One of the admirable things about modern science is its inherent skepticism. Scientists are supposed to be constantly challenging accepted ideas, developing hypotheses, and designing experiments to try to disprove the hypotheses — all in the name of gathering data, advancing our knowledge and developing new ways to analyze or address problems. Whether it is physics, or biology, or the treatment of disease, the “scientific method” has reliably produced enormous gains in our understanding and huge advances in numerous fields.
But what if scientists stopped behaving as skeptical scientists? What if, instead, scientists came to believe so deeply in a particular theory that they became zealous advocates for that theory — almost as if they were adherents to a religious belief, rather dispassionate, objective scientists?
That’s the sad story that this article tells about research into Alzheimer’s disease, which affects nearly 6 million Americans and one in 10 people 65 and older. Unlike other areas of medical research where great strides have been made — think of the rapid developments in the treatment for HIV and AIDS, for example — research into Alzheimer’s disease has not produced much progress. Some of that may be attributable to the fact that the human brain is complicated, but many observers now are saying the absence of significant gains is attributable, at least in part, to what they call “the cabal”: a group of influential researchers and related individuals who believed so fervently in a particular theory about Alzheimer’s that they thwarted research into other approaches to the disease.
The particular theory is that a substance called beta-amyloid accumulates in the brain, creating neuron-killing clumps that cause Alzheimer’s. It quickly became so accepted in the Alzheimer’s world that scientists, venture capitalists, scientific journals, and research funding entities wouldn’t support or publish work on alternative theories — even if that’s what the scientific method teaches. One observer quoted in the article linked above said: “Things shifted from a scientific inquiry into an almost religious belief system, where people stopped being skeptical or even questioning.” That’s a pretty chilling indictment, because it’s directly contrary to what is actually supposed to happen.
Notwithstanding the impact of the claimed “cabal,” some alternatives hypotheses that appear to be promising have been developed, and some small trials of potential treatments have occurred. Still, it’s clear that not much progress has been made in treating dementia over the past few decades, and many people now believe that the near-universal acceptance of the beta-amyloid theory is at least partly to blame. It’s a disturbing, cautionary tale about the bad things that can happen when scientists stop acting like scientists.