SCIENTIFIC LITERACY AND POLITICAL LEADERSHIP
Here are some examples of the triumph of wishful thinking over scientific reason. Consider the leadership of Russia in the 1930s. Some communists preferred to believe that traits acquired after birth could be transmitted by inheritance, an error held by many early biologists including Charles Darwin. If this belief had been true, it promised much greater, more rapid and less costly increases in crop yields not to mention more rapid “improvement” in the human population from communist indoctrination. Gregor Mendel reported his experiments on inheritance in peas in 1870 and his results were confirmed and widely accepted by about 1900. Our modern concepts of recessive and dominant inheritance were discovered by Mendel. This new consensus in biology included the majority of Russian biologists. In spite of this, Stalin appointed a minor figure in Russian biology, named Lysenko, as Director of the Institute of Genetics of the Academy of Sciences of the U.S.S.R. This resulted in the outlawing of education and research in standard genetics. Those who spoke out against “Lysenkoism” were sent to the Gulag until after Stalin’s death in 1953. Lysenko declared that wheat raised in the appropriate wild environment would produce seeds of rye, the equivalent of saying that dogs in the wild would give birth to foxes.
Another serious example of the danger of scientific illiteracy is taking place in South Africa at this very moment. The news media are making the world aware that all of sub-Saharan Africa is afflicted with the worst of the AIDS epidemic. Millions of people, including women and babies are affected and dying. Orphaned children are left to the impoverished resources of their grandparents. As President Clinton last year informed the country through the National Security Council, economic and social disruption are imminent and may topple whole countries. From a medical and scientific view point, control of this epidemic is possible though unquestionably costly. Education on the prevention and treatment of the infection are the twin prongs of control. Brief treatment of pregnant women and their infants near delivery reduces transmission to their children from 60% to 20%. With this knowledge accepted by virtually all physicians and scientists who treat and study AIDS, it is disconcerting that the Prime Minister of South Africa, after browsing the website of a California maverick scientist, seems to have accepted this dissident’s opinion. He believes that AIDS is not caused by the HIV virus, but by recreational drugs themselves and not by contaminated needles and other intimate contact. The Prime Minister convened an advisory panel on AIDS which excluded South African AIDS experts, but included the California dissident, thus unnecessarily undermining the credibility of an otherwise effective administration. (Just back from the first 2 weeks of December, 2002, in South Africa, I can state that these issues are still only partially resolved in that country especially compared to Senegal and Uganda where they have made real progress).
An example of the costliness and dangerousness of scientific illiteracy can be found in our country. In the 1980s, the President proposed to the public and congress a missile defense system, nicknamed “star-wars”, initially to counter the Soviet threat but now promoted to take care of missiles launched by “rogue states”. This sounds like a good idea, but it is enormously expensive. Can we afford to deploy such a system especially if sufficient money is not available to decommission existing weapons rendered surplus by arms control treaties? And there is reason to doubt the technical success of such a system. There have been repeated failures of tests of prototypes. How do ordinary citizens evaluate such a complex matter when experts disagree? We can start by considering the sources of the various opinions. Dwight Eisenhower warned us about what he called the military-industrial complex and that it would be difficult to rein in. Who are the experts who don’t stand to profit by this research and development that we should seek their opinions? What has been most helpful to me in evaluating sources is to check them out by reading their reports on topics about which I am already well informed. If the source does well with those topics, they are probably also reliable about rocket science and nuclear physics. Remember, we are talking about “star-wars”. My best sources are the news and comment section of Science, published weekly by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the newsletter of the Union of Concerned Scientists, 2 Brattle Square, Cambridge, MA 02299-9105 (ucsusa.org). These are both available in major libraries, including the Monroe Public Library.
My reading on “star-wars”:
1) It is the sort of thing Dwight Eisenhower warned us about.
2) It probably would not work. Even if successful one on one, interceptors and incoming missiles, it could easily be defeated by cheap, light decoys.
3) The opportunity costs are too high - both money not spent on other needs, and the fostering of a new worldwide arms race.
4) There are many easier ways to deliver a bomb than by building a missile. (This was written long before “September 11”—added December 19, 2002)
Addendum: See also a book review published in Science, Vol. 289, 21 July 2000, page 397, after the above was written. I quote the last paragraph of Andrew Sessler’s review.
In sum, Frances FitzGerald’s book describes how Reagan’s political skills created and nurtured SDI (strategic defense initiative) despite the seemingly critical flaw that the required technology was not remotely feasible. Her account is an informative reminder of the ability of politics to trump science.
The book: Way Out There In The Blue, Reagan, Star Wars and the end of the Cold War. Simon & Shuster, New York, 2000
John A. Frantz, M.D
Chairperson, Board of Health, Monroe City Council
Life member of American Association for the Advancement of Science
Spring 2000; revised Spring 2001
John A. Frantz M.D.
June 28, 2002
Pyridoxine is paradoxical. Its symptom of deficiency (neuritis) is the same as its symptom of excess. As it comes from nature it is in an inactive form without a hydroxyl group. The hydroxyl addition takes place in the liver. When pyridoxine is present in great excess (50 to 100 times the minimum requirement for optimum health), the mechanism for activation in the liver is overwhelmed, the inactive form begins to circulate in the general circulation, and poisons the enzyme system which pyridoxine normally enhances. Remember that all the blood from the stomach and the intestines goes through the liver before entering the general circulation. Thus any amount of the vitamin obtainable from natural sources is not nearly enough to cause any problem. Another name for pyridoxine is vitamin B6.