HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas

Science: Bane of Ideologues

Science and Ideology. How fortuitous when the two worlds align. When ideologues can support their truth with scientific findings, the two camps can join forces to shape public policy. Take sexual promiscuity. The religious factions warn of hell; the medical factions warn of AIDs. That shaky rapport bolsters public actions to discourage promiscuity. Tobacco too can align morality and public health: people who believe the weed is sinful can also argue that it is sickening; and government, in discouraging smoking, responds to both camps.

But sometimes the ideologues buttress their arguments with facts that are not valid, and use those facts to change public policies. We end up with policies rooted in ideology, at odds with the data.

Consider abortion. For some, it represents sin. The destruction of an embryo, even an early-stage one, offends the core moral order. "Pro-life" advocates have lobbied against laws that facilitate abortions, and for laws that restrict them. There are theological arguments against abortion. But for years the "pro-life" contingent has promulgated a fact: abortions increase a woman's risk of breast cancer. A few states require physicians to inform women of that fact. Yet the latest issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine (2007; 167:814-20) describes the results when researchers tracked data from 105,716 women. The research did not support a link. Abortion may be a "risk factor" for damnation; it is not one for breast cancer.

Still other people believe that extramarital sex is morally wrong. They also believe that school "sex education" programs that discuss condoms, patches, and pills encourage more students to have more sex. This administration has bowed to that rhetoric, and the federal government funds "abstinence-only" sex-education classes that do not mention birth control. The data, though, are clear: hormones trump abstinence classes. In fact, students who have attended abstinence-only classes are more likely to have sex, and less likely to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases. This ideology-based policy harms teenagers.

Both camps -- public health and ideology -- agree on the dangers of drug abuse. Both camps want to see fewer Americans shooting, snorting, and smoking illegal uppers. Yet the public health camp also worries about AIDs, which addicts can transmit via unclean needles. "Needle exchange" programs give addicts clean needles. Yet the moralists have argued that by sanctioning needle exchange programs, the government is sanctioning drug use, thereby increasing the numbers of addicts. The evidence, though, is clear: needle exchange programs do not, in and of themselves, encourage addiction. Texas, the last state without any needle exchange program, is now weighing science against ideology, as it decides whether to institute a program.

The last science-versus-ideology conundrum revolves around embryonic stem cell research. Some people see this research as a preliminary step en route to cloning, even though the embryos, left over from in vitro fertilization, are destined to be destroyed, or deteriorate. (The option of embryo adoption has not taken hold.) But scientists see stem cells as a possible tool to unearthing cures for a range of maladies, including Alzheimer's disease, spinal cord injuries, diabetes, Parkinson's, and multiple sclerosis. The majority of Americans want cures for these diseases. So the politician-moralists have mounted a specious argument: with no scientific degrees, they proclaim that adult stem cells will suffice. Almost all the Republican candidates for president profess the efficacy of adult stem cells. I don't know whether adult stem cells will work as well as embryonic ones. I do know that scientists want to try all avenues, and think that embryonic stem cells hold the most promise.

Throughout history ideologues have twisted science to buttress their beliefs. Nineteenth century skeptics, seeing blood as a divine substance, not simply a physical one, blocked transfusions. That same century's phrenologists, arguing that some races were inferior, buttressed their bias with faulty measurements of brains. Today's ideologues have followed in that same tradition of twisting science.

We think of our age as truly enlightened. One sign of enlightenment, though, is respect for science. Facts do matter.

Joan Retsinas is a sociologist who writes about health care in Providence, R.I. Email

From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2007

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