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Doctoring Science

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Last Tuesday, former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Richard Carmona gave testimony to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. During his testimony, Dr. Carmona, who served as Surgeon General from 2002 until 2006, spoke of his experience working within the Bush administration.

Dr. Carmona spoke of his coming to Washington “quite politically naïve”, “astounded” as he witnessed “partisanship and political manipulation” to a degree his fellow and former U.S. Surgeons General claimed never having seen or experienced during their tenures. After highlighting the successes of his own tenure, Dr. Carmona then spoke of the “many missed opportunities” in public health that resulted from “an increasingly partisan, ideologically and/or theologically driven political agenda that is often devoid of open discussions of scientific evidence or data.”

He then advised Congress in his “Call to Action” to begin to “return to reason”, because “the U.S. Surgeon General is ‘the doctor of the nation’ and not the Surgeon General of the Democratic or Republican party, nor the representative of any particular ideological or theological group or theory.” While he did not give specific examples of his having been constrained or reined in by the Bush White House, his having been so was quite apparent when he advised Congress that “Government should insist that the U.S. Surgeon General speak and act openly and as often as necessary on contemporary health and scientific issues so as to improve the health, safety, and security of the nation and increase the health literacy of all people.”

Dr. Carmona is the latest former Bush administration high official to go on the record with concerns over the manner in which this White House has distorted, even suppressed, scientific information to suit its own ideological, theological, and political ends. As deeply concerning as this is, more concerning is the stupendous degree of public ignorance of science and scientific inquiry that allows such distortion and suppression to continue on unnoticed.

Few people understand fully, or even partially, what science is. Moreover, the nonscientist cannot help but misunderstand scientific terms by and large misused by our sound-bite screen media. By preying on this lack of public and media knowledge about the workings of science, those with decidedly unscientific religious and political agendas have been successful at distorting and misrepresenting scientific information to lend support to their false or misleading arguments.

The pious and the powerful find little need, however, to willfully distort scientific knowledge when society as a whole joins them in ignoring information that countervails not only religious and political aims, but individual material desires as well. Witness the past decade of persistent denial by many of global climate change, despite that the role of human beings in global warming has been established scientifically with about the same degree of certainty as the role of alcohol in drunk driving.

The discarding and disregarding of data is exactly the opposite of what occurs in science. Should a scientist discard or disregard data, other scientists will quickly reassert its existence. In the wide-open world of science, there can be no agenda-driven conspiracies. This dynamic, self-correcting nature of science is what makes science the most honest of human endeavors.

What is science? In the broadest and most poetic sense, science (from the Latin scire, “to know”) represents humanity’s best efforts to know what is true about our world and our universe. By understanding the stars in the sky and the earth beneath our feet, we better understand who we are and our place in the world. The awe, perspective, and perhaps even serenity derived from such understandings can be invaluable to many of us, religious and nonreligious alike.

In the driest and most scientific sense, science refers to a system of acquiring knowledge based on the scientific method. With disproof at its heart, and self-correction as its guiding principle, science works and advances by asking, observing, hypothesizing, measuring, testing, retesting, rejecting or modifying concepts, and generating new data and concepts that are further tested.

Science is not a democracy. It is not a popularity contest. It is a merciless arena where ideas are thrown to the lions of the scientific method, to be attacked, picked apart, and tested time and again to see if they can still stand up to scrutiny. Those that can live on to fight another day; those that can not are dragged off and dumped in the nearest ditch.

Science thereby constantly strives to find the best explanation, or theory, that fits the most robustly replicated and validated data. When done right, science characterizes the world as it is, without regard to whose feelings might get hurt. It is the first to give up on an idea if it is proved wrong, for it is not in the business of knowingly holding on to wrong ideas.

What is science not? Science is not Art; it isn’t technology. It isn’t Truth, and it’s not certainty. And it certainly isn’t Religion, or a religion. And contrary to the simplistic notions of a modern media that thrives on conflict, pitting science versus religion, white coats versus black robes, science does not set out to conflict with or displace religious beliefs. Science cannot and does not aim to prove, disprove, or silence God.

Off-screen, the men and women of science seldom fit the stereotype of the white-coated figure in the lab, beaker and pipette in hand, though this form of science exists and is as valuable as any other.

More often, science is a roll-up-your-sleeves, get-in and get-dirty activity. Driven to research usually by simple curiosity and by the satisfaction derived from understanding even some small part of the universe, scientists labor to probe all things living and nonliving, earthly and extraterrestrial, to collect facts that, when added to others, might help humanity continue to overcome its ignorance, fears, and superstitions.

For there is everything to gain and nothing to lose by knowing the most we can possibly know. Not knowing makes the world large and uncertain, and creates anxieties that can either spur creativity and curiosity, or further our susceptibility to magical thinking.

That is not to say that science can know it all. It can not. It is frankly not the goal of science to answer all questions, rather only those that pertain to perceived reality.

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Todd Huffman is a pediatrician and writer living in Eugene, Oregon. He is a regular contributor to many newspapers and publications throughout the Pacific Northwest.
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