Monday, July 16, 2012

Shifting Consensus Does Not Justify Inaction


I began my post graduate career studying prevention of heart disease. This was the mid 80s, when the epidemiology of the relationship between high levels of "bad"  or LDL cholesterol and coronaruy artery disease  were converging with the basic science. In 1985, Joe Goldstein and Mike Brown won the Nobel Prize for their discovery and characterization of the LDL receptor, and in 1987, Merck, in an example of the sort of capitalism we both admire brought,the first of the statin drugs to market, initiating an unprecedented era of success in the preventiaon and treatment and the leading killer in the US. In large part as a result of this science, the death rate for coronary artery disease has dropped 25% per decade since I began my training.

But of course, there were skeptics. Legions of them. Some reasonable competent, others not so much. Some with honorable motivations, others clearly on the lunatic fringe. The one remember best was the head  of biochemistry at the medical school where I got my first job. He had been a distinguished basic scientist and like many smart and successful people he though his training and intellectual skill were instantly transferable. So for ten years he taught the first year medical students that the cholesterol hypothesis was a bunch of nonsense and that the real problem was magnesium . Then there was Thomas Moore, a reporter for the Washington Post who made a big splash in the Atlantic with an article insisting that the whole business was a hoax (sound familiar?) promulgated by the nasty drug companies to sell drugs that did no good to people who didn't need them.

And we listened and attended to our science and in a very short while this stuff sorted itself out. We accepted the possibility that the emerging consensus might be wrong and we tested and retested. What we did not do was to accept uncertainty as a justification for inaction. We treated patients in what seemed to be the best way possible each step of the way and we accepted the risk that we might be wrong. There are certainly notorious examples of our being wrong. It also helps that we aren't threatening an enormous segment of the American econmoy whose very survival would depend upon our being wrong.

The challenge of climate science is that most conclusions are made from data that represent conditions not reproducible in a laboratory. So answering questions as disarmingly straightforward as "is the Earth getting warmer?" are actually not straightforward at all. But all that means is that  that the best available techniques are used by the smartest and most careful people (like Judith Curry seems to be)  to try and get as such question as best as one can. And one makes choices along way about what to do with the data one has.

But you and I know both know that there is no amount of careful science, or solidity of information, or anything, that is going to alter the postion of the Republican party with regard to the possibility of climate change. Given their ability to insure that  inaction remains the status quo, I suppose we both may as well hope that they are right. As I have said before, neither one of us will be here to see what happens if they're not.


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