Perspective — The Art of Science

Perspective is an editorial column I write regularly for FiNS Magazine. This installment is entitled "The Art of Science":

Not too long ago if you got an ulcer, common advice ranged from home remedies like drinking milk, to medical treatments involving antacid concoctions, changes in lifestyle, stress management therapies, etc.

One scientific journal ascribed ulcers to a range of potential causes, including “diet, alcohol, smoking, emotional strain, personality and genotype”. Talk about covering all bases.

A study published in the Journal of Chronic Diseases had this to say about ulcers: “Mothers of ulcer patients tended to have psychogenic symptoms, and to be striving, obsessional, and dominant in the home.”

In other words, overbearing mothers cause ulcers. Can you imagine the family strife and trauma resulting from these authoritative and definitive views?

Let’s put ulcers in perspective. In 1997, the American College of Gastroenterology indicated that surgical treatment for ulcers cost US$17,661 and 307 days. Drugs and psychological treatment required US$11,186 and 187 days per patient.

That’s a lot of time and money — especially when all the experts were dead wrong.

In 1982, Australian scientists J. Robin Warren and Barry Marshall demonstrated that bacteria are the primary cause of stomach ulcers. Not work stress, not diet, not even overbearing mothers. Just plain and simple bacteria — Helicobacter pylori.

The implications were staggering — now all you need is less than US$1,000 and some antibiotics to cure ulcers.

“Nice for ulcer patients, but so what?” you might think. The significance of this saga is that being dogmatic about anything is a risky proposition.

Here, millions suffered from unnecessary, ineffective treatments. Trillions of dollars were spent, or rather, wasted, and incalculable productivity lost globally.

How does this apply to conservation?

Take the issue of global warming, for example. Most readers will probably agree that global warming is a problem. We’ve been told this for most of our lives. We see it on TV; we see people campaigning on the issue; we hear testimony from scientists telling us that the world is in imminent danger.

How many of you, however, have studied or understood the data underpinning these beliefs? Not many, I’d wager.

One of the main assumptions underlying the case for man-made global warming is a graph known as the hockey stick, published in a UN report in 2001 by climatologist Dr. Michael Mann. It’s a reconstruction of the world’s climate, in which temperatures spike upward during the past 100 years or so.

This graph — this one version of reality — is the dogma that underpins most current scientific and political discussion about global warming.

Here’s the thing.

Dr. Mann has been challenged and forced to publish corrections. He refuses to cooperate with critics or to discuss his methodology. Credible criticism is growing, with one climatologist saying that Dr. Mann’s method appears to “preferentially produce hockey sticks when there are none in the data.”

Ok, I can see the red faces of anger now. No, I am not saying that global warming is necessarily false.

What I am saying is this — there’s a lot of money being spent and major multinational political decisions being made, largely on the basis of gut feeling and the analysis of one man who refuses to talk. How fruitful can that be?

Whenever debating scientific “truth”, especially as it applies to nature, perhaps it’s best to keep in mind that science may be the pursuit of truth, but the pursuit of truth is often an art.

[tags]global warming[/tags]