Podium: Anthony Daniels: A little medical knowledge is a dangerous thing

From a lecture given by the medical practitioner and writer at a Lanesborough Lunch in London on the Risk of Freedom

THE MISUSE of science is a large subject. I don't intend to deal with the question of the correct or appropriate use of science, which might at first sight seem an essential preliminary to any discussion of the misuse of science. I am not convinced that it is, however; almost everyone can recognise the misuse of public funds but few can define their proper use.

The field with which I am most familiar is medicine, a field in which the interplay of ends and means is peculiarly complex, and in which the possibilities of the misuse of science (and here I include technology that is science based) are almost infinite.

Of course, if there is a supply of bad science, or of science that leads to wild speculation dressed up as science, the chances are that there is a demand for it also. Let me illustrate what I mean in the case of epidemiology. Properly used, its achievements are considerable. The identification of Aids, as well as the demonstration that it was most likely caused by a virus, was a recent triumph of epidemiology. But there is little doubt that there is much misuse of the science. It often seems to have forgotten the lessons taught it by one of the founders of modern medical statistics, Sir Austin Bradford Hill. Time and again we read of a statistical correlation between disease A and lifestyle or environmental factor B, and however much lip-service we pay to the principle that a statistical correlation does not imply a causative relationship, we end up thinking that A is caused by B, and that if only we avoid B we shall avoid A.

Bradford Hill lay down certain principles to establish whether a statistical correlation was likely to imply causation. In the vast majority of studies his principles are now forgotten entirely. But the fact is that if you take a disease, call it A, and examine enough factors in the lives of people who suffer from it, you must, for purely statistical reasons, come up with some that are correlated with it. And when you find these factors, you report them in medical journals, omitting to mention all the factors that you examined and found not to be correlated with disease A.

Your findings are spotted by the eagle-eyed media of mass communication, who disseminate them to a very wide audience. This audience is completely uncritical and does not remember that last week another environmental factor was correlated with the very same disease. And action soon results; when it was suggested not long ago that people with ischaemic heart disease had lower levels of selenium in their blood than non-sufferers, walnuts swiftly disappeared from supermarkets because they were said to contain a lot of selenium.

Of course, not all correlations are equal, and not all epidemiological evidence is treated in the same way. Much research is conclusion-driven rather than purely investigative.

Pasteur said that, in the field of observation, chance favoured only the prepared mind. The same might be said of epidemiological pseudo-information; it affects only those whose minds (and emotions) are prepared. And when it comes to health matters in these days of greatly expanded life expectancy, the public attitude may be described as one of unrealistic expectation tempered by baseless fears.

There is a public that demands - or allegedly demands - this kind of information. Of course, the more they get used to it, the more they will demand it. Perhaps people want to feel that their world is extraordinarily hazardous - danger is one way of investing your life with significance, after all - when in fact life is far safer than it has ever been in the history of the world. But we invent epidemiological hazards as children invent goblins.

What is clear is that in our current climate, the kind of misuse of science, or of scientific information, that I have described is bound to flourish. And the only antidote is not yet more information, but wisdom, which in this instance consists of a sense of perspective. For information without perspective is like a graph, the meaning of whose axes is unknown; information without perspective is a higher form of ignorance.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?