Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Don't Throw Science Under the Bus

I've been watching this whole breast cancer/mammogram screening controversy with great interest. There are so many issues at play here...politics, funding and access to health care, responsibility for self care, racism, gender bias...at the root of it all for me is our trust in science.

As environmental professionals, when we hear results of studies that seem counter to our causes and beliefs, we say “follow the money”. Now, here we are, faced with a batch of science from a reputable organization telling us something that we may not want to hear. Follow the money and it leads you where in this case? But we can't have it both ways, can we?

Mark Twain said, "There are lies, damn lies and statistics" and never was that statement truer than now. We all want adequate health care. So what is the real issue here? These statistics about early detection couldn't have come at a worse time in the great health care debate. In matters of health care people don't give a damn about statistics and false positives; they care, ultimately, about their own survival. But what is the cost of that survival? Do we sacrifice good science in the name of billions of dollars in health care? Especially when we have one of the most expensive and ineffective health care systems in the world?

When my doctor told me that there was a suspicious spot on the mammogram I had in my 30’s, I wanted to do everything possible to take care of myself. The lump was removed and biopsied and found to be totally benign. Throughout the whole process I wasn’t thinking about what the science might have shown, I just wanted the thing out of my body. I was glad that there was a test that made it possible to detect something that might have turned cancerous. The cool, level-headed scientist in me felt a few moments of panic. Through those moments I can understand exactly what those crazy “townhallers” are screaming about.

Melding science and politics is a process that is relevant to me as an engineer and an environmental professional. As we face upcoming climate talks in Copenhagen we will face this situation over and over. Whose science will you believe? Follow the money doesn’t always work when your politics are involved. The disappointing thing to me is that most people will never even get to the level of debate where they can reasonably question scientific conclusion and politically-based policy decisions. Most people turn into a deer in the headlights where matters of science are concerned. I cringe inside when I hear someone say that they hate science and they're not good at math, especially when that someone is a woman. Issues like the mammogram debate directly affect so much of our lives. Everything from what we eat to how we live and how we act as citizens of the planet is driven by science and affected by politics. And I can’t help but wonder what this debate would look like if the study had been about men's prostate health instead of women's breast health?

It is incumbent upon all of us to learn as much math and science as we can to understand such debates and tackle issues like health care and climate change and new energy sources and diminishing water supplies we can't claim ignorance and then bash the very officials that we elected who are now making changes that we don't agree with. Let us all take the time to learn a little more and let’s pull science back out from under the bus.

1 comment:

Ty said...

Wow, this is the best post today (on the net).

Science is wonderful but not if you fuck around with it.