If Science Has The Answers, Why Are We Fighting Over The Questions?

All Rights: Amshudhagar, via Wikimedia Commons

All Rights: Amshudhagar, via Wikimedia Commons

America has a deep schism between the right and the left, conservatives and liberals, polluters and ecologists. The schism may have started in politics, but today it reaches everywhere including science. If we go back a few decades, America had groups with different interests, but just about everyone believed in science. Science turned desserts into farms and put the world of hunger in our rear view mirror. Science cured many of the major plagues of the history. Even corporations, often ruled by personality and vison, incorporated elements of scientific management. People largely believed that if numbers and science were used, the answers must be right. But then there were striking cases of corporate greed and self-interest that changed our view of science. Drugs that kill, cause addiction or other serious issues… OxyContin, Prozac and of course Nicotine …  but remain on the market because of their massive profitability. Deadly contamination… DDT, asbestos, and Love Canal…  known by those in power, but hidden from the average citizen. Now we either don’t believe the science or we don’t understand what these increasingly technical science reports say. We are choosing to ignore facts and science so that we can hold onto outdated beliefs.

Nowhere can this be better seen than in our approach to the environment. It doesn’t matter if you are conservative or liberal, you know that ”the other guy” is always willing to lie a little bit… or will manage to ignore what they don’t want to hear. Take, conservatives, who are mostly Republicans, that believe industry needs to grow, there should be few or no penalties for pollution, manufacturing needs to be unregulated, chemicals and genetically modified foods help America, know that the media’s liberal bias only publicizes fake studies that big business is harming the environment; conservatives are strong deniers that global climate change exists or is caused by human activity.

On the other hand, liberals, who are mostly Democrats and independents, believe that industry needs to be controlled, we need more penalties for pollution, manufacturing must be regulated, chemicals and genetically modified foods harm the earth, know that media’s conservative bias hides studies about how big business harms the environment; liberals are strong deniers that organic foods provide no benefits to the individual or the environment. No matter which side you are on, no matter which position you hold, you know with absolute certainty that the facts support your position.

A big part of the problem is a confusion between personal and public good. We want what we know is good for us (or what we think is good for us) to be good for the world. No one wakes up and says that they want to be evil today. More often, we want to be good, but we get caught up our opinions about the world, and we are too quick to accept what we want and ignore what we don’t.  It’s not that we’re stubborn or bad people, it’s just that the human brain has a lot of ways of biasing the way we perceive data. We listen most to the people most like us, who share our opinions.

Another problem is that the simple questions have been answered, more questions today are predicated with “international” or “global” or some other way of saying big questions with big complex answers. Some questions may require a knowledge of chemistry or statistics to understand the answers. We are frustrated that we may not even know how to ask the right questions.

A question like, “What is wrong with the environment?” or “Are GMO’s good for us?” The answers are too big, or at least they are too big to answer in one blog. My goal is to see that you can understand how conventional farming is affecting our food, our environment and our health. To do that we all need to start with a common base of information, and then we can go into some of the answers. In this blog we’ll just cover what we mean by science and how we know what science is telling us. This will then move on to other blogs, that answer questions about food, environment and safety. Makes sense? OK, here is our foundation about how to understand science, broken into four simple concepts!

Personal vs. Public Good:  Science answers questions, but values determine what those answers mean in a larger framework. For example, when several people are exposed to the same information, each person will have different memory of what they hear. What we remember and what we forget is usually aligned with our values. Which is a long way of saying that we hear what we want to hear. This isn’t just a saying, it is a known property of our brain functions. Look at the controversy over organic foods, Genetically Modified Organisms and the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. One camp sees organic as a personal good (less chemicals must be good), and therefore has come to believe that organic farming must be good for the world. The other camp has many individuals who work in conventional and GMO farming and the chemical industry, who were once the heroes who found ways to feed a growing world, who now take personal offense when their efforts are portrayed as damaging the environment or even evil.

The reality is that each camp is both right and wrong. Conventional farming uses chemicals that may be dangerous, and so too do organic farms. In fact, they often share the same pesticides. Real food safety issues have resulted in people dying. Some deaths were due to conventional foods and some deaths were due to organic foods. Yet, when the two opposing groups argue, each side tends to forget the deaths that result from their favorite form of farming. Both farming methods are causing catastrophic damage to the land, that could be avoided if both sides could just look at science objectively. Perhaps most importantly, the battle between conventional and organic farming in the US and Europe is killing hundreds of thousands of children and adults in the poorest countries in the world (more on that in the next two blogs).

Quality: We like science, when it agrees with us. When it doesn’t, or when we don’t understand the results, we look for faults in the study or we want more research. When a subject is popular, we might find dozens and perhaps thousands of studies on that subject. When some studies say, “Yes!”, some say “No!”, and others say “Maybe?”, we become frustrated. Our frustration grows when papers ask related, but not identical questions. We want to know, “Is organic food good,” but instead studies only tell us that conventional farming uses chemicals that might cause cancer, but no rise in cancer has been found. The same chemicals may be used by organic farmers. And some crops may naturally produce similar) chemicals, even when humans don’t touch the crops.

More confusion comes from the quality of the research papers. Not all scientific papers are equally “scientific”. Some, like the blog you are now reading, or a story in a newspaper, are opinion pieces. These merely comment on the materials in the field without using a rigorous methodology to understand ALL of the material on the subject, or adding any new data. An opinion piece might take a day to write, but good research takes months, if not years, to produce. Not surprisingly, that makes true scientific papers expensive, time consuming and relatively rare. Opinion pieces can, intentionally or not, distort the original findings, perhaps by just omitting some conclusions. Part of the process of writing a true research paper is to subject papers to peer review. The author has knowledge of their field, By engaging additional experts, who may have researched the very same subject, mistakes in the research design or in the conclusions will be identified before the paper is released. The author, in turn, will need to explain flaws identified through the review process. More well known, more rigorous publications attract reviewers with better credentials. IT is because of this review process, not academic snobbery, that the publication helps to define the quality of the research.

Peer review has been one of the most important tools in improving modern research, which is why it is so important that you know the source of a report. For a subject where hundreds of reports are produced, it is quite common to find two similar reports with seemingly contradictory results. A closer look might provide important clues to help understand the data. Is one of the two reports considerably older? If one is 10 or 20 years older, old data and assumptions may no longer be valid. Both reports might even have been authored by the same individual or group, at different points in time. Is a key variable different (different countries, different times of the year, etc.)?  Whenever possible, look at the original report. Don’t have time to go through the whole document? Luckily, most research papers have an abstract at the beginning that summarizes the results.

Consensus: Once you have a general sense of what a report says, you need to know if there is great or little agreement between the papers on this subject. An individual paper can say just about anything. But if there are many papers, there is usually a trend, even if that trend is that most reports say, “We don’t know.” Let’s look at Global Climate Change. This issue has been out there for decades, and many papers have been written. Rather than spending months reading every paper, you can look for a report that summarizes the field.

One such report is,  “Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature.” This imposingly named document is in itself a significant, peer reviewed, report. It examines 12,000 reports written about climate change. 8,000 reports did not attempt to identify a cause. Of the remainder (4,000), 97% agreed that “human activities” was the cause of climate change. True, a few did identify other causes, but when 97% of independent researchers arrive at one opinion and 3% arrive at another, the 97% are probably on to something.

Direction: All new scientific theories represent a rebellion against the existing theory. It is truly rare that a new theory is presented and it is immediately accepted. It usually takes years, if not decades for enough studies to accumulate to gain converts and then replace the old theory. With Climate change, the theory came long before… perhaps as early as the 1800’s when CO2 was first found to heat the atmosphere…  and only long after this did changes in opinion begin to manifest. It was easier to ignore climate change when observable symptoms were still quite small, or had as yet to appear.

When there are new competing theories about the environment, many will want to wait until a theory about change actually manifests the predicted changes.  As physical evidence appears, you can see the how a new consensus slowly gains followers and replaces the old theory.  When a theory is not supported by the majority of scientists, it may be because the theory is weak, or that the theory is still developing or it is just too young to (yet) be the consensus opinion.

Summary: If you follow these steps, you will find that the most contentious issues become easy to understand. You will see that the “public discussion” is often very different from the scientific facts. Long after a new theory has been tested by science… “Is organic food better for your health”, “Is climate change actually happening?”, “Does overuse of antibiotics cause new diseases?” or “Can vaccinations cause autism?”… the public argument continues, regardless of the fact that the answer has long since been determined and documented.  The greater the self-interest or distrust of the party that has been proven wrong, the longer they will continue to ignore and mis-represent the facts. Luckily, this process eventually drives out even the most pernicious of wrong ideas. In today’s environment of polarized politics and distrust of the people in power, it can take a very long time. At least that’s my Niccolls worth for today!

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