User-agent: * Allow: / Trenton Butcher Block: What's Science Got to Do With It Anyway

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Commentary on national and local events from the standpoint of a Trenton city resident and state worker.

Friday, April 2, 2010

What's Science Got to Do With It Anyway

For those who have read my previous postings, up until now I haven't written anything critical of the Democratic party.  There may be some of you who wonder if I will live up to my promise in my profile to take swipes at politicians on both sides of the aisle.  Well I don't plan to let you down.

Last week, legislation enacting one of Obama's top priorities - universial health insurance - came into law.  Now, he is ramping on his other big campaign promise, global warming legislation.

As anybody that has not been living in a cave already knows, the global warming theory goes like this:  The earth's climate has warmed up at an unprecedented rate over the last 200 years or so, and that man made carbon dioxide gas from burning fossil fuels is the culprit.

Supporters of the legislation insist that if something isn't done immediately to sharply cut carbon dioxide emissions in the developed world, then the planet will continue to warm up rapidly resulting in dire consequences in our lifetimes.  And the supporters of restrictions on oil and coal use in Europe and the United States insist that it is simply a matter of settled science.  They state that all reputable scientists believe this to be true and only crackpots - global warming deniers - contest the issue.

I'm not going to weigh in on the global warming issue here, at least not in this post.  I'll leave that to another day.  Instead, I am going to talk about the "it's science" part of the argument, and why we should be skeptical of it.

I'm 52 years old, so I was born in 1957 and grew up in the 1960s and 1970s.  A lot has changed since that time, even so-called science.

My mother bought me a set of encyclopedias when I was in 5th grade.  I read them seemingly from cover to cover and believed everything in them as gospel truth, especially things relating to science.  Like the article that said that modern man is directly descended from Cro-Magnon Man.  Well, today the scientists say this is not true and the Cro-Mags had nothing to do with us.  Rather, they were an unrelated line of humanity which died out without contributing anything to our gene pool.  However, if you are white or Asian, today's experts say you might have some Neanderthal relatives in your family tree.  Again this is something that the scientists said was not so in the 1960s.

We see this kind of stuff all the time.

In the 1950s we were told to put babies on their bellies to keep them from getting the back of their head flattened.  By the 1990s we were told to put them on their backs to prevent complications from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

I recall TV commercials in the 1960s and 1970s telling people to use margarine instead of butter because it was "made from polyunsaturated fats" derived from corn oil.  The margarine was supposed to healthier than butter which is high in saturated fats.

As a result of these ads, my mother and countless housewives across the country switched to margarine to protect their families' hearts from cholesterol damage.

Little did we know at the time that the margarine of 30, 40 or 50 years ago was made hard enough to form into sticks by taking unsaturated vegetable oil and turning it into saturated fat through a chemical refining process.  Today, these artificially saturated vegetable fats are called "trans fats".   As everybody knows, according to modern science, there is nothing worse for your heart than trans fat.

So moms across America were misled to switch their families from natural butter to margarine that was made of trans fat.

Our shared cultural belief that scientists always know best played into the Madison Avenue's hands when getting the public to switch for health reasons to something that was actually bad for your heart.

While switching from butter to trans fats may seem like a boneheaded move, at the time I believe the experts that touted it were being sincere.  They just didn't understand the science well enough.

Politics sometimes plays a more prominent role in decisions made in the name of science, such as in the case of the development of modern drunk driving law.

The legal threshold from driving while intoxicated was at first visible intoxication at the the time the concept originated in the first decades of the 20th century.  Then, in the 1950s the Breathalyzer was invented and we now needed a scientific standard for drunkenness.  After all the company that made the machines had to find a reason to get law enforcement to buy them.  The limit was first set at .15 as anybody who watches Mad Men regularly knows.  By the mid 1960s the threshold was lowered to .10.  Then, in the 1990s it was lowered to .08.  Experts in the field made the case to lower the threshold by arguing that people become impaired sooner than previously thought.

An equally plausible explanation why the legal threshold for drunk driving was initially set at a high level was that the public was more tolerant of heavy drinking than it is now.  People in the past were more reluctant to lock up someone for driving drunk because a higher value was placed personal freedom than on public safety. .

As time went on, the public became less tolerant of people who go to the local bar after work to toss down a few hours worth of shots and beers.  We stopped seeing this behavior as being normal and rather something that is dangerous for a driver to do.  We lowered the standard for drunkenness, at first in the 1950s as a means for requiring use of Breathalyzers, then later on as people's attitudes toward drinking changed.  In other words, it was not science that produced the lower DWI standards, but changes in public opinion.  The science was used as a means of advancing a political objective.

As a result we went from accepting vehicle operation by heavy drinkers to now, when driving after having two drinks in a restaurant can put you at risk for a DWI.

The truth is, scientists actually "know" nothing to be true.  What they do is come a reason for why something is as it is (a hypothesis) then set about trying to disprove this theory by subjecting it to experimental testing.  It fhe hypothesis stands up to rigorous testing by many scientists over a long period of time, it becomes a "theory", or a hypothesis that is accepted as accurate.  However, very few theories advance to achieve the certainty of "laws" or concepts accepted as true on their fact.  Yes, there are scientific laws like the "law of gravity", but these are few and far between.

Some things like whether products containing trans fats "made from polyunsaturated fats" are good for you or from whom modern man is descended  have changed over time as our knowledge of science has advanced. The experts weren't lying when they told us something different 40 years ago than they do now, they just didn't have the whole picture.

Other things like whether we put babies on their backs or their bellies are simply educated guesses based on how we perceive the relative risks and benefits.  In other words, do we want well formed heads on our kids or do we want to minimize the chance of spontaneous death in infants.  Another case of this type of decision is how and where to set the threshold for DWI.  Here the question is how much do we value the personal freedom to drink alcohol versus highway safety.

With global warming and what to do about, it is a little bit of both.  Both the environmentalists who are pushing for restrictions on fossil fuels and business interests who want the status quo to continue have political axes to grind.  Scientists have examined climate change, and scientific research is being used by both sides as a way of advancing their respective viewpoints.  But for the antaganists, the science is more a tool for pushing their political agendas rather than a basis for their viewpoints.

In the end, it all depends on what we want and what we value.