Science in the self interest

Op-ed: Politicians and corporate leaders often embrace science when its convenient and shun it when it's not.

The day after a flood devastated Ellicott City, Gov. Larry Hogan toured Main Street to survey the damage. The flash flood occurred after a slow-moving summer thunderstorm let loose 6 inches of rain in two hours. But the damage wasn't entirely an act of nature: Ellicott City has flooded before, and this flood was exacerbated by extensive development in recent decades that has included widespread paving of surfaces. The regional spread of "impervious surfaces" increases storm water runoff, intensifies flooding and damages the environment by washing many more pollutants into the Chesapeake Bay.

Scientists have known about this problem for years, and in response the state of Maryland in 2012 enacted a storm water remediation fee to pay for the costs associated with reducing the destructive effects of excessive storm water runoff caused by impervious surfaces. But, while running for office, Governor Hogan mocked the remediation fee as a "tax on the rain," and in office he worked for its repeal. In doing so, he joins a large company of politicians and corporate leaders who embrace science when it is convenient but work to undermine, discredit and inhibit science when it conflicts with their narrow self interests.

At the same time as the Ellicott City flood, public health workers in Florida were battling mosquitoes that carry the Zika virus, which has been linked to devastating birth defects in the South American countries where it is endemic. Scientists have warned for months that Zika will likely strike the U.S. mainland, a prediction that appears to be coming true. Much needs to be learned about Zika. Scientists do not know how to vaccinate against it or prevent the birth defects that it is linked to, or how far it will spread. However, Congress is in no hurry for them to find out. Having dithered for months on a request for funding of Zika research, Congress recessed this month without appropriating any additional funds to deal with this looming public health crisis. In order to continue with critical Zika vaccine development, the Obama administration said it will redirect money already allocated for research on other serious diseases such as cancer and diabetes — a temporary fix that will only last about one month.

This kind of willful ignorance is how Congress avoids responsibility for public health. Two decades ago, scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggested that gun violence should be treated as a public health problem. Congress responded in 1996 by passing the Dickey Amendment, which effectively cut off funding for CDC research on gun violence. Worried that other researchers might start investigations of their own, Congress followed up in 2003 with the Tiahrt Amendments, which forbade federal agencies from sharing gun data with researchers or the general public. Massive data suppression and inhibition of independent research renders the science that exists on gun violence unreliable. As a result, despite decades of experience with repeated mass shootings, it is difficult to have an informed public debate on the actions needed to curb gun violence.

Corporate leaders also find willful ignorance a useful tool. Oklahoma experienced a near 400-fold increase in earthquakes after the introduction of fracking by the state's oil and gas industries. Scientists at the University of Oklahoma, studying a possible linkage between this increased seismic activity and fracking, triggered outrage from Harold Hamm, the CEO of the energy company Continental Resources. Despite his denials, emails obtained by Bloomberg Business show that Mr. Hamm asked the university to dismiss the scientists doing the research and offered to sit on a search committee to fill the vacancies.

The purpose of science is to uncover and understand the laws of nature. The process of science is difficult, time-consuming, labor and money-intensive and fraught with mistakes, misunderstandings and dead ends. But when science is allowed to operate freely, it does, over time, reveal the inner workings of nature. In contrast, the alternative of ignorance does not render nature's laws irrelevant, nor does it change them.

Even though our understanding of nature changes over time, the laws of nature are fixed and immutable. They are not subject to voting, amending or appeal, nor are they responsive to polls or public relations campaigns. Nature has no political, religious or corporate affiliations. In fact, nature does not care about us at all. The question is do we care enough about ourselves to face this harsh truth, or are we going to continue with the folly of willful ignorance and the self-destruction that results?

Joseph Ganem is chair of the Physics Department at Loyola University Maryland; his email is Ganem@loyola.edu.

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