Friday, June 8, 2007

Do Honest Scientists Deserve Blame?

Talk about mad! My parents moved to the Washington D.C. area when I was 7 and it didn’t take me long to discover the historic Little Tavern hamburger chain (since bought by a Congressman who immediately closed the stores and sold the real estate they were on). I had never had a hamburger before and my Father used to joke about the dollar dinner, 19 LT hamburgers and a coke. They were about 4 bites, although you could get a larger size for a dime. Cheese was an extra penny or two, depending on the size.
I’d never had either a hamburger or a cheeseburger and when I got my first taste of what were widely call death balls, I fell in love. As the years went by, my tastes turned to big, juicy, rare cheeseburgers, a heavenly treat, and I spent a lot of time finding the restaurants that knew how to cook them. Then a catastrophe occurred. A dozen or so kids fell ill, one of them dying. A background check for commonalities led to the conclusion that all the kids had eaten at a Jack-In-The-Box fast food restaurant. It was speculated and widely reported as fact that undercooked hamburgers were the culprit because they had a high incidence of e coli, which is what the kids were sick from.
All of a sudden, finding anyone that would serve a cheeseburger less than medium was next to impossible. While there are still a few restaurants that buy their own cuts of meat and grind them up into hamburger, and therefore have no danger of e coli, these establishments are few and far between. As far as getting a rare cheeseburger anywhere but at home became too much of a chore, so one of my greatest enjoyments bit the dust.
That was then, and now I find out the real story of the kids' sickness. It wasn’t hamburger at all, and therefore, I had been deprived simply because of speculations that were reported as fact. The real story is one that demonstrates how real science works and how intelligent, inquisitive, painstaking and challenging its practice can be. It also shows that there are certain aspects of our life here on Earth that science can’t, and for that matter, shouldn’t deal with.
The first clue came when a person that should have been in the population of hamburger eaters wasn’t, and it turned out that person was not only the sickest, she was the only one that died. That person was a baby, and she had never had a hamburger nor eaten at the suspected restaurant. However, while she lived several states away, her parents had just moved, and they had moved from the affected area.
This meant that something else caused the e coli, and because it was something else, its source had to be identified quickly or others would become infected. The public, of course, never heard a word of this and newspapers aren’t in the habit of making their mistakes of haste front-page news, so I’ll forever be out my rare cheeseburgers. Researchers went to the parents of the sick girl and started the exhaustive process of retracing their every step before they left Washington State, where the incident was occurring. Eventually, the mother remembered an incident in a grocery store where the girl had wanted a drink, and she’d taken a small carton of apple juice. She remembered the design on the carton because it was so unusual and the researchers quickly identified the apple juice’s maker. Although all apple juice was pasteurized, companies weren’t required to do so by law, and this brand was marketed to the new market for health foods by stating that it was natural, that it wasn’t pasteurized. When notified the company immediately emptied the shelves of the product. It was quickly established that the juice was the source of the e coli.
Next, the scientist in charge had to determine where the e coli originated. They reviewed all the contracts the company had with apple producers, and all the contracts required that only apples picked from trees be included in any purchase. This was because it didn’t want to take a chance on apples lying on the ground subject to the environment polluting the purity of its juice. The scientists then visited the apple providers and found that they were using unregulated and unsupervised help to fill the apple orders. As the orders were for the bushel of apples, workers were picking up apples from the ground to more quickly fill the baskets.
The next step was for the scientists to determine how the e coli got into the apples on the ground. Like most western states, and many others, impeding the movement of wild animals was strictly forbidden. I remember visiting some friend in 70s California. They were spending vast amounts of time trying to landscape in a way that would keep deer from eating the product of their work, but they were about to give up because everything that was effective had been prohibited and everything that was not prohibited was not effective. It turns out that deer are a major carrier of e coli, and upon examining deer droppings in one of the apple orchards, the scientists found what they were looking for, the source of the e coli.
I think this is absolutely remarkable and certainly the practice of science in all its glory. Both my son-in-laws do the same sort of work, and over the years, I’ve had many friends who practiced science. They have to have unique knowledge in their fields, and when it comes down to it, they become the only source of that unique knowledge. One group of scientists might spend their days performing trial and error work on possible drug cures while others spend years testing different artificial threads to determine quality in order to produce better products. As each scientist in each field does so, the store of knowledge related to the area of expertise is collected, processed, and added to. It’s a great system. I wasn’t surprised one day when I found out that there are men and women who devote their entire lives to the nature of rope. It sounds silly, but the body of knowledge that has grown up over the centuries dealing with this common product has produced all sorts of improvements. Technology marches forward on the shoulders of unsung scientists working in isolated fields on practical problems.
And with the technology, our prosperity increases, our lives grow easier, and we have a lot to thank them for.
It harkens back, in my mind, to one of the earliest assignments of The Royal Society, one that occupied Robert Hooke for many years. This assignment was to produce a spring for a horse drawn coach that would make riding in the coach comfortable. Much of the early work of the society was devoted to projects of this type because wealthy people were willing to subsidize the projects in the hope that the results would make their life, and everybody else’s who used horse drawn coaches, better (and in those days, horse drawn coaches were the means of transportation for everyone).
I guess the question I have to ask now is, why haven’t I heard of any of this before? Why do I have to still be subjected to restaurants serving my cheeseburgers ruined? It doesn’t have anything to do with science, or the practice of science, and I point it out to underline my point that there are certain subjects that can be approached on a scientific basis, and there are certain subjects which can’t, which, in fact, have no place in the scientific community.
The e coli outbreak, and the death, was the direct result of certain social movements. First, with prosperity, people were able to transcend the basic need we have for food. When we lived in feudal societies, we’d eat anything we could get our hands on, and risked limb, and even life, to obtain food for our family. With prosperity, we are removed from our food source and work for paychecks that in turn are traded for food and other necessities. When this situation arose, scientists added preservatives and color fixers to increase the time available to move the food from the ground to our tables. Some of us didn’t trust these additives and started a health food movement. While pasteurization is a proven method to make food safer, the pasteurization laws don’t encompass everything, and in this case, apple juice slipped through. However, the industry, due to the possibility of ground apples, knew the dangers of e coli and voluntarily pasteurized its product until one discovered a good market for “healthy” unpasteurized apple juice. How was the buyer to know? The buyer was focused on the “unpasteurized’ as a good thing because it was an intermediate process between production and consumption, and the health food movement objected to all intermediate processes (just listen to the fear of irradiated food as if it were going to explode in the stomach or cause radiation poisoning).
The health food social movement is relatively harmless and only affects its practitioners. The animal preservation movement is an entirely different story. When the number of deer killed by motorists approaches the number shot by hunters, not to mention the number of motorists killed by deer, something is wrong. However, the deer preservation (and now pretty much any wild animal preservation) has stretched from the West to the East coast. When I moved to Washington in ’46, we could swim in the Potomac and the tributary streams. By the early ‘50s, we couldn’t and later in the decade I would lifeguard Potomac cruises with specific instructions to only throw lifesavers to anyone who drunkenly fell overboard.
The environmental movement of the sixties changed all that and we spent hundreds of millions of dollars improving both the water and the air quality. By the late ‘70s, we could water ski on the Potomac and children could play in the tributaries. Then in the ‘90s water pollution warnings were once again posted, only this time there was no environmental movement to correct the situation. Why? Because the pollution was from wild animals that were using the tributaries, much as the deer were using the apple orchard, as toilets.
Any society that doesn’t take steps to protect its urban population from the diseases wild animals carry is not a society, but a shambles. However, the scientists that tracked down the e coli, while knowing the cause, could not take any scientific steps to correct the situation. If they felt the situation should be corrected, they could, on their nonscientific time, attempt to form social movements to pen deer out of places where food for human consumption was grown, but it wouldn’t have been successful because environmental groups would contact the association that provided the scientist with credentials and the association would bring pressure on the scientist to stick to science.
The third societal pressure that led to the e coli outbreak was the use of uneducated, migrant labor to harvest farm products. It doesn’t do much good to sign a contract saying all apples will be picked from the tree if the signer has no intention of supervising the work force to ensure that no apples will be picked up from the ground. I’d hate to be either the company that made the apple juice or the company signing the contract to pick only from trees because any jury is going to see that, under the situation, its foreseeable that the contract is going to be breached.
That's why all companies had been pasteurizing apple juice.
While the scientific process shone bright when it came to tracing the source of the e coli, it can do absolutely nothing about the social movements that brought the e coli into the marketplace. Some things are just beyond the realm of the scientific process.
Like what else?
Well, a lot of things science claims do fall under the scientific process.
Let’s start with the easiest one, gravity. Manipulating gravity is clearly a part of the scientific process. However, saying what causes gravity is not, simply because there is no scientific process that can tell us what precisely it is that causes gravity. The cause of gravity can only be theorized.
A better example is the age, size, origin and possible ending of the universe. Science has no process to tell us what the universe is, yet it claims to know how it started, how it evolved and how it will end, as well as where the physical end of the universe is (and what’s outside of that?).
None of use, least of all scientists, are in a position to say, adding preservatives to food is dangerous to our health, allowing wild animals to roam in our cities is more amusing than dangerous or that migrant labor can no longer harvest because it is a dangerous practice. Everybody is capable of disagreeing with just about everything but cold hard facts.
Gravity may be a cold hard fact, but what causes it isn’t. The origin of the universe is not even a cold hard fact, so it’s just not a fit subject for science.
I could go on. We can only speculate at what causes the planets to orbit and rotate, or what the nature of light is, or what makes it move, or what electricity is, or what magnetism is. We will never know.
But, and this is a big but, we need to speculate on the nature of these phenomena if we want to conform our technology to reality. We have no other choice.
However, we live in a world in which the scientific establishment has co-opted the explanation for things we can only speculate about. Explanations for gravity, planetary orbiting and rotation, light, electricity, magnetism, were all created before there was an organized science and definitely before there was the technological society in which we live today.
However, because all the answers to questions that need open speculation were set in stone, our technology had to conform, not to reality, but to the ancient answers to the questions. Mass gravity doesn’t just provide an explanation for why an object drops, it closes off technological inquiry into the possibility that gravity, like electricity, might be able to be manipulated. Celestial Mechanics provides an iron clad navigational system to guide our rockets in space, and when it doesn’t, when sunspots make satellites drop from orbit, we make up all sorts of frosting on it to ensure its failure is not recognized.
All of these laws and conclusions are learned early in a scientist’s educational process. There’s really no one responsible for altering or updating them. They just hang in history, passed down from mind to mind, mindlessly believed and mindlessly followed. Associations work to protect the knowledge in their field from encroachment, but at the same time, they are subject to the discipline of the overall scientific community, which enforces its collection of mindless laws and conclusions, and yes, assumptions, vigorously, because everything that has been done in every field of science has been done with these laws in mind. Nothing, absolutely nothing, can oppose the laws.
Thus, the brilliant scientists that traced the e coli have been taught these mindless laws and know them by rote, even though mass gravity has nothing to do with the scientific process in which they are engaged. Their association officials are the gatekeepers who ensure that no one in the field does anything that would oppose any of the mindless laws that might affect that field. Supra gatekeepers on a national and international level monitor associations to ensure that they don’t adopt any theory or attempt any process that violates the mindless laws.
Can an honest scientist, a category that pretty much makes up all scientists, do anything about these mindless memes?
I started writing The Real Skeptic columns in October of ’04. During the time I was writing them, I found out, through email correspondence, that there are at least 3 disciplines in which the rank and file members are trying to clear out the unproven assumptions that formed the basis of the field. This isn’t done without pain. There are meetings at which dissidents get ignored, or more often, booed. It’s just the nature of consensus thinking. But in each of these three fields, a significant minority position has been established that it is now given the respect all opposing factions to a mere idea deserve (to give you an idea without naming disciplines, one of the disciplines is finally throwing off uniformitarianism, that unfounded belief that the Earth formed over vast eons without any significant disruptions).
But these incremental advances won’t touch the heart of mindless scientific belief, the gravity is a property of matter, the light is a wave, solar system motion is not the result of current forces, simply because there are no disciplines that are in a position to challenge these ancient assumptions, and there is no one willing to face the catcalls and boos that actually challenging these core consensus beliefs produces.
In addition, even though we find daily that our technology doesn’t match our concepts, we simply move forward, stumbling all the while over the ancient, unfounded beliefs. Just as Edison’s direct conversion of electricity into light didn’t change the view that electricity and light were different things, just as Einstein’s discovery of the photoelectric effect didn’t change the view that electricity and light are different things, there is nothing that anyone can do that will change these useless beliefs.
But it wouldn’t be a problem if the beliefs were simply useless. They are harmful, because they block creative investigation into all sorts of technologies because the investigations are ruled impossible by the ancient beliefs.
We live better lives than out ancestors simply because the inventors among us ignored the ancient beliefs and forged into new territory. But other than isolated successes here and there, we're just as ignorant as our ancestors when it comes to viewing how the world we find ourselves in works.
So, do honest scientists deserve blame for the situation?
No, but they can open their minds to the mindless memes that were inculcated in their youth and start to recognize the limitations of science. Then perhaps the black and white of these gray subjects can start to enter the popular literature and textbooks.
Maybe, over the years, things will start to change.

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