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Facts donít matter Ö until they do
August 2013
by Peter T. Kissinger  |  Email the author
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As a bioanalytical chemist, I've aspired to the idea that facts count, and that my goal should be to deliver them to facilitate the very best decisions. We speak of evidence-based medicine. Is there another kind? I suppose there is magic. I tell my colleagues in academia and business that it is our duty to "get good numbers, numbers that can be trusted."  
 
A favorite quote from founding curmudgeon John Adams suggests that "facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence." The wisdom of Pasteur's "theory guides, but experiment decides" should be known and respected by every experimentalist. "Only data that supports my favored theory" is, however, a contrary and very common reality. 
 
This summer, I've come conclusion that Adams also had it wrong, and "our wishes, our inclinations and the dictates of our passion are best not altered in the light of contrary facts." This seems to be a force that is too often with us. Consider the bankruptcy of a major city, the events a year ago in Libya, the spin of clinical trial results, the arguments over climate change, the value of a college degree, publishing wishful science versus real science, hydraulic fracking, the role of guns in committing or preventing crime, the few who are gay, K-12 education, healthcare reform and much more. Such topics commonly elicit a selection of data, or even making some up to support an argument. When we have unknown unknowns or even known unknowns, few acknowledge their existence.   
 
Millennia from now, archeologists for a future sentient species may conclude from our artifacts that "the homo sapiens showed definite signs of intelligence, but appear to have become extinct due to a full reliance on their emotions rather than data." Let me list some facts that I feel are irrefutable, but too often rejected. You can then hang this column by your coffee pot and start the debate.  
 
The temperature of the atmosphere has been warming on average, and the only scalable solutions we know of today are nuclear power and population reduction. Those remedies we do discuss are acceptable, but incremental. To stimulate debate, I proposed a cap-and-trade system for children. You will be allowed two as a cap and can only have more if you trade for the rights with another child-producing unit somewhere else on the planet. Let the negotiations begin.  
 
The autism spectrum is tragic, but associating it with vaccines is the triumph of imagination over data. In some locations, measles is resurging. That's a fact. All members of our species are distinct individuals; we are not born biologically equal. Over time, we become much less equal. We can hope to be viewed as equal under the law, but not in a clinical trial. No clinical trial can really guarantee a result for any individual. Let it be known that the first time anyone is prescribed a drug, they are in a clinical trial and had better pay attention. No drug can be universally safe and effective. That's a fact.  
 
While teachers are important and should be both respected and accountable, commitments from society, families and students are the more important variables. You are not entitled to an education that you don't work to achieve. At best, you are entitled to an opportunity for an education. Likewise, when educated, you are not entitled to a job or anything else beyond entering a competition with others. That's a fact.  
 
Animals in preclinical pharmaceutical research are primarily of value when they fall over dead in large numbers. They have proven unable to guarantee efficacy in humans or detect adverse events in humans at a low rate of incidence such as one in 10,000, or even more. Animal research can stop a great project prematurely or let a risky one pass. This is uncomfortable. That's a fact.
 
I am grumpy because I now understand why Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, "You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts." Having opinions and selecting facts to support them is not new, but is at an epidemic stage. Debaters ought to first inventory the known knowns and go from there. I'm afraid our reduced attention span, multitasking and electronic media have combined to reduce the signal and increase the noise. That will make it harder for the archeologists from other solar systems wondering about the reasons for our demise.  
 
Peter T. Kissinger is professor of chemistry at Purdue University, chairman emeritus of BASi and a director of Chembio Diagnostics, Phlebotics and Prosolia.

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