Several years later I saw the greatly under-rated film Election, in which a school teacher (played by Matthew Broderick) spots a bad egg running for student president and recklessly tries to sabotage her campaign because he knows that a victory will set her on course for a life of making other people miserable. The teacher is exposed, Tracey "pick" Flick wins the election and he is ruined. By the end of the film, he has lost his marriage and his job, his nemesis has won and he has nothing. In the final scene, he comes across her by chance—she is now rapidly ascending the greasy pole of politics—and in a futile and impotent gesture, he hurls a milkshake at her car. The end.
If I was to tell you that this scene and the aforementioned quote regularly come to mind as I write my books, speeches, articles and blog-posts, you would get a glimpse of the hopelessness with which I view the pursuit of liberty and tolerance in the second decade of the twenty-first century. To be candid, I do not see myself on the winning side. As I hinted at in yesterday's post, the forces of reason are no match for the forces of ignorance, avarice and fear which outgun us.
With the odds stacked against you, all you can do is offer your scorn. With that in mind, I point you to Carl V. Phillips' recent testimony to the US Food and Drug Administration. Dr Phillips is an honest scientist, too rigorous for the public health movement he represents and too measured for the e-cigarette and smokeless tobacco industries whose products he implicitly or overtly endorses. The FDA committee on tobacco harm reduction, meanwhile, is ostensibly interested in public health but, as Carl writes, is actually "dominated by dedicated anti-tobacco extremists who are opposed to harm reduction, and its external scientific advisory group (TPSAC) is stacked with extremists and junk scientists". For financial and ideological reasons, it exists to promote pharmaceutical nicotine products at the expense of more effective alternatives.
A genuine harm reductionist cannot expect to change anyone's mind in such an environment. You can waste your three minutes' speaking time trying to win favour with a unwinnable audience or you can seize the moment to offer you scorn. Carl chose the latter...
I speak today as an educator with an interest in the nature of science and its role in the functioning of our society, and from that perspective would like to say, "won't someone please think of the children?"
If an impressionable young mind stumbled across how science is often portrayed in this corner of our nation's government, he would be at risk of never becoming scientifically literate, let alone to wanting to be a scientist.
First, science is supposed to be an honest truth-seeking process that attempts to figure out the best possible answer to a question, often via methods that require innovative thinking. Our impressionable young mind, however, might come away:
-believing that science consists of just a few narrowly-defined recipes, rather than taking in all the information we have in myriad forms, available from many forums, and thoughtfully making the best use of it;
-believing that health science focuses on looking only under streetlamps and obsessing about easy but not directly informative work like chemistry, rather than trying to do the more difficult work to translate this and other information into what we really want to know about health effects;
-from today's session, he might believe that science involves such methods as manipulating children into giving the answers you want, speculation-laden anecdotes, limiting reviews of the evidence to exclude any evidence that you wish did not exist, and counting unsupported assertions by authors as evidence;
-and he would be taught that science it is not about identifying how we maximize our knowledge, but that it involves declaring that we just do not know anything, when in fact we know quite a lot.
Our impressionable young mind is not going to think very highly of science, and he might reasonably conclude that the best way to get involved in America's version of science is to go to law school. And, yes, that means that misguided ways of looking at science may be a gateway to more dangerous behaviors.
Second, this poor child would get the impression that a hypothetical cardiovascular condition or cancer 40 years from now will be just as harmful as a near-term case in a current smoker, a case that was caused because smokers are discouraged from switching to low-risk alternatives. Do we really want to tell that child that we expect so little of him, that his generation's health science will be so lousy that the 40-year-out cancer will be no more treatable that it would be today?
Finally, at the very least, I would urge this committee and Center to make sure that any such anti-scientific writing is kept in child-proof packaging, rather that being left laying around on the internet where anyone could stumble across it and damage their developing minds.
Go over to Ep-ology to read the background of this story and the various references to which the good doctor alludes.