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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Fighting science with science

    If you read an article in this newspaper saying that scientists had discovered amazing new health benefits of juice, would you believe it?

    After all, you can’t argue with science, right?

    Well, sometimes you can.

    Industries love to use science to help promote their products, because science carries such credibility. That’s why our world is full of bad science: miracle weight-loss drugs promising science-based quick fixes, corporations’ representatives making statements as if they were independent scientific researchers and research studies that are funded by an industry and therefore biased toward that industry.

    For example, that juice study you read about in the newspaper: Researchers in Boston looked at studies about milk, soda and juice, and their findings were not cheerful. Twenty-two percent of studies they looked at were entirely funded by industry – and of those, not a single one found a conclusion that was unfavorable to its industry.

    This wasn’t necessarily intentional. It might simply have been due to the conflict of interest: Let’s please the people who give us money.

    Either way, perhaps you might not want to stock up on O.J. after all.

    Of course, if we’re going to talk about bad science that misleads the public, we can’t go without mentioning Big Tobacco’s 50-year crusade of misinformation about the science and health effects of its cigarettes. As the federal judge who last year found it guilty of racketeering said, Big Tobacco “”suppressed research, they destroyed documents. … They distorted the truth.””

    Exxon Mobil Corp. has done much the same thing over the years since the Kyoto Protocol. As a scientific watchdog reported in December, Exxon Mobil Corp. has spent $16 million to make it seem as though the scientific community is divided about the existence of global warming.

    According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, Exxon Mobil Corp. distorted the findings of real scientific studies and paid their own “”scientific spokespeople”” to create the illusion of doubt about global warming.

    It seems science isn’t so infallible, after all.

    And it’s obvious that our lack of understanding about science is really hurting us – financially,

    health-wise and environmentally.

    Yet, it’s natural for companies to try to use science for their own benefit. It would be nearly impossible to stop them doing so, and in a way their liberty to do so is, well, a liberty.

    Therefore, the best thing we can do is become smarter about science ourselves – although the unfortunate truth is that the current trend is going in the opposite direction. U.S. Department of Education test scores in 2005 showed that science proficiency is continuing to fall among high school seniors.

    Distressingly, almost half of high school seniors did not have a “”basic”” level of understanding about science – “”basic”” being defined as “”partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade.””

    If that’s the case, how can half our citizens hope to distinguish good scientific research from claims made by a corporation, research that might be biased from research that probably isn’t or even a brilliant new scientific gadget from a piece of junk that won’t work?

    If we as a nation want to be able to make smart decisions about our own lives, we have to understand science.

    To interpret health findings claiming that trans fats are bad for us, we have to know what trans fats are. We have to know the basic science behind what we do every day to see that the active ingredient in this expensive face cream and that cheap one are the same.

    If we don’t want to be swindled, we have to know what’s going on, because our nation’s doctrine of commerce is “”Let the buyer beware.””

    Most importantly, we have to learn what it means to look at the world scientifically. That doesn’t mean losing our beliefs. It means looking at science with skepticism – and knowing that something can only be disproven, never proven – and recognizing that science can’t provide the absolute truth, only clues to it.

    Science isn’t just for chemistry majors; it’s what the universe is made of, and it’s something we have to understand to be smart consumers and citizens.

    Lillie Kilburn is a psychology sophomore. She can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu

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