Thursday, September 25, 2008

At the alters of science, economics and relative morality

Are our cell phones really safe, what about GE foods or new drugs?
The TV reported a court case involving the claimed harm from electromagnetic radiation that was lost on the grounds that it had not been conclusively proven that the specific radiation caused the illness.

Now I find this very interesting. It is of course a product of our enlightened age, where scientific proof is the new God and is the final arbiter on all things. As a society we have accepted this and generally accept it. In doing so have we created the age of pseudo-informed gullibility?

From a public policy perspective seeking conclusive evidence before acting is in my view irresponsible. In a community driven by moral values rather than economic incentives perhaps we could hope for better.

While we now accept that smoking causes cancer it is not understood why in some cases it does not. Indeed the failure of smoking to deliver cancer with scientific repeatability bogged the smoking debate down for years and to some extent still does. Do we have to wait for science stamp of approval before we believe anything?

Of course the true rationalist may argue, for instance, that a “safe” drug later shown to harmful was never proven safe. If causality between cell phone use and neurological damage is eventually established (perhaps at least as well as the smoking – cancer link) then they might argue that the scientists had done a good job in establishing the link and were wise to have been initially cautious, to await proof – they could have been wrong otherwise.

Wrong in what way – scientifically of course, to question the actual morality may require reference to an absolute. After all, why would a company knowingly market a product that may kill off its customers in 10 years – surely the morality of economics is enough to regulate conduct. Why give home loans to people who may not be able to repay them? But wait – it works, the market is correcting itself and all is well, none have been harmed (well not the ones that matter!). Why would a drug company market a diabetes drug that increased the risk of heart attack by 43% - surely there is no economic or moral gain in placing your customers at risk? … but they do have to wait until the risk is conclusively proven.

There are two sides to the proof problem in public health.
First is that we require “proof” when common sense should prevail. Would you sleep under EHV powerlines by choice, or that phone ‘attached’ to your ear all day or continue to take that medication? At some point acting morally to reduce the risk has to be recognised as the preferred option. But it will require a change in the public mindset, a turning away from the God of conclusive proof.

Second in our free market driven world of contestability most research is funded, directly or indirectly, by corporates with a vested interest. That’s good right? They will want to know their products are safe …. Perhaps this provides the reason for the paucity of well funded research in many of the areas of public health – of course if there was a possible pill to counteract the effects of electromagnetic radiation then the science would be there.

Perhaps I have grown cynical? But, while as a society we continue to not believe it because science says it can’t be proven - indeed the very oxygen of atheism – we place ourselves knowingly but unverifiably at risk. While we continue to worship at the alters of science, economics and relative morality perhaps we gain an insight into what lies behind the biblical lesson of the sins of one generation being visited on the next.

Is there a better way?

Hamba kahle - peace


Pete Chown said...

You seem to be drawing a distinction between "scientific truth" and "ordinary truth". Why do you see these as different? In order to establish truth, we need to consider evidence. Can you give an example of some evidence which would be rejected by science, but which is nevertheless helpful in arriving at our "ordinary truth" understanding of the world?

Presumably the scientific evidence that smoking causes cancer started out non-existent. After people had been smoking for a while, some evidence emerged. At this point, they couldn't say that smoking definitely caused cancer, but they could raise the possibility. Individual smokers would then have to decide whether to give up.

I don't see that anyone could have done more. There isn't a silly scientific rule saying that you can't warn about things until the evidence is overwhelming. On the other hand, you can't warn about something until you have at least some evidence.

I'm not aware of good evidence linking power lines with ill health (though I haven't looked into it). So, unless there is evidence that I'm not aware of, I would happily sleep under power lines.

Similarly, I'm not aware of evidence linking tomato consumption with ingrowing toe nails. Just as with power lines, I'm going to keep eating tomatoes until someone shows me evidence that they could give me an ingrowing toe nail. :-)

akakiwibear said...

Pete, welcome and thank for your thoughtful comment. I am pleased you responded to my rant!

I agree with what you say - science by its nature has to be exact. You have responded rationally to my rant - thanks!

However, I do think that a different set of rules is justified when public health is at issue.

My challenge is to the thinking that paralyses us until science rules one way or the other.

Unfortunately there is usually a lot of money at stake and those whose $$ are at risk will always push for the often elusive scientific certainty ahead of public good based on common sense.

I am suggesting that 'weight of evidence' or 'balance of probabilities' (in the legal sense - not mathematical) should be the accepted criteria society uses while science still seeks its conclusive proof.

My point is that as a society we have been captured by the catch cry of 'conclusive scientific proof' to the point where we cease to think for ourselves.

Certainly the litigiousness of society (particularly when driven by deep corporate pockets) has lowered our propensity to take risk and leads us to rely more on proof.

I do lament - perhaps the thrust of my rant - that we seem to have lost the capacity for judgemental decision making - at an individual and community level.

Would you and those dear to you choose to live, eat & sleep under EHV power lines complete with a myriad of high frequency data carrier signals - I would err on the side of caution.

Hamba kahle -peace

Neil Turton said...

Hi Akakiwibear,

Remember that in any dispute there are two parties (at least). Is it right to penalize a merchant because one of their customers got a tumor (or whatever), when the merchant has done nothing wrong? We certainly should act when there is a health risk, but we first need to know that there is a risk.

I disagree that the morality of economics is enough to regulate conduct; That hasn't been the case in the tobacco industry. There needs to be some form of regulation, but it needs to be fair. Regulation has the potential to work where litigation can't because it's possible to act on statistical trends, without being able to show a link in individual cases. We don't want to be restricting the sale of goods just because they might be harmful though.

You say "all is well, none have been harmed" but that is an impossibly high standard and I don't think anyone is saying that they've attained it. There's nothing you can do to remove all risk. Ultimately, people have a choice: They can choose to use a mobile phone or they can choose to go without. If they go without, they might end up impaled on a fence and unable to get down. People need to accept risks and take responsibility for their actions. It's part of life.

I'd be happy to live under a power line, even if there were a small risk in doing so, if it meant I could take a safer route to work every day.

Peace, Neil.

akakiwibear said...

Neil, we clearly at one with disagree that the morality of economics is enough to regulate conduct

Your choice to live under power lines reflects a level of faith in science not having conclusive proof of harm that is endearing. With faith like that you could be a Christian ;)


Neil Turton said...

Hi Akakiwibear,

That's faith is it? I thought it was risk management. Would it take less faith to choose the more dangerous route to work then?

Peace, Neil.

akakiwibear said...

Neil, fair comment!! Yes it is risk management, but having faith in the validity of the inputs helps.


Neil Turton said...

Hi Akakiwibear,

There's certainly the risk that the inputs are wrong. That needs risk management too.

Peace, Neil.