The Laws of Thermostasis

How much we know about things, causal paths, purported causal link with water-kit claims, our non-scientific thinking.

Ejaz Haider August 07, 2012

Don’t fret. I have as much interest in writing about cars running on water or Coca Cola as Veena Malik has in wearing anything that is full length. There’s already been a surfeit of articles by physicists, engineers and even satirists weighing in on the matter and declaring that our man from a Sindh polytechnic institute is a fraud.

Instead, there are two related issues that press me to refer to the water car that has seized the imagination of the nation: how much we know about things and causal paths and the purported causal link between the water-kit guy’s claim and our supposed non-scientific thinking, owed, ostensibly, to religion.

In January this year, Jonah Lehrer wrote a piece in Wired magazine, captioned, “Trials and Errors: Why Science is Failing Us”. His story opens on the morning of November 30, 2006 when “executives at Pfizer... held a meeting with investors at the firm’s research centre in Groton, Connecticut. Jeff Kindler, then CEO of Pfizer... was most excited about a new drug called torcetrapib, which had recently entered Phase III clinical trials, the last step before filing for FDA approval. He confidently declared that torcetrapib would be ‘one of the most important compounds of our generation’”.

Lehrer says that “Kindler’s enthusiasm was understandable: The potential market for the drug was enormous. Like Pfizer’s blockbuster medication, Lipitor... torcetrapib was designed to tweak the cholesterol pathway... [and] block a protein that converts HDL cholesterol into its more sinister sibling, LDL. In theory, this would cure our cholesterol problems, creating a surplus of the good stuff and a shortage of the bad. In his presentation, Kindler noted that torcetrapib had the potential to ‘redefine cardiovascular treatment’”.

“There was a vast amount of research behind Kindler’s bold proclamations. The cholesterol pathway is one of the best-understood biological feedback systems in the human body.... Furthermore, torcetrapib had already undergone a small clinical trial, which showed that the drug could increase HDL and decrease LDL. Kindler told his investors that, by the second half of 2007, Pfizer would begin applying for approval from the FDA. The success of the drug seemed like a sure thing.

“And then, just two days later, on December 2, 2006, Pfizer issued a stunning announcement: The torcetrapib Phase III clinical trial was being terminated. Although the compound was supposed to prevent heart disease, it was actually triggering higher rates of chest pain and heart failure and a 60 per cent increase in overall mortality. The drug appeared to be killing people.

“That week, Pfizer’s value plummeted by $21 billion.

“The story of torcetrapib is a tale of mistaken causation. Pfizer was operating on the assumption that raising levels of HDL cholesterol and lowering LDL would lead to a predictable outcome: Improved cardiovascular health. Less arterial plaque. Cleaner pipes. But that didn’t happen....

“[The] assumption — that understanding a system’s constituent parts means we also understand the causes within the system—is not limited to the pharmaceutical industry or even to biology. It defines modern science. In general, we believe that the so-called problem of causation can be cured by more information, by our ceaseless accumulation of facts. Scientists refer to this process as reductionism. By breaking down a process, we can see how everything fits together; the complex mystery is distilled into a list of ingredients. ... Every year, nearly $100 billion is invested in biomedical research in the US, all of it aimed at teasing apart the invisible bits of the body. We assume that these new details will finally reveal the causes of illness, pinning our maladies on small molecules and errant snippets of DNA. Once we find the cause, of course, we can begin working on a cure.” (For the full article see ">here).

Perhaps physics is more accurate in its determination of causal pathways. I don’t know. What I do know remotely, and in no systematic way, is that much in hard sciences has continued to change. Nature has a way of surprising us. But quite apart from this, the interesting aspect of the current controversy is the debate, if it can be called that, among the scientists and the rancour that shines through all of it. If physics — or is this related to chemistry: I’ll be damned if I knew — is as accurate as it is supposed to be, then the fraud should be easy to detect through the established scientific methods. Why the controversy?

The second aspect is even more interesting. If it is accepted that this fraud and the lack of understanding of science it manifests has to do with our irrational thinking begot of our supposed religiosity, then how does one explain a rather long list of scientific misconduct and fraud from China to Germany to Denmark to Great Britain to The Netherlands to Japan to Norway to you-name-it? Google it for yourself.

The question is important since we are on the issue of causality and the laws of thermo- and whatnotdynamics. The assertion that our Sindhi engineer has done what he has because of our national distaste for rationality, which is somehow a result of our collective sense of religiosity, doesn’t come across to me as a particularly impressive scientific method in determining causality especially when it comes with a condescendingly triumphant ‘case-closed’ attitude.

Just like it would be unscientific to challenge the supposedly immutable laws of thermodynamics, it seems to me to be rather unscientific to declare such linear causality to lead to a water-kit when one is dealing with human beings that, unlike the laws of thermodynamics, are not immutable and prone to doing things for reasons that range from the sublime to the ridiculous.

It is fashionable, of course, to do so but since when did the season’s pret-a-porter become the scientific method? Stupidity and fraudulent behaviour remain as much a property of the secular world as they were, and remain, of the religious one.

But then we can move from stressing the scientific method in one area to flouting it in another because that makes good copy and serves politico-ideological agendas. The Laws of Politicodynamics be praised!

Published in The Express Tribune, August 8th, 2012.


Mozart | 8 years ago | Reply

@Toba Alu: Sure. I will definitely read it. Thanks.

Toba Alu | 8 years ago | Reply @Mozart Thanks. I refer you (you as a scientist) to the book "Breaking the Spell", by Daniel C. Dennett. I tried to understand why, this book gave me a few possible answers. But you have to read it till the end. It is easy to find, as a computer man, you know how better than me. :-) Scientists will try to understand through reason and evidence, also when at a first glance statements or models appear to undermine their held views. So success. Btw this book is also recommended to @gp65.
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