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Skeptic History: A Tale Of Two Scientists PDF Print E-mail
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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.Skeptic History icon

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.

You can get a daily dose of the history of skepticism with JREF’s free Today in Skeptic History app for iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad or by subscribing on Twitter or on Facebook.

(This essay originally appeared in a slightly different form on Skepticality episode #143)

Tim Farley is a JREF Research Fellow in electronic media.

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Not the whole story
written by paiute, November 15, 2011
You leave out a key comment from the link:

The problem with Lykoudis is that his behavior was indistinguishable from the myriad quacks and charlatans that existed then and exist today. That in hind sight one turned out to be on the right track is not all that surprising, and their contemporaries should not be faulted for their inability to predict the future.

The question is – what did Lykoudis do to convince the scientific community of his claims. Did he perform carefully controlled double-blind placebo-controlled trials? Did he attempt to enlist the help of a microbiologist to try to isolate the organism? Or did he just expect people to take his word for it?

What did he do to deserve being taken seriously? Being right in the hindsight of history is not enough.
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MMR, autism, data
written by sibtrag, November 15, 2011
@William: I disagree. In 1998, a scientist lied about the data. Sometimes scientists pervert the nature of scientific inquiry by lying. Maybe its for funding, maybe for prestige, maybe to further their political views. That's a less pleasant possibility that skeptics need to consider.

Further complicating matters, statistical arguments can be wrong. With the huge number of medical studies undertaken, sometimes a 1-in-a-thousand random result will happen and be viewed as very significant (p
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...
written by rjh02, November 15, 2011
It is a pity that not one scientist took John Lykoudis seriously. If one had then they would have done the carefully controlled double-blind placebo-controlled trials and ended the suffering of many people twenty years earlier. They should have taken him seriously as he was a doctor who could observe patients. I wonder what stopped them?

Then the whole lot repeated to ensure that the data was not faked. However the results would have been too clear for this to be needed. Give patients antibiotics and they get cured, when the best other treatment few, if any, would be cured.
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Extraordinary Evidence
written by stuart.coyle, November 15, 2011
You have to remember that even Dr. Barry Marshall was doubted when he and Dr. Robin Warren tried to make their claims that a bacterium caused stomach ulcers.
It wasn't until Dr. Marshall did an experiment where he infected himself with H. Pylori that the medical community took notice.
It can be hard to be taken seriously when you fight against ideas that are well entrenched, even within 'rational' disciplines.
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William's Comment
written by FledgelingSkeptic, November 15, 2011
I think what William was saying is that proponents of Woo will come forward with "evidence" and the average person doesn't know how to read and evaluate a scientific study. That "evidence" will be taken at face value as we've seen in the anti-vax movement. So instead of taking things at face value, we should evaluate the evidence even if it's something we might agree with.

At least that's how I read it.
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