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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.

21 Responses

  1. I suspect you may be correct that people raised in fundamentalist religious groups, when they break away, break away more strongly than people raised in non-fundamentalist religious groups.

    I was raised in a non-fundamentalist group (the United Methodist Church), went away into agnosticism roughly from ages 15-24 (I turn 52 in May), then went back to the UMC and have remained Methodist since.

    As for nuclear power, I entertain mixed feelings about it. I think it can be done in reasonable safety, and thorium reactors look particularly promising.

    However, even if it can be done in reasonable safety, that does not mean it will be done in reasonable safety in our corrupt, greed-obsessed culture. I suspect corners will be cut in construction and/or maintenance, until we get our own Chernobyl, or worse.

  2. Nuclear Power is safe … until the MBA Suits get involved. So, no thanks.

  3. Also–do other countries actually do nuclear power more safely, or are they just better at covering up the boo-boos? 😮

    Why yes, I am a cynic. Why do you ask? 😉

  4. They forgot to talk about the GMO food and/or the anti-vax nitwits. Very lefty groups, but about as ‘religious’ as any crazy rightie. Northern LA has vaccination levels that rival The Sudan.

    • Oh they did. Surprised you didn’t bring them up. Both these issues have the potential to be very costly to our country.

  5. I notice that once again the Class Warfare-Class Enslavement aspect of the GMO problem has been carefully avoided. Hawaiian papayas have been rendered tolerant/resistant to some disease or other by genetic engineering. That was tax-payed public sector genetic engineering done to benefit the papaya-growers directly.
    I have read very recently that some advances are being made towards GMO engineering chestnut blight immunity genes into American chestnut. That also is public sector taxpayed research designed to benefit the chestnut directly and anyone downstream who could benefit from the restoration of the chestnut. Imagine bringing back the vast herds of chestnut trees thundering over the hills and hollows of Appalachia, as in the Old Days.

    Patented GMO-branded crops are a whole other kettle of fish kill.
    I don’t wish to share my money with a Vast Criminal Mafia Conspiracy like the so-called “corporation” known as so-called “Monsanto” if I don’t have to. I don’t approve of their extortion and shakedown rackets all over farm country. Neither do a small but rising number of farmers. My rejection of Monsatan’s monopoly GMO-racketeer money-extortion gene-patents is strictly political.

  6. About nuclear power . . . first repeal Price-Anderson.

    Then, if someone suggests a strictly government authority-utility to run a bunch of exactly identical mini-nukes or micro-nukes, said authority-utility to be run by the moral equivalent of Hyman Rickovers to Rickover Navy standards, then I will take a look at it.

    But if we are discussing a revival of the same unethical immoral industry leadership/ownership which brought us Fukushima among other things, then I remain a nukular-skeptic.

    • It seems to me there’s a Peter Principle for civilizations. Industrialization was 11th-century China’s level of incompetence. Maybe nuclear energy is ours.

      • We need a way for entities which have reached their level of incompetence to step backwards till re-reaching their previous highest level of competence. It took a civilization competent in many things to engineer nuclear technology into existence. Perhaps a civilization incompetent to manage some of the nuclear technologies thereby developed can carefully in step-by-step stages shut down just those particular nuclear technology systems which that civilization has shown itself incompetent to manage. And retreat back to our Very Highest Level of Competence.

        China did something to survive to survive its 11th century brush with industrialization. Perhaps China today can study what China of the 11th century did to survive the crashing incompetence of China Today’s deployment of industrialization. ( Or perhaps the Chinese ruling classes of today have already given up on rescuing China . . . which would explain why so many Chinese elite-members are buying overseas houses and hiding money overseas . . . for when China itself becomes uninhabitable for them.)

        • “…for when China itself becomes uninhabitable for them.”

          THIS. I have wondered if the Chinese aren’t cutting their own throats in the long run. While their attempts at modernization have succeeded laudably in many ways, the members of the Chinese elite seem as scornful of workers’ rights (especially ironic for a still nominally Communist nation) as their fellow plutocrats in the more openly capitalist world–and just like the defunct Soviet Union, even worse on environmental damage than their Western frenemies.

          What will it profit China to become the most powerful nation in the world, only to have half its population die of cancer?

          • I think the way the ChiCom regime bosses would think is this: if the other half of China’s population survived, China would STILL be the most populous country on earth. And there would be half as many Chinese to share the resources among. And a 750 million person China would still be very very powerful.

            (Oh, I forgot . . . India hopes to outpopulate China and maybe will. What this will do for Indian power and standards of living remains to be seen).

          • Pollution gets everywhere. If the Chinese elite think only the Chinese masses will suffer in a polluted China, I will be obliged to lower my estimate of the average intelligence of the members of the Chinese elite.

        • China did something to survive to survive its 11th century brush with industrialization.

          Nope. Crashed and burned. Factions tore the imperial government to shreds, they got thoroughly clobbered by the Jurchens and then the Mongols ate them alive.

          • And yet China survived in the longest run. Did their paleo-industrialization effort crash and burn while still too small to crash and burn their entire habitat with it?

          • China has been China for 3000 years. Invaders come, invaders go, China endures.

          • I’m curious what would count as not surviving in your book. Extinction-scale failures of civilization were nearly impossible to pull off before the modern era.

            The Song society was wiped out (though Japan could at a stretch be thought of as a Tang/Song offshoot of sorts) and China was under foreign rule for several centuries thereafter. Subsequent dynasties never really were able to pick up where they left off.

    • furthermore, this government authority run by earnest ethical competent engineers & other staff, needs to maintain this high level of competence & ethics for 10Kyr+ half-life for competently storing the radioactive waste byproduct, without the society ever being invaded by foreigners, or the society collapsing. AFAIK this has not occurred even 1 time in human history: no nation is celebrating it’s 10,000th independence day.

      It sounds unscientific, innumerate, & anti-historic to assume this is a likely probability. Furthermore, “cheap nuclear power” may be “cheap” for those alive using it, but it is expensive for future generations, saddled with the storage costs. It is likely un-economic: the net present value (NPV) of 10Kyr+ of storage costs will be enormous.

      Agree with RD that energy has to come from somewhere, & currently renewables cannot satisfy the demand. However, science tells us that EVENTUALLY humanity will have to rely on renewables: not only is there Peak oil: Peak Uranium, etc would also occur in the future. Even without considering Climate Change impacts, whether it is year 2050, 2100, or 4000 or whenever, limited economically-mineable sources of oil/uranium on Earth (& even all Solar System bodies) would be depleted.

      • Peak Thorium would take a very long time to happen, but the other problems PND mentioned would remain.

      • Well, we could lower overall energy demand down to what renewable energy flows can provide for.

        What if that is our only way out? What if we have to give up half our standard of living to save the other half? Which half would we want to save and which half would we give up to save it?

  7. Rotten shame cold fusion turned out to be a crock of phlogiston. 😛

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