Rejecting science is dangerous |

Rejecting science is dangerous

Alan Brauholtz

The combination of theory tested by experiment makes science such a great tool to explore the physical world around us. It’s a Darwinian process of natural selection. Only theories that survive a continuing and demanding testing process of experiments and predictions get to make it to the next generation. Theories that don’t stand up die off.Science’s strength is that over time it doesn’t matter what forces try to push or obstruct this process. Political meddling, fashionable ideas and viciously enforced dogmas will only delay the inevitable. In science, the truth will win out. The discipline of the scientific method ensures this. In fields without the physical constants that science needs there can be no such discipline and beliefs depend on chance as much as anything else.The recent announcements of the Federal Drug Administration announcing a ban on spinal and nervous tissue from all animal feed is an example of science eventually overcoming commercial interests that believed more in profits. Scientific panels here and in Europe recommended this back in 1997 to prevent the spread of mad cow disease. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has also slowly succumbed to the evidence that shows the need to test more cows, if we really want to know how prevalent the disease is and contain it if it’s still here. Economic forces in England wanted to sweep mad cow under the carpet before events forced their government’s hand. We’re now committing to test 300,000 cows, a big improvement from the 5,000 in 2002.I’m betting we’ll see the slow acceptance of global warming and our significant contribution to it as the evidence continues to build. Pity we’ll waste 20 years to inaction, but human behavior is so inconstant our actions are beyond scientific investigation.It’s weird. Our world is absolutely dependent on science and technology, and fewer and fewer of us understand the basics of this science and technology. It might as well be magic. As Carl Sagan said, “This is a prescription for disaster.”Every political group loves to cherry pick, abuse and if need be ignore scientific data to bolster its beliefs. Usually there is enough balance in power to keep absurd claims at bay. Recently, though, the Republican Party has found itself more and more at odds with the scientific community. The reasons for this seem fairly simple. Two of the strongest bases for the politically far right are religious conservatives and big industry. These two groups often have interests that conflict with the prevailing science. Pollution emissions and evolution are obvious issues, but there are many others. With control of all three branches of government there is little to stop political meddling in science to appease their base.The public could stop it, of course, but our scientific knowledge seems less and less able to identify a snake oil sales pitch when we hear one. How else to explain the growth in lunatic cults and nonsensical pseudo science fads? Overall, our scientific education must be terrible, which is sad. Scientific knowledge only adds to the wonder of the world as you catch glimpses of how it works. An experiment performing as predicted makes a theory exciting and alive in a way a book never can. Just teaching scientific results and memorizing equations to pass a test does little to impart the beauty of the scientific method and the power of skeptical enquiry to see past ropes and mirrors. Without this knowledge, scientific facts appear no different than any other melee of superstitious so-called facts to be believed on faith. Why not choose to believe easier and more convenient things, then?A recent example of political meddling is the continued hold-up of over-the-counter sales of the “morning after,” or Plan B, birth control pill. The clinical and scientific evidence for it got the overwhelming approval of the FDA’s professional staff, but politically appointed Commissioner Lester Crawford ignored their recommendations. This caused a huge rift in the FDA. The director of the Office for Women’s Health resigned in protest, and subsequently Commissioner Crawford quit.Apparently this administration is opposed to birth control and so fearful of premarital sex on purely moral grounds that it will oppose anything that enables or admits to the reality of this behavior, even if their actions lead to unwanted pregnancies, health risks and abortions. This makes little sense and is a political liability, hence the voodoo science and technical delays to hide behind, hoping the public isn’t skeptical enough to call them on it.Next year expect another similar debate over a vaccine to prevent infection from the papilloma virus that can cause cervical cancer if infection persists. Vaccination should be a no-brainer from a women’s health point of view. The problem is that this virus is sexually transmitted and some see anything that reduces the risk of sexual activity as undermining their abstinence-only moral position. Abstinence is the best safeguard possible against sexual diseases and unwanted pregnancies, but it’s unlikely vaccination will encourage sexual behavior, since few have even heard of the disease.This is a bigger problem in other cultures where the idea that their daughters may be promiscuous is unthinkable. Vaccinating the men may be a more practical option. There’s usually a hypocritical dual standard and this will prevent them from giving it to their wives.Parents often have more practical views than ideological or culturally blinkered spokesmen. Ask them if they want their daughters protected and it’s almost always a “yes, please.” They can see that this is a cure for a cancer that kills and not an invitation for sex. Sad that some believe so strongly in abstinence only that cancer is an OK punishment for sex. You hear similar ideas all the time with HIV and AIDS. They’re probably not parents, though, who tend to be a bit more forgiving of their children’s mistakes.Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily. Vail, Colorado

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