Sunday, September 8, 2019

Economics And Politics Distort Science

                                                                                              written 1 September 2019
                                                                                          published 8 September 2019

            Religion and science each present descriptions of reality.  In religion, the description is fixed and dogmatic. In science, the description evolves as further investigation reveals new information.  Because scientists have egos and prejudices, scientific descriptions can become as intransigent as religious dogma.  Sometimes you can tell the eminence of a scientist by how long they hold up progress in their field.  But science eventually transcends the most rigid biases, due to an inherent commitment to a quest for knowledge.  
            The scientific quest can become compromised when science intersects with society's economics and politics.  Science is a logical extension of assumptions, tested against the real world.  When the assumptions are flawed, so are the results. Politics and economics predetermine the assumptions, distorting the science, until the political or economic system crashes, sometimes with lethal consequences.
            The atomic bomb was a classified project during the war, involving only physicist.  The human devastation of the initial blast of the nuclear attack was shocking, but radiation damage killed people long after the attack, demanded investigation.  Biologists and health professionals interviewed survivors beginning in 1950.  The bombs were air blasts, exposing people to a large external gamma ray event. Individual exposure was calculated by distance from the blast center, and symptoms correlated to that exposure level.  The initial conclusions suggested a linear relationship between exposure and health impact, implying a "safe" level, with an absence of short-term effects.  These exposure standards are still used today.  
            The distortion in this case is equating impact from a single exposure of high level external gamma rays with long term exposure to low levels of ingested energetic alpha and beta emitters.  These exposures come from soil, air, water, or food contaminated by nuclear testing, nuclear processing facilities, poor handling of nuclear material, uranium mining, or reactor accidents.  Governments and corporations aggressively defend against being held liable for adverse health impacts from nuclear contamination because the costs are high. Believing that "science" says there are no impacts, reported health problems are dismissed as "radiation hysteria", and never investigated in depth.
            Cell phones emit radiated energy which most people use next to their brain, and many carry them next to their heart or gonads.  Since the first cell phone, there has been discussion about their health impact, with many studies concluding they are "safe". The power is on the order of 1 watt, so thermal heating effect seems minimal when distributed over the whole body, but might be significant in the immediate vicinity of the phone.  There are other effects that are barely understood.  Radiated energy may interfere with biochemistry or the nervous system.  The world has been rapidly and profoundly transformed by cell phones, and more recently, smart phones, and there is social and economic incentive to keep finding them "safe" as we move toward a more wired world.  This economic bias makes rigorous scientific investigation difficult and unpopular.
            Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, was originally used to clean boilers, because it bonds to minerals like magnesium.  It was accidently discovered to kill plants, which use magnesium during protein synthesis.  Since animals don't use magnesium in the same way, it was considered "safe" for humans.  Roundup use is so wide spread that it is now found in our food, most people's blood, and rainwater.  
            We are learning that human health is radically affected by the population distribution within the trillions of bacteria that co-exist in our bodies. Bacteria have magnesium biochemistry similar to plants, and are affected by glyphosate.  Despite court cases which determined that Roundup causes cancer, Monsanto has spent billions denying that glyphosate is toxic, using their economic clout to distort the science.
            The concern that carbon dioxide emissions might disrupt climate was raised a century ago.  Chevron research scientists verified this to be true in the 70's.  Prioritizing profits, fossil fuel corporations invested heavily to deny the problem.  People still believe them, or think that any possible impact is far in the future. However, climate scientists are quite concerned, seeing short odds for near term human extinction, requiring immediate, coordinated global action.  The political environment created by climate deniers distorts the picture.  Not wanting to appear hysterical, climate scientists wait for consensus, while our "leaders" accelerate us toward the all-too-near cliff.