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Scientists and current issues

You can take the scientist out of employment but you can’t take the science out of the employee. Er, or something like that. Let’s face it, a geek is a geek.

This post is in response to the one that Digby posted yesterday about a recent survey that was published in Mother Jones of how scientists think about current issues versus the general public. The survey looked pretty spot on to me. I found myself firmly in the scientist camp and this survey gave me a little more insight into why I frequently find myself unable to embrace the positions of my own side even though I am clearly NOT a conservative.

First, some notes on our attitudes.

It’s no surprise that an overwhelming majority of scientists believe in natural selection/evolution. This is very easy for us especially in the era of bioinformatics. When you can see the genome spelled out, literally, and do an evolutionary trace on critical proteins, there’s just no question about it. The proof is right there. It’s not ambiguous or controversial. There’s no point in debating the issue with someone who believes in creationism. There’s no common ground there. Either you rationally acknowledge what you are seeing with your own eyes or you don’t. Forcing me to believe in the literal interpretation of the bible would require a lobotomy. I might accommodate a different concept of God and creation (and I do) but the Adam and Eve story is no substitute for the reality of evolution and there’s really no point to discussing it. I’m not going to EVER change my mind about evolution. I suspect that other scientists feel the same. If that makes fundamentalists uncomfortable, they need to get over it.

But what Digby found surprising is that the number of non-scientists who believe in evolution is also up to 65%. That’s encouraging. Part of this is probably due to exposing students to the theory in school. But even those people who live in the bible belts of some states may eventually be exposed through the internet. That’s generally how even the most sheltered of fundamentalist raised kids lose their religion. I suspect that when fundie raised kids lose their religion, they lose it in a bigger way than those kids raised in a more liberal church environment. The disillusion hits harder I think. But that’s for a different survey.

It’s also no surprise that many scientists are Ok with nuclear energy. Left leaning types should pay attention to this. If you are really concerned with carbon emissions and the effect they have on climate, you owe it to the people you are trying to convince to come up with an alternative to fossil fuel and if you take nuclear energy off the table completely, as many lefties do, you leave wind, solar, water and biofuels. That’s not going to be enough to power modern life and even the most non-scientific people in the world can figure this out. I think my generation was scared to death by the nuclear clock and Ronald Reagan and nuclear winter scenarios. Then came the China Syndrome, Three Mile Island, Chernyobl and most recently, the Japanese Tsunami. We have an emotional response to the word “nuclear”. But we tend to forget the safety records of institutions like the US Navy and the many countries around the world that use nuclear energy. It can be done safely. We don’t expect science to stay in place. There’s no reason why we can’t figure out a way of using nuclear fuel even more safely. I think we need to start thinking about nuclear energy more seriously and there’s no time to lose. We’ve wasted too much time peeing our pants over the issue.

As for animal testing, it’s oogy. The left has a visceral response to it in the same way that the right responds to abortion. Digby thinks it should be acceptable only when there is no other alternative. Ok, so I worked in an industry that spends zillions of hours each year trying to produce models that will replicate what only a living organism can tell us as far as toxicity and safety are concerned. They’re called ADME/T models. You can take it from me because I have seen the models, animal testing is necessary. Yep, there is no other way around it. The models are shite, even the best. They’re bad for several reasons. First, they suffer from a lack of test data. Companies do not want to share the information they have on the compounds they have tested. They consider the compound information proprietary. Presumably, the more data we have, the better the model. But this is not always true. The second problem is the issue of global vs local models. That is, if you have a series of compounds that are similar, the predictive power of the model constructed from those series is going to be better than a model constructed of compounds that are diverse. There is a limit to the way we understand the interaction of atoms in a molecule and the interactions of that molecule to its immediate environment in the cell and then the entire organism. So, don’t count on the models being very good for a long time. Like, maybe ever.

We can test compounds on cell and tissue cultures and this would be preferable than live animals when it comes to general working assays and for cosmetics. But there is no substitute for testing for safety on animals. The final proof of safety is when the FDA approves a drug for use and it gets into the general public. There is no such thing as a perfect, side effect free drug. If the public wants drugs that are effective and inexpensive, it needs to come to grips with this reality. Not every side effect is a sign of malice or negligence of the drug industry, no matter what the legal industry would have you believe. We are all unique, our bodies break down drugs differently and uniquely, and side effects do happen despite our best efforts.

I could go on through this list but I think you get the point. The reason why there is a difference between the scientific mind and the non-scientific mind for many of these issues has nothing to do with smartness. It has to do with emotion. Emotions on the right and the left are susceptible to being pinged by interested parties, although, for the life of me, I can’t figure out whose interests are served by the anti-vax crowd. It makes no damn sense. Then again, I am having trouble wrapping my head around the people who say they understand natural selection but don’t want to eat GMO foods. In each of the cases where scientists differ substantially from non-scientists, there’s usually *someone* who has a reason to push an emotional button. On climate change, nuclear energy and fracking, I’m going to bet it’s the oil industry. On evolution, it’s the authoritarian mindset that needs followers who see the world as unpredictable and who seek the favor of a jealous and fearsome God. On pesticides, GM foods and animal testing, the left shows it’s own religious beliefs and wishful thinking but I also see the work of the class action industry.

As far as the agricultural and pharmaceutical researcher is concerned, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. People want cures and cheaper food but they want it in a perfect world. In the absence of perfection, there must be pain and punishment to the very industry that is trying to improve on nature. You don’t want us to mess with nature? Ok, stop complaining about the state of the world. But there is no reason why there has to be a binary. There can be a continuum of gradual improvement. Maybe what we really need to examine is the incentives to innovation, who is paying for it and what their ulterior motives are. We might need to talk about that in a later post.

The left embraces science when it thinks the right is overreacting and behaving like simpletons with regard to issues that it thinks are obvious. But scientists see both sides as clinging too closely to their own side’s dogma and the left can be as driven by emotion and as irrational as the right when it comes to its own sacred cows. Does that mean that the scientist is always right? No, but we deal with uncertainty every day. It comes with the job. It’s what we do. Static is never good enough. We look for the truth which is very different than what is politically correct. We are always challenging each others’ assumptions. It can makes us annoying people to the rest of the world. We never stop questioning, or, in any case, we shouldn’t. One of the reasons why I am so concerned with the fate of the R&D industry is because we are so beholden to the finance industry lately and the MBAs only want to hear things that justify the investment they’ve poured into a venture. The truth might get that capital pulled. It’s a dangerous environment for job security and for the rigor of science in general.

But in general, the left has to worry more about its own attitudes and prejudices than the right does. We are never going to change the super-religious. Eventually, a whole generation of people who cling to their anti-science dogma is going to start to die out. Oh sure, they might leave behind a Quiverful movement to replace them but I think that the increasing number of people embracing evolution is a good sign. That leaves the rest of us tackling food insecurity, energy consumption, climate change and health care. All of these are extremely important to the future of our planet. It’s important for us to stop dreaming of a perfect world and deal with the one we’re actually living in.

Yes, scientists are different and I wouldn’t have it any other way.