(“El virus de la dictadura”, versión en español).
The day April 3 of 2008, the prestigious Mexican journal Reforma presented this note in its science section: “They found cause for multiple sclerosis”. In the first paragraph it was boldly claimed that a group of Mexican scientists had discovered that multiple sclerosis is caused by the virus which originated varicella or chicken pox.
Multiple sclerosis or MS is a neurological disease affecting mostly persons in their most productive age, causing them a variety of physiological and cognitive symptoms, which can result in total disability. The disease is much more common in the United States than in Mexico, but the number of cases has been steadily increasing, which is a worry for our Ministry of Health.
For a while, an e-mail has been circulating, attributing the symptoms of MS to the consumption of diet soft drinks. The truthful part of these e-mails is that a controversy exists about the safety of some artificial sweeteners, to the point that some researchers have considered it necessary to run formal clinical trials. Nevertheless, there is not at the moment any strong evidence in the scientific literature backing up what that e-mail claims.
In a much different manner, the proposal of the virus of chicken pox being the cause of multiple sclerosis, did not arrive by e-mail but was published in the prestigious journal Annals of Neurology. It was not signed with a pseudonym but with the complete names of the proponents: Julio Sotelo, Adolfo Martínez Palomo, Graciela Ordóñez and Benjamín Pineda.
As expected, the enthusiasm about the note in Reforma found an echo in the media. It was just the next morning, April 4, when the journalist Oscar Mario Beteta, on his radio show En los tiempos de la radio of the network Radio Fórmula, did an interesting interview to the first author of the article, Dr. Julio Sotelo.
This was a great opportunity to observe face to face the interaction of two different manners of understanding science. The journalist showed a lot of excitement and was absolutely convinced that, from that day, the right answer to the question of what causes MS would be the virus of chicken pox. The scientist was also very excited, as it is natural for anyone to be after his hard work received so much interest in the international community. However, he knew very well that his proposal would hardly have an instantaneous acceptance and consensus.
The duty of any scientist is to be skeptical before any claim unless it is accompanied by strong evidence. What the article in Annals of Neurology was going to generate was not the immediate acceptance of the proposal of the authors but, on the contrary, an army of researchers around the world committed to the task of discrediting the results presented there.
Why, some people could ask, do researchers have such bad hearts and show so much enthusiasm in discrediting the work of someone else? It has nothing to do with their feelings but with the scientific method. To show that a claim is true past any doubt is, usually, extremely difficult. Therefore, in science we work in the opposite sense: experiments are always designed to prove that a claim is false. If we attain proof that a claim is false, we can reject it without consideration. On the contrary, if it resists the test, we can continue accepting it as valid. If it happens that it withstands a reasonable number of attempts of proving its falsity, it is considered that its probability of being correct is enough and can be integrated into what we call scientific knowledge.
But... when do we stop? When do we stop trying to proving the falsity of a proposed idea? That is a subjective choice and the source of controversies among different researchers. However, many times the evidence is so strong that it is not difficult to arrive at a consensus. These are the ideas which are poured into the textbooks we study in elementary, high school and part of college: matter is made from atoms, light is an electromagnetic wave, energy is neither created nor destroyed, et cetera.
The self assurance with which our school teachers talk and the categorical tone of the information we read in our textbooks, lead us often to think that all that we study is absolutely proved to be true. But that is a mistake. To be sure of something one hundred percent is impossible, as it is impossible to fabricate a bolt with a diameter of exactly 5 mm. The dimension of the bolt can be specified as 5.0 mm, 5.00 mm or 5.000 mm, depending on the number of figures which are equal to zero; there are more figures to the right and we have no idea about what their value is. An exact diameter would imply that after the point, zeros never end and that is physically impossible.
In the same manner, the knowledge we study in high school could be demonstrated to 95%, 99% or even to 99.9%. To reach 100% is beyond our capabilities as finite human beings. What does this mean? If it is true that any knowledge has some margin for uncertainty, that means we are authorized to challenge it? The answer is yes.
However, when we try to challenge highly consolidated knowledge, it is naive to expect an easy success. The process could require an enormous amount of work and skills that only can be acquired with years and more years of study. After we bother so much doing all this, it can happen that the questioned knowledge is in a still better position than before. It is a difficult undertaking in which success is far from probable. In spite of this, no one can forbid someone else to try to verify the validity of any results offered by science, because to be open to verification is precisely what allows for these results to be called science.
Nevertheless, there is knowledge which has a not-so-strong backing, thus whoever decides to challenge it has a much better prospect of success. This knowledge is fertile ground for research. Indeed, for a degree thesis to be interesting, it must be challenging some established knowledge. Of course, since in these research efforts we are working in not very consolidated terrains, we cannot expect our own results go without preambles to be consecrated and recorded in the textbooks.
This is the case of the problem of the origin of MS and Dr. Julio Sotelo knows it very well. In his interview, his words, although frankly enthusiastic, revealed a caution that the journalist could not understand. Therefore, when Oscar Mario Beteta regarded him as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Medicine 2008, the miracle of radio waves made us listen to how he blushed.
The mention of the Nobel Prize was not only premature but absolutely out of place. Oscar Mario Beteta did not note that he was putting this research group in a very vulnerable position. It is true that the research published in Annals of Neurology was made as it should have been made. For example, the source of the samples was hidden from the lab technicians to avoid their temptation to please the leaders of the research. Nevertheless, Dr. Julio Sotelo, as the good scientist he is, knows that a total certainty is impossible and that the probability that his results were in the end discarded is not equal to zero.
If this could happen, what would Oscar Mario Beteta think? Would he feel deceived and would accuse the scientist of fraud? As many praises poured in the show were out of place, so it would be that the media would organize a lynching in case the cause of MS would be something else. These kinds of disappointments must not frighten us since they are part of the life of science. Actually, the only way to assure that our results never will be refuted is for them never to see daylight.
Is that what we want for our scientists? Walking always on the sure sidewalk of the consolidated knowledge and never risking? Never venturing by unknown paths that could take them to the miracles of technological development, for fear of stopping in a dead end street?
It is apparent that the perception of the workings of science of some Mexican journalists is wrong. It would not be fair to blame them when similar mistakes can be found in the most surprising places. There exist graduate students who think it is their duty to defend to the death the proposals of their thesis advisors, despising blindly other theories with much more tradition. Moreover, there are thesis advisors who regard an attitude slightly more critical as an act of treason.
The elementary and high schools of our county are plagued by teachers who think that knowledge in the textbooks is indisputable. The most inquisitive children and teenagers are cruelly humiliated, when they should be encouraged and prepared to lead the scientific research in the next generation. In our basic schools the talent for science is killed at the root while the graduate programs attempt fruitlessly to resuscitate it in people who never had it in the first place.
The belief that science is infallible is also extremely harmful and promotes without intention the acceptance of irrational ideas. Having been indoctrinated that science has all answers, individuals suffer a terrible shock when they learn that that is not true. This intense emotional experience leads them to reject anything having to do with the scientific method. Without a practical way to validate knowledge, they are left to the mercy of any quack who wants to make them victims of their deception.
Realities and methods of science must be popularized not only in schools but also in the media and any other resource at our disposal. It is not something bad that Mexicans get enthusiastic when research done by our compatriots receives international attention, but we must understand that the success of a few outstanding scientists is not enough to transform our country.
In the Mexican kindergartens we can find as much natural talent as in any nation of the world. Nevertheless, if we did not educate their parents and teachers, only a few would be able to blossom. Could we imagine a country where the young people are the most interested in getting a degree and there are no postgraduate studies coordinators chasing apathetic students trying to convince them that research could be a lucrative employment?
In recent years, Mexico has lived through a radical change in our democratic institutions. Nevertheless, all those years in which we lived in an antidemocratic system left us an ample set of physiological and cognitive symptoms. It is probable that they are caused by a virus which, no doubt, Dr. Julio Sotelo could identify. Until he informs us about its genus and species, I will call it the virus of dictatorship.
Patricia López. “Descubren causa de esclerosis múltiple”. Reforma. [México D.F.]. (April 3 of 2008)
Paul Spiers, LuAnn Sabounjian, Allison Reiner, Diane K Myers, Judith Wurtman & Donald Schomer. “Aspartame: neuropsychologic and neurophysiologic evaluation of acute and chronic effects”. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 68:3 531-537 (1998)
En los tiempos de la radio. Dir. Oscar Mario Beteta. Radio Fórmula, México. Broadcasted April 4 of 2008. Available in Internet.
Julio Sotelo, Armando Martínez-Palomo, Graciela Ordóñez & Benjamín Pineda. “Varicella Zoster virus in cerebroespinal fluid at relapses of multiple sclerosis”. Annals of Neurology 63:3 303-311 (2008)