KENNEDY: The costs of rejecting science

February 22, 2014

Sheila Suess KennedyCount me among the many Hoosiers increasingly dismayed by the assault on science from people who seem threatened by the notion that empirical evidence might conflict with their worldviews.

This assault differs from debates within the scientific community about methodology, or about the conclusions that can legitimately be drawn from any particular data. Those debates both advance our understanding of the world we inhabit, and remind us that all knowledge is tentative—in scientific jargon, falsifiable.

Falsifiability means that the hypothesis can be tested by empirical experiment. Merely because something is “falsifiable” does not mean it is false; it means that if it is false, then observation or experiment will at some point demonstrate its falsity.

Many things may be true without being falsifiable. Observing that a woman or a sunset is beautiful, asserting that you feel sad, declaring that you are in love and similar statements may be true, but they aren’t science, because they cannot be empirically proved nor disproved. (Similarly, God cannot be dragged into a laboratory and His existence tested. One either believes in God or not. That’s why religious belief is called faith.)

Thorny policy problems arise when we fail to distinguish between science and faith, or science and “gut” opinion. Two recent examples are illustrative.

Recently, Bill Nye—the “Science Guy”—debated Ken Ham, a prominent creationist, at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky. Ham used Genesis and the Bible as his sole “evidence” against evolution, and for the proposition that the universe is 7,000 years old. Nye explained that scientific propositions must be “testable.” Ham relied upon the literal accuracy of (his) scripture—the antithesis of science.

Courts have uniformly ruled that creationism cannot be taught in public school science classes, because it isn’t science. Nevertheless, school boards around the country continually insert “creation science” in science curricula, and just as routinely spend lots of tax dollars defending and losing the inevitable lawsuit.

A different kind of faith is at the center of the debate over the medical and recreational use of marijuana.

Drug warriors insist that marijuana is a “gateway” drug and the cause of multiple health problems.

These are faith-based assertions. As prominent cardiologist Morton Tavel recently wrote, “Although high doses may cause hallucinations, dangerous or fatal outcomes have been virtually nonexistent.”

Two recent reviews examine results from approximately 100 randomized placebo-controlled trials involving over 6,100 patients with a variety of medical conditions. The results show that marijuana is useful in treating anorexia, nausea and vomiting, glaucoma, irritable bowel disease, muscle spasticity, multiple sclerosis, symptoms of amyotropic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and Tourette’s syndrome.

It is also useful in providing modest relief of pain. In this latter regard, it seems to reduce chronic pain by about 30 percent, a benefit achieved with fewer serious side effects than encountered with commonly used opiates (codeine, morphine, etc). Thus there is ample evidence to support the legalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes.

Notwithstanding this information, medicinal use is now authorized in only 20 states and remains proscribed at the federal level.

The war on drugs has been a costly failure. Estimates put its annual cost at something north of $60 billion dollars a year, much of which has been spent on marijuana prohibition. Even in the wake of legalization in Colorado and Washington, drug warriors continue to reject the science that distinguishes between marijuana—which is less harmful than tobacco or alcohol—and more dangerous drugs.

Rejection of science is costly.•


Kennedy is a professor of law and public policy at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI. She blogs regularly at www.sheilakennedy.net. She can be reached at skennedy@ibj.com. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.


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