Who Needs Science?

Apparently, this describes well the view of some lobbyists and lawmakers in our culture. Who needs to check science, or trust experts when we have already made up our minds from a few badly run studies that have since been refuted by many bigger, better run studies.? They’ve made up their minds, and want to shout loud enough that we don’t take time to check on the latest evidence available on the topic. The latest evidence of this comes from this article from the website The Atlantic. It concerns the debate about the chemical BPA. Early, informal studies seemed to indicate a possible risk from BPA. Quickly, this was picked up by environmentalists, who lobbied for laws banning the use of BPA in products of all kinds. The problem: the scientific community decided that this alarming result was worthy of further study. These further studies, much better run than their forerunners, and much larger and more careful in scale, have all agreed that there is no cause for alarm, and probably no need to even have much concern. The levels of the chemical found in the blood stream of patients who voluntarily exposed themselves to huge amounts of the chemical were so small as to be of no concern. Why then do the lobbyists continue to push for public outcry and legislative intervention? Good question. Here is the introduction of the article:

Well-meaning laws sometimes backfire. That’s especially true when they are passed in reaction to media frenzies driven by ideology rather than science. And that’s what’s happening in the United States and Europe, where advocacy groups are raising new alarms about bisphenol A (aka BPA), a controversial plastic component used to prevent spoilage in myriad products, including containers, dental sealants, and epoxy linings.

On Tuesday, the California State Senate approved a ban on baby bottles and sippy cups that contain BPA, with the measure now going to the Assembly for a final vote. Set to take effect next July, the ban was approved despite the fact that no governmental science-based advisory board in the world has concluded that BPA is harmful.

But political systems often operate with limited information and short time horizons, while much of science is complex and evolving. Bowing to relentless campaigns, restrictions on BPA used in baby bottles have been imposed politically in 11 states and in a few countries, such as France and Canada.

In a sidestep around the science, activists are aggressively turning up the heat on legislators around the world. The latest uproar involves the presence of miniscule amounts of BPA on thermal paper receipts printed at supermarkets or ATMs, and on the money that comes in contact with them. The brouhaha has touched off a swirl of recent media coverage, much of it just plain wrong.

Thermal paper has a chemical coating, usually made in part with BPA, which colors when heated during the development process. Greenpeace Germany just released an analysis of receipts collected from eight European supermarket chains—that’s right, just eight. There was not even a façade of scientific controls. Seven had traces of BPA or a related chemical, bisphenol S (BPS). The European press exploded with stories of the alleged harm faced by consumers, and a prominent French legislator called on stores to abandon paper containing either chemical, or face a legislative ban.

Greenpeace was copying a media stunt run last year by the Washington-based Environmental Working Group, which co-sponsored the California legislation. EWG tested 36 registers from around the United States, finding BPA on 29 of them. There was no pretense that this was a scientific study, but the survey generated more than a thousand news stories. That’s because conventional wisdom among many journalists is that BPA should be banned. Just last week, the Portland Oregonian declared, “BPA represents a health risk,” trashed “industry lobbyists” for scuttling a state bill that would have partially banned the chemical, and called for new restrictions.

In June, Connecticut became the first governmental body to ban thermal paper containing BPA. The ban is set to take effect in two years, assuming the Environmental Protection Agency identifies a safe, commercially available alternative, or in four years even if it doesn’t.

Are these votes based on good science? Why are politicians imposing bans on BPA, when regulators and scientific institutions around the world have carefully reviewed the entire body of evidence about the chemical and have opposed calls for bans?

You can read the details that follow here, including lots of links to the studies they site. This disrespect for real expertise is becoming pervasive. What pastor needs seminary training when anyone can read the Scriptures and jump to conclusions? Who needs a real doctor when I can look up my own symptoms and guess at which disease best matches my perceived symptoms? Who needs scientists and statisticians to check shoddy results we like, when I can get attention with them?

This is why I have a passion to teach here at Messiah College. I want to help my students, especially those from other majors, to learn to value statistics and the role they play in learning about the truth of God’s world. Sure, not everything we can know about truth can be learned through statistics, but God has given us the ability to learn about His world in this way as well, and I think it is dishonoring to Him to diminish the importance of anyone using their God-given abilities to learn about His Truth and the Truth of His world. I try to impress upon my students that it is much more valuable to have a small, but well run, study than a large, but poorly designed, study. In this case, we have the ideal! The larger studies are also more carefully run, and there are more of them. Still, all we hear is the loud lobbying about the studies that have been proven faulty. I hope that consumers will hear the truth about this, and demand that they not be forced to deal with the costs of more expensive manufacturing, or worse, companies replacing BPA with something even more dangerous (a real risk, according to the article). When it is better for PR for a company to replace a safe process with a questionable one, due to lack of research on that process, we are in a dangerous place.

3 comments on “Who Needs Science?

  1. This is an interesting example, but to me it’s sort of small potatoes. For a much more terrifying look at the impact of politics and media on policy and science, I recommend the book Merchants of Doubt.

    • I realize there are worse examples, but I just read this article today so it was on my mind. Haven’t heard of the book, but it sounds intriguing. I’m very interested in the ways that I can connect course content with the “real world” and our faith. I’ll add it to my wish list on Amazon and hope to get to it soon!

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