The Language of Evidence

“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

Who needs evidence? What is evidence, anyway? What is it good for?

Let’s take it from the top.

What is Evidence?

We all know what evidence is. It’s that thing President Trump lacked when he claimed voter fraud cost him the popular vote. Or when he claimed China fabricated climate change.

Evidence, the noun, can be defined in the following ways:

As an aside, I find it rather unfortunate that I have to pay for use of the Oxford English Dictionary—a dictionary (and so much more) distinct from the Oxford Dictionaries. Fie on them for charging for such a treasure trove of English!

Who Needs Evidence?

Everyone!

Why is Evidence Important?

Before I begin: no. The previous section is not suspiciously terse. Everyone needs evidence whether they like it or not.

Human civilization depends on evidence for quite a number of things including philosophy, law, science, and technology. Without it, where would we be? Without evidence, we could expect defendants in a court of law to be convicted based on caprice or whimsy rather than by establishing guilt through facts, information, and argument. Many medical practices and treatments are wholly dependent on well-designed experiments and empirical data validating their efficacy; this field is known as evidence-based medicine. How apropos! The whole scientific enterprise is grounded in claims that can be verified or falsified through measurement, observation, experimentation, and the replicability of such experiments.

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Science and Politics

“We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”

In recent weeks, science and politics have intersected in some very dreadful ways. A growing number of government and political figures have shamelessly tried to thwart, distort, and undermine science. Alas, this is nothing new. Politicians have typically looked askance at scientific endeavors, often regarding space travel, evolution, vaccinations, climate science, and renewable energy resources with contempt. The Trump administration has brazenly—backdropped with deafening silence among Republicans—committed themselves to the despoliation of the environment and the extirpation of climate science from governmental websites, proving themselves inimical to scientific interests and concerns. And we can be sure more executive orders against science are forthcoming.

This is a fucking scandal.

It seems that the rift between politicians and the scientific community, especially in the aforementioned regard, has grown sufficiently large such that any attempt to bridge the divide appears impossible.

Or is it?

Science is grossly underrepresented in government, rather ironic in a country with various institutions dedicated to scientific and medical research. Although not completely absent from the political arena, the list of U.S. Senators with any kind of scientific competency—let alone anything resembling proper STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education—is so appallingly small that it’s worth listing them here. Behold:

  • John Boozman (R-Arkansas) – Doctor of Optometry
  • David Perdue  (R-Georgia) – Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering
  • Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) – Doctor of Medicine
  • Bill Cassidy (R-Louisiana) – Doctor of Medicine
  • Steve Daines (R-Montana) – Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering
  • Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico) – Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering
  • John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) – Doctor of Medicine

Four doctors and three engineers.

With the exception of Rand Paul, I’m sure a majority of these names are foreign to us. The most prevalent degree among the other senators is a Juris Doctor. No surprise there. But it should be concerning, especially as the Trump administration makes aggressive moves to sabotage climate science. I admit I didn’t look at the House of Representatives; luckily, The Atlantic did a bit of that for me. There was a particle physicist elected to the House in 2014; at the time, “even with a very generous definition of scientists… roughly 4 percent [of Congress had] technical backgrounds.”

It’s a start, I guess.

Back in 2011, China—President Trump’s favorite country after Mexico—had an array of government officials with substantial scientific tutelage. (I’m sure Trump would be bigly disappointed at this fact and I speculate this may be why Trump has made foolish statements about climate change and China.) In 2012, approximately 30 out of 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives have science, medical, or technical backgrounds. The current Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, has a doctoral degree in quantum chemistry. The President of Singapore, Tony Tan, has a doctoral degree in Applied Mathematics, and his Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, has degrees in Mathematics and Computer Science. Scientist-politicians indeed exist and we need more of them.

Science makes the world go round. We need science, technology, and medicine for pretty much everything. Therefore, we need more government officials who are scientifically literate should we hope to have any future whatsoever. Thankfully, 314 Action is a non-profit organization that aspires to rectify this shortage of the scientifically enlightened in the political sphere. Their mission:

  • Strengthen communication among the STEM community, the public and our elected officials;
  • Educate and advocate for and defend the integrity of science and its use;
  • Provide a voice for the STEM community on social issues;
  • Promote the responsible use of data driven fact based approaches in public policy;
  • Increase public engagement with the STEM Community through media.

I’m all for this. We desperately need scientist-politicians to defend and endorse scientific pursuits and legislation. I daresay it’s the only way to guarantee future prosperity, whether socially, culturally, and economically. It will take more than open letters, opinion articles, and marches to combat this anti-scientific administration. Science has the evidence, now it just needs political will to make that evidence heard. This is the next step in science communication.

 

When all is Polluted

“Water and air, the two essential fluids on which all life depends, have become global garbage cans.”

I awake each morning to a veritable cannonade of news updates. I find we aren’t approaching an Orwellian nightmare, but rather a tawdry simulacrum of such a nightmare, headed by a modern-day Caligula; I reckon this latter reality is far worse than Orwell’s fictional world. The scariest part, I think, is that I cannot discern whether the commander-in-chief is morally corrupt or that he’s truly enjoying the systematic destruction of a great country—or both.

Thus, I wasn’t surprised to learn President Trump had selected a known climate change denier, Scott Pruitt, to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Neither am I surprised by the Pruitt’s blatant casuistry in the National Review, where he hopes to continue urging a “healthy debate” about global warming—in his favor, of course; even the title of the article, “The Climate Change Gang,” should signal bullshit is afoot. No, I’m more aghast that media coverage surrounding this unbelievably egregious appointment was so scant.

Where were the placards? Where were the protests?

Alas, nowhere.

Let’s get into a very brief lesson. Around the middle of the twentieth century, it dawned on society that our mortal ventures and pursuits could augment the planet with noteworthy consequences for its inhabitants, namely us. Prior to this exigent concern, industrial eructations coated our skies and toxic waste was callously dumped away from populated areas. Established in 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency has generally acted as the proactive bulwark against environmental pollutants that would otherwise lead to our untimely demise as a species. They are principally responsible for enforcing laws like the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and various forms of hazardous waste disposal, among other things. Check out their mission. It’s kind of important.

I have written about the Love Canal and the Valley of the Drums and how just one important piece of EPA legislation—the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, more affectionately known as the Superfund Act—superintended the cleanup of two toxic dumping grounds and held the perpetrating goons accountable.

Yet, the EPA isn’t an infallible or perfect institution.

Despite all its faults, alleged negligence, and various lawsuits threatening its existence, we need the EPA. Hell, I think the EPA could be doing a better job; I think much of its initiatives and actions are reactive, acting belatedly to environmental health disasters. Just look at the spillage of waste at the Gold King Mine in Colorado or the lead-rich waters of Flint, Michigan or the new water finance program. My criticisms and misgivings notwithstanding, we require an agency which advocates for the preservation of the natural world, for it has become distressingly clear the Trump administration endeavors to achieve the contrary.

Health Literacy

Among an ocean of literature

What is health and what does it mean to be in good health? These questions and more have beset humanity prior to classical antiquity, as we continually struggle to combat disease and chronic ailments.

There are perhaps too many books and articles about health and wellbeing. Or are there?

One’s life could be spent dedicated to the singular task of reading every article and book published related to the topic, and one would only be at the outer margins of the field. Unfortunately, one must read quite a lot about to learn what constitutes good health and wellbeing. And that will always entail the capacity to discriminate between accurate, evidence-based information and unsubstantiated, false claims. Basically, one must be able to sift through the shit to arrive at the truth (or as close to the truth as possible).

I’m not going to tackle the first two questions I opened with. Instead, I want to address what it means to be health literate. As we approach the dawn of 2017, it behooves us to reflect on this as we prepare to craft our New Year’s resolutions.

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Scientific Literacy

Science, bitch!

Everyone should be scientifically literate. QED.

In a perfect world, the post would end there.

Unfortunately, when one thinks of science, I fear that people think about packed lecture halls with professors spouting outrageous chemical formulae and jargon that is typically lost and forgotten by the binge-drinking student. Perhaps one thinks about monstrously heavy textbooks and endless lab reports with poor calculations and fabricated data, obscure charts, and incomprehensible words. Worse still are the countless hours lost memorizing lecture notes and textbook passages only to disappear within a network of overloaded neurons the following semester.

A significant portion of the terminology used in the sciences is not understood by the average person. Even individuals with a background in the sciences can seldom navigate the dense thicket of specialized research. Regrettably, this broad topic can seem daunting to most for the aforesaid reasons, and still more daunting for those trying to make educated choices based on the latest research.

Today, science truly makes the world go round. Human civilization heavily depends on the contributions gifted us by rigorous scientific inquiry. As the products and services of these endeavors encompass all aspects of our lives, it behooves us to ask one very important question:

Should we be scientifically literate?

This question is very close to my area of undergraduate study and my truest interests in life, biology, and my latest interest in public health. And yes, I had the idea to write this article since August of 2014… before Bill Nye decided to comment on the dangers of a scientifically illiterate population. The bulk of this was drafted and sat in limbo, mostly because I was still contemplating the route my blog would take. I dusted this off and finally finished it after more than two years. So, here’s the answer to the question; it won’t be brief, and it certainly shan’t be terse.

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A False Panacea

Good diets. No science.

For those paying attention, I have had hydrology on the mind lately. Access to potable water, being necessary for the maintenance of a healthy society, should be an inalienable right of all humans residing on Earth. (That sentence should belong in someone’s constitution, no?) However, access clean water alone do not constitute the whole picture of what it means to live a healthy life.

A small digression before we delve deeper. I don’t much care for the word healthy. It litters the landscape and one cannot go more than five minutes without hearing it or its derivatives. I don’t hate the word like I hate diet, but I take steps to avoid using the word—both of them, in fact—whenever possible. It really is fucking everywhere. Nevertheless, healthy is subject to overuse and abuse by the media and public alike. And we should treat these misuses with contempt. Unlike diet—which has die as its root—health has a more implicit root: hell. It sounds a bit like hell without the flames. The torture part is still there as the screams of the damned lament strict eating regimens (e.g. Atkins diet, Alkaline diet, Paleolithic diet, etc.) and exhausting exercise programs (e.g. P90X and Insanity).

“A state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease and infirmity.”

Health is a conglomerate of various factors. More than just physical well being—adequate food and drink and the absence of injury or illness—it is also mental well being, a fact now being more seriously understood by public health professionals. Mental well being profits from fruitful social interactions, an agreeable living environment, and the luck of one’s genetic endowment. By the latter, I mean that certain genetic factors could predispose an individual to mental disorders, aside from psychological and social components. There is also the preventative aspect of health. Public health officials, researchers, and myriad medical professionals attempt to monitor and mitigate the spread of communicable disease as our world becomes increasingly globalized. With that comes teaching good hygienic practices at home and at work, educating the public how diseases are contracted and the behaviors that obviate illness, and having easy (and affordable) access to healthcare. As the World Health Organization says, health is far more being than unwell, it is “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease and infirmity.”

However… (I’m sure some readers were waiting for it.)

There are numerous claims about health that are either exaggerated or downright false, unsubstantiated by evidence, let alone commonsense and good judgment. Promises of rapid weight loss, body-changing routines, and fad diets fall into these categories. One must be wary at all times of the unabashed declarations of quick fixes and boundless results.

So, dear readers, get ready for a bit of science with a generous serving of reality.

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