Saturday, December 09, 2006

Whatever Happened to Science?

Something strange is happening to science. Science and politics have become bedfellows and some scientists are crossing a thin line between scientific endeavour and political advocacy. The more this occurs, the less value will be attached to science and the more cynical people will become about politics.

Three examples will make clear the problem. The most obvious is climate change. This is the theory that the earth is experiencing global warming, caused largely by human actions, and that the impact of such warming will be devastating for many communities, especially coastal communities, around the world. Those scientists who dissent from this view – indicating that the sun is warmer now than it has been for several thousand years, that the earth is not as warm as it was in the medieval period and that many claims are exaggerated – are termed “climate change deniers”, find themselves ostracized within the scientific community and are refused grants. “Group-think” is so strong that the basics practice science has been replaced by the rhetoric of advocacy. In February of 2007, when the next UN report on climate change is due, expect skeptics to be at the forefront. The report will indicate that the impact of human activity on climate change is much less than was previously thought and that the rise in sea levels will be half that predicted by the UN when it last reported - fertile ground for skeptis of the science.

A second example relates to cholesterol. The theory here is that “bad” cholesterol is a cause of heart disease and that controlling cholesterol will lead to a lower level of risk of premature death through a heart attack or stroke. Large drug company profits are often driven by cholesterol related drugs, such as Lipitor – statins which have an impact on cholesterol production. Yet the evidence for this theory is not as compelling as many may think. The International Network of Cholesterol Skeptics – scientists and others – have a different interpretation of the evidence and reach different conclusions based on science. They note that age adjusted incident of heart disease has not been impacted by the widespread use of the statins used to reduce cholesterol. Despite these concerns, there is a global group-think that treats skeptics as deviants and deniers.

A third example will also help us understand why science, advocacy and politics are closely tied together. There is a strong view that North America and Europe is suffering an epidemic of childhood obesity. Yet the Centre for Disease Control in the US has had to retract several studies due to poor methodology or data analysis and has apologized for exaggerating the implications of the research. The New Scientist also showed that there is only weak evidence linking obesity with mortality – only those grossly obese suffer the symptoms and consequences attributed to the many who are slightly or moderately obese. Some of the original studies were funded by the weight loss / diet companies.

The scientific method is about disagreement, challenge and the use of evidence to support such dialogue. Advocacy is about taking a position and using all available means to get things done. Politics is about creating popular solutions to problems people didn’t know they had. When these become confused or blurred, then we all suffer.

For example, the insistence on cholesterol as a cause of heart disease leads to huge health care expenditures, transfer of assets from the public to the private sector. Scientists who take a different view are generally denied funds or find it difficult to secure support for their research.

Climate change believers always suggest that “deniers” are funded by the energy companies or proxy organizations established by these companies. Yet the global warming industry has its own funding resources – governments and others - who have a vested interest in promoting a future of challenge requiring political action. No one is immune from the influences of the socio-economic source of their funding and sponsorship.

The argument goes “well, we should act just in case the dominant theory is true – what’s the harm?”. All drugs have side effects – we are yet to see the full impact of a generation using statins to control cholesterol and the likely impact of the war against obesity on psychological and physical well being of the next generation. We have not yet fully understood the impact of the measures being taken to “manage climate change” on the social and economic development of communities. All acts have intended and unintended consequences.

What we can see is a growing cynicism about science and about the use of science to support advocacy and campaigns. What we see is the political manipulation of science to win elections, create fear and offer solutions to problems we may not actually have.

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