On April 10, 2019, we were treated to a wealth of scientific news: with the observation of a black hole, the discovery of a new human species and the return of measles to the USA, news breaks at a frantic pace that puts science to the test.
The image “of the Virgin” that confirms Einstein’s hypothesis
Based on the joint work of over 400 scientists from around the world collaborating on the Event Horizon Telescope international initiative, yesterday the first images of a black hole were revealed: “The captured image reveals the black hole in the centre of Messier 87, a massive galaxy located in the constellation of Virgo. This black hole is located 55 million light years from Earth and has a mass 6.5 billion times greater than that of our Sun.” As Carlos Moedas, European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, said yesterday, “Yesterday the history of mankind had an incredible breakthrough” and that “the history of science will now be divided into two parts with a time before and time after this image.” Luciano Rezzolla of the Goethe University Frankfurt pointed out that the work consisted of recompiling tens of thousands of images that took into account all the realistic possibilities to reconstruct a black hole just as Einstein had imagined and predicted. His statement on the subject goes to the heart of our topic: “The meaning of this discovery is that we have transformed a mathematical concept (which we could write on a blackboard) into a physical object, something that we can test, that we can measure, that we can observe…. This is the foundation of the scientific method. Being able to experiment and deduce how nature works.”
Filipino bones suggest discovery of a new species of human
While much of the scientific community had their heads in the stars, others were digging away underground to be able to announce an equally exciting discovery: that of Homo Luzonensis. Bones were discovered by an international multidisciplinary team (together with the MNHN and the CNRS) during excavations carried out in the Callao cave, located on Luzon Island, in the north of the Philippines. The study was published today in Nature. After the discovery and analysis of the teeth and foot bones, the scientists have concluded that “This unique combination of features clearly differs from other representatives of the genus Homo, including species known to be contemporary in Southeast Asia, such as Homo sapiens and Homo floresiensis.” In support of their hypothesis, the researchers argue that “the evolution of the human species is not linear,” and they expect this to provoke a lot of debate. For example, one of the palaeontologists, Florent Détroit, believes that some of his peers will be bound to debate the legitimacy of announcing a new species from such a small number of bones and, using good scientific logic, says that “If in the future, colleagues demonstrate that we have been wrong and that these remains correspond to a previously known species, too bad, it doesn’t matter, we’ll forget it”.
New York epidemic that refutes a belief
In the two news items above, the scientific method is at work in all its glory: in the first case, the data accumulated by the Event Horizon Telescope provides sufficient evidence for Einstein’s hypothesis. In the second case, a discovery makes it possible to deduce the existence of a new species of hominid. The third new item, however, gives science much less cause for rejoicing. This is the announcement of a measles outbreak in New York. Following this upsurge, the city’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, today decided to compel unvaccinated residents to receive the measles vaccine or pay a fine. This resurgence is due to the rise of anti-vaccination movements, particularly in religious communities. Some anti-vax movements refer to the risk of autism supposedly caused by vaccines. This information has been refuted by the health authorities. In this example, we see a unmistakable attitude of questioning of scientific authority (and authority in general?). A belief has taken root in public opinion. A belief that is known to have been born out of the Wakefield study published in The Lancet, which has since been removed. However, the 300 new measles cases reported since October are clear evidence for the real need for vaccination.
Autism specialist Steven Camarata has written a very informative text on this subject entitled “Vaccines cause autism, the lie that never dies” in which he claims that Wakefield’s studies were fraudulent and talks about the huge disproportion between the few cases drawn on by the doctor, who lost his license, and the million data points that prove that there is no link between vaccination and autism.  The famous Steven Pinker tweeted about this article: “Vaccines are one of the best things our sorry species has ever accomplished. But the link to autism is The Lie That Never Dies. And now we have a vaccine “skeptic” elected to Congress.”
While our first two news items show that the scientific method is a tried and tested way to describe reality, the third piece of news shows how much the resurgence of belief in opinion puts science to the test more than ever.
 Camarata states: “It is perhaps ironic that this original “vaccines cause autism” lie was based upon only 12 children, but refuting this lie by disproving this fraudulent research required studies that now include literally millions of children. This disproportionality is due, in part, to the scientific problem of “proving a negative.” It is certainly true that science can indeed disprove a falsehood (see the Psychology Today article by Stephen Law, PhD),  but the process requires multiple replications with negative findings to prove that vaccines do not cause autism. There are now multiple comprehensive scientific reviews showing that vaccines do not cause autism that combines public health data and scientific studies in the U.S. and data from other countries as well.  Despite the overwhelming evidence indicating that vaccines do not cause autism, too many people — including physicians — continue to hold Dr. Green’s misguided point of view.”
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