Sunday, March 10, 2013

What Happened to Science?

Over on the New York Times Sunday Dialogue, our colleague, friend, and former guest blogger Dr. Robin Weiss has an conversation on Science and Politics.  What happened to science, Dr. Weiss ponders? 

But a disturbing trend threatens future public health initiatives. At the heart of successful public policy lies a shared, bipartisan assumption that science is trustworthy. Lately, politicians unashamedly issue proclamations tantamount to declaring, The world is flat. Climate change is a hoax. Vaccines cause autism. Intelligent design should be taught in biology class alongside evolution. The United States has the best health outcomes in the world.

In public health, knowledge is truly power. If politicians no longer agree that sound scientific knowledge is valid, our nation’s health will suffer for decades — or centuries — to come.

Readers wrote in with a variety of thoughts: it's the almighty dollar that corrupts politicians and blinds them from the truth, scientific research is underfunded, it's those damn Republicans (you can always blame the Republicans), if not them, then the religious extremists.  Science is wrong, and sometimes just evil.  And Dr. Weiss then responded, I'll let you surf over there to read.

I think one of the issues that makes it hard to rely completely on science is that such truths are hard to come by.  For every set of numbers, we have a set of anti-numbers, not to mention the science du jour-- whether it be hormone replacement therapy (oops) or what type of diet we should eat.  Low fat diets seem to have made us fat, unless of course, the fat people aren't the ones eating the low fat diets.  At any rate, we learned that the 'science' of the food pyramid wasn't science at all, but the thoughts of a group of committee members, just as our DSM diagnoses are agreed upon by consensus and debate, not clear scientific studies.   One day it seems that multivitamins are associated with an earlier age of death (cause, effect, coincidence, or those who are sicker are more likely to take vitamins?) and the next day we read that male physicians who take vitamins are less likely to die of certain cancers.  Calcium supplements --pushed on us for so long -- may be the cause of your kidney stones.  And stay out of the sun, it's bad for you, but oh no, your vitamin D levels are too low.   There are too many numbers and they are too easy to manipulate, which every side seems to do.  And even when the numbers play out again and again and are indisputable -- wear your seat belt and drop that cigarette, now -- the numbers are about populations, not individuals, so there will be that person who smokes to 100 and if you're very allergic to nuts, that Mediterranean diet make make for a much shorter lifespan.  

Okay, I just had to argue with Dr. Weiss a little bit.  It's like making her an honorary Shrink Rapper without the screaming.