Dr Peter Moore: It’s not always possible to ‘follow science’ when science is still evolving

The ability to change in the light of new evidence has proved vital in our fight against coronavirus

The ability to change in the light of new evidence has proved vital in our fight against coronavirus - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Sir John Eccles is an unlikely hero. He spent a career proving himself wrong; which is why he won the Nobel prize and is one of my medical heroes.

In the early years of the 20th century there was a mystery.

It had been discovered that there was a gap between the nerves and yet messages sent down one nerve jumped the gap so that the message continued. How did the nerve's message jump the gap?

There were two theories; it was either an electrical charge which crossed the gap or a chemical released by one nerve ending kicking off the next nerve. Sir John Eccles was convinced it was some kind of electrical charge.

In 1921, an Austrian, Otto Loewi, showed that nerves could communicate using a chemical. He even isolated the chemical, acetylcholine, but was this the only way nerves communicated?

During the 1950s, in his attempt to prove that the communication was mainly through an electrical charge, Professor Eccles ran a series of brilliant experiments.

These showed conclusively that he was wrong; nerves always communicate through the release of a chemical. He even helped to clarify how acetylcholine worked.

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This is what makes a great scientist; looking at all the evidence, putting forward a theory to explain everything, and then designing a series of experiment to prove the theory wrong.

Unfortunately, spending years on complicated experiments to test a theory to destruction does not make dramatic headlines.

Popular science prefers 'eureka' moments; a man - always a man - in a white coat leaping up and punching the air as he finds a cure for a common disease.

It is this image of popular science which leads people to complain 'doctors are always changing their minds. One minute X is good for you then it's bad'.

As Professor Eccles showed, changing your mind in the face of the evidence is not a 'U-turn' but good science.

His discovery of what are now called 'neurotransmitters' revolutionised medicine.

Thousands of drugs from antidepressants to blood pressure treatments rely on affecting the neurotransmitter.

It has even helped our understanding of drugs which have been known for centuries such as morphine.

And it has helped our understanding of many diseases including Parkinson's disease.

As a student, I was taught that the contraception pill could lead to cancer of the cervix.

It doesn't but this was taught in good faith based on the evidence at the time.

We now know that the largest risk factor for cervical cancer is a virus which can be sexually transmitted.

The reason that women on the pill were more likely to develop cervical cancer was that they were more likely to be having sex.

By not accepting the accepted theory that the pill caused cancer, scientists discovered the virus and this lead to a vaccine against cervical cancer.

An understanding that we may well be wrong and the ability to change in the light of new evidence has proved vital in our fight against coronavirus.

At the start, a great deal of the understanding of this terrible disease came from studies on influenza.

There was a fear that we could see another 1918 influenza epidemic.

But, as research continued so it became clear that this virus does not behave exactly like influenza.

The evidence changes and so the advice changed.

Nobody 'lied' at the beginning; there is no conspiracy and no U turns.

Even now we need to keep an open mind. Different scientists have different theories. It is not always possible to 'follow the science' when the science is still evolving.

My hope is that one positive result to this pandemic is that people will understand how science works and not look for 'breakthroughs' and not blame scientists for 'always changing their minds'.

I would be more concerned about a scientist who never changed his mind.