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Many-sided 'science' no match for political pressure

Science provides facts, politics provides decisions -- but not all science is equal, say panelists


When Galileo said the earth revolved around the sun, he was threatened with death by the Catholic Church. While today new ideas are not so calamitous, they can take time to be accepted. How do we sort out facts, especially in an election year?

That was the topic of an annual town hall forum last Thursday sponsored by Friends of the Forest Grove Library and Pacific University’s Tom McCall Center for Police Innovation.

Russ Karow, head of Oregon State University’s Crop and Soil Department, joined Susan Nielsen, an associate editor at The Oregonian and Mike Cafferata, district forester for the Oregon Department of Forestry in Forest Grove, to discuss “Blinded By Science: The Politics of Fact in an Election Year.” Pacific University Professor Jim Moore moderated the discussion before a small crowd of 10 people.

The basis of science, Karow noted, is that someone can replicate a study and get the same results. But as the audience learned, science is not always so clear.

Nielsen, for example, needs facts to write responsibly. And those can be conflicting.

“There’s a new recommendation every five minutes on whether women should have mammograms,” she said. And with a wealth of information at our fingertips, we can find a study to support any side of any issue, she said.

Even among scientists, the sheer quantity of information can be confusing. “Researchers at Oregon Health & Science University tell me some research has become so complicated, they can’t always communicate with each other,” she said.

Cafferata oversees management of the eastern side of the Tillamook Forest. He asked audience members to list what the forest means to them and came up with a list of habitat, beauty, recreation, oxygen, jobs and products. All those uses are balanced by politics, he said, and informed by science.

His job is to maintain a healthy forest. It’s up to others how that forest is used.

“There are tradeoffs,” he said. Tillamook’s high unemployment, for example, is due in part to the decline of the logging industry.

Karow said his department provides facts. Citizens (and editorial writers) can do with them what they like.

Karow used industrial hemp as an example. Hemp is made from the marijuana plant. Unlike marijuana, though, which has an average THC content (the main psychoactive ingredient) of 17 percent, hemp has less than one-third of 1 percent THC. That makes it useless as a drug but profitable for making sail cloth, cord and other products.

The federal government, however, classifies hemp as a drug, Karow said.

Nielsen said the feds also classify marijuana as a Schedule One drug, as if it were as dangerous as heroin. And that, she said, defies common sense.

For now, Karow said, the government is declining to prosecute hemp producers, but the risk is still there, meaning business owners who want to invest in large hemp manufacturing facilities look to Canada, Europe and other countries where it is legal.

The most controversial issue Nielsen has had to deal with — more than the Middle East or even abortion — is fluoridation. “People disagree on whether it’s a medicine or chemical or pollutant,” she said.

People want zero risk, she added, and are skeptical when there’s debate. But Nielsen takes the other view. “I find vigorous debate heartening,” she said.

One member of the audience asked if having a celebrity involved in an issue is helpful. “A superstar can speed up change,” said Cafferata. Nielsen cited Al Gore and his book, “An Inconvenient Truth,” as an example of how celebrity involvement can be a good thing.

Another audience member asked if equal time should be given to two sides, even when science is overwhelmingly on one side. Nielsen said it is irresponsible not to cover various factions.

But it’s just as important to improve people’s science literacy, so they can put scientific pronouncements in context. “You need to distinguish between large, peer-reviewed studies and small, non-peer-reviewed studies.”

Nielsen also praised the trend toward greater disclosure requirements, allowing people to see who’s paying the scientists and to identify potential conflicts of interest.

Another questioner asked what we can expect in 20 years, given climate change. “From a crop standpoint, we’re in a positive position in the Willamette Valley,” said Karow. “Warmer temperatures could improve wine quality. Water will become the issue though, as it already is in the Klamath Basin and in Baker and Malheur counties.”

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