Ignoring Science can be Dangerous

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There has been a public trend to treat scientific issues as no more than partisan issues.   Either you feel or believe that global warming is man-made or not. Either you feel or believe that immunizations are dangerous for your kids or not. This attitude is wide-spread and belies a fundamental misunderstanding of what science actually is and how the scientific method works.

Judith Weis has authored a very nice “Guestwords” OpEd in the East Hampton Star: “Why We March for Science” published on 4/20/2017. Judith S. Weis is professor emerita in the department of biological sciences at Rutgers University in Newark.

This is timely, in view of the March for Science held in Washington DC and at numerous locations across the globe on Saturday 4/22/17.

The scientific method is incompatible with wishful thinking and preferred outcomes of an experiment. The review process for publication is rigorous. To a great extent, the scientific community has been able to police itself when there are instances of misconduct. One example is the Wakefield study published in the British journal The Lancet in 1998 and retracted in 2010. The study had insinuated a link between MMR vaccines and autism based on a study of faulty design and an author who carefully selected his cases and who was funded by lawyers acting for parents who were involved in lawsuits against vaccine manufacturers. Wakefield eventually lost his license to practice medicine.

Science is self-policing in that errors are eventually unearthed and faulty claims exposed. While the Wakefield story became a resolved matter for scientists, the damage done in the non-scientific world lingers on to this day, as the fear of vaccines remains strong.

As Weis puts it: “Many in the general public don’t understand fundamental science and may deny findings of legitimate research because the findings don’t agree with their beliefs or opinions… people’s hesitation to accept scientific findings may come from not only lack of knowledge about the research, but from confusion about the level of uncertainty in science. Uncertainty has been exploited by various industries and politicians to confuse the public about scientific knowledge, as demonstrated by the tobacco companies’ propaganda throughout several decades, during which time thousands of people died of tobacco-related illnesses. The same phenomenon goes on in the field of climate science; the climate deniers and petrochemical industries learned from the tobacco companies.”

“Scott Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator, not only doubts that humans and CO2 cause climate change, he also has rejected the advice of his scientific staff about the risks caused by the pesticide chlorpyrifos… The administration’s proposed budget has severe cuts to environmental research programs at NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the E.P.A., and moderate cuts in the National Institutes of Health budget that funds biomedical research.”

In case you are wondering what the NIH does, take for example funding for the discovery of the HIV virus and how it causes AIDS. Based on these basic discoveries drugs have been developed and pharma companies have thrived. I would argue that NIH-funded research is the single largest engine for discoveries that drive the biomedical industry which represents over 10% of the US economy.   America is already losing biomedical research leadership to Asia. This trend is bound to accelerate with the policies of our current administration.

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About D. Posnett MD

Emeritus Prof. of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College
This entry was posted in ACA, Environment, EPA, science, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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