When I read a statement which starts with “Scientists are divided over……“, I expect to learn about a scientific controversy involving scientists who offer distinct interpretations or analyses of published scientific data. This is not uncommon in stem cell biology. For example, scientists disagree about the differentiation capacity of adult bone marrow stem cells. Some scientists are convinced that these adult stem cells have a broad differentiation capacity and that a significant proportion can turn into heart cells or brain cells. On the other hand, there are many stem cell researchers who disagree and instead believe that adult bone marrow stem cells are very limited in their differentiation capacity. Both groups of scientists can point to numerous experiments and papers published in peer-reviewed scientific journals which back up their respective points of view. At any given stem cell meeting, the percentages of scientists favoring one view over the other can range from 30% to 70%, depending on who is attending and who is organizing that specific stem cell conference. We still have not reached a consensus in this field, so I think it is reasonable to say “scientists are divided over the differentiation capacity of adult bone marrow stem cells“.
In contrast, when it comes to the issue of global warming, there is a broad consensus in the scientific community. A 2010 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Anderegg and colleagues reviewed published papers and statements made by climate researchers. The authors found that 97% to 98% of climate researchers were convinced by the scientific evidence for anthropogenic climate change, i.e. that humans are primarily responsible for global warming. When there is such a broad consensus among scientists and such overwhelming scientific data that supports anthropogenic climate change, one cannot really say “scientists are divided” merely because two or three scientists out of one hundred are not convinced.
Today, when I saw the headline “Scientists divided over device that ‘remotely detects hepatitis C’ ” in the Guardian, I assumed that a major scientific study had been published describing a new way to diagnose Hepatitis C and that there was considerable disagreement among Hepatitis C experts as to the value of this new device. To my surprise, I found this description in the Guardian:
The device the doctor held in his hand was not a contraption you expect to find in a rural hospital near the banks of the Nile.
For a start, it was adapted from a bomb detector used by the Egyptian army. Second, it looked like the antenna for a car radio. Third, and most bizarrely, it could – the doctor claimed – remotely detect the presence of liver disease in patients sitting several feet away, within seconds.
The antenna was a prototype for a device called C-Fast. If its Egyptian developers are to be believed, C-Fast is a revolutionary means of using bomb detection technology to scan for hepatitis C – a strongly contested discovery that, if proven, would contradict received scientific understanding, and potentially change the way many diseases are diagnosed.
This “C-Fast device”, co-developed by the Egyptian liver specialist Gamal Shiha, sounded like magic, and sure enough, even the Guardian referred to it as a “mechanical divining rod“.
Witnessed in various contexts by the Guardian, the prototype operates like a mechanical divining rod – though there are digital versions. It appears to swing towards people who suffer from hepatitis C, remaining motionless in the presence of those who don’t. Shiha claimed the movement of the rod was sparked by the presence of a specific electromagnetic frequency that emanates from a certain strain of hepatitis C.
After I read the remainder of the article, it turned out there are no published scientific studies to confirm that this rod, antenna or wand can detect hepatitis viruses at a distance. The article says it “has been successfully trialled in 1,600 cases across three countries, without ever returning a false negative result“, but this data has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal. As a scientist and a physician, I am of course very skeptical. The physicians using this device claim it has 100% sensitivity without presenting the data in a peer-reviewed forum. But what is even more surprising is the suggestion that electromagnetic signals travel from the virus in the body of a patient to this remote device, without any scientific evidence to back this up.
The Guardian then also quotes a University College London expert:
“If the application can be expanded, it is actually a revolution in medicine,” said Pinzani, head of UCL’s liver institute. “It means that you can detect any problem you want.”
By way of example, Pinzani said the device could conceivably be used to instantaneously detect certain kinds of cancer symptoms: “You could go into a clinic, and a GP could find out if you had a tumour marker.”
This expert is already fantasizing about cancer diagnostics with this divining rod even though there is no credible published scientific data. The Guardian article also mentions that well-known scientific journals have rejected articles about this new device and that the “scientific basis has been strongly questioned by other scientists“, but the Guardian is compromising its journalistic integrity by presenting this as a legitimate scientific debate and claiming that “scientists are divided” in the title of the article. How can scientists be divided if the data has not been made public and if it has not undergone peer review? For now, this claim of a diagnostic divining rod is pure sensationalism and not an actual scientific controversy. Such sensationalism will attract many readers, but it should not be an excuse for shoddy journalism.
Image Credit: Public domain image of Otto Edler von Graeve in 1913 with a divining rod via Wikimedia Commons
UPDATE: The comment thread of the Guardian article indicates that Pinzani feels misrepresented by the article and cites a letter that Pinzani has purportedly written in response to the article. I am not able to verify whether this letter was indeed written by him and how exactly Pinzani was misrepresented by the Guardian.
UPDATE February 26, 2012: The Guardian has now changed the headline to Scientists sceptical about device that ‘remotely detects hepatitis C’. I think this headline is much better than the previous one which suggested that “scientists were divided”. I still think that newspapers and magazines sometimes unnecessarily portray pseudo-scientific viewpoints as legitimate, equal partners in a scientific debate. This type of even-handedness only makes sense if certain viewpoints are backed up by rigorous scientific studies.