Thursday, June 4, 2020

Politicized Science

For all the sanctimonious drool about the infallibility of science, now we discover that serious scientific studies about coronavirus treatments have been skewed to make the American president look bad. One notes, yet again, that many of those who are proclaiming the greatness of science are pretending that computer prediction models are scientific fact. They are not. They are hypotheses. If you believe that they are you should never, ever use the word “science” in a sentence.

So, now we recall the recent study about hydroxychloroquine, published in the distinguished British medical journal, The Lancet, showing that the medication, often touted by President Trump, is ineffective and even dangerous when used to treat coronavirus. We note, in passing, that physicians have used this medication safely for decades to treat malaria and autoimmune illnesses like lupus.

Anyway, the first publication to debunk the Lancet study was, ready for this, The Guardian. A notably leftist publication, one that does not hide its politics, The Guardian also does some serious reporting. Three cheers for the journalistic integrity of the Guardian. In today’s polarized world, it is in short supply.

Here is the opening of the story:

The World Health Organization and a number of national governments have changed their Covid-19 policies and treatments on the basis of flawed data from a little-known US healthcare analytics company, also calling into question the integrity of key studies published in some of the world’s most prestigious medical journals.

A Guardian investigation can reveal the US-based company Surgisphere, whose handful of employees appear to include a science fiction writer and an adult-content model, has provided data for multiple studies on Covid-19 co-authored by its chief executive, but has so far failed to adequately explain its data or methodology.

Data it claims to have legitimately obtained from more than a thousand hospitals worldwide formed the basis of scientific articles that have led to changes in Covid-19 treatment policies in Latin American countries. It was also behind a decision by the WHO and research institutes around the world to halt trials of the controversial drug hydroxychloroquine. On Wednesday, the WHO announced those trials would now resume.

Two of the world’s leading medical journals – the Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine – published studies based on Surgisphere data. The studies were co-authored by the firm’s chief executive, Sapan Desai.

The Guardian continues:

The Guardian’s investigation has found:
  • A search of publicly available material suggests several of Surgisphere’s employees have little or no data or scientific background. An employee listed as a science editor appears to be a science fiction author and fantasy artist. Another employee listed as a marketing executive is an adult model and events hostess.
  • The company’s LinkedIn page has fewer than 100 followers and last week listed just six employees. This was changed to three employees as of Wednesday.
  • While Surgisphere claims to run one of the largest and fastest hospital databases in the world, it has almost no online presence. Its Twitter handle has fewer than 170 followers, with no posts between October 2017 and March 2020.
  • Until Monday, the “get in touch” link on Surgisphere’s homepage redirected to a WordPress template for a cryptocurrency website, raising questions about how hospitals could easily contact the company to join its database.
  • Desai has been named in three medical malpractice suits, unrelated to the Surgisphere database. In an interview with the Scientist, Desai previously described the allegations as “unfounded”.
  • In 2008, Desai launched a crowdfunding campaign on the website Indiegogo promoting a wearable “next generation human augmentation device that can help you achieve what you never thought was possible”. The device never came to fruition.
  • Desai’s Wikipedia page has been deleted following questions about Surgisphere and his history.

Among those duped by this scientific fraud: the World Health Organization. Remember when we were told that without the WHO, the world would never be able to fight another disease. Was there ever a more stupid argument? 

The story is long and detailed. Those who care about such things will find it illuminating. Again, hats off to the Guardian.


David Foster said...

"One notes, yet again, that many of those who are proclaiming the greatness of science are pretending that computer prediction models are scientific fact. They are not. They are hypotheses. If you believe that they are you should never, ever use the word “science” in a sentence."

It's important to distinguish between what kind of model, and, especially, what is being modeled. In some fields, the operative cause-and-effect is sufficiently well-understood that the predictions can approximate 'fact'.

A mathematical model of a ballistic missile trajectory, for example, can predict the actual trajectory closely enough that it will land within a mile or even within (classified) after a flight of several thousand miles.

Models where the causality is not well-understood, or the problem is mathematically intractable, should not be allowed to borrow credibility from those where the causality is understood and the math is well-behaved.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

As Wittgenstein said, statements about tomorrow's weather are hypotheses. They only become fact tomorrow. Strictly speaking... that is.

trigger warning said...

"Models where the causality is not well-understood, or the problem is mathematically intractable..."

I agree with, but extend, that list:

Models that include causal effects dependent on human behavior and choices.

To support Foster's comment, I recall that George Box, brilliant statistician and first recipient of the prestigious (and eponymous) Box Medal, famously (among statisticians, at least) and correctly said "All models are wrong. Some models are useful."

There is also a tendency to refer to computer simulations as "models"... very unfortunate, and extremely misleading. The model F=ma may be the basis for a simulation that ultimately gets an object to the Moon, but the model and the simulation that contains it are very different animals and should never, ever, IMO, be confused.

Anonymous said...

For anyone interested in the data from Surgisphere, here's a link to a Blog, where author took a longish look at their credibility.

UbuMaccabee said...

Forevermore, when I hear 'expert', this is what will play in my mind instead:

The third one is worth the wait.

trigger warning said...

Oh, but we gots us a gen-u-wine expert here: Sapan Desai, MD, PhD, MBA, FACS, CLSSMBB.

Why, he's CNN-ready!