A band of spoiled brats is waging jihad against science. Its victim is the public and -as it happens in war- most casualties will be poor folk without the chance to choose a side.
The grievances are not new but this time the conflict is particularly destructive. Already in 1959 there was a “two cultures” warning, but in 1959 when the memories of plagues, famines and poor standards of living were still alive science and reason had many allies; now those problems are absent from living memory; now common sense is held in-check by the general illiteracy of the media; now nonsense is set loose and the anti-science marauders are given free range.
Science’s enemies long for an ideal past that never existed, preach that we should go back to “nature”, and believe that “natural” is -somehow- better than “artificial”; at its greenest fringe, their gospel asserts that humans are just a burden for nature, that “the planet” would be better off without us on it (1). Like most impractical philosophies, theirs is promoted by well-off rebels looking for something to rebel against.
One of their most prominent campaigns is against “chemicals”. Chemicals are defined by the anti-science brigade as anything that is not “natural” -in whichever way they choose to define “natural”. Their cult takes the well-established scientific fact that a chemical can kill you and transforms it into the misguided certainty that any detectable trace of that chemical will kill you. This is false.
We can detect ridiculously small amounts of any chemical. This is testament to the ingenuity of scientists and the ability of engineers who designed ultra-powerful mass spectrometers. The fact that we can detect something does not make it automatically dangerous. Airport scans can detect 0.000000025 g of crystal meth in a dealer’s jacket; you will not get high by seating next to him -even if you do it repeatedly. A toxicologist who makes a living of proving that things are toxic –rather than finding out what is safe and what is not- dreads the question “how does the lethal dose compares with the levels found in the body?”.
Anything in a high dose can kill you: selenium (an essential micro nutrient) can kill you (0.007g/Kg), vitamin D can kill you (0.1g/Kg), salt can kill you (3g/Kg), even water can kill you (90g/Kg), yet we need all those things to live. We also need chemicals, for example, to maintain food at reasonable prices or cleaning kitchens. We need to feed people, not pests. Allowing pest to feed on our food is not “natural”, is stupid. Chemicals handled appropriately are safe and good. Chemicals are a necessity of modern society. Life expectancy in the ideal, chemical-free, wild-plant variety farming Neolithic age was 25 years (2); child mortality in the same period was 40% (3). Compare that with our modern industrial society were life expectancy is more than 3 times that of our “chemical-free” ancestors and still growing year on year (4).
Our chemical-free “natural living” ancestors were at the mercy of plagues, famines and pests. They attributed all those things to divine punishment and punished they were, again and again. Was “natural” better? Small pox, decaying teeth, plagues, they were all natural. Vaccines, tooth paste, pesticides, they are the product of human ingenuity; we prefer the later lot.
Rejection of industrial society can only doom us to go back to a past of hunger, cold and disease. People rejecting chemicals at all cost, irrationally, often have –when they are not simply the victims of scaremongering- pseudoreligious objections against modern society. They also possess the inclination, spare time and income to afford products and lifestyles that they deem safe or ethical or “natural”. The push to impose this religious dogma on everyone, regardless of the social consequences of using inefficient and expensive processes, is wicked.
Science needs to find recruits and allies to fight the enemies of industry and progress. In 1959 C P Snow addressed the anti-science hordes as follows:
“If you want to turn your backs on the benefits of industrialisation, go hungry and see most of your children die in infancy; you are free to make that choice. I respect you for the strength of your aesthetic revulsion […] But I don’t respect you in the slightest if, even passively, you try to impose the same choice on others who are not free to choose.“
This is something we can all agree with.
(1) See “The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement” http://www.vhemt.org
(2) AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PHYSICAL ANTHROPOLOGY 124:315–329 (2004)
(3) AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PHYSICAL ANTHROPOLOGY 102:569–575 (1997)
(4) CDC National Vital Statistics Reports Volume 62, Number 7 January 6, 2014