Science and Smoke Signals

I have long felt a nearly irresistible compulsion to write this column: an impassioned defense of the scientific method, and a denunciation of willful denial, ignorance, and hypocrisy -- and the dangers that attend upon them.
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I have long felt a nearly irresistible compulsion to write this column: an impassioned defense of the scientific method, and a denunciation of willful denial, ignorance, and hypocrisy -- and the dangers that attend upon them.

I have felt the inclination for many reasons, salient among them the skin I have in the game. But it's not necessarily, or at least not preferentially, my skin. If you, or anyone you care about, has or is at risk for obesity, heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, etc. -- then it's your skin, too. I will return to the nature of the game, and the place of your epidermis (and mine) in it before I'm through.

I have resisted the inclination to write this for fear of offending someone's sensibilities -- religious or otherwise. I would prefer not to do so.

But now I have been goaded by a highly provocative, eminently sensible, and insightfully scary column in the New York Times on the same theme -- and I can resist no longer.

So if you are inclined to take offense, I'm afraid you will just have to go ahead: Science matters. There, I've said it.

My agitation on this topic has been stoked of late by a billboard I pass routinely along a stretch of highway in my home state of Connecticut. The billboard, placed by a religious organization, features the iconic representation of evolution in the upper left corner with a big red X through it. The rest of the billboard is taken up by a magnificent image of the earth seen from space, with the sun just peeking over the curve of the planet, with these words across the top: "In the beginning, God created..."

I have a couple of problems with this.

First, the only people to whom this billboard is visible are driving cars down the highway. Cars with computer-controlled transmissions and bluetooth wireless communication devices. Cars with anti-lock braking systems, cars with satellite-guided GPS systems. Cars that were engineered, products of science. The very same kind of science, the very same application of rigorous thought, and devotion to the incremental advances of arduous and unbiased methodology, that have produced our understanding of... other topics.

So, basically, we've got people whizzing down the highway in cars redolent with every feature of modern science, saying "amen!" to the renunciation of science adorning the billboard they would not be seeing were it not for that science, and those cars.

But that's actually the lesser issue with the billboard. The greater one is the beautiful image of the earth -- seen from space. God did not send us this image; we took it.

We have such images of the (round) earth, and of its place in the (heliocentric) solar system courtesy not of divine intervention -- but of orbiting satellites, telescopes, space stations, and shuttles. We have watched the science that achieved these marvels play out over our very lifetimes. And, ironically -- or providentially -- I received an online notice literally as I was writing this that the first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong, died today. Perhaps my mission here has been expanded, then, to make some small contribution to his eulogy.

A billboard used to renounce the incontrovertible findings of a highly developed branch of science features an indelible product of science to help make its case. But people cheering the message glibly ignore that.

There is a word for endorsing scientific findings that confirm what we want to believe, and refuting products of the very same method that don't: prejudice. If we prejudge what science we are willing to believe, there is no point in doing science at all. We can just decide what is true and call it a day.

But in for a penny, in for a pound. If we are simply going to assert truths about evolution, or climate change, or how the female reproductive system works in general or following a rape in particular -- then we should rely on our own assertions to generate computers, cars, Internet connections, and modern medicines.

If we are left to sit on only our own ass...ertions, we would, of course, have neither car nor billboard image of the earth from space.

So now back to the game, and our epidermis.

I gave a talk this week on my usual topics, encompassing the potential for lifestyle behaviors to eradicate fully 80 percent of all chronic disease, before a large audience in a church in Independence, Mo. The audience was absolutely lovely -- welcoming me warmly at the start, and rewarding me with a standing ovation at the end. So all went well.

But I felt a pang of anxiety showing my customary several slides referring to our "native" lifestyle pattern in the Paleolithic era to a church audience. I showed them, but made a self-deprecating remark about evolutionary biology to combine the message with a light mood.

But I shouldn't need to be uncomfortable discussing implications of the Stone Age in front of any audience. It is an incontrovertible fact of science that there WAS a Stone Age. You can disbelieve it if you like, but it doesn't make it any less true.

I don't reference evolutionary biology because I want to be provocative. I reference it because it is directly relevant to disease prevention and health promotion efforts. Our long history and our adaptation to a native environment explain much about our biology, and the dietary and lifestyle patterns that best sustain it. I really can't do my job and neglect this topic.

Nor, of course, will it matter if I do my job -- striving to protect the health of individuals -- if we collectively complete the job of making the Earth inhospitable to human habitation. It's an area without much precedent, but I believe we may safely infer that people without a habitable planet have a hard time being healthy.

You may choose to believe, as some members of Congress apparently do, that women who get pregnant after a rape have chosen to let it happen. That this is entirely unfounded in science need not bother those who are dismissive of science. But are people really being dismissive of science if they fly in planes, talk on a cellphones, use the Internet, or get MRI scans -- or are they just... hypocrites?

Representative Akin's egregious remark would not even ring true among the ranks of history's institutional rapists. Warring armies often practice rape systematically, knowing it will leave the conquered to rear the offspring of their conquerors.

As for disbelieving in evolution, this really seems very odd, since most major religions -- including the Catholic Church -- and leading theologians have long since reconciled themselves to it, just as the Church once made room for the sun at the center of our solar system. Leading theologians accept evolution, just as there are prominent scientists who accept God. There is no need to renounce the one to have the other.

I am not, of course, a theologian -- but to the best of my amateur knowledge, Genesis never says HOW God created everything. Presumably, we wouldn't understand the methods if it did.

Who among us, then, is prepared to say how, exactly, God created everything? Does anyone have a memo direct from the Almighty renouncing evolution as a chosen method? An all-powerful God presumably could choose whatever method s/he wanted; why not the one the world's scientists consider the most elegant? As for the time required, a similar argument pertains. Who among us presumes to know how long a "day" is from the perspective of a God who purportedly created the sun we rely on for our own meager notion of it?

If one chooses to renounce evolution, then the question is: Why would God make the case for evolution so totally convincing to the best, most highly-trained minds among us if it weren't true? I don't think anyone wants to argue that God is in the business of willful deception -- and it's even less plausible that the radio s/he uses to send us missives doesn't work reliably.

So, perhaps you simply want to deny that scientists actually know anything. They think they know something -- but they're wrong. Scientists are blockheads, and only the religious devout actually know what's what.

Well, fine, but... Are you reading this on a computer? Do you use the Internet? Drive a car? Do you "believe" in these products of science?

The same meticulous processes and applications of science produced all of the technologies you rely on every day -- and the incontrovertible evidence of molecular genetics in support of human evolution, and an overwhelming consensus about the reality, advanced state, and ever-worsening peril of climate change. The same processes of science reliably predict calamity if global population control is not achieved somewhere between here and 12 billion. Doesn't it seem just a little hypocritical to use products of science, and denounce the merits of science? Doesn't it seem a bit unlikely that science is only actually working when it produces the outcomes you want?

We all acknowledge that prejudice is bad. It is no less so when applied to science. In fact, bias is one of the things good scientific method works very hard to minimize, because it is otherwise quite toxic.

Why do I care? Repudiations of science stand between me and my goals of health promotion for our families. They stand between us and the stabilization of global population growth. They stand between us and the protection of our fellow species -- on whom we rely, and who are just as deserving of life as we. After all, they, too, are products of creation -- whatever was its mechanism.

And they stand between us and stewardship of this beautiful planet we are exploiting beyond its tolerance. At least its tolerance for habitation by... us.

If the fables, allegories, and moral stories on which we all grew up have any value -- and we act as if they do -- it's not in the literal stories; it's in how we apply such stories to our own lives.

You are unlikely to encounter any literal races between hares and tortoises; but it would make sense to apply that lesson the next time a snake-oil salesman has a quick-fix, fad diet to sell you.

You probably will go through your entire life and not see an emperor parading naked; but you might think about the true meaning of that tale as climate-change denial goes on parade, or evolution denial for that matter. The same understanding of radioactivity that makes cancer radiation treatment possible underlies our dating of fossils. There may be some who renounce science so thoroughly they actually believe that life has been present on earth for only a span of several thousands of years. But for every one of them, I bet there are a hundred who know this emperor has no clothes -- but are reluctant to speak out.

The harms of this conspiracy of silence, of real or feigned ignorance, are staggering. They were highlighted most recently by the repulsive idiocy of Representative Akin in Missouri. But they extend to extinctions, droughts, floods, overpopulation, infectious disease, rampant obesity, rampant diabetes, and other slings and arrows of outrageous fortune of our own devising.

Science matters.

And while you are, of course, at liberty to disagree with me, you are not at liberty to do so online, transmitting electrons across cyberspace through the magic of modern science, without the hypocrisy of your action drowning out any rhetoric you choose to transmit.

No, if you want to deny the validities of science in a way that's at all credible -- if you want to tell me how much you dislike me and my opinion, and all the reasons I'm wrong -- in a manner that has any hope of being persuasive, I'll be looking for your carrier pigeon, or... smoke signal.


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