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http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/10/opinion/sunday/sunday-dialogue-science-and-politics.html

Some interesting letters were printed responding to an editorial by a
doctor bemoaning (in the usual way) the loss of respect for science.  I've
pasted them in below for those who don't have ready access.  It seems to me
that as usual, both the opinion writer and most of the respondents fail to
understand the problem, because they miss some key points, and thus have no
workable recommendations or solution.  Such as:

(1) it's a common mistake in science to claim that "knowledge is power"; as
one letter cogently points out, knowledge isn't power: power is power.
Knowledge is simply one tool used for gaining, using and keeping it.  If
more of the writers understood this they'd see why so much of Congress has
gone from being pro-science in the 50's and 60's to anti-science now: for
the religious extremists especially, their power now accrues far more from
denying science ("knowledge") than endorsing it.  Recognizing this
clarifies what's going on with so many politicians, and also suggests some
more constructive ways to address it. Forget about banging on the table
insistently, like the original opinion writer wants, because this isn't
going to work. The anti-science folks aren't deaf, they're quite smart:
they see anti-scientism as a path to power, and since power is their goal,
why bother about knowledge or truth?

(2) why do people keep mistaking doctors for "scientists"?  This panders to
the ego of medical doctors but hardly makes them good spokesmen for
science. Most have never done research. Many don't even believe in
evolution. Nor have they studied it since taking their pre-med
anything-for-an-A coursework.  Calling all doctors scientists is like
calling all singers muscians, including the many who can't read music,
count out the beat, or play an instrument.  Asking an everyday doctor to
talk about national science policy is like asking a karaoke fan - albeit
with a great voice - to fill in as guest conductor.

(3) I'm glad at least one writer pointed out that science is hardly "pure"
knowledge, automatically replete with moral perfection, but rather has been
used repeatedly to do wrong things, stupid things, and appallingly unjust,
horrible things. All those "denialist" institutes set up with money from
big companies profiting from tobacco, oil, guns, etc., are staffed with
people trained in science ... who happily bend the truth and edit the data
to grab for a share of that big money.

Sheesh. Why do people keep having these same stupid falsely premised
debates over "Science = Noble Pure Truth!" vs. "Science = Irreligious
Evil!" or its idiot twin, "Science = Govt trying to Control Us!"  I would
sure like to see a time when the majority of people coming out of science
programs -- and especially, medical school -- get more educated, and
thoughtful, about what science is and isn't.

Given that, I deeply appreciated the letter from a Rita Tobin noting that
the heavy promotion of science by congress during the 50's and 60's had
everything to do with its value for the nuclear arms race and the "space
race", as opposed to today when it's left to the business sector to fund
science purely for its own profits.  I noticed over the last decade that
every academic, in whatever field, tried to make their research part of
"homeland security" - the only current "arms race" Congress cares about.  I
honestly doubt there's ever been a Golden Age of Civilization in which the
Leaders Of The Free World all loved and admired science. It's just, from
time to time, been convenient to the goals of power. Have the powerful ever
seen science research as a an overarching moral - public - good? (Or
anything, for that matter, other than money, weapons, and keeping the
masses quiet.)

Claudia
Letters Sunday Dialogue: Science and Politics Published: March 9, 2013

Is anti-science sentiment threatening public health policy?
*To the Editor:*

Thirty-five years ago I was a harried pediatric intern in a New York City
emergency room. One night, I paged a neurosurgeon for an urgent
consultation. He swooped in with a lighted cigarette and leaned over the
child to begin his exam. I politely asked him to extinguish his cigarette;
he was dripping ashes on my frightened patient.

Hard to believe, by today’s standards. For almost 20 years, bans on smoking
in hospitals have not only protected patients from secondhand smoke, but
also inspired hospital employees to quit smoking at higher rates than in
other industries. What’s behind this dramatic change?

Science. Scientific knowledge, relentlessly promulgated through public
health campaigns over many decades, alters behavioral norms. In 1964
Surgeon General Luther L. Terry knocked the Marlboro man off his horse when
he announced that smoking causes lung and laryngeal cancer in men.
Thirty-one Surgeon General’s
Reports<http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/sgr/index.htm>on
smoking later, cigarette smoking is far from eradicated; yet smokers,
who once felt glamorous, are now forced to confront the health hazards of
their habit.

Similar claims of progress can be made in other spheres of public health,
where robust scientific data have led to strong public policy: highway
traffic safety, immunizations, H.I.V./AIDS, sudden infant death syndrome
and childhood lead poisoning, to name a few.

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.

ROBIN WEISS
Baltimore, March 4, 2013

*The writer is a psychiatrist in private practice, a pediatrician and a
former senior staff member at the Institute of Medicine.*

*
*

*Readers React*

I am as dismayed as Dr. Weiss at what seems to be a growing disrespect for
science. But let’s be clear about what’s going on — the rejection of
science is often just a symptom of something else entirely. The surgeon
general may have “knocked the Marlboro man off his horse” in 1964, but that
didn’t stop the tobacco industry from spending the next few decades lying
to us to protect its profits. Not only did cigarette makers deny the data
when they knew better, they were actually using the science to addict their
customers more efficiently.

Likewise, the idea that “climate change is a hoax” didn’t come from
legitimate skeptics; it was oil industry propaganda, paid for by oil
industry profits, which also finance the campaigns of pro-oil-industry
politicians. There is no real controversy about climate change — there is
only science on the one hand, and money on the other.

There is also no real controversy about the likely outcome of purchasing a
handgun. The data clearly show that it is much more likely to be used in
murder, suicide or tragic accident than for self-defense, but that
scientific fact has been buried under an avalanche of pro-gun propaganda
disguised as Second Amendment advocacy.

So while I agree with Dr. Weiss that public health policy depends on good
science, I don’t think there is any serious disagreement that scientific
knowledge is valid. There is, however, widespread corruption, and a
willingness on the part of politicians to say anything, no matter how
unscientific, to keep the money rolling in.

DAVID BERMAN
New York, March 6, 2013



Dr. Weiss bemoans the anti-science declarations of politicians. In fact,
the damage is far beyond mere words.

Public support for science and scientific research in the United States has
declined dramatically. Our biomedical research establishment, once the most
productive in the world, is on the edge of collapse because of lack of
support. One major consequence of science’s starvation is a disincentive
for the college-educated to pursue a career in science.

The chance of getting a research grant is at an all-time low. Experienced
lab directors spend enormous amounts of time that should be devoted to
research in a (usually vain) attempt to find funds to support their
research and trainees. Productive laboratories are going out of existence.
Faculty positions in science are dwindling.

When college graduates are being offered high starting salaries in the
financial world, along with the anticipation of becoming millionaires, who
would go into science, with a decade or more of training and intensive
study for minimal salary, with the anticipation of being unemployed or
underemployed at the end?

President Obama has proposed “mapping” the human brain. Who is going to do
the work?

DAVID A. GREENBERG
Columbus, Ohio, March 6, 2013

*The writer is director of neurogenetics at Battelle Center for
Mathematical Medicine, Nationwide Children’s Hospital.*

*
*

Dr. Weiss makes an important point: public health and science policy will
suffer at the hands of anti-science elected officials. Republicans seem to
view the House Science, Space and Technology Committee as an unwelcome
stepchild. Paul Broun, a Republican member, made this direct attack on
science at a private (but recorded) event last September: “All that stuff I
was taught about evolution and embryology and the Big Bang theory, all that
is lies straight from the pit of hell.”

Dr. Broun, who is a physician, added: “You see, there are a lot of
scientific data that I’ve found out as a scientist that actually show that
this is really a young Earth. I don’t believe that the earth’s but about
9,000 years old. I believe it was created in six days as we know them.
That’s what the Bible says.”

JAMES R. COLEMAN
Watertown, Mass., March 6, 2013



Dr. Weiss has correctly identified a significant problem in American
society: the malignant distrust of science that prevails today among a
major sector of our population. This sentiment, reminiscent of the Dark
Ages, percolated to the surface during George W. Bush’s administration,
when antipathy toward stem-cell research and a reversion to teaching
creationism in our schools to the exclusion of evolution were promoted by
many Republicans.

The ascendancy of religious extremism is the source of the problem. I do
not begrudge any religions the tenets and beliefs they hold sacred, but
they do not have the right to impose these beliefs on me. The United States
must restore separation of church and state to regain the scientific
hegemony we once enjoyed but have now lost to the nations of Asia that are
not beholden to the restrictions imposed by religious zealots.

BILL GOTTDENKER
Mountainside, N.J., March 6, 2013



Dr. Weiss correctly notes widespread anti-knowledge views, but
inadvertently perpetuates the true problem by contributing to the
politicization of science. Politicians are largely a reflection of
widespread scientific illiteracy among constituents.

Implicitly, Dr. Weiss advocates coercive, punitive and confiscatory actions
based upon (alleged) scientific consensus. Some broadly accepted scientific
conclusions have turned out to be wrong, and others have been used to
justify unthinkable evil (eugenics, for example).

The commingling of science and politics has engendered as much public
disaster as it has public good.

Dr. Weiss says, “In public health, knowledge is truly power.” Not quite.
Instead, it is just power that is power. The implicit argument presented is
that science is inherently moral as well as infallible. That’s dangerously
wrong.

CHARLES NOVINS
Toms River, N.J., March 6, 2013



Threats to science-based policy and education are not a novel trend. The
tobacco industry’s response to the antismoking campaign was a full-scale
laboratory for all the modern denialist tactics employed today by those
whose industries or beliefs are threatened by science.

The industry memorably set up the Tobacco Institute, whose tame
“scientists” produced report after report purporting to debunk the surgeon
general’s warnings. Those reports were perfect parodies of actual science,
magnifying and exploiting small ambiguities in evidence to undermine the
unwelcome conclusions that would otherwise be forced by that evidence. They
were used systematically as weapons to defeat scores of liability cases
against tobacco companies. This campaign was far more successful, for far
longer, than one might infer from Dr. Weiss’s tribute to the antismoking
campaign.

In funding, organization and tactics, modern efforts by climate-change
denialists to discredit peer-reviewed science on behalf of the coal and oil
industries tread the path blazed by the Tobacco Institute. Unfortunately,
these sorts of appeals to credulousness and self-interest have a proven
record of success.

CARLO GRAZIANI
Chicago, March 6, 2013

*The writer is a research scientist in the department of astronomy and
astrophysics at the University of Chicago.*

*
*

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, our concern as a nation was
Communism and the cold war. We developed technology, including that which
put men on the moon, as part of our arms race with the Soviet
Union. Funding such work required public enthusiasm for science. Hence, our
politicians extolled scientific research and, in the name of national
security and national pride, the public followed along.

Today, advances in science are funded for the most part by private
investors. Research in new computer technology, for instance, promises much
profit to entrepreneurs.

The takeaway is that a public commitment to science is predicated on
national political and economic goals. The creationists, climate change
deniers and others who reject the findings of science have always been out
there — witness the Scopes trial — but were eclipsed in the ’50s and ’60s
because of political realities that propelled scientific advances.  Not so
today.

When climate change begins to cost the public real money, we will see the
influence of the deniers recede. Representative Eric Cantor will not
apologize for the anti-science crowd when Virginia Beach is underwater.

We will always have a Flat Earth Society.  What we need is a political
society motivated by common scientific goals; unfortunately, that won’t
happen until the economy or concern about national security give interest
in science a jump-start.

RITA C. TOBIN
Chappaqua, N.Y., March 6, 2013



We would be very lucky if the problem were simply one of ignorance. In
fact, however, as the history of Big Tobacco makes so clear, sustaining
doubt about the known — for example, whether cigarettes are linked to lung
cancer — was a deliberate, extremely well-financed and well-organized
campaign. “Experts” and their institutions were paid large sums to write
articles that suggested there was still a question; members of Congress
were similarly recruited.

Doubt about the proven doesn’t just happen. It has to be carefully taught.
And bought.

HENRY GREENSPAN
Ann Arbor, Mich., March 6, 2013



*The Writer Responds*

Mr. Berman is correct that industry has created pernicious obstacles to
public health campaigns when they interfere with profits. The National
Rifle Association (and its industry supporters) has been particularly savvy
about the threat scientific information poses to its goals: It successfully
lobbied Congress in 1996 to block funding for gun research by the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Injury Prevention
and Control. President Obama lifted the ban in January.

Yet pro-industry propaganda and corruption, which have been constants for
decades, are not the whole story. Mr. Gottdenker powerfully captures the
mood, calling forth the Dark Ages, that has gained a stronghold in the
country, and therefore among our elected officials. Mr. Coleman quotes one
representative in flagrant disregard of First Amendment separation of
church and state — a trespass that is all too common among lawmakers these
days.

Those are some symptoms; what’s the treatment?

My own experience formulating AIDS policy at the Institute of Medicine in
the 1980s convinced me that the majority of Americans are reasonable, and
respond to enlightened scientific leadership.

In 1988, Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, a Republican appointed by Ronald
Reagan, mailed more than 100 million AIDS educational brochures — one to
each family in the United States. He had become convinced that knowledge
about H.I.V. transmission could equip each citizen to avoid infection and
stay alive.

We desperately need brave, visible scientific leadership now, from both
political parties, to step up and correct our course.

ROBIN WEISS
Baltimore, March 8, 2013

    A version of this letter appeared in print on March 10, 2013, on page SR
2 of the New York edition with the headline: Sunday Dialogue: Science and
Politics.