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Bill Destler Headshot

The Case Against Selectable Science

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When I was a boy, I came up with the (not so original) idea of putting generators on the front wheels of a car and using the electricity they produced to power electric motors on the rear wheels, thereby propelling the car down the road without any additional energy source. Although I was soon disabused of this idea by my increasing knowledge of the laws of physics and the data from many failed attempts at implementing my idea, and even though this is settled science in 99.9 percent of the scientific community, the U.S. Patent Office still receives several proposals each year of a similar nature from individuals with what look to be credible scientific credentials.

Similarly, Congressman Akin's recent claims that women who are raped have little likelihood of becoming pregnant is a piece of scientific falsehood that was initially proposed by Dr. John Willke, a physician active in the anti-abortion movement. The process by which Mr. Akin adopted Dr. Willke's mistaken premise is becoming all too familiar in our country. In this process one first decides what position one wants to support, and then one looks for science supporting that position. And while science is science, humans are still human and if one looks hard enough he or she can usually find something that meets the need. In this case, the scientific community is in 99 percent agreement that Dr. Willke's premise is false, and there is ample scientific evidence against his claim, but Congressman Akin selected this one outlying opinion to reinforce his belief that abortions should be banned even when resulting from rape.

Global climate change is another, even more disturbing, example. Even though the National Academies of Science of all the major industrialized nations are in agreement that the average temperature around the world is rising and that the most significant cause is the increase in the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere caused by recent human activity, there are many for whom this conclusion is not the desired one. As a result, many of them look for the very few (and declining in number) scientists with contrary opinions to argue that the jury is still out on this issue and that we can therefore continue to conduct business as usual. In this case, conducting business as usual may be convenient for some, but it could be catastrophic for our children and grandchildren.

I would encourage all of us, especially those of us trained in science and engineering, to stand up against this use of "selectable science," regardless of our political views or party affiliation. The ability of humans to draw scientific conclusions based on the preponderance of evidence is a mark of our intelligence, and while scientific theories are frequently updated and occasionally discarded on the basis of new evidence, our course will be best set by using the best available scientific evidence at the time we make decisions.