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Yet again, in another diary, I was accused of being 'afraid of science', by someone who doesn't have a clue.  So I thought I'd write a short diary to give them one.

First, what is usually labeled as 'fear of science' onsite (and this happens a LOT) is a wariness or even a rejection of some specific process or product or set of products, not 'science'.  'Science' (and engineering) went into every single artificial object around us.  Computers, lightbulbs, wheels, man-made fire....  We used the scientific process to discover the underlying physical properties and characteristics of materials and the ways in which they interact with the world, and thus were able to set up processes, create and improve products large and small.

Next, simply as a result of our own existence, our interactions with all of our environment, natural or artificial, has trade-offs and boundaries, both physical and mental.  We need water to survive, but too much of it in too short a period will damage or even kill us. Some people think certain foods taste wonderful, others think they taste horrible and will only eat them if the trade-off is starvation and death.  And different people place different values on potential risks, both known and unknown.

'Science' is not static.  Using the scientific process, we continually improve our understanding of the world around us, and discover new processes and interactions occurring around us, especially in areas of complex systems, such as biological ones.  And, just as with longer and better studied fields such as geology or physics, our understanding of biologic issues will likely see a few major paradigm shifts in the decades and centuries to come.  We will discover relationships that had eluded us, and come to have a better understanding of the etiologies of conditions and diseases that currently are unknown, the ways in which drugs we have have used for decades already actually work (We have a lot of drugs with 'unknown mechanisms of action'.)

Now there are legitimate ways to suggest that someone is "wrong" on a given issue.  When an 'anti-vaxxer' states that they believe 'vaccines cause autism', you can simply hold up the stats for them, and say 'In the extreme, vast majority of cases, there is no evidence for such'.  Is it possible they are 'right'?  Actually, yes, for some eensy-weensy, tiny fraction of humanity, there conceivably could be some as yet unknown mechanism of their personal biology that interacts with a given vaccine and results in a condition such as autism.  But again, in virtually all humans, no such link has been found, and for all practical purposes, they're wrong.

Similarly, if someone said 'GMOs cause cancer' or 'GMOs cause autism', you could again point to statistical studies to show that no such direct link has been shown to exist in test subjects fed large amounts of GMOs.

On the other hand, if, instead, someone said they did not feel that sufficient testing had been done to proclaim that GM products were 'safe', that's another kettle of fish.  Safe is an awfully big, and awfully vague word.  As we noted above, there are no studies that currently link GM ingestion to several specific types of disease.  But biologic and ecologic systems are still complex systems, and we simply don't know enough about how they work yet to even know if we're doing the right sorts of studies to test the ways in which new organism fully interact with the biosphere around them.  

And we've proven that, time and again, with simpler chemicals and drugs.  Time after time, it's taken us decades to even realize that using a given pesticide, herbicide, hormone, additive in paint or fuel has vast and unexpected consequences.  Birds whose egg shells are too fragile to allow chicks to come to term, animals born without eyes or with multiple limbs, insects that have developmental issues that leave them falling prey to parasites and dying more easily.  Pollution in our air, our water, our food.

This is not 'fear of science'.  This is cautious wisdom, based upon centuries of seeing mankind develop products without fully understanding the full scope of their actions upon the world around us, and causing ourselves unnecessary problems.  This is a belief that more scientific study needs to take place, for new inventions, new products, new processes to undergo far more extensive testing before being simply thrown out into the world to let the rest of us become beta testers so that a company can gather more wealth for its investors and externalize the unforeseen and untested problems onto the rest of us.


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Comment Preferences

  •  As an aside, the 'fear of science' accusation (26+ / 0-)

    was made in this instance in a comment exchange about nuclear vs fossil fuels.  Preferring the trade-offs involved with renewables as opposed to nuclear energy (or fossil fuels) is also frequently slapped with the ad hom 'fear of science'.  That comment also came with a dose of strawman, as the person replying then went on to attack a claim I didn't even make.  Another common tactic in such discussions.

    Disclaimer:  I've got multiple undergraduate (4) and graduate (2) degrees in several scientific fields, both applied and regular.  I've been published in several peer-reviewed scientific journals.  I'm not 'afraid of science'.  I just actually understand how science works much better than most of the people who want to treat it like a religion.

    •  In fact, skeptcism is the foundation of science (5+ / 0-)

      If somebody says "this reactor will never fail" or "this pill will make your child smarter" the natural scientific reaction is to be skeptical.    The scientific method exists because (at least some) humans recognized that our brains are flawed and that our natural beliefs are based on emotions rather than reason.  

      Simply because it came from a lab doesn't mean that it is good for you.   Meth and LSD were invented by serious scientists who had good intentions.  

      Skepticism is what differentiates science from snake oil.

    •  I agree with you (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Dr Erich Bloodaxe RN

      regarding the trade-off of renewables vs. nuclear.

      But that's not the choice that we have had, or even have now or the immediate future if we use Germany and Japan as models. Yet, this actual choice seems to be intensively dismissed by the anti-nuke crowd, without a satisfactory explanation.

      The practical result of anti-nuke activism is an increase in coal/fossil fuel energy production.

      And to me, the science is pretty clear on the trade-off of coal and other fossil fuels vs nuclear.

      Disclaimer. Like you, I've been published in several peer reviewed journals, but only have 1 undergraduate, 1 masters, and 1 PhD degree in scientific fields.

      •  The multiples aren't because (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        wilderness voice, Ozy, Eyesbright

        I'm just really really into something, but because I'm curious about everything.  I started off in in the inorganic world, wandered briefly into systems, then back out into applied biosciences :)

        And I think the choices we have are largely a function of fighting back against seriously entrenched corporate interests.  Fossil fuels are big money, and it takes a lot of pushback to avoid their snares.

      •  This is an example of enthusiasim (5+ / 0-)

        of the kind that Locke warned about.

        To say that the "science is pretty clear on the trade-off of coal and other fossil fuels vs nuclear" is simply to use science as a prop.   Science is not about judging trade-offs, it is about getting as accurate an understanding of the world as possible.    

        In the case of nuclear power, we do not need to argue about the possibility that a nuclear power plant will fail with major negative consequences, since a number of plants have already failed.   So far we have been fortunate in that none of the failures have contaminated a major source of freshwater.   We do not need to argue about whether it will produce highly radioactive spent fuel rods that we don't know how to dispose of, since that is the status quo.    These are observable facts.

        Whether or not you think that despite these flaws, nuclear power is the only solution to other problems that humans face is a matter of opinion and not science.    It may be that the average person underestimates the risk from global warming and overestimates the risk from a nuclear disaster, but at this point one cannot argue that nuclear power is always safe.   To do so is to act contrary to science and ignore observations.

        •  I didn't say science 'judged' (0+ / 0-)

          the trade-offs, I said it was pretty clear about them.

          And this is the kind of misinterpretation that plagues these sorts of discussion. Nobody said that nuclear power is 'completely safe', so I'm not sure why you're even mentioning it.

          Science doesn't say that long term nuclear waste management is better than catastrophic climate change, I say that it is, that's my judgement. Science just tells me about the problems that each technology faces and creates.

          Also, nuclear power obviously isn't the 'only' solution to the problem of fossil fuels, as renewables are ramping up as we speak.

          However, everyone must acknowledge that in the past, present, and near future, as exemplified by Japan and Germany, the trade-off was and is nuclear vs. coal/fossil fuels.

          If Germany didn't increase it's coal energy, if Japan didn't switch to fossil fuels to replace the shut down nuclear plants, then we could be having an entirely different conversation on the matter.

          One doesn't have to argue that nuclear power is completely safe, one just has to argue that the alternatives currently being implemented are worse in terms of short-term fatalities, long-term fatalities, and irreversible environmental damage.

          And that's what the science tells me, YMMV.

  •  I don't actually expect this to draw many eyes. (9+ / 0-)

    I mostly wrote it simply as an exercise in pointing out the problems with the arguments thrown out again and again by those who do treat science almost as a religion, and accuse those who prefer not to go down a specific path of being heretics who 'fear' the God they've made of science.  

    People need to understand how science works and how our understanding evolves over long periods, not to deify every result of engineering that we are capable of simply because the underlying concepts came from 'science'!

  •  Sometimes science tells you that certain (5+ / 0-)

    technologies are counterproductive. History is full of scientific knowledge that has been superseded, by technologies that have done damage unimaginable at first, Climate Change is a glaring current example.
    As a technophile, I'm not sold 100% on any technology and a have come to the conclusion that some are actually quite harmful in the long run, nukes, fr'instance. Doesn't make me a Luddite.

    If I ran this circus, things would be DIFFERENT!

    by CwV on Mon Jan 06, 2014 at 07:43:34 AM PST

  •  Agree wholeheartedly (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    FG, Dr Erich Bloodaxe RN, Ozy, Eyesbright

    If nothing else, science should teach us humility.

    I have one nuance, quibble maybe.  There are some instances when we know some specific, vague concern just doesn't make sense, even without long term study.

    What I mean is that there are an infinite number (or at least a whole shitload) of remote possibilities that something or other might occur.  But most of those can be disregarded for the simple reason that they make no sense, given everything else we know.  

    So, someone might say, in opposition to many evolutionary arguments, that carbon-14 dating doesn't really work.  That the half life of Carbon-14 is vastly shorter than what we think (5730 years), and thus the world is not as old as we think (its not that simple, but this is only an example).

    In this case, I feel no need to double-check and rigorously test this proposition, for the simple reason that if the half-life of carbon 14 is 100 years rather than 5730 years), a really large chunk of physics and chemistry is toast.  We would no longer know why the sun is warm, for instance.

    So, while all valid concerns should be tested, we must also 'pre-screen' concerns to see if they are in the realms of worth testing.  And yes, we will make mistakes on that call.  But that's science.

    "Empty vessels make the loudest sound, they have the least wit and are the greatest blabbers" Plato

    by Empty Vessel on Mon Jan 06, 2014 at 08:19:36 AM PST

    •  As usual, the action taken, and responses thereto (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Dr Erich Bloodaxe RN, Eyesbright

      often seem to depend on who "we" is, and that's politics (broadly defined), not science.

      So, while all valid concerns should be tested, we must also 'pre-screen' concerns to see if they are in the realms of worth testing.  And yes, we will make mistakes on that call.  But that's science.
  •  With GMOs I think most miss the real problem (0+ / 0-)

    It isn't so much "are the foods safe" because most likely they are (with the relatively small bit of engineering we are doing now.)

    The real question for a crop-dependent species is "is it a good idea to engineer crops to be herbicide resistant, given how easily seemingly-unrelated plants exchange genes?"  

    Roundup-resistant wheat = "good."
    Roundup-resistant Canadian Thistle = "bad."

    •  Safe is not just about human ingestion. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      And Canadian Thistle no doubt has its place in the ecological web.  Part of the problems we face are simply because we take it upon ourselves to eliminate vast chunks of that ecological web without actually understanding how other species depend upon them.  Chemical clear-cutting, as it were, leaving nature fraying around us, and coming back to bite us in the butt in ways we never expected.

      •  True, and my point wasn't clear (0+ / 0-)

        My point about thistle is that a common goal of GMO foods is to create a plant that is resistant to herbicides so that one can preferentially kill off competitors to the farmer's crop.   It is a great convenience and increases production, but the downside is that Murphy and evolution will take hold.   The end result will be weeds that are resistant to herbicides, which will result in vastly reduced crop output as thistle and other very hardy weeds take over the fields because humans have no answer for them.   (You cannot kill thistle by tilling or pulling it, lord knows I have tried...)

        Although I hate pesticides and herbicides with a passion, our current agricultural system would collapse without them.  It seems like we are playing with fire by creating herbicide-resistant plants and releasing them into the wild.   Himalayan Blackberry, anybody?   (Tasty, but one of the more destructive weeds.)

  •  One of the problems with this, though I agree (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dr Erich Bloodaxe RN

    generally with the distinction you are making, is that more often than not the order of things does not begin with science, but with technology. For instance, case hardening steel was an established process long before its mechanism was understood. The fact that case hardened steel behaved in such and such a way, versus iron that was treated in different ways, provided some of the basis for establishing the base structure that was eventually worked out scientifically. Much of the time, someone makes something that works for a specific problem, and science catches up as to how and why it works, and/or how it fails, in a fairly leisurely fashion.

    Requiring "enough" scientific study before a new technology can be marketed can effectively stop new technology from happening, because much of the data for scientific research in many areas comes from dispassionately watching technology cause problems that were unthought of before the technology was deployed. If the degree of "new" is minor, then certainly testing can be done to check all the problems that have previously occurred with similar technology. But one engineering rule of thumb is that new solutions always create new problems. Sometimes science, briefly, gets ahead of the technology, but in general it lags behind it by a substantial amount.

    I'd rather not be a guinea pig, either, but I'm not sure there's a legitimate way around it in many cases.

    At least half the future I've been expecting hasn't gotten here yet. Sigh.... (Yes, there's gender bias in my name; no, I wasn't thinking about it when I signed up. My apologies.)

    by serendipityisabitch on Mon Jan 06, 2014 at 08:51:05 AM PST

    •  I agree, but I also think we as a society (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      serendipityisabitch, Eyesbright

      decide how bad that lag will be in the amount of public resources we allot to research.  As someone in another diary pointed out, that got slashed in multiple countries during the Reagan-Thatcher era, and never really recovered.

      •  Quite true, with the caveat that researchers tend (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Dr Erich Bloodaxe RN

        to work on the problems that interest them, in the absence of some crisis, and even with adequate funding and staffing, it can take time to shift resources to new problems.

        At least half the future I've been expecting hasn't gotten here yet. Sigh.... (Yes, there's gender bias in my name; no, I wasn't thinking about it when I signed up. My apologies.)

        by serendipityisabitch on Mon Jan 06, 2014 at 12:49:33 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

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