Written by Tim Farley
This week I have a tale of two scientists, one you’ve probably heard of and one you probably haven’t.
On November 16, 1961, the government of Greece granted a patent to a small town medical doctor named John Lykoudis. It was for a combination of antibiotics that he claimed would cure peptic ulcers. He had clinical evidence from his own practice to back this up. The scientific consensus on this disease was that it was caused by excess stomach acid, and the recommended cure was antacids. Dr. Lykoudis’ cure, despite the patent, was refused a license by the Greek medical authorities and his papers on the topic rejected by many medical journals.
On November 18, 1970 the galley proofs of a new book by Linus Pauling were leaked to the press. In the book, he claimed there was evidence that megadoses of Vitamin C could be effective against the common cold and perhaps other illnesses. Pauling had impressive credentials including two Nobel Prizes. But the claims in his book ran counter to everything we knew at the time about recommended doses of vitamins. Pauling was roundly criticized by the medical establishment for stepping outside his expertise.
Both Lykoudis and Pauling were pushing ideas that ran counter to medical science. Both persisted in pushing their ideas until their deaths. Both were lambasted as cranks.
But the difference between the two is: Lykoudis, the obscure Greek physician, was right. In the 1980s a bacteria (H. Pylori) was found to be the cause of most peptic ulcers. The two scientists who eventually proved this were awarded a Nobel Prize in 2005 for their work.
Keep this in mind in your skeptical travels: every once in a while the obscure scientist tilting at windmills actually turns out to be correct. The key is following the data, not just the reputation.
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(This essay originally appeared in a slightly different form on Skepticality episode #143)
Tim Farley is a JREF Research Fellow in electronic media.