|Biology and politics
2. Bioterrorism and knowledge
Donald R. Forsdyke
ABSTRACT. A new era of bioterrorism opened on
September eleventh. A major cause was the Israel-Palestine
dispute with biased support of the USA for one party. While it
is best to deal with causes (see preceding article), we must
also improve methods of resisting attacks. Policy makers need
advice from biomedical experts who certify which knowledge is
correct and relevant. But in recent decades the processes by
which "experts" are so designated have become
increasingly distorted by short-term economic factors. A
generation of real experts may have been lost. "Homeland
security" requires reform of the peer review system so that
true knowledge, not politically-correct knowledge, is applied to
the problem at hand, and disenfranchised experts do not misapply
Keywords: Bioterrorism, Experts,
Homeland Security, Knowledge, Peer Review.
the wake of September eleventh 2001 anthrax spores were employed in
attacks at various locations in the USA. Whether these attacks were
instigated by a foreign state, a non-governmental organization, or an
individual, remains unknown at this time. Biological weapon (BWs) have
been employed in hostile confrontations for millennia (Clarke 1968), but
the scale and sophistication of the post-September eleventh attack
raises the possibility of a new BW era – the era of bioterrorism.
It seems that the
events of 9/11 were "previously thought to be unimaginable"
by some authorities (Prescott 2003). For example, Malcolm Mackintosh in
1964 advanced the view that China's new acquisition of nuclear
capability was then only of prestige value since to be effective
militarily a reliable delivery system was necessary. However, at that
time it was pointed out that "saboteurs with suitcases might
assemble a weapon on land." Furthermore, it was noted that
arguments against this might not "influence a power which had no
other effective delivery system, but was able to select and train
military personnel who had from early childhood been rigorously taught
the virtues of their own national ideology and the evil of others"
(Forsdyke 1966). Four decades later, US Senator Charles Schumer displays
surprise on recognizing that New York may be the most vulnerable US city
with respect to nuclear weapons being smuggled within the many shipping
containers and trucks that enter the city daily: "What I have
learned about it chills you to the bone... We're virtually totally
unprotected against such a device" (Cernetig 2002).
people who use biological weapons to harm varying numbers of other
people, and hence, to terrorize even larger numbers of other people.
While some may become bioterrorists "for kicks", it is far
more likely that acts of bioterrorism are in response to real or
imaginary wrongs that are not perceived as being correctable by other
means. Thus, the acts are designed to punish the perpetrators of the
perceived wrongs, or the supporters of the perpetrators, so inducing
them to cease and desist and, better still, to make amends.
A recent article
correctly points out that there is much we can learn from the recent
SARS outbreak about resisting and deterring bioterrorism (Prescott
2003). The better we are prepared, and are perceived to be prepared,
then the less likely are bioterrorists to contemplate acts of
bioterrorism. Furthermore, bioterrorists, and those who support and
supply them, can be hunted down and arrested. But others will arise to
replace them unless causes are dealt with. Thus, while seeking to
understand, protect ourselves against, and deter the use of, the weapons
used by bioterrorists, we must urgently address the causes of
The most likely
present cause of a bioterrorist attack in the western democracies
relates to the Israel-Palestine issue. Who can doubt this when, in the
words of a recent Knesset Speaker, "The Israeli nation today
rests on a scaffolding of corruption, and on foundations of oppression
and injustice" (Burg 2003); and, in the words of Tony Judt
(2003), "Washington’s unconditional support for Israel even in
spite of (silent) misgivings is the main reason why most of the rest of
the world no longer credits our good faith." My prescriptions
with respect to Israel-Palestine are contained in the preceding article
(Forsdyke 2005). I here consider aspects of the BW problem that may not
be apparent to many non-scientists, and may not be acknowledged by many
Science as Monolith
In the 1960s the book The
Prospect of Biological and Chemical Warfare
(Clarke 1968) called on scientists to refuse to collaborate with
governments in the development of BW:
their support to any classified defensive or to any offensive work on
either kind of weapon, they could effectively remove the threat of
massive chemical or biological warfare in the future. They could do it
quickly. They could do it tomorrow. They could do it finally. For let
there be no mistake about this. No government can develop further
weapons in this field without the help of scientists."
As a scientist with an
academic interest in chemical and biological weapons (CBWs) I suggested
that this was naïve. I was also concerned that there was little
appreciation of the possible future use of CBWs by bioterrorists (Forsdyke 1969):
|"Much of the
book is concerned with the use of C and B weapons in some large-scale
military conflict and relatively little emphasis is given to their use
in guerrilla warfare, in sabotage, or by criminals. Little attempt has
been made fully to explore possible scenarios involving CBW, or to
predict, in a Wellsian manner, possible future developments in the
field. The deterrent posture of a small country … which might
possess CBW weapons capable of inflicting 'unacceptable damage' on the
population of an opponent possessing nuclear weapons, is one
hypothetical situation which could usefully have been examined."
Again, four decades
later, we learn that much of this "was previously thought to be
unimaginable." Furthermore, current prescriptions match those
above in placing the onus on medical and scientific "experts",
who are labelled in various contexts as "the infectious disease
community", or "the international scientific and public
health communities". The "experts" appear as a
given monolithic entity. "Current scientific
knowledge" is another given monolithic entity. Thus, the
task is to modify "current appropriations practices"
(e.g. assign dollars as the experts advise) and engage in "longer
term planning" (as the experts advise) so that "the
best information available from all sources be compiled rapidly in order
to fill the epistemological void as much as possible" (Prescott
Tune Calling by Industry
Of course, much of the
above is correct. But there is again a naïve tendency not to question
the ethical stature of scientists, or the nature of the processes by
which "experts" and "current scientific
knowledge" become so designated. Over recent decades short-term
political and economic goals have played an increasing role in what type
of science gets funded and who gets funded. Scientists in droves have
abandoned their traditional search for "truth" and have
started up, or joined, new biotech companies (Bok 2003; Kleinman 2003).
In Canada biomedical researchers receive taxpayers’ dollars on
condition that they obtain matching funds from the pharmaceutical
industry. Who then calls the tune, the taxpayer or the pharmaceutical
industry? Bioethicist Margaret Somerville comments (2002):
that are attached to government funding can affect the purposes and
values upheld, especially when those conditions require
academic-industrial partnerships for research to be eligible for
funding, as in the case of the Canadian government's C $300 ...
million investment in a series of genomics research centres (Genome
Canada). Structuring funding in this way leaves out the funding of
research that will not result in marketable products, and excludes
those researchers who undertake it."
Supporting this, the
pharmaceutical industry has blanketed the media with declarations of
dedication to humankind, so covering politicians against potential
taxpayer wrath (Gerth and Stolberg 2000). Currently, US politicians are
endorsing "Project Bioshield" that guarantees the industry
billions of dollars for vaccines and therapeutics against various "weaponizable"
pathogens and toxins. However, while doing much to benefit humankind,
the industry, like other industries, is more interested in optimizing
its own financial health than the health of human populations. The two
are far from synonymous.
Much of this had been
anticipated. In 1971 the distinguished biomedical researcher Irvine Page
warned that President Nixon’s "massive system approach" to a
cure for cancer by 1976 was unlikely to succeed, and public support
might turn sour:
teaches that the public is impatient, especially when promises are
made, or seem to be made. Its original enthusiasm and willingness to
work chills and people turn to whatever other pipes pipe more engagingly
do not receive a tangible benefit. In the past two decades, overpromise
has been a
besetting sin of the science community."
governments are concerned about projects, not the people who carry out
projects. Needing to keep research funds flowing, granting agencies
accordingly fund projects not people. In the final
analysis they hold it is better to fund less great scientists to carry
out approved projects than to fund great scientists to carry out
unapproved projects. This involves a certain amount of hype that the
media have not been able to penetrate. A great twentieth century
polymath observed (Haldane 1968):
|"In nine cases
out of ten large teams and expensive apparatus are a substitute for
really accurate observation and really deep thinking. One can't
order a Faraday and a von Frisch, with a Laplace to do the mathematics
... . One can order a hundred graduates, a
cyclotron, a computer, two electron microscopes, and so on. Such
apparatus also impresses visiting journalists; whereas great
scientists are often shy or rude, and sometimes both."
Talent at biomedical
research, like many human attributes, should follow a bell-shaped
distribution, with a few individuals of great talent at one tail of the
distribution. The aim of the peer-review system of evaluation should be
to detect such individuals and crown them with funds and the accolade
"expert." However, ability at marketing rather than ability at
science has come to determine which scientists will be funded, and
hence, to define expertise (Forsdyke 2000, 2004). The reason is
glaringly obvious. In marketing, simple messages work. The same applies
to the marketing of scientific ideas. This means that subtle scientific
ideas tend to lose out to simple scientific ideas, and subtle scientists
lose out to the unsubtle. Great scientists come up with great ideas
that, because they are great ideas, are difficult to communicate
to the scientists of lesser greatness who sit on grant committees.
Scientists of lesser greatness come up with less great ideas that, because
they are less great ideas, are not difficult to communicate to the
scientists of lesser greatness who sit on grant committees. Thus, the
peer-review system comes to judge great scientists as less great, and
less great scientists as great.
The standard answer to
all this is that if the great scientists are so smart, how come they
cannot figure out how to work the system? But great scientists tend to
be constitutionally incapable of marketing ploys. They can no more
compromise their personal integrity than tortoises can loose their
shells. Here is what one Nobelist had to say (Szent-Gyorgyi 1974):
of science is honesty. The present granting method is so much at
variance with the basic ideas of science that it has to breed
scientists into devious ways. One of the widely applied practices is to
do work and
then present results as a project and report later that all predictions
Can we wonder that the
peer-review system has been described by another Nobelist as having
become "vicious beyond imagination," (Lederberg 1989), and by
yet another as having taken on a "mask of madness" (Sharpe
1990). Like campaign finance reform, peer review reform is blocked by
those who have most to loose from such reform. The system cannot
self-correct. Special interests dominate (Horton 2004). In this light it
is perhaps not extreme to paraphrase Speaker Burg and declare
that: "The biomedical research enterprise today rests on a
scaffolding of corruption, and on foundations of oppression and
Some great scientists have battled on,
and won, despite the system. We do not know how many, but it is equally
likely that a generation of real experts has been lost from biomedical
research. Many of these, discouraged, might not have kept in touch with
the scientific literature, and so may have lost their expertise.
However, a great scientist denied his/her laboratory is like a great
musician denied his/her instrument. A highly intelligent few may have
been driven, in desperation and bitterness, and perhaps insanity, to act
in ways that might serve their own vengeful needs, or the needs of those
who could manipulate them.
An example of this arose in Canada in
1992 when a Russian expatriate at Concordia University in Montreal went
on a shooting spree (Wolfe 1994). While the minimum unit (number of
people and extent of resources) for the production and delivery of
conventional weapons of mass destruction is large, the minimum unit for
a bioterrorist attack (as in the case of a cyberterrorist attack) can be
as small as one, highly intelligent, individual. Thus, the modern
biomedical research system, by disenfranchising true experts, may itself
have become a breeding ground for bioterrorists (or cyberterrorists).
Level of peer
review-approved funding usually being equated with scientific
excellence, such funding comes to define the "experts." These
experts, in turn, define what constitutes "current scientific
knowledge." This has the potential to lead the entire biomedical
enterprise off track, if not down a blind alley. The standard textbook
example is Gregor Mendel who established the science now known as
genetics, but whose work was "overlooked" by the prevailing
experts for thirty-five years. This occurred in the nineteenth century,
but there are plenty of twentieth century examples.
New ideas threaten not
only the status quo but also the careers and reputations of those
who have embraced that status quo (Forsdyke 2000). Thus,
accompanying many major conceptual advances in science are stories of
opposition by entrenched scientific establishments (Barber 1961;
Campanario 2004). At a more modest level, my own proposal more than a
decade ago for a potentially quick and inexpensive treatment of AIDS
(that hence offered no great bounty to the pharmaceutical industry) has
only recently received attention (McNeil 2003; Williams at al. 2004). At
the time of this writing the use of a natural compound to treat
hardening of the arteries in humans looks very promising. This has been
known for over a decade on the basis of experiments with animals.
However, it is suggested that, being a natural compound, there would be
difficulty in establishing patent rights, and so it was not pursued in
human studies (Anonymous Editorial 2003). Knowledge that is economically
incorrect tends to be politically incorrect, so funds do not become
available for its exploration. That the pharmaceutical industry might
have somewhat less than a benign interest in optimizing human health
became very apparent in the case of Canadian researcher Nancy Olivieri
who was hounded not only by the pharmaceutical industry, but also by her
institutions and her peers (Forsdyke 2000; Thompson et al. 2001; Viens
and Savulescu 2004).
SARS: A Case Study
The Vietnamese government has been
commended, and the Canadian government criticized, in their respective
managements of the SARS epidemic (Prescott 2003):
|"The Vietnamese government
focused on curbing disease rather than protecting the economy. In
contrast, Canadian officials appeared to be more concerned with the
short-term impact of a travel advisory on tourism, retail and other
industries, even though the epidemic appeared to have spread through
the community and to other countries partially because the Canadian
health authorities had ignored a WHO advisory that all departing
passengers from Toronto be screened by medical personnel."
While a full history of this era
remains to be written, the "Canadian officials" must have
acted only after receiving advice from their peer review-anointed
"experts." If, in this case, becoming so designated relied
more on skills in marketing and politics than in science (and, to be
fair to those concerned, we currently have no evidence on this), then we
should not be surprised if we eventually learn that the
"experts" had told the officials what they wanted to hear
(Blackwell 2003), rather than the truth (assuming that the
"experts" had been capable of correctly perceiving such
Politicians and policy
makers, usually being generalists, require input from specialists.
However, the processes by which specialists become so designated,
sometimes dependent on alliances with the pharmaceutical industry, may
be flawed. This may be fatal where "homeland security" is
concerned. It is imperative (i) that the most expert "experts"
be available, and (ii) that knowledge they have certified, not
politically-correct knowledge, be applied to the problem in hand. Reform
of the system of peer review by which "experts" are designated
is urgently needed. Suggestions for reform have long been on the table
(Forsdyke 2000). They should be heeded.
Acknowledgement. A helpful review of
the text was provided by Dr. Daniel Osmond of the Department of
Physiology, University of Toronto.
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