Fri, Mar

Science Meeting: Precautionary Principle Vs. Monetarily Derived Skepticism


GELFAND'S WORLD - It was a weekend of ironic juxtapositions, at least for me. Perhaps you will indulge me a brief moment of explanation. 

I spent Thursday through Saturday afternoon at a scientific meeting here in southern California. It involved a bunch of working scientists getting together to tell each other about what is new in particular subfields within the larger context. In the meanwhile, giant storms were striking through the area where people are most likely to deny the existence of global warming. 

I was hardly aware of the storms until the news reports became intense. I was personally quite immersed in the scientific meeting. I would like to explain briefly why it is important to have these meetings. 

So why is it so important? The three-sentence explanation is that our knowledge -- in this case how the cell works -- depends on our ability to design and carry out good experiments. A good experiment is one that answers a pressing question and, moreover, does it in a way that is competent and produces results. In the life sciences, there is a big concentration on what we can measure and how well we can do so. 

There was a lot of detailed discussion on exactly this question, and what sort of equipment we need to do particular measurements, and so on. 

These sorts of meetings involve the in-depth discussion on how to do experiments and how to interpret the results in light of everything else that is known. The real world is complicated, and for a lot of things you have to work at the molecular level which is what makes the analysis of scientific results complicated. 

Getting it right depends on starting the discussion from a standpoint of knowledge about what is really going on in the cell. Such discussions depend on deep knowledge about previous studies. 

The bottom line, or what is the take home lesson? 

It turns out that it really is true that the more we learn about the living cell, the more questions we realize we would like to answer. Here is one example: It turns out that some parts of the cell -- we call them subcellular organelles -- will fuse together to make one big organelle or will fission to make lots more (but smaller) versions of the original. So of course, the next question is how that happens. Exactly which molecules are involved in these processes, which genes code for them, and (importantly) how the whole process is regulated from start to finish. Answering these questions would likely go a long way towards creating workable treatments towards diseases of aging, among other things. 

And the more we recognize new questions, the more we recognize the need for newer, better technologies that will help us answer them. 

To put it more succinctly, the actual practice of science involves working in areas where we don't yet have the answers but would like to find them. 

You will notice that at each stage in this process, we have accumulated a lot of answers that we are fairly sure of. For example, we are sure that DNA is the hereditary chemical, except for some viruses (such as Covid-19) which use RNA. The DNA in the cell nucleus codes for RNA which codes for protein, and so forth. All of this (except for the Covid part) was carefully demonstrated and became a known part of science beginning in the late 1940s and 1950s. Over the intervening years, it has become possible to know the exact sequences of DNA regions and it has become possible to find a lot of mutations that cause various disease states. 

In other words, there are things that we are sure about. 

This accumulation of scientific facts and understanding is within that subject matter that is usually referred to as "science." But there is a distinction between the collection of things which are pretty sure (the nature of DNA) and those things that we are right now trying to understand but don't yet understand entirely. 

Here are a couple of subjects in that gray area where scientists are working on "the leading edge" so to speak: (1) How the Covid-19 virus works to make us sick, and what sort of treatments and preventions we could invent to stop it. (2) The fine details of how global warming is going to continue to affect the world, and what the ultimate outcome such as sea level rising, and the intensity of storms is going to be. 

Bluntly speaking, we know as of now that the Covid-19 virus causes a disease that can be partially prevented by the vaccination, and we know that global warming is happening. Notice that I present these as part of the accumulated knowledge base. At one time, the likelihood of global warming was under consideration. Years and thousands of man-hours of work demonstrated convincingly that carbon dioxide levels are rising due to man's use of fossil fuels and that the world's oceans are warming as a result of the increasing atmospheric inability to get rid of excess heat. 

At this point, the reality of anthropogenic global warming is not controversial among most scientists in spite of what some politically motivated people want to tell you. The ability of the Covid-19 vaccine to prevent a lot of cases is similarly uncontroversial among most scientists. 

But here is where the arguments occur in the public space and on talk radio. It's all got to do with that word I have been using here: scientists. There are non-scientists who want to talk about scientific matters. The problem comes about when people who have an economic interest in something not being true (such as global warming) try to talk about scientific matters. There is also the case of people who have an emotional interest in something not being true (such as vaccines being safe and effective) who want to argue against the fact that vaccines are generally safe. 

I think it is hard for people who lack scientific training to know for sure who to trust. In the context of working scientists -- the people I heard in the meeting over the weekend -- the trustworthiness of particular claims gets discussed and questioned pretty thoroughly. Every experiment has to be presented in some written form (or nowadays, there are experiments that occur as videos and the videos are made available on the internet). Working scientists look over each others' claims with a critical eye. At a certain point, a claim becomes accepted due to the accumulated mass of experimental data, while some other claim will wither away as new experiments (done better) contradict the original claims. 

And how do you determine that this experiment was done better than the previous one? This is where it can get really complicated, but sometimes it's just a matter of learning new procedures which allow for better control experiments. It helps when a new sort of procedure can reproduce a result that has long been known and was discovered by some other method originally. 

Anyway, that's a little bit about the practice and understanding of science. What distinguishes working scientists, especially those in the life sciences, is that they have all picked up a pipet and weighed something out and measured a class of molecules separated by gel electrophoresis. 

In other words, they have actually done real experiments which have had to stand up to critical evaluation. Anybody who claims to have "done my research" only by looking at Google excerpts isn't really doing real science. That is just the celebration of one's own prejudices. 

One difficulty of doing real science is that sometimes you get an answer that contradicts what you were hoping to find. Or sometimes you get no answer at all. But the real working scientist is honest about those results. It's a normal part of almost every scientific lecture that an unexpected result is reported. 

And people who don't do real science but have a financial interest in some result (the denial of global warming, or denying that smoking cigarettes causes cancer, for example) -- they are not reporting on science, but on their own wants and needs. The same holds true for those who have an emotional attachment to conspiracy. Sadly, some of them are dying by the thousands because they treated the development of the Covid-19 vaccine as a conspiracy instead of a marvelous scientific accomplishment.


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected])