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The Cancer Journal - Volume 5, Number 6 (November-December 1992)


Pride and prejudices in cancer research

Despite, or perhaps because of, the scientific method, scientists are not immune to pride and prejudices. These attitudes often turn potentially fruitful discussions into sterile arguments. A reader, whose letter is printed in this issue, is accusing The Cancer Journal of spreading disinformation. She has the right to think this; and it is our duty to publish her letter and the response of the author of the editorial in question. The reader must make up his own mind between these opposing viewpoints; the scientist must weight up the rigour of the arguments and ask himself about the danger of ready-made ideas. From the first issue, we wanted The Cancer Journal to be a plattform for discussion where ideas, however off-beat, could be expressed and where facts could be interpreted, in contradictory ways if necessary or, better, whenever possible.

Pluralism is a new idea in science, or rather it is an old idea which is coming back with a vengeance. Undoubtedly, it has been kept down for too long. In another editorial, Gershom Zajicek is trying to introduce us to the fundamental work of Ludwig Fleck. This doctor and biologist was able to see, far ahead of his time, the power of constructivism, the incarnation of scientism which both the Eastern and Western blocs were able to assimilate into their societies. Perhaps this attitude will have more problem in surviving now that these two opposed but complicit blocs have ceased to exist. Until recently, only philosophers seemed to take an academic interest in the philosophy of science. Fleck broke the spell briefly fifty years ago as far as medicine was concerned, by clearly showing that the Wasserman reaction was both a scientific and a social reality.

So, without fear of surprising you, I would say that tobacco abuse is both a social and a scientific reality (a valid subject for scientific studies) and that the social reality has lost much of its ambiguous nature (good or bad, accepted or condemned) by becoming a scientific reality. By considering tobacco abuse simply as a factor heavily involved in the pathology of serious diseases, scientists - epidemiologists, doctors and biologists - have restricted themselves to an unambiguous but incomplete problem.

It is not difficult to perform good science without a clear idea of what science is really about or to reduce it to the collection and rigorous, methodical processing of facts; many research scientists do so. The difficulty is to answer at the same time the questions "how?" and "why?" with the same rigour and method. The illusion of thinking we know what a group of facts means is a far greater obstacle to progress than igorance. It is necessary to work from the facts without being blinded by them and not to be diverted by the restrictions imposed by our subconscious frame of scientific thinking. To be convinced of this, we only have to read medical journals from fifty years ago and see how often we find statements which now seem out-of-date, wrong or even ridiculous, and to imagine how in fifty years time our successors will laugh at our present certainties.

The discussion remains open in our columns.

Jean-Claude Salomon
e-mail: salomon@tribunes.com