Respectful Insolence

What is science’s rightful place?

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If you’ve browsed the redesigned front page of ScienceBlogs, you’ll see that our benevolent ScienceBlogs Overlords at Seed Magazine have started a project that they have so humbly termed The Rightful Place Project: Reviving Science in America, which is described thusly:

In his first speech as President-elect last November, Barack Obama reminded us of the promise of “a world connected by our own science and imagination.” He recently stated, “promoting science isn’t just about providing Resources–it’s about protecting free and open inquiry… It’s about listening to what our scientists have to say, even when it’s inconvenient — especially when it’s inconvenient.” And in his inaugural address on January 20, President Obama cemented his commitment to this ethos and culture by vowing to “restore science to its rightful place.”

At Seed Media Group, we are firmly committed to President Obama’s vision and will work to make it a reality. To this end, we have launched a new initiative we’re calling The Rightful Place Project. We are inviting a national discussion around the President’s idea of a “rightful place” for science.

All this project involves, at least from a blog perspective, is answering a deceptively simple-sounding question: What is science’s rightful place?

Anyone can play, but, because I happen to have been part of the ScienceBlogs Collective for nearly three years now and I am nothing if not a loyal Borg–I mean ScienceBlogger–I thought I’d give it a whirl. I will admit one thing, though. I didn’t answer this right away because I wasn’t sure I wanted to. For one thing, any ideas for responses that I came up with sounded relentlessly pretentious. Yes, I realize that many will ask the question, ” So what? Who would be able to tell the difference?” Suffice it to say that I would. Another reason I may have procrastinated is because I hate going along with the crowd (well, too much). Finally, I wasn’t really sure what I could say that others hadn’t already said better in the few days I dithered.

But, hey, this is Orac we’re talking about. When dozens of bloggers write about a story before me, does that stop me? Hell, no! (Well, actually, sometimes it does.) Blogging is nothing if not a self-indulgent process, and obviously I have become the quintessential blogger. (Just look at the long, self-indulgent prelude to this post.) In any case, it takes an enormous ego to think that anyone gives a rodent’s posterior about what one writes day after day, and fortunately (or unfortunately) you, my loyal readers, have rewarded that ego with awards and nominations for awards; so you’re stuck with my pontifications indefinitely. Just think of the last two or three paragraphs as just one more self-indulgent (but hopefully sufficiently amusing that you haven’t already stopped reading) passage that I’ll edit out if I ever turn my blog into a book.

On to the answer to the great question of Life, the Universe, and Everything! (And this time it’s not forty-two.)

The first of my pontifications involves the question itself, “What is science’s rightful place?” Rightful place where? The answer to the question depends upon where, in what context. Policy-making? At first I assumed that’s what’s meant by the question, but it’s left open-ended. Perhaps it was intentional, but it was annoyingly so. After all, the role of science might vary depend on what area of policy-making, because different areas of policy have different levels of requirement for science. For example, deciding upon a director for the National Endowment for the Arts doesn’t really require much, if any, science, while picking an EPA or NIH director and setting environmental and health policies have to be grounded primarily in science. The second bit of confusion was what the heck the second part of the project meant, namely reviving science in America. In that, I’m totally with Isis; it’s an extraneous and rather depressing addition to a straightforward project, namely because I don’t know that science needs to be “revived.” The U.S. still has a healthy scientific endeavor, and the government is not the be-all and end-all of science. Unfortunately, the logo and the concept behind the Rightful Place Project seem to imply that it is, particularly given that President Obama’s statements about science were the inspiration for the project.

Let’s get one thing straight right here: “Revitalizing” science, whatever that means, does not depend upon government. It does not depend upon Barack Obama. There is no doubt that the government is very important as a funder of science, particularly biomedical science, and that the President can do a lot to support science in the U.S., but it is Americans doing science who determine how vital the scientific endeavor in this country is, not the government.

Now that I have that minor rant out of the way, I’ll try to answer the question more directly. Among all my fellow ScienceBloggers, several of whom are accomplished scientists in their own right, I do have a perspective that none of them have. Alone among ScienceBloggers, I’m the only clinician-scientist. It’s true that we have some budding clinician scientists, such as Jake and Mark, but thus far I’m the only one who is actually an independent investigator with NIH funding who does translational and clinical research. I have little doubt that Jake and Mark will develop into good clinician-scientists in their own right, but that will be years in the future given that they are both still in medical school.

So what does my perspective tell me? I don’t claim that it gives me any particularly brilliant insight, but it does bring to mind an analogy. Unless you’re a brand new reader who just happened upon this blog on a day when I felt like doing an EneMan post or a post about Holocaust deniers, you know that one of the overarching themes here is science-based medicine. Consider what science-based medicine means, and you will have a fairly good analogy for the role of science in government and society. It’s by no means a perfect analogy, but it’s pretty good.

Medicine is not a “pure” science. It can’t be. In fact, it’s a messy collaboration between doctor and patient constrained by limited resources and technology and clouded by often incomplete information. Sometimes the treatments that end up being chosen are not the best or most efficacious based on science. The reasons for this may be legion, but that does not mean science doesn’t have a huge role to play in medicine. Science, through basic investigations and then later through clinical trials, provides the groundwork for everything we do as physicians. It sets the guidelines. It tells us what works and what doesn’t, what is possible and what is probably not, what works better than something else, and what the relative risks of two courses of action are. What it doesn’t tell us is what we value–what we want.

Consider a case I frequently confront, that of early stage breast cancer. Consider the case of a woman with a small breast cancer, estrogen-receptor positive, with no evidence of spread to the lymph nodes under her arm or any place else. This would be a stage I tumor. Now consider the options after the tumor has been surgically excised. Once the tumor is excised, we offer various adjuvant therapies to try to reduce the risk of recurrence. Radiation therapy is very effective in reducing the rate of local recurrence; i.e., recurrence in the spot where the tumor was excised. The decision making process for that is not so difficult. However, consider the case of chemotherapy and antiestrogen therapy (usually Tamoxifen or, in the case of post-menopausal women, drugs called aromatase inhibitors are becoming more and more commonly used). The absolute benefit of chemotherapy is modest at best, on the order of a few percent increase at most in the chances of survival after five years, at the cost of considerable unpleasantness and the risk of complications. So what should a woman do? That depends upon what she values. Does she value her own life so much that will pay any price and bear any burden to increase her odds of survival by a couple of percent? Many women say yes. Indeed, there are surveys out there that indicate that most women would accept chemotherapy for even a 1% better chance of survival. Is that wrong? Is it irrational? No, it’s neither. Either decision could be correct, depending upon what the woman values.

The same could be said for antiestrogen therapy. In estrogen-responsive tumors, drugs like Tamoxifen or aromatase inhibitors are the mainstay of adjuvant therapy and give at least as much bang for the buck as chemotherapy. Now consider a patient I took care of very early in my career. She underwent successful surgery for a stage I breast cancer and the recommended course of treatment was Tamoxifen for five years. However, she had really bad meonopausal symptoms on Tamoxifen: hot flashes, the whole lot of them. Dose adjustment was tried, but she ultimately decided that she did not want to take the Tamoxifen, despite a lot of cajoling from her medical oncologist. Was she wrong? No. She happened to have worse symptoms than most women on Tamoxifen and decided that enduring the symptoms simply weren’t worth the extra few percent chance of survival. Her decision, when you come down to it, was primarily a rational calculation of whether she viewed the potential benefit to be worth the cost. Indeed, we can generalize that to society as well. For example, if chemotherapy only produces a 2-3% absolute increase in survival in women with stage I breast cancer, do we pay for it, given that it is expensive and might prevent us from paying for other forms of care, such as preventative care. That is not a question that science can answer. It can only tell us the potential risks and benefits of each treatment; economics tells us how much each costs; and we have to decide how to allocate our limited health care resources.

Science should function in society and government much as it does when properly used in medicine. It cannot tell society what it values, but it can provide it with estimates of the likely outcomes of various courses between which society must choose. Take the example of second hand smoke. Science tells us that it increases the risk of heart and lung disease by a factor of approximately 1.3 in workers exposed to it eight or more hours a day. What we as a society do with that information depends upon what we value. Do we value the autonomy of the bar and restaurant owner more than the modestly increased risk of disease in nonsmokers who work in that owners’ bar or restaurant? Or do we value protecting workers from this risk more than the freedom of patrons to smoke and bar owners to choose to allow smoking in their bars? That is the political decision based on our values as a society. Libertarians argue that freedom of interference by government in a restaurant owner’s business trumps the risk smoking poses to workers as long as workers know about the risk and choose to accept it. proponents of smoking bans might say that workers should not be forced to make such a choice and that nonsmokers should not have to put up with the annoyance caused by a minority. Both are arguments based on what one believes and values. It’s a similar situation for anthropogenic global warming. Science can tell us it’s happening, how fast it’s happening, and what we might do to slow it down. It can also put error bars around all the estimates. What it cannot tell us is what to do about it. It can only give us options and the likely outcomes of such options based on what we know. We through our elected officials have to decide what, if anything, we will do about it.

Back in the 1990s, I was a huge fan of Babylon 5. I still am. For those of you not familiar with this particular science fiction show, in it the human race and many alien races found themselves caught in the middle of a conflict between two old and powerful races who were originally supposed to cooperate to watch over the younger races and guide their development. However, each had decided that its way was the best. To boil it all down, one race, the Vorlons, preferred order and duty as a strategy for development, while the other race, the Shadows, preferred chaos and struggle, in which the “fittest” would destroy other races and evolve into something better and stronger. One of the recurring incidents in the show is that the Vorlons would always ask humans, “Who are you?” and the Shadows would always ask them, “What do you want?”

Science can’t really answer either of those questions.

It can, however, help us as a society to decide both who we are and what we want. At its best, science is the trusted advisor that tells us the situation as accurately as humanly possible, based on the best humans have to offer in terms of inquisitiveness, intelligence, and creativity and informs us what the options are and what the likely outcome of choosing each option is. The choice after that is up to us.

(Looking back on that post that really was pretentious. Oh, well, it’s too late now; I don’t have time to write something different.)

Comments

  1. #1 DLC
    January 28, 2009

    President Obama needs to remember that science is just a tool, or set of tools. Knowledge developed using the scientific method can be used for good or ill, depending on the intent of the user. That said, the United States should be a leader in science and it’s stepson, technology.
    We “win” economically by keeping a lap ahead of the other guys, and if we do not continue to do so, it will cost us.
    In order to do this, The United States must do all it can to foster research, encourage students and children (and even old guys like me) to take up science as a career, or even a second career.

  2. #2 Paul
    January 28, 2009

    Excellent post Orac, and in the spirit of Babylon 5 I’ll offer:
    Did we just win?
    Don’t jinx it!”

  3. #3 Dave Robinson
    January 28, 2009

    I think the place for science is as a framework. I think it’s important to restore the idea that using science and rational thought to look at the world is a good thing. We have to help people realize that the scientific worldview is a different paradigm than a faith-based magical thinking worldview and not just a competing religion.

    I think that’s one reason why so many religious people take issue with science: they see it as a direct competitor to their faith rather than something else entirely.

  4. #4 Karl Withakay
    January 28, 2009

    Hummm…. He likes Blake’s 7 and Babylon 5, no wonder I like this Orac guy.

  5. #5 Chris
    January 28, 2009

    B5 nitpick: the Vorlons and Shadows didn’t just ask their respective questions of humans. Vir’s response to Mr. Morden (a Shadow agent) asking the Shadows’ question is particularly memorable. (YouTube link) Londo’s is not quite so entertaining to watch in isolation, but it was a very significant plot point, as well as a turning point in Londo’s character. (It also seems like the distilled essence of at least one form of conservatism.)

    I agree with the overall point about the role of science, though. I also think there’s a broader perspective in which the sciences as traditionally understood are only part of a wider field of reasoned inquiry and discussion that includes, for example, democracy (discussions of what policy we should take can’t be fully answered by science because they involve some normative questions, but they can be informed by it; we should choose policies with knowledge of their likely consequences). (H/t Carl Sagan, who expresses this view in _The Demon-Haunted World_ – which, I think, is mainly a book about the rightful place of science and science-like thought in society.)

  6. #6 grim, ungainly
    January 28, 2009

    In the spirit of science, could I get a citation on the secondhand smoke thing?
    thanks.

  7. #7 Dr. T
    January 28, 2009

    This project is both pretentious and stupid. I find it embarrassing.

    Does the computer industry publicly ask: “What is computer technology’s rightful place in society?” Do farmers publicly ask: “What is agriculture’s rightful place in society?” No, they don’t, because the questions are stupid. An industry’s or a field’s place in society is what it is. Science has no “rightful place” in U.S. society. We do not reside in a medieval kingdom where the monarch decides which artists, philosophers, inventors, or alchemists get funding. Appeals to the government might gain us more money, but that won’t be enough to change our place in society.

    Most people cannot distinguish between modern science and alchemy. They lack the intelligence or the discipline to learn about science. They don’t miss this knowledge, because they don’t see it as relevant to their lives. It’s something that someone else can worry about (along with electrical power delivery, infrastructure creation and maintenance, cable TV with 999 channels, high speed communications, etc.). Because so few people understand science, many scientists feel underappreciated. Get over it. The ratio of science knowledgeable people to science ignorant people will keep declining. Non-scientists have too many other things to learn (like the 850 features of their cell phones) to bother with science. And, to be honest, don’t we all believe that at least 80% of science is junk science? If we cannot eliminate junk science, why should we expect respect and more money from the public?

  8. #8 Jack Kolinski
    January 28, 2009

    Excellent post! Your concerns about sounding pretentious speak well of you but are unwarranted. Elitist, maybe, but in that “good” really smart, well-educated and articulate way many of us find reassuring rather than threatening. A very thoughtful and well-reasoned DIRECT response to the question posed. How often does ANYBODY do that these days? Thank you for caring. Can you send it to Obama on his Blackberry? He probably doesn’t get a lot of time to surf the blogosphere.

  9. #9 Robert Grumbine
    January 28, 2009

    Er, Dr. T, as a former member of IEEE and current one of the ACM, the answer to what you thought was a rhetorical question is “YES!”. Thoughtful professionals in all fields do ask questions like ‘What is the proper role of my field in society?’ You can repeat for all the other engineering and scientific societies which I know well enough to answer. I dare say that it applies to medicine (even I am aware of some JAMA and New England Journal of Medicine discussions) as well, though Orac can answer better there.

    To the original question, I go with “Science is a tool”. I do science in my day job (sometimes, and sometimes I do engineering). Science, the method, the body of knowledge, the community of people to practice it, is a way of finding out testable, sharable, knowledge about the universe. If you’re in a position where you are making decisions about what to do which are affected by the universe (like, say, whether just dumping a chemical in a river constitutes a sufficient disposal method), I think that science is an important tool. In that respect, I’d say it is a ‘rightful place’. Iterate over other public policy and public-affecting decisions.

    What you decide after science has told you that the expected increase in premature deaths/cancers/… by that policy. Well, that’s morals and/or politics. But I think we’re all much better off if we start the decision process from a basis in our best understanding of reality.

  10. #10 Jack Kolinski
    January 28, 2009

    To Dr. T:
    “pretentious,” “stupid” AND “embarrassing,” followed by two lengthy paragraphs of bile!?! Did someone not get his grant approved? We’re not in a very good mood today are we? You really believe we’re moving backward in the war against religion and ignorance (your ratio argument appears to so indicate) and your response is to spew venom at a blog about the role of science as being “stupid”? Sounds like we need committed scientists more than ever to me. You’re not one of those “junk scientists” I hope.

    About the cell phone app. thing. I just purchased the app. that plays TWENTY SIX different FART sounds and I am giving you a TWENTY SIX FART SALUTE! “Junk science” at its “worst” to you! Just plain HILARIOUS to me! It had me at “PPPPPPPhhhhhhhyyyyrrrrrrrrtttttttt!”

  11. #11 Danimal
    January 29, 2009

    Take the example of second hand smoke. Science tells us that it increases the risk of heart and lung disease by a factor of approximately 1.3 in workers exposed to it eight or more hours a day. What we as a society do with that information depends upon what we value. Do we value the autonomy of the bar and restaurant owner more than the modestly increased risk of disease in nonsmokers who work in that owners’ bar or restaurant? Or do we value protecting workers from this risk more than the freedom of patrons to smoke and bar owners to choose to allow smoking in their bars? That is the political decision based on our values as a society. Libertarians argue that freedom of interference by government in a restaurant owner’s business trumps the risk smoking poses to workers as long as workers know about the risk and choose to accept it. proponents of smoking bans might say that workers should not be forced to make such a choice and that nonsmokers should not have to put up with the annoyance caused by a minority. Both are arguments based on what one believes and values.

    You did not expect me to let this go, did you? Call me a denialist if you will, but I still believe the science of second hand smoke (SHS) is pure bullshit. If there were really something to it we should have be easily been able to determine it by now. Take for example a look at all studies where one spouse smokes and the other doesn’t. Christopher Snowdon, author of the forth coming book “Velvet Glove/Iron Fist: A History of Anti-Smoking?” examines all the evidence for lung cancer with regard to SHShere and the results mostly point toward the NULL.
    To find out what happens to researchers who go against the tobacco control agenda see here, here, and here.
    More recently the concept of Third Hand Smoke was invented with this article published in the Journal of Pediatrics. The study is being used be anti-smoking groups to suggest just hanging with someone who smokes is as hazard as the Surgeon General reported. There is no risk-free level of tobacco expose, so do not hang around a smoker as it is dangerous to your health. Likewise parents who smoke outside the home are still harming their kids. Yeh right. An interview with one of the authors can be found here. Yes folks they call this science. My ass.

  12. #12 Orac
    January 29, 2009

    You did not expect me to let this go, did you? Call me a denialist if you will, but I still believe the science of second hand smoke (SHS) is pure bullshit.

    OK, you’re a denialist.

    We’ve been through this before multiple times (so I don’t feel like repeating myself on this again you can search “secondhand smoke” to find my entries), and, quite frankly, I think you’re full of shit and don’t feel like indulging your nonsense yet again. Nice straw man, though, with the lung cancer. It’s the risk of cardiovascular disease and emphysema that are most affected by SHS. Nice conspiracy mongering too with the “poor persecuted scientific infidel” bit so beloved of cranks of all stripes.

  13. #13 James Thomas
    January 29, 2009

    Like Orac and many of the correspondents in this space, I am heartened by the possibility that the Obama administration will take a less philistine approach to science than did the Bush administration. But I am always wary of political pronouncements, especially those of the open-ended sort. The president’s vow to ‘restore science to its rightful place’ without a clear statement of just what he imagines that place to be, doesn’t really mean much. Neither for that matter do nebulous locutions about ‘hope’ and ‘change’. Politicians of every stripe tend to see science as a tool of one sort or another, to be wielded for (their) maximum political advantage. Let’s hope that restoring science to its rightful place doesn’t mean willy-nilly funding of the PC fad of the week. Science isn’t only advanced by those who toe the received wisdom line, it is also advanced, sometimes by huge leaps, by skeptics who question, probe, doubt and advance alternate hypotheses.

    The good news is that it certainly can’t get worse than it was during the last 8 years.

  14. #14 James Thomas
    January 29, 2009

    Like Orac and many of the correspondents in this space, I am heartened by the possibility that the Obama administration will take a less philistine approach to science than did the Bush administration. But I am always wary of political pronouncements, especially those of the open-ended sort. The president’s vow to ‘restore science to its rightful place’ without a clear statement of just what he imagines that place to be, doesn’t really mean much. Neither for that matter do nebulous locutions about ‘hope’ and ‘change’. Politicians of every stripe tend to see science as a tool of one sort or another, to be wielded for (their) maximum political advantage. Let’s hope that restoring science to its rightful place doesn’t mean willy-nilly funding of the PC fad of the week. Science isn’t only advanced by those who toe the received wisdom line, it is also advanced, sometimes by huge leaps, by skeptics who question, probe, doubt and advance alternate hypotheses.

    The good news is that it certainly can’t get worse than it was during the last 8 years.

  15. #15 Joseph C.
    January 29, 2009

    @Danimal,

    So you’re a smoker who doesn’t buy into the “nonsense” that smoking is harmful. Very original. Never seen that before.

  16. #16 Prometheus
    January 29, 2009


    “The president’s vow to ‘restore science to its rightful place’ without a clear statement of just what he imagines that place to be, doesn’t really mean much.”

    I suspect that if the Bush administration hadn’t been so clumsy in their manipulation of science – if it hadn’t been a good campaign “issue” – Mr. Obama would have said absolutely nothing about science. After all, the whole point of a political campaign is to enumerate the differences between yourself and your opponent.

    For that reason, I have no hope that Mr. Obama will honor this particular campaign promise except in the breach, as is typical for politicians. After all, he has no particular interest in science and probably couldn’t tell good science from bad prose.

    I’d like to think that I’m wrong, but history tells me that I’m not. Even John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson – who did more to advance science in the US than any other presidents I can think of – got behind science only because they were concerned about the Soviet launch of Sputnik. They saw science as a sort of proxy arms race, not as the pursuit of knowledge.

    I suspect that Mr. Obama feels that the “proper place” for science is firmly behind his policies and those of his party. If science doesn’t happen to line up that way, woe to science! If the best science happens to be in conflict with his policies, I expect that science will find that its “proper place” is in the broom cupboard.

    If Mr. Obama does what he can to halt the politicization of science (as we currently see in environmental issues, global warming and autism), that would be more than I could ever hope for. Unfortunately, the cynic in me tells me that he will politicize science just as much as his predecessors – just from a different direction.

    I hope I’m wrong, I truly do.

    Prometheus

  17. #17 Danimal
    January 29, 2009

    @Joseph C.: I totally buy into the fact that smoking is harmful. No doubt about that. What I do not buy into is that second hand smoke is harmful (or no more harmful then eating the McDonald’s). I object to the concept of 3rd hard smoke. That is a bunch of bullshit (see previous link). Coming from a military family where everyone smoked, there should be evidence. I do not see it in the spousal studies that Orac discounts or in the anecdotal evidence in my own family.

  18. #18 Danimal
    January 29, 2009

    Here one for you Orac. What do you think about this coming from the American Lung Association used to pass the Maryland smoking ban. It took a long time to find a link because they want it to disappear. Here it is bad movie. Yes this is science?

  19. #19 Orac
    January 29, 2009

    I totally buy into the fact that smoking is harmful. No doubt about that. What I do not buy into is that second hand smoke is harmful (or no more harmful then eating the McDonald’s).

    Amazing how you cherry picked some articles to support your view but ignored the overwhelming other bit of evidence.

    As for “third hand smoke,” the science is unsettled. Certainly it’s not nearly as compelling as the evidence for harm due to secondhand smoke. However, it’s not implausible on its face, and I base that assessment on my own experience–my in-laws, for example. Many months ago, my father-in-law, who’s a heavy smoker, was banned from smoking in the house. Well, he agreed not to smoke in the house, and confined his smoking to only the garage and (when it gets really cold) to a back room in the house.

    Many months later, the entire house still reeks of smoke, as does all the furniture, carpeting, etc. I spent a couple of nights there over the holidays, and it was bad.

    No, I’m not arguing that third hand smoke is clearly harmful based on my anecdotal experience, but that personal experience, coupled with the fact that particulate tobacco combustion products can easily be detected in materials and on surfaces in rooms after smoking, suggests to me that the concept of third hand smoke is neither unreasonable nor implausible. Research will tell if it is as harmful as secondhand smoke or not.

    As for the movie, once again you’re trying to discredit the science by conflating it with how the science is used–a common tactic also used by global warming denialists, actually. The validity of the science is a separate and independent issue from what people decide to do with it. Wait, didn’t I just say that in my post, namely that the actual science is a separate issue from the use of that science to drive policy? Why, yes, I believe I did.

  20. #20 Danimal
    January 29, 2009

    Orac, I am not arguing with you about the stink of smoke. Both my wife and I smoke. We smoke outside, mainly because my wife does not like the smell inside, not because of any medical reason. Orac are you making you arguments based on anecdotal data? Are you saying that I, because I might smell of smoke, am causing harm to others? Such as the news media, that is what they will have you believe, based on a survey, published in a scientific journal no less. Can we say woo woo? As for you father-in-law I would suggest that he actually smoked in the house when no-one was looking.

  21. #21 Orac
    January 30, 2009

    Can you read? What did I just write? Are you really that totally dense?

    Here, I’ll repeat it again very slowly and simply: I am not arguing from anecdotal experience anything other than that experience plus the fact that solid tobacco combustion products are easily measured on many surfaces and in dust long after smoking has stopped suggest to me that the concept that third hand smoke might be harmful is neither unreasonable nor implausible. Nothing more. Science must determine whether it is harmful or not. Also, even if my father-in-law were sneaking smokes (and he probably does), that would not invalidate the argument, because every room in the house maintains the smell.

    There, I can’t make it clearer or simpler than that. No doubt that won’t stop you from claiming again that I’m arguing from anecdotal evidence that third hand smoke is harmful.

    You tobacco apologist trolls are very tiresome–and predictable. I figured you’d try to say I was arguing from anecdotal evidence about whether third hand smoke is harmful, and you validated my prediction nicely.

  22. #22 Andrew Dodds
    January 30, 2009

    Prometheus -

    I think one of the major problems is the realtive comfort and safety we have enjoyed in the West for the last 50 odd years. Between vaccination, antibiotics, the green revolution, concrete and MAD, the assorted problems of early death from disease, hunger, clean water and all-out war have been basically banished. Unfortunately, this has allowed people to believe all sorts of rubbish without serious consequences.

    As far as conflicts for the new administration goes.. it will be interesting to see what they do about nuclear power, which is an obvious clash point/psueudoscience minefield.

    Of course, if you actually allow scientific evidence a part in the *formation* of policy, then you have the advantage that the science backs up your policy – which can be handy. The Bush admin clearly regarded reality in all its forms as tangential to policymaking at best, let along scientific evidence.

  23. #23 Tracy W
    January 30, 2009

    DLC: We “win” economically by keeping a lap ahead of the other guys, and if we do not continue to do so, it will cost us.

    Why? Cost Americans what?

    I can understand the desire to keep a lap ahead on defence technology. But all of science? How does it harm America if Americans learn from other countries? Having more minds and hands working on non-defence society makes everyone better off – say a German research group comes up with a cure for kidney failure like on Star Trek – you take one pill that costs a few dollars, and your kidney starts working again. How would that cost Americans? Americans would save billions on healthcare, along with the rest of the world. And, American medical researchers would likely study how the German pill worked, and probably come up with new innovative ideas about how to use that method to fix other health problems. Even if they didn’t, scientists in other countries would do so, and Americans could copy those new pills for improving health in the USA.

    Also, if American scientists share their ideas with the rest of the world then they can benefit from the contributions of the non-American scientist. Take some earthquake researcher in California – do you really believe that they’d be better off if they never shared any of their ideas with Japanese or Italian earthquake researchers? What about if one of those guys has a really good idea, or could spot a flaw in the American researchers’ methods. How on earth could earthquake research benefit from being “a lap ahead” of most of the rest of the field? You’d be cutting down on the error-correction methods that make science as effective as it is.
    And you can’t argue that American researchers are inherently superior to the Japanese or Italians, and thus could never learn from them, as so many Americans are immigrants, or the children of recent immigrants.

    There is a plausible argument that one of the reasons that the USA is one of the richest countries on the planet because of the large number of people living there who mostly speak English, unlike Europe (lots of different languages) or the isolated countries of Australia and NZ. Or in other words, Americans win economically because they can share their knowledge more widely than people in many other countries. This argument implies that Americans will be even better off if they share the process of science (with the possible exception of defence, and even then sharing with American reliable allies like the British or the Australians makes sense) with people from as many other countries as possible rather than try to keep a lap ahead.

    I am a Kiwi, and many of my professors at university were American or Canadian, and they were quite happy to work with the British, Australian, French, German, Singaporean and even NZ professors at my university. I am glad that they did not subscribe to the zero-sum ideas of trying to keep a lap ahead in science, but instead collaborated.

  24. #24 Joseph C.
    January 30, 2009

    Coming from a military family where everyone smoked, there should be evidence. I do not see it in the spousal studies that Orac discounts or in the anecdotal evidence in my own family.

    The absurdity of this speaks for itself.

  25. #25 Danimal
    January 30, 2009

    Orac: “Can you read? What did I just write? Are you really that totally dense?” Can you read? You probably did not read the 3rd hand smoke paper. The things that are suspect: Let us start with the study’s objective which states

    There is no safe level of exposure to tobacco smoke.

    Looking further we find funding was provided by a grant from the Flight Attendant Medical Research Institute, a group that only funds researchers who will show SHS is harmful. This would be similar to one discounting research because it was funded by BigTobacco. The authors did a survey about people opinions regarding the harms of SHS and without evidence define 3rd hand smoke and concluded that it harmful. Dr Michael Siegel (yes, yes, I know what you think of him) says

    The tobacco control movement’s warnings to the public about the dangers of thirdhand smoke highlight once again that science is no longer driving the movement. Tobacco control practitioners are warning parents that even if they smoke outside the home, leaving a coat hanging on a door is going to expose their children to toxins and harm them due to offgassing of vapors from particulate matter that has settled on the coat during smoking. Yet there is no evidence that such very low levels of exposure to tobacco smoke residue constituents is harmful.
    Several months ago, Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) called on measures to protect children from exposure to smokers – not merely from exposure to tobacco smoke – based on a study which purportedly showed that the breathe of smokers was toxic to children. But my analysis revealed that there was a fatal flaw in the study which invalidates the conclusion: it is highly likely that some smokers who claimed only to smoke outside the home actually do smoke in the home, at least on occasion. This would have completely explained the study result: that levels of smoke in homes with smokers who claim to only smoke outdoors are intermediate between levels in a smoke-free home and levels in a home with smokers who admit smoking inside the home.
    The misinterpretation and misuse of these studies by anti-smoking groups and advocates endangers smokers because it will likely lead to efforts to bar smokers from the workplace and to prevent smokers from being around children, both of which would be tragic mistakes. If the Pediatrics study authors are correct and smokers are toxic to children even when not smoking, then this science can be used to justify measures to ban smokers from children’s presence.

    Note, that he say no evidence, you say it is “neither unreasonable nor implausible.” With that I do not disagree if we start with the premise that there is no safe level of tobacco exposure. But is it science? I say no. Jacob Sullum of Reason Magazine has this to say

    The genius of the study is that it tries to stir up alarm about thirdhand smoke without bothering to show that such trace levels of toxins and carcinogens cause any measurable harm to children (or to anyone else). Instead the authors simply assume that thirdhand smoke is dangerous and then do a survey to see how many people are aware of this “fact.”

    .
    Yes that must be science. Science at its best. Sullum writes:

    You can get a sense of the researchers’ method from the first sentence of their abstract: “There is no safe level of exposure to tobacco smoke.” As I noted when former Surgeon General Richard Carmona said something similar in connection with his 2006 report on secondhand smoke, this is an article of faith, not a scientific statement, since it cannot be proven or disproven. But if you start from the premise that there is no safe level of exposure to tobacco smoke, it is very easy to arrive at the conclusion that thirdhand smoke (as well as fourthhand smoke, fifthhand smoke, and sixthhand smoke) is dangerous.

    And you state “You tobacco apologist trolls are very tiresome–and predictable.” I for one do not consider myself a troll, instead I consider myself one of your fans (a loyal faithful reader of your sometimes long winded articles). My point is that the science of SHS and THS smoke is flawed with researcher bias and funding bias. Dr. Geoffrey Kabat, one of the authors of a paper which showed no harm due to second hand smoke and got crucified for it says.

    “There are enough scientifically documented harmful effects of exposure to cigarette smoke without concocting catchy but uninformative concepts that, while likely to attract the attention of the jaded media and its audiences, confuse the important issues regarding the health effects from exposure to cigarette smoke.”

    By the way I know the accepted RR for SHS smoke for both heart disease and lung cancer are between 1.25 and 1.35. What I have a problem with is the bias ways those numbers were come up with. Read Christopher Snowdon’s evidence (link in previous post). I did not cherry pick anything, if anything researchers like Stanton Glantz cherry picked their results to show immediate drops in heart attacks after smoking bans are implemented.

  26. #26 dee
    February 1, 2009

    I think this is an interesting and reasonably persuasive study regarding the effects of second-hand smoke:

    Smoke-free Legislation and Hospitalizations for Acute Coronary Syndrome

    http://content.nejm.org/cgi/content/abstract/359/5/482

    Following the smoking ban in Scotland the authors report a 21% drop in admissions with ACS for *people who have never smoked*, and a 17% drop overall.

    Do you dispute the figures? Why?

    dee

  27. #27 Danimal
    February 3, 2009

    @dee “Do you dispute the figures? Why?” Yes, the reasons why are explained by others. Dr. Michael Siegel examination of the study can be found here. Note, Dr. Siegel is a smoking ban advicate. Another examination of the Scottish study in Spiked Magizine can be found here. I should point out that Orac also visited this study and Orac’s take on it can be found here. Note, that Orac did consider the study well done, I do not know if his opinion changed. I disagree with him.

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