Thursday, August 9, 2018


Michael - Thursday

I’m worried. I can hear Annamaria sighing in anticipation of another pessimistic rant. Actually, I’m worried about something that is more of a threat than a problem, and that shouldn’t be hard to fix (in principle).

I have to start off by stating categorically that
·         I am completely convinced that climate change is real, and that unless we take quite drastic action, it will lead over time to a planet much less favourable to human and most other animal life;
·         I am completely convinced about the efficacy of vaccines that have been developed by reputable drug companies and tested and approved by serious regulatory bodies like the FDA;
·         I am completely convinced that there is no difference on average between the human races – an ill-defined and possibly meaningless categorisation in any case – apart from completely trivial ones like skin colour.

What I’m worried about is that the people who don’t believe these things – of which there are many – are causing scientists working in these areas to veer away from investigating any aspects of these premises that might give the doubters comfort. Worse, there is peer pressure to not research such topics at all or at least to obscure the results from public view. This is not an atmosphere in which good science can be pursued.

The history of science is full of breakthroughs where individuals – Galileo, Newton, Einstein – came up with ideas that were contrary to the orthodoxy of the time, but were later shown to be much closer approximations to reality than what had gone before. Perhaps unfortunately, nowadays most scientific breakthroughs involve teams and serious funding. The gentlemen mentioned above probably wouldn’t have received that sort of support for their way-out ideas.

David Reich is a respected professor of genetics at Harvard. In a recent op-ed in the New York Times that you can read here, he raises the issue of research into genetic differences between races. He starts by pointing out that since the seventies it’s been known that most of the genetic differences (85% in the case of blood proteins, for example) are explained by variation within the population groups and very little is explained by so-called race. Reich also points out that the genetic differences between men and women are huge and way more than any within sex differences across any human population group you care to choose. His point is that geneticists shouldn’t veer away from studying the differences because they may be helpful in determining, for example, genetic traits related to diseases, and he cites important work of his own. The concern is, as he puts it:

“I am worried that well-meaning people who deny the possibility of substantial biological differences among human populations are digging themselves into an indefensible position, one that will not survive the onslaught of science. I am also worried that whatever discoveries are made — and we truly have no idea yet what they will be — will be cited as 'scientific proof' that racist prejudices and agendas have been correct all along, and that those well-meaning people will not understand the science well enough to push back against these claims.”

He goes on to suggest that scientists don’t like to even discuss genetic connections between behaviour and cognition. But by avoiding the research or the discussion of the outcomes in the public domain, they leave the floor open to people – some of whom are sufficiently knowledgeable to make convincing arguments – to claim that such research points to racial stereotypes. That’s the last thing any of us want.

In another article, which you can read here, Melinda Moyer, a science and health writer and contributing editor at Scientific American, explains how the anti-vaccine activists are cramping research in the area. The reason is that scientists in the area are now scared of any research or findings which might tend to support extreme views that vaccines are dangerous. She mentions one researcher who published a paper which indicated that the flu vaccine methodology of the day saved less elderly lives than one might expect. Although the research eventually was instrumental in the development of a better vaccine for seniors, the author was ostracised for many years and accused of aiding the anti-vaccine lobby.

The same sort of pressure is brought to bear on climatologists. Any study suggesting that the problem may not be as severe as thought is immediately pounced on by the denialists and treated with distain by the main stream science community. This is not helpful because the denialists can twist things to suit themselves and claim that it proves the complicity of the 'climate change clique'.

I think these three areas illustrate the problems that arise when scientists are unwilling to be out of step with a community defending itself from ill-informed, but powerful, attack. It’s not the right reaction. By using the scientific approach to investigate all sides of an issue, the expert community becomes more robust and is protected from accusations of bias.

To make real progress one has to ask inconvenient questions and consider the reality of unwelcome answers if you get them. As Dr Edward Belongia, director of the Center for Clinical Epidemiology, told Milinda Moyer, “If we get to the point where we don’t want to look anymore because we don’t want to know the answer, then we’re in trouble.”


  1. Start with what is happening at the Environmental Protection Agency, which took down global warning/climate change information from its website when this administration got in office.

    Then EPA head, Scott Pruitt, reversed many environmental regulations and protections -- very dangerous deeds. The new guy, Andrew Wheeler, was a lobbyist for Big Oil and Big Gas, I believe. He will do even more of this.

    People have to protest in every way possible, in and out of the voting booth.

    NY Times magazine was fully devoted to dangers of global warming on Sunday, Aug. 5. It showed that one-third of Bangladesh is now submerged and people have lost hundreds of thousands of homes.

    And it talked about the Arctic, and said the Times issued its first warnings in 1981 about this and the dangers to the planet.

    That the U.S. took this country out of the Paris Climate Accords, even though mild, is terrible. Other countries are continuing to limit fossil fuels.

    Ireland became the first country to vote to divest of all fossil fuel investments on July 12. All countries should, too!

    Lots of work needs to be done here to even move ahead, not backwards.

  2. Michael, I sigh as you predicted, but in agreement. One of the things that troubles me most is that issue of funding. Since, as you point out, most research projects are carried out by groups. And by people who need a lot of pretty expensive equipment. They need huge infusions of funding. But if the premise being investigated will draw venom in the public arena, funders--governments, universities, private companies --are very likely to shy away from supporting the scientists in their quest for knowledge.

    I remember feminists in the 70s railing against anyone who wanted to show that the brains of women and the brains of men are different. "There is no difference between men and women when it came to brain capability," was their credo. Any fact that pointed to a physical difference between male and female brains was heresy.

    These days, I feel like we are back in the era of the Inquisition. Galileo was forced by the church to retract his genius conclusion. He did. It took the Vatican 350 years to apologize and admit he had been right.

    I fear our planet as a benign habitat for human beings does not have 350 years to wait for the deniers to be labeled the assh*les they are.

    Sorry. I lose my temper quite easily on this topic.

  3. Michael: the last three words of your column pretty well states it: "we're in trouble."

    And if any further proof of the validity of climate change: even AmA is getting hot under the collar...

  4. Thanks for the comments. Yes, it's scary. The denialists are preventing us looking at the issues from every direction and thus gaining the understanding we need to try to make progress.

  5. This fascinating and thought provoking and I love it! Thanks.

  6. Just to stir the pot a bit with a simplistic premise of my own, Michael, I think much of today's bullying of mainstream empirical thought by interest group advocates is fueled by one current event: The US Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. But wait, there's more to come.

  7. Jeff, I take your point. But the vaccine example suggests that the mainstream science community themselves formed the pressure group. That was fear, not money.