Saturday, April 22, 2017

Science Matters

“The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it.”
—Neil deGrasse Tyson

Without science I would literally not be here. I know the word “literally” is often misused by people who actually mean “figuratively,” but in this case I literally mean literally. When I was born I had a severe allergy to milk and had to be given soy formula. Without it, I doubt I would have survived. At this point, I would like to have given a shout-out to the scientist(s) who invented soy formula. Unfortunately, I could not discover their name(s). The only information I could find was a paragraph on the National Institutes of Health website, which states: “In the 1920s, scientists also began developing nonmilk-based formulas for infants allergic to cow's milk. The first nonmilk formula was based on soy flour and became available to the public in 1929.” Whoever those scientists were, I thank them.

Science has saved me in other ways, too: from the decongestants, antihistamines, and antibiotics that got me through countless respiratory infections as a child, to the three-point safety belt and curtain airbag that protected me in an automobile accident last year. Let’s face it, without science most of us would not be here. Those few of us with the fortitude to survive would still be living in caves, chewing on bloody hunks of raw meat. Because the first scientist had to have been the person who discovered fire. I can just imagine the scientific paper he/she might have written in support of his/her theory. Of course, it would not have been an actual paper, as paper had not been invented yet. It would likely have been pictures drawn on a cave wall, the translation of which would be something like:

by Ogg
University of Cave

Fire burn. Make meat tasty.

After peer review, fire would have been patented and marketed to the general public, and that early scientist would have no doubt gone on to invent other important things, like the wheel and beer.

My point is, science matters, and I'm sure that most of you reading this agree. But, as difficult as this may be for us to comprehend, there are quite a lot of people in America—supposedly one of the most advanced countries in the world—who reject science. They are the people who steadfastly refuse to believe the scientific evidence that vaccinations are a good thing, or that continuing to burn fossil fuels will give future generations the choice of living in an arid wasteland or under water.

Ironically, many of these same people believe, unquestioningly and without a shred of evidence, all manner of pseudoscience, from colon cleansing to conversion therapy. There are even an alarming number of Americans who reject evolution in favor of a theory that states, despite all geologic and paleontologic evidence to the contrary, that the Earth was created less than 10,000 years ago, and that human beings rode around on dinosaurs. (Admit it, you are thinking how cool would that be? and humming the theme from The Flintstones.)

I blame the Internet. There have always been crackpots, but most of us knew they were crackpots and ignored them. Now, thanks to the Internet, crackpots have a platform for their theories and a way to network with other crackpots. Pretty soon, you have a consensus of crackpots. Then other people—people who are not necessarily crackpots but who are unable to discern between science and pseudoscience—start to take notice. These undiscerning people think, "By golly, if that many people agree about this, there must be something to it!"

None of this matters to the rest of us until, thanks to special interest groups, gerrymandering, and undiscerning voters, we end up with undiscerning elected officials who make undiscerning decisions that affect us all.

In 1970, Richard M. Nixon, a very bad president (I used to think the worst I would see in my lifetime), did a very good thing: he established the Environmental Protection Agency. In a message to Congress he stated: "The Congress, the Administration and the public all share a profound commitment to the rescue of our natural environment, and the preservation of the Earth as a place both habitable by and hospitable to man." Unfortunately, our undiscerning current administration and congress do not share that "profound commitment." Both the EPA and the NIH (whose web page I referenced in the first paragraph) are slated for massive cuts in the president's proposed budget.

Of course, a budget cut will make no difference to the EPA if the agency is terminated, as a house bill introduced in February proposes to do.

I'm sure the president's new EPA administrator would have no problem with that. While Attorney General of Oklahoma, he filed fourteen lawsuits against the EPA to block the enforcement of clean air, clean water and climate regulations. Unlike the president, he has not gone so far as to claim global warming is a hoax. He has, however, stated that "there's tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact" of human activity on climate change. In fact, there is virtually no disagreement. There is a 97% consensus among climate scientists that human activity—specifically the release of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels—is a major contributor to global warming.

In a 1983 Playboy interview, appalled by a secretary of the interior whose idea of conservation was to "mine more, drill more, cut more timber," photographer and environmentalist Ansel Adams said, "It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment."

The time has come when those who care about the environment must fight again. That is why today, on Earth Day 2017, Loretta and I will be joining the March for Science.