Guest Essay by Kip Hansen
Prologue: This is the fifth, and last, in a series of essays discussing ongoing scientific controversies—each one a so-called “science war”. This essay attempts to illuminate the similarities that exist between the four previous topics and, of course, the Climate Wars.
Warning: This is not a short essay. Dig in when you have time to read a longer piece.
So far in this series, I have written about The Salt Wars, The Great Barrier Reef Wars, The War on Sugar and most recently The Obesity Epidemic [aka The Obesity Wars]. At the end of each of these essays, I have encouraged readers not to get ahead of themselves by drawing parallels to the Climate Wars, promising that I will get to it in the end–this essay is that end. What follows is my analysis of the core elements of Modern Scientific Controversies.
All Modern Scientific Controversies (MSCs hereafter) begin with one required element without which there would be no MSC. That element is an ADVOCACY CAUSE (the Cause hereafter). We have seen these Causes in each of the MSCs discussed in this series: in the Salt Wars, the Cause is to “reduce the dietary salt intake of the general public to save lives”; in the Great Barrier Reef Wars the Cause is to “save the reef from destruction by human activity”.
In each case, the Cause is a position made up of three planks – like a political platform. These three planks, in each and every controversy, are: the Problem, the Truth, and the Solution.
MSCs usually, but not always, start off with a widely recognized Problem that needs resolution. In the Salt Wars, the perceived Problem is too many people are suffering from High Blood Pressure which increases public health care costs results in the premature deaths of too many citizens. It is something real, is actually happening (at least epidemiologically). In the Climate Wars, the average surface air temperature (as far as can be determined) seems to have risen by 1°C or so since the mid-19th century (which coincides with the beginning of the modern industrial era) and while, to some, this is good news, it is perceived by some to be a grave problem. In the Obesity Wars, rising numbers of the obese are considered to be driving up health care costs and harming the health of many.
We see that the Problem must be something real that can be convincing said to be actually happening and that can be communicated to be a situation that requires a solution or …. something bad continues or takes place in the future.
MSCs don’t always start with a problem to be solved…they can start with a preferred action—the Solution—and through back-formation, arrive at the problem that the solution could be said to solve.
The next two elements—planks—of a Cause are the Truth and the Solution.
Let’s start with the Truth. For the advocacy cause to gain any respectability—any veracity—the Truth element must be irrefutable. Let’s look again at the Salt Wars: the Truth of the Salt Wars is that dietary salt increases blood pressure. This is a fact—every time you feed a human a reasonable dose of salt, be it in his soup or on his mashed potatoes, the person’s blood pressure will go up for a period of time. In the Obesity Wars there are two Truths in play: “calories in > calories burned = weight gain” and obesity is a risk factor for many adverse health conditions. Both are facts, irrefutable. In the Climate Wars, increasing CO2 concentration in the atmosphere causes the Earth system to retain energy that would otherwise be re-radiated into space [h/t Physics].
In each MSC, the Advocacy Cause a Solution is then presented as an application of the Truth that brings about the necessary resolution of the Problem. We are all aware of these proposed solutions: Force everyone to lose weight to solve or prevent obesity, save lives, and reduce public health care costs; greatly reduce the amount of salt in the public diet through education, propaganda and government regulation of food manufacturing and prevent heart disease; stop all human activity that could adversely affect reefs and spend more money on reef research; reduce consumption of added sugars through a public campaign of sugar shaming, regulations and punitive taxation.
MSCs can feed on one another, the Great Barrier Reef Wars feed on the Climate Wars, the War on Sugar feeds on the Obesity Wars. They become mutually reinforcing.
I know, I know…..I hear some readers saying “But…But…But….”. You are right.
The other Key Factor in MSCs is that the Advocacy Cause—the three plank platform—ALWAYS has one or more serious FLAWs. Without the Flaw, there could be no controversy, the Advocacy Cause would simply, slowly or quickly, become the accepted reality of its science field and segue into public policy—there would be no opposition. The Flaw can be scientific—applying any of the three planks: Truth, Problem, or Solution. There may be something about the science of it that makes it invalid, inapplicable, unlikely, untenable, impossible, foolish or nonsensical. The Flaw can be social—the public may not believe the Problem, the Solution may be unacceptable socially, the Truth may offend moral sensibilities. The Flaw can be political: any of the three planks can simply be impossible politically in the area of concern.
Let’s look at some of these Flaws.
In the Salt Wars the flaw exists in the Truth (and thus infects the Solution). Dietary salt does increase blood pressure, but for the vast majority of the population the increase is very small and not clinically important. [see Minimal Clinically Important Difference — Defining What Really Matters to Patients by Anna E. McGlothlin, PhD and Roger J. Lewis, MD, PhD] It is only for those genetically-determined to be salt sensitive that salt reduction becomes part of the solution for high blood pressure. The Advocacy Solution of “reducing the dietary salt intake of all citizens” is thus flawed and rightly deemed by its medical opponents as being an ill-advised experiment that uses the entire population as a cohort (experimental subjects) without their informed consent; an experiment that may well have negative effects for most of the subjects.
In the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) Wars, there is a Flaw in both the Problem and Solution. It is true that human activity can harm reefs, especially near-shore reefs and reefs subject to intense sustenance over-fishing and that high surface sea water temperature can and does cause coral bleaching. In general, the problems are local in scope and thus solutions must be specifically local—for this island, we must stop sustenance over-fishing, stop the use of improper, destructive fishing techniques, dispose of wastewater from the city further out to sea. For the GBR, Australia has long-enforced very stringent restrictions on activities that could harm near-shore reefs and the results have been and continue to be very positive – the drum-beat of continued demand to further restrict human activities, which restrictions are unlikely to have much, if any, additional benefit, is seriously flawed. The advocacy position in the GBR Wars that is in support of the Climate Wars is an additional Flaw, bleaching occurs when El Niño comes into play, and Super El Niños bleach even more – cutting CO2 omissions will have little to no effect on sea surface temperatures and affect only very-near-surface reefs.
In a MSC not previously covered, the Flaw is social. Unless you are a pediatrician, involved in the fight against STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) or a school administrator, you may not have heard of the controversy surrounding Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. The vaccine is recommended by the CDC for all 11-12 year olds. It has become simply another of the large range of normally administered childhood immunizations. The MSC though stems from—you guessed it—an Advocacy Cause. In this case, the Cause is to require that all girls entering junior high school to be vaccinated for HPV to be allowed to attend school. This movement, entirely unnecessary, poisoned the HPV vaccine effort – many citizens did not want to think that their precious little girls needed to be vaccinated against a sexually transmitted disease at age 11 or 12, if ever. The Flaw is that the Solution proposed in the Advocacy Cause was socially unacceptable. Very few parents, however, had any objection to their pediatrician’s suggestion that children be vaccinated against HPV as part of the normal course of childhood vaccinations. It was only the Advocacy Cause to enforce vaccination through the public schools that generated opposition. In this MSC, as in others, there are also other contributing Flaws: the current vaccines only prevent some of the many types of HPV infections, the current vaccine can cause anaphylactic shock in some patients receiving it, etc.