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Science Teaches Us to Be Careful

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    Mad Cows and So On: Science Teaches Us to Be Careful Ana M. Soto and Carlos Sonnenschein International Herald Tribune, 1 December 2000 Since Greek antiquity,
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 1, 2000
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      Mad Cows and So On: Science Teaches Us to Be Careful

      Ana M. Soto and Carlos Sonnenschein
      International Herald Tribune, 1 December 2000

      Since Greek antiquity, humans have been grappling with the question
      "How do we know what we know?" This is the subject of epistemology, a branch
      of philosophy. This subject is relevant to today's reality. It has to do
      with problems that our societies and governments are faced with - mad cow
      disease, global warming, genetically modified organisms, endocrine
      disruptors, the use of growth hormones in beef.
      Four centuries after the Scientific Revolution and two centuries
      after the Industrial Revolution, countries in the Northern Hemisphere enjoy
      a high standard of living. This material and technological progress is
      considered to be the result of our solid and almost complete scientific
      understanding of utilitarian and academic topics.
      Lay people tend to assume that science is a solid construction with
      clear-cut answers for everything. Hence, policy should effortlessly be
      derived from "the facts." The public has been led to believe that
      science-based policy should produce self evident solutions acceptable to
      everyone. But recent events show that this is a pipe dream.
      Uncertainty is built into knowledge. Here is how.
      Scientists propose a hypo thesis about how or why a certain natural
      phenomenon occurs or how nature may react to the introduction of a man-made
      artifact. Next, they test the hypothesis. Finally, their findings are
      Several unresolved issues are related to this process. The first is
      whether or not hypotheses can be proved and be shown to be an airtight
      interpretation of how nature works.
      The prevalent view, put forward by Karl Popper, is that hypotheses
      can only be falsified. That is, a given interpretation of facts stands until
      it is proved wrong. Thus, scientists are uncertain about when a hypothesis
      may be taken to be "true." It is only through a long process of accumulation
      of evidence that the hypothesis acquires robustness.
      For example, it took more than 100 years for the scientific
      establishment to accept the proposal of Copernicus that the sun is at the
      center of the planetary system we inhabit.
      Granted, in the long run science works well in approximating
      understanding of how and why nature works.
      The second vexing issue has been whether facts can stand on their
      own. A scientist gathers results because he or she has a hypothesis to
      explore. Scientists, like lay people, have their own individual perceptions
      of the world.
      The questions that a scientist asks are not neutral, but colored by
      the premises that he or she chooses from those that look plausible.
      Collecting theory free data, as proposed by the supporters of inductivism,
      has been a difficult, largely fruitless, task. Charles Darwin remarked that
      "one may as well go to a gravel pit and count the pebbles and describe the
      colors." Thus, data are always theory-laden.
      The third issue regarding uncertainty is that biology, more than
      physics, is a historical science. Evolution is the history of life, and of
      how "old" molecules and cellular structures were put to new uses at a time
      when no intelligent creature was there to witness and record it. Experiments
      are done for the most part to understand how organisms living today are put
      together and how they work.
      Given the many interacting variables that framed the world that is
      our current home, scientists arbitrarily eliminate those that, in their
      judgment, don't seem critical to running their experiments in laboratory
      conditions. The results lead to conclusions that are not always applicable
      to the whole of biology, since we are mostly ignorant about the history of
      In this regard, we do not know what we do not know.
      One should remember that, in fact, we are guessing - yes, guessing -
      how the world we are a part of was put together and how it is reacting to
      our innovations. This is why it has been so difficult to anticipate the
      consequences of our creativity.
      For example, DDT, which was designed to control pests, ended up
      altering the reproductive organs of wildlife and humans. Wildlife and humans
      can become the unintended targets of well-meant but poorly planned attempts
      to improve our standard of living through short-term fixes.
      In summary, we hardly understand the impact of technology in its
      long-term effects. Slowly but surely that is now becoming obvious.
      As long as the precise history of how organisms evolved is unknown
      to us, we risk unexpected consequences when applying knowledge gathered in a
      highly focused laboratory setup that is hardly comparable to the "real
      Why should it be acceptable that cattle be treated with hormones?
      Why are ruminants that are adapted to eat grass fed with offal-derived
      How certain should we be about the safety of these practices when
      experience has shown us that unthinkable effects - the ozone hole, global
      warming, mad cows, hormones in the environment - can result from seemingly
      benign procedures or products? What is the benefit of these innovations,
      besides the obvious narrow purpose of increasing the profit of the
      businesses involved?
      Awareness about the uncertainty of science and technology must have
      a place in policy decision-making. The value of the precautionary principle
      is readily apparent.
      The writers, professors at Tufts University School of Medicine and
      authors of "The Society of Cells," contributed this comment to the
      International Herald Tribune.

      The full text of this article is available for a limited time on the
      IHT site at

      [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
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