Science is Not Relative

In a recent essay bemoaning the loss of psychology in favor of what he considers an overly biologically deterministic psychiatry, Richard C. Morias, a senior editor at Forbes, confesses a "vague suspicion" that "21st century America is ... suffering from an unhealthy obsession with science and technology."1 Certainly, it's difficult to escape from coverage of these issues. Morias' is an intriguing and provocative thesis, but sadly, his claimed obsession is just a loud idle burbling rather than a

Jun 6, 2005
Richard Gallagher(rgallagher@the-scientist.com)

In a recent essay bemoaning the loss of psychology in favor of what he considers an overly biologically deterministic psychiatry, Richard C. Morias, a senior editor at Forbes, confesses a "vague suspicion" that "21st century America is ... suffering from an unhealthy obsession with science and technology."1 Certainly, it's difficult to escape from coverage of these issues. Morias' is an intriguing and provocative thesis, but sadly, his claimed obsession is just a loud idle burbling rather than a true understanding of the science.

Take the recent creation of stem cells through cloning adult cells instead of creating embryos. The Korean research team's publication in Science2 provoked endless comment, from enthusiastic commendation to vehement condemnation. But almost none of the reaction focused on the research itself. Instead it was packaged as a personal experience: In the words of Morias' cherished psychologists, "how does human cloning make you feel?"

There's an infatuation with emotional responses to science, in which all views are equally valid and relativity rules the day. Thus we have the meteorologist who writes that "The Earth is remarkably resilient and so are the plants and animals that reside on it. The modest warming that is occurring is unlikely to have much of an effect at all, and many of the changes will be more beneficial than harmful."3 His views are likely to carry as much weight in some circles – including Presidential ones – as the researchers who have collected data on the subject over years and have incontestable figures demonstrating the greenhouse effect.

The consequence of all this relativism is that some of the most profound issues facing humanity, from cloning to global warming, are not receiving the appropriate kind of attention from politicians or from the mass media. In other cases the science is not sufficiently well developed to provide a clear indication of risks and solutions to problems. A case in point is the thorny issue of organic pollutants, which is discussed on page 24.

No square inch of the planet is unaffected by man made organic molecules and to many scientists they represent a threat to the well-being of the planet that on the same scale as global warming. Our article raises doubts about current views of one class of pollutants, the polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). These have been used extensively as flame retardants in electronics and in the foam padding of furniture. And highly effective they were too, saving countless lives.

But many studies have indicated that PBDEs accumulate in the environment at an alarming rate, resulting in voluntary and legislative bans on their use. The findings we cover, however, suggest that the bioaccumulated toxins aren't exclusively man-made, and may originate in marine sponges.

In all likelihood, the findings will be appropriated by industrial lobbyists to accuse environmentalists of scaremongering and environmentalists will make counter-accusations of gambling with the planet. What we really need is for scientists to be fully supported in collecting more data and interpreting these as best they can.

Morias says that life's age-old problems are not solvable with just a diligent application of hard science. True. But for the biggest problems we have right now, it's a dose of hard science that's exactly what's needed.