Is no theory as misleading as the wrong theory?

In an address I heard by the head of a theological college recently, he spoke of how people have come to believe in conspiracy theories, citing three: the existence of lizard people, the existence of a deep state, and the belief that SARS-CoV2 does not exist.

It struck me that it would take a deal of research to refute any of these, research which I doubt he has had time or energy to undertake. They are “conspiracy theories” only because some undeniably compromised authority like the press tells us they are.

As for David Icke’s lizard people, if we allow for an element of metaphor, can the kind of people who would suppress and censor life-saving medications for billions, or prolong a war unnecessarily, for commercial gain be described more accurately by another phrase?

The Deep State in America, related to “the Blob” in Britain, is becoming harder to refute as revelations about the machinations of the unelected FBI, CIA and NIH (and their influence on the unelected press and social media) trickle out, and our own establishment appears complicit, even using the same slogans.

It’s the last “conspiracy theory” that most interests me here, as those who reject the very existence of respiratory viruses, quite apart from SARS-CoV2 with its incredibly murky background, include an increasing roster of quite eminent scientists – certainly more qualified to make such a judgement than a theological teacher.

I’m not qualified to make a judgement either, though I’ve read the book Virus Mania, and am at least intrigued by the fact that the grounds for the standard theory of virology are shakier than I was led to believe at medical school. For example, I was taught Koch’s postulates for identifying a disease-causing agent, but not that they did not apply to viruses, because they could not be met.

The prostitution of science surrounding COVID has caused many formerly mainstream doctors and scientists to question all their basic assumptions – for example, I am not the only one questioning the rollout of mRNA vaccines who has gone on to question the proliferation of conventional vaccines already pushed by the same Big Pharma and their captured regulators. For the first time, I read the gold-standard Cochrane review showing that flu vaccines do not actually reduce the hospitalisation or death of the elderly from flu. So why would I and millions of others need one, other than to line people’s pockets?

And so I see that Mike Yeadon, formerly a head of R&D at Pfizer, now says that he is convinced that respiratory viruses do not exist, a conclusion that at first caused him sleepless nights, since it undermined the scientific foundation of his entire career.

As I said, I remain agnostic on the matter owing to lack of expertise, but one of the critiques against the “no viruses” school is that they have no better theory to offer for the distinctive patterns of disease conventionally ascribed to viruses. And that reminds me of the carping of Neodarwinians when the severe shortcomings of their theory are demonstrated: the ID or New Synthesis crowd should keep quiet until they have a better theory, because that’s “how science works.” They mean, of course, a better theory depending implicitly on the metaphysics of atheistic materialism.

I’m not at all sure that it’s logical to hold on to an explanation that explains the world poorly simply because the person pointing it out can’t generate a better one. Don’t scientists claim to be agnostic about God because the evidence isn’t clear enough for them? It’s the fallacy that a discredited theory is better than no theory that I want to examine here, and I will use an example quoted from my unpublished book on the theology of nature to do so. The quotation follows:

The story of how the scourge of scurvy amongst sailors came to be cured with fresh fruit and vegetables is often told, though it is usually grossly oversimplified, like most scientific myth-making about pioneers from Copernicus to Darwin. From the time of the great early explorers like Magellan through to the nineteenth century, ship-owners budgeted for 50% mortality from scurvy on long sea voyages. Wars, perhaps even empires, were won and lost because of the disease.

According to the account given in books celebrating the triumphs of science, a ship’s surgeon named James Lind found in 1747 that citrus fruit cured scurvy, his discovery leading eventually to the issuing of lime-juice to British sailors and finally to the isolation of Vitamin C and understanding of its function.

The story is actually far murkier, and more instructive than that. For although Lind wrote an extensive treatise on scurvy, and referred at length to those who believed that fresh fruit and vegetables cured it, he actually downplayed their opinions, including even his own earlier successful cure of a sailor using citrus fruit. Instead, in the book he favoured his preferred holistic theory about the disease (which was quite wrong).

If I may over-simplify the history, those who noticed the benefits of fresh fruit and vegetables tended to be sea captains or heterodox doctors making empirical observations. In at least one case, they got the idea from primitive natives who offered the bark and leaves of a particular plant as a cure for some stranded sailors. These successes were reported intermittently over several centuries. Those dismissing such anecdotal accounts were the professional physicians trained in the holistic theory of medicine known as the theory of humours. Essentially, the fresh food hypothesis couldn’t be made to fit the accepted theory, and so it was, after careful consideration, rejected by those with the greatest expertise.

My point here is not to wave the flag for empirical science against hidebound tradition. The professionals were doing empirical science, but they were doing so under the umbrella of a particular philosophical worldview, held largely unconsciously.

For the theory of humours was not simply a way of doing medicine. Scientific medicine had retained, from an increasingly rejected Aristotelian system, the idea that matter consists of various combinations of the four elements (fire, air, earth and water), and that this is reflected in the human body in the combination of the four humours: blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm. The theory of humours dated back to Hippocrates in the fifth century BC, but humours were simply seen as part of the broader way the world worked. They were a conclusion from higher level concepts, accepted as axiomatically as the existence of atoms is now (and indeed was in Lind’s time). No doctor then or now would dream of suggesting that anything in medicine casts doubt on atomic physics.

Thus most physicians involved in research were doing what the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn has called “normal science,” which means applying the accepted global paradigm (in this case the theory of humours within a theory of everything) to particular areas of research. Normal science does not challenge the underlying paradigm: fundamental change always comes from outliers thinking in new ways, like Bacon, Copernicus or Einstein.

Occasional mavericks like the heretical physician Johannes Bachstrom, who well before Lind was utterly convinced that scurvy was entirely due to a deficiency of fresh fruit and vegetables, were rejected because they were operating outside the accepted philosophical paradigm. The sea-captains with their anecdotal stories of cure were simply ignorant science-deniers who, nowadays, would be cancelled from Facebook and YouTube, still less be asked to speak at scientific conferences.

The fact that the outliers turned out to be right was not simply because of the progress of science – though in the end empirical truth forced a shift in the paradigm. Although ushering in a new idea of nutritional medicine, in some ways the dietary hypothesis of scurvy as vitamin C deficiency was a return to an older worldview pre-dating even Hippocrates, in which particular foods had health value. That at least would seem to be the implication of what lay behind the thinking of the natives who knew that scurvy sailors needed their particular kind of bark and leaves, rather than the rebalancing of their humoral tempers.

But I have omitted a more modern episode in the story of scurvy and worldviews which never gets mentioned in the “triumph of science” myth. For Lind and naval lime-juice notwithstanding, even on Captain Scott’s Antarctic expedition in 1911, one of the expedition’s doctors gave a lecture on scurvy explaining the prevalent theory that it was caused by bacterial contamination of food. The Germ Theory of disease had become the prevalent wisdom in the second half of the nineteenth century, and so once again the paradigm trumped the evidence of a couple of centuries or more.

Unfortunately, the careful application of the theory to the canned meat on the expedition did not prevent Scott’s men getting scurvy, nor its rampant course amongst the troops at Gallipoli, arguably contributing to their tragic failure.

It was not until 1927 that dietary deficiency as the cause of scurvy was finally established by the isolation of ascorbic acid. Its discoverer, Albert Szent-Györgi, reminiscent of Kuhn, regarded scientific progress to be the work of scientific dissenters, relying on intuition instead of established paradigms. “A discovery must be, by definition, at variance with existing knowledge,” he wrote in 1972.

One important lesson to learn from this is that, contrary to myth, human knowledge does not progress steadily, but often becomes stagnated for long periods, or even moves backwards, because the underlying assumptions of the educated intellectuals are wrong. Sometimes it is even old and long-discarded ideas, rather than revolutionary new concepts, that turn out to be better.

Quotation ends.

So the viral theory of disease, being a variant of the still-dominant germ-theory, is intrinsically more attractive to the mainstream, quite apart from the bias caused by the huge industries that have been built upon it. Indeed, for many it is as unquestionable as Lind’s theory of humours, or Scott’s germ-theory, in connection with scurvy. But if it is wrong, it may be as useless, or even harmful, as bleeding or canned meat was for that.

Now, the sea captains and heretic physicians had their alternative theory, the dietary hypothesis, and it even prevailed enough to bring in the famous provision of preserved lemon juice for the Royal Navy in 1795. Unfortunately this came to be replaced by the even more famous lime juice when politics made lemons hard to get, and because limes are far lower in ascorbic acid, and the preservation process involved boiling which broke it down, the theory remained doubtful. This explains why Scott, a Royal Navy man, had an Antarctic base full of cans rather than limes in 1911. So effectively, the germ theory of scurvy prevailed because there seemed no better alternative.

As far as I can tell, apart from the very good evidence that “terrain” has a massive role in who actually suffers from “virus” infections and who doesn’t, the positive theory on offer from the “no virus” camp is the unhealthy life-style of so much of our population. This includes things like Vitamin D deficiency, for which there is a good deal of evidence, some of it gained during COVID. But it also covers less easily demonstrated influences like “toxic” processed foods, environmental pollutants and so on. At this stage, the latter are no more provable than the dietary cause of scurvy using standard-issue navy lime juice. Maybe something else altogether accounts for clusters of measles that are not like clusters of rubella.

In the present corrupt state of medicine and pharmacology little funding is likely to be done to explore these alternatives. We perhaps need the arrival of a new Albert Szent-Györgi with inspired intuition to break the paradigm (though he would also need many other gifts to avoid being silenced and discredited by the Powers).

But in the meantime, let us resist the temptation to play their game by labelling the “no viruses” theory a “conspiracy theory.” We need a return to the sound scientific practice of keeping every hypothesis on the table until clear evidence sweeps it to the floor. It is clear evidence about anything that is in short supply in these days of propaganda.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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