The “War on Science” revisited

Recently John Fennick wrote a guest post on the new Sigma Xi blog entitled “A Quick Perspective on ‘The War on Science'” in which he examines the reasons why the public tide of opinion has, to an extent, turned against science and scientists.

Mr. Fennick discusses how scientists used to be almost revered in popular culture and in the public eye. He then talks about how the media changed, developing a voracious appetite for the “latest” most dramatic news going. This, coupled with a squeeze on funding and increasing numbers of people entering science fields, led to research being published hastily and sometimes without being given the correct level of oversight. The combination of these factors lowered public trust in science and ultimately led to the “war” we see today.

All relevant points and Fennick makes a strong case. What the article misses, however, is something that runs alongside those cultural issues and is vital to understanding how science arrived where it is today. That is, not only was the  research rushed, but there were also a number of high visibility events that (rightly or wrongly) were seen by the public as “failures” of science. Scientists were actively engaged in projects and creations that were perceived as morally and ethically dubious and this had a huge impact on how science was viewed.

First of all we had the horrors of nuclear weapons demonstrated after World War Two. That led to the start of doubts about not only the power of these weapons but also a fear of anything “nuclear.” When the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown occurred in 1979 and later the Chernobyl accident in 1986, the public was justifiably alarmed. Nuclear power (military or otherwise) has always been seen as a “scientific” endeavor and these disasters were undoubtedly viewed by many as failures of science.

The Vietnam War was often seen as a scientific conflict, where technology played a large part. Such developments as White Phosphorous incendiary weapons (still in use today), napalm, “Agent Orange” defoliant, cluster and “daisy cutter” bombs were often seen as part of the “scientific” development of war and that, combined with the fact that Vietnam was the first televised war provided audiences with a shock factor that created an intense reaction.

In 1984, a Union Carbide India Limited pesticide plant leaked thirty-two tons of toxic gases killing between four and sixteen thousand people in the city of Bhopal, India. The chemicals have contaminated water and soil in the area and continue to be a problem today, with long-term health effects including neurological problems, blindness and birth disorders.

In the late fifties and early sixties Thalidomide was heavily marketed and distributed to women to ease the symptoms of morning sickness. Unfortunately the drug also produced horrific birth defects in children and was subsequently banned in most countries.

Fenfluramine/phentermine (Fen-Phen) was a drug aggressively marketed in the early nineties as a solution to weight loss/obesity, and prescribed to people who needed to lose just a few kilos. Later it was found to have deadly side-effects leading to cardiac failures and several deaths.

Rofecoxib (Vioxx) was an anti-inflammatory drug prescribed to treat osteoarthritis and acute pain conditions. Withdrawn from use in 2004 due to concerns about increased risk of heart attacks and strokes. The company producing it, Merck, was found to have fabricated studies on its effectiveness as well as withholding information on risks.

Although the Thalidonide, Fen-Phen and Vioxx problems resulted from pharmaceutical companies hiding or falsifying test results, there have also been several high-profile cases where individual researchers faked results.

In 1981, John Darsee, was caught faking data in a heart study. Later, NIH investigators discovered that data for most of his one hundred published studies had been fabricated. In 1985 Robert Slutsky, a cardiac-radiology specialist, resigned from the San Diego School of Medicine after colleagues grew suspicious of him publishing new research articles every 10 days. Investigators concluded he’d altered data and lied about his methods.

Although not considered a case of deliberate falsification, the “discovery” of “cold nuclear fusion” captured many people’s attention when it was announced by Fleishman and Pons in 1988. Subsequent attempts to reproduce the experiment failed and many flaws were discovered in the original experiments.

Killer bees are a hybrid of European and African honey bees, originally conceived to produce a more robust bee for South America. When the bees escaped into the wild they spread throughout central America and arrived in North America in the mid-1980s. The Africanized bees were much more aggressive than normal bees and displayed excessive defensiveness and swarming. Several people died after attacks by these bees, although the public perception of the risk is far greater than in reality.

Methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE) was a chemical anti-knock agent introduced into gasoline to replace lead in the 1970s. Although it helps gasoline burn more efficiently and reduces air pollution it is also highly water-soluble. Leaks from underground storage facilities have led to MTBE contaminating water supplies in many areas. The long-term effects of low-dose exposure are “unknown” according to the EPA, though it is likely to be carcinogenic based on what is known about high-dose exposure and there is no effective way to remove it from the water-table.

Science is about discovery and all discoveries have the potential to be abused or have unforeseen consequences. Although many of the instances I’ve listed had no malicious intent, in many cases the outcomes have been horrific. This is a significant factor in the sometimes “bad” reputation of science and the current “war.”

Everything in the world is connected; no individual and no organization stands apart from the consequences of its actions. As such, science and scientists need to ensure that they uphold the highest standards of behavior and ethics. I admire scientists tremendously and support them in their endeavors, but they can’t stand aside from the consequences of their actions. We need them to show they are the very best of us, because they carry all our hopes for a better world.

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