many assume to be a weakness, especially in Western culture: the ability (and even the desire) to have their mind changed.  Capriciousness goes entirely against the “stick to your guns” attitude that American’s hold especially dearly (in more than once sense), and some would say this “flip-floppery” is among the gravest of sins.

Am I saying that scientists don’t defend their assertions? Absolutely not.  There is constant argument within science to determine what is true and what is not.  Scientists are taught (or at least I was taught) to be respectfully skeptical of everything anyone says, but that skepticism is not coming from the assumption that I hold the moral high ground, nor is it assuming that my answers are always better than everyone else’s.  (This fits very nicely into Carl Popper’s theory of knowledge, which I will write about more later this week.)  I am simply using skepticism to obtain the most accurate facts and form the truest understanding of whatever concept I am studying.

If people continually go off half-cocked and start defending their conjectures from an emotional or biased starting point, then it gets us nowhere.  In fact, it often moves us backwards, distracting us from the real issues at hand or even shutting down the argument all together.  As week seek to understand the world around us, it is imperative that we be good stewards of the knowledge we accrue, always trying to make it better and more accurate.  Doing this requires a bit of a detachment from the knowledge itself, and makes us never hold too tightly onto one belief in the face of changing evidence.  No knowledge is final. Theoretical physicists should know this especially well, but so should every scientist and every person on this planet if we are to ensure future progress.

So, the moral of the story is this: if you find yourself in utter disbelief or disagreement with something that someone has conjectured is the truth, then it is your job to confront them, given that you follow the rules.

The Rules:

  1. Remove as much personal bias, preconception and belief from the argument as possible.
  2. Any of the above that cannot be removed should be acknowledged outright, before the argument begins.  If necessary, declare your conflict(s) of interest.
  3. Do your research, and understand both your position and the position of your opposition.
  4. All counter-arguments and judgments must be based in fact, reason, logic, or some combination of the three.
  5. If your argument seems radical or may require additional support, consider running it by a third party first.
  6. No attack should be personal, and certainly don’t shoot the messenger.  You are challenging the fact, not the person presenting it.
  7. If you feel that you simply cannot play by these rules, then please respectfully sit down and let the adults discuss the issues.

I am sure there are many more rules to having a rational disagreement, but overall I think these 7 cover the major points that I see as problematic in today’s discussions.

If you have something to add to the list, by all means please comment below. I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter!

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