Monday, December 29, 2008

Of babies, popcorn and the precautionary principle

My spouse Audrey and I are looking forward to becoming great grandparents early in 2009. Yikes! Am I ready to be a great grandfather? Everyone in the family is of course very enthused over this coming event. My granddaughter's husband Victor, a keenly analytic sort of guy, tries to think of anything and everything that could affect the health of our granddaughter and the fetus she is carrying. That brings me to popcorn, one of Audrey's favorite snack foods. A liking for popcorn has been passed on to our grandkids, including our pregnant granddaughter (who is also named Audrey). The Audreys' favorite way of making popcorn is to use a plastic bowl with a lid and a bit of oil, and run the assembly in the microwave on high for an appropriate time. Victor has insisted that our granddaughter stop eating popcorn made in this manner, because of the chance that bisphenol A (BPA) might find its way out of the plastic and into the popcorn.

Victor has a good point. There has been a lot written of late on the potentially harmful effects from ingestion of BPA incidental to its use in many plastic objects with which we regularly come into contact. The biggest worries have to do with the health of the fetus and infants. Animal studies indicate that even low levels of BPA in the mother can result in neural and behavioral changes in the infant, especially those related to the development of normal sex-based differences between males and females. But in this case, as in so many others relating to the potentially harmful effects of trace contaminants, the evidence directly relating to humans is nonexistent or inconclusive. In response to much concern, a great many studies have been conducted. The results of all these were recently summarized in a report from the Center for the Evalution of Risks to Human Reproduction. Two things come to mind as I read through this lengthy, detailed report: First, there has been a vast amount of study of the biological effects of BPA. Secondly, it is devilishly difficult to conclude with any level of certainty the extent of the risk that BPA poses to humans. In a kind of battle of agencies, the FDA issued a report in August 2008 suggesting BPA is not something to worry about. That report was blasted by environmental and consumer groups such as the Consumers Union. It's hard to know for sure, but on the basis of the CERHR report I believe that there is little cause for adults to worry, unless they are put into extensive contact with BPA in a work environment. On the other hand, while direct evidence relating to humans is lacking, the studies with rats and mice show that BPA does pose significant dangers in the prenatal and infant stages of life.

How should we respond when faced with a state of knowledge that falls far short of certainty? First we need to assess the authority with which scientific evidence can be called into play. In this case, the evidence, though indirect, is sufficiently compelling to make a case that every effort should be made to minimize exposure of the fetus and infant to BPA. Science in this case provides no certainty, only indirect indications that BPA might cause problems. Animal responses to toxins often fail to mirror those of humans. Sometimes the animals show greater sensitivity than humans, sometimes less. Nonetheless, there is a general similarity in responses, and it is often possible, as in this case, to trace the biological pathways taken by the substance under study to achieve some degree of confidence in inferences based on animal results.
Second, in deciding what response to make to a potential risk, we should invoke the Precautionary Principle, which is embodied in such folk sayings as "look before you leap", and "better safe than sorry". In short, it has to do with the avoidance of risk. In the case of the popcorn popper Victor is applying the principle to say that if there is any chance that using the plastic popcorn popper will increase our granddaughter's body load of BPA, she should avoid using it. This is not a difficult decision for them to make. There are ways to make popcorn that avoid the contact with heated plastic. But for manufacturers who use BPA in a host of applications, the search for a substitute can be arduous and expensive. Substitutes have already come on the market to replace BPA-containing water bottles, baby bottles and infant formula cans. But for some uses, no alternative known to be safe in all respects has been identified. For example, food cans and soft drink cans are lined with a polymer formed from BPA. The amount of BPA that finds its way into the contents of the can is very small, but many environmental groups have lobbied against continued use of the liners.

Enter again the Precautionary Principle. Manufacturers of BPA-containing products are eager to point to the many virtues of plastics in our everyday lives. They stress their safety and the lack of definitive evidence that BPA produces any harmful effects in adults. And there is another side to the Precautionary Principle coin. In an effort to avoid a potentially harmful effect of some action or use, we might inadvertantly create an even greater harm. The American Chemistry Council, an association of chemical companies, makes the point that the plastic liners of cans help to prevent food poisoning. If that's true, and if lives are saved by the use of plastic liners, their removal might do more harm than the potential harm from ingestion of tiny amounts of BPA.

Cass R. Sunstein, writing in the journal Deadalus, [ Sunstein, Cass R. "Taking Precautions", Daedalus, Spring 2008, p. 49] discusses the difficulties in employing the Precautionary Principle as a source of concrete guidance. The problem is that we seldom know all the relevant risks. So we continue to struggle to find the appropriate place for science to exercise an authority consistent with what it can claim to know. Many nonscientists mistakenly expect that real science produces bulletproof answers to the questions put before it. However, the science we draw upon to address issues that affect society in the here and now more often than not can deliver only hedged bets.

Friday, December 26, 2008

What lies behind skepticism of global climate change?

This blog is in part about the ways in which scientific methods of inquiry and the processes of rational analysis come into contact with the affairs of the larger society outside science itself. In a future blog I want to comment on the concept of science as a distinct social domain with a myriad of interfaces with the larger society. Many of these interfaces involve matters of wide social significance: climate change, medical advances, evolutionary theory and so on. In these cases it is often the case that the viewpoint from science is in conflict with other widely held views that are grounded in other cultural outlooks. In trying to understand the positions taken by many outside science when they conflict with widely held scientific views we need to look into the deeply held values and imbued cultural outlooks that motivate those positions. For scientists it can be very frustrating to encounter arguments based on incorrect understandings that are stubbornly held in the face of a storehouse of reliable information to the contrary. If one wants to be cynical, it is easy to see arrogance, greed, hubris and a litany of other unflattering attributes at work in many cases. The issue of climate change affords plenty of examples; for example, CNN's Lou Dobbs.

We have to ask just why Dobbs has decided to be a skeptic about climate change. The simplest and most likely explanation is that he sees it as generating a positive audience response. Some years ago in a turn from reporting the financial news, he adopted the persona of the 'outsider', the one willing to call into question a mainstream view. For example, he has pushed a chauvanistic approach to immigration that bypasses all the difficult nuances of this complicated issue, appealing instead to people's fears and feelings of being victimized. Characteristically, the solutions he proposes to deal with immigration are pretty much bereft of a serious analysis of the origins of the problems, the longer term consequences, or the effects of his proposals on "those others". Of late he seems to think that the audience he wants to attract will be drawn to the idea that man-made climate change is a fraudulent concept cooked up by some indistinct establishment interest.

As reported by Fair, we have plenty of other examples of this sort of climate change skeptic, including ABC's John Stossel a free market advocate who apparently thinks that the world can run quite well by allowing anyone and everyone to what they damn well please; CNN meteorologist Chad Myers and the conservative columnist George Will. It is hard to know what motivates these people to be publicly skeptical of the mainstream scientific view, in light of their own weak scientific credentials, the vast amount of data, modeling and other forms of analysis that inform the relatively conservative IPCC forecasts, and the acceptance of the mainstream scientific view by nearly all scientists who are bona fide climate scientists of one sort or another. However, if we for the moment put aside our suspicions that these people are looking for attention or market share, or are in the clutches of Exxon Mobil or others of that ilk, we are left with two thoughts: First, there is something in their cultural formations that makes them resistive to an authority that based on the results of a process of observation, hypothesis formation, modeling, testing - in short, of dispassionate rational thought regarding matters dealing with the physical world. Somehow, perhaps because of the conflicts that have arisen with other domains of their lives, science is not seen as a coherent body of practice and knowledge that deserves to be accepted willingly. Secondly, they may have no real idea of what has gone into the conclusions of the IPCC, or of how to distinguish the longer term secular changes that define climate from the shorter term variations in the planet's atmospheric and oceanic systems that we think of as weather. Thus they don't see themselves as denying established scientific opinion.

It takes a lot of time and attention to process and come to a reasonable familiarity with the IPCC reports. I've been interested in this subject for a long time, and I can readily see that it would require more time and effort than most nonscientists would be willing to give. We can't expect, then, that the average person will do that sort of due diligence. But nonscientists can have an understanding of how the scientific enterprise is structured. They should be able to appreciate how what Michael Polanyi referred to in his classic The Republic of Science paper as 'scientific opinion' comes to be formed. Whether or not they are knowledgeable about the particular issue before them, they should be in a position to judge the difference between, say, the uninformed ramblings of a weatherman or news hustler and the consolidated, integrated conclusions of an entire community of researchers. Science needs to find ways to impart this sort of understanding of how it actually works. It is not clear, though, how this is to be accomplished.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

And on the first day...

I recently returned an edited copy of my new book, Imperfect Oracle: The Epistemic and Moral Authority of Science, to Pennsylvania State University Press PSU Press. If all goes well, the book should be out by September, and should appear on bookseller lists long before that. I felt a great sense of relief and something like finality for a project that has occupied much of my attention for the past few years. At the same time, I now realize more intensely than I could ever have when I began it that the book deals with a very broad and multifaceted set of topics. Every day as I hear and read news and commentary on the web, in newspapers and other media, I see connections with ideas dealt with in the book. Or, as also happens with some frequency, I see matters arising that are relevant to the major themes of the book, but which I did not treat in any detail, in the interests of saving space or becuase they are new. I hope to make amends for these shortcomings in this blog, which I intend to be a locale for a broadly-based discussion of science's authority in society; both its expert, or epistemic authority and its moral authority.

To get started, here are a few quotes from the preface to the book. I hope that they will set the tone for what I want to do here.

"We all know that science, whether we love it, abide it or even detest it, is here to stay and that science and technology in important senses define modern culture. They are the agents on which much else depends, whether it’s food and fresh water for the world’s billions, or new fabrics being shown on the fashion runways of Paris and New York. From matters of life and death to trivial pursuits, contemporary life hinges on science and technology. There is no turning back the clock on scientific and technological “progress”; even the most resolutely organic farm commune finds itself partaking of scientific knowledge.
It is this very omnipresence that gives people the willies, as indeed it should. If the world holds itself in thrall to all the instrumental offerings of science and technology, with little regard for their larger implications, for what they mean for our destiny as a species, or for our moral obligations to one another and to the world in which we live, human civilization is not long for this planet.
We seem to have overrun ourselves as a species; we’ve been very clever in dealing with the physical world, in using our evolutionary biological inheritance to such good effect that we can do quite amazing things. But we still carry with us cognitive predilections that served humanity well on its way up the evolutionary slopes, but which may now contribute to our undoing. A rational approach to study of the physical world that employs the methodologies of scientific research has provided humanity with a cornucopia of beneficial products. Ironically, some have consequences that can be disastrous over time if not properly dealt with. Science has much to offer in addressing the complex social, economic and political problems confronting society, but its voice is only one of many. There is no doubt that science exercises influence, but it often falls short of what it might attain. So it’s worth asking why it does not have a stronger voice in shaping the culture of society, as distinct from simply delivering a great many products.
I’ve chosen to analyze this and important related questions by using the concept of “authority” as a kind of lens through which to view science’s interactions with the larger society. Part of my task has been to identify the kinds of authority exercised by science, and to show how scientific authority stands in relationship to the authorities that characterize other social sectors. approach has been to consider authority generally: a classification in terms of the kinds of authority that exist, and their origins in social institutions. I then deal with how science came to have authority, and the contests with other societal sectors through which that authority was won. "

So I've set my point of departure. I hope in the next few posts to more clearly illustrate my interests and intentions, and I hope that you, the reader, will be sufficiently interested to offer your views.