Countering The Cabal

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.

investigacic3b3n-cientc3adfica-pac38ds-vasco-1024x683-1But 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.

Alzheimer’s Isn’t Funny

Last week there were reports that Will Ferrell was pursuing a new movie in which he would portray Ronald Reagan.  The project was pitched as a comedy set during Reagan’s second term, in which he is depicted as already in the grip of Alzheimer’s disease and an intern is charged with convincing Reagan that he is an actor portraying the President.  After an outcry about the insensitivity of the concept from Reagan’s children and others, one of Ferrell’s representatives said the actor wasn’t going to do the movie.

brain-tree-dementia-624x295I get why the Reagan children reacted as they did, and I think Ferrell was wise to back away from the project.  The reality is that Alzheimer’s disease really isn’t very funny.  Sure, many people who have had to deal with a family member with the disease probably have shaken their heads and had a rueful laugh about a particular episode that demonstrates how the ill person has changed — whether by repeating themselves, or by not knowing a friend or family member, or by showing radical changes to their personality as the disease ravages their brain — but it’s defensive humor, designed to help you cope with the realization that a person you know and love is falling into a black pit from which they will never emerge, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.

I’ve read several memoirs written by children who’ve cared for parents with Alzheimer’s or dementia.  When the books share a “humorous” anecdote, as they sometimes do, it’s uncomfortable reading because the victim of the disease is inevitably the butt of the humor — because they’ve forgotten where they are, or have taken a shower with their pants on, or have used a word that they would never had said before in polite company.  It’s not really funny at all.  It’s tragic, and it’s not fair to the person whose intellect and personality and consciousness is being irreversibly stripped away, bit by bit, until only an unfamiliar shell remains.  They can’t help themselves.

I suppose a hard-bitten, cynical Hollywood agent might think a script about an intern deceiving a character in the grip of Alzheimer’s was a laugh riot, but only if that agent didn’t know anyone who had experienced the disease.  These days, there aren’t many people who fall into that category, and those who have been touched aren’t going to go watch a “comedy” that reminds them of the devastation the disease inflicted.  And if such a movie ever gets made, how many members of the audience are going to erupt in belly laughs about the lead character’s painful confusion?

My guess is that most people who watched such a movie would leave with the same fervent vow found among people who have dealt with Alzheimer’s in their families.  It goes like this: “Please don’t let me ever, ever get Alzheimer’s.”