Posts Tagged ‘science’

My 44-year old friend Natalie looks great. She is half way through her radiation treatment for a malignant tumor found so far back in her breast no self-exam would have found it. Hopefully she’ll be able to avoid chemotherapy. She had no family history of cancer, no genetic or behavioral markers. It’s true there is no way of knowing whether this particular tumor would have killed her; some cancers are so slow-growing as to be almost non-threatening. Mammograms detect more thoroughly than ever any anomoly but even when something is found to be malignant, it’s not always possible to know whether it’s potentially fatal. Natalie doesn’t care and neither do her friends, frankly. At this level, the anxiety is more than worth it.

I understand the concept of “evidence-based science” as well as the next person. Reason demands evidence, at least when it comes to issuing absolutes. Too many people are inclined to make presumptive declarations — that is, declarations that presume knowledge. So yes, show me the evidence.

I also understand that our bodies are highly complex organisms with any number of uncertainties built right into them. There may be tumors and aneurysms, clogged veins and weakened livers, and even degenerative disks, none of which are necessarily going to harm us or even slow us down. Why find out if you’re caring a potentially threatening gene, some argue, the operative word being potentially? Life is about uncertainty; some things we can’t know; others we don’t need to.

But even though I get all that, even though I believe that we must all learn to live with uncertainty, even though I realize living involves risk and  many kinds of cancer aren’t life-threatening, I cannot wrap my mind around what not being tested might have meant for my friend Natalie.


My difficulty with the recommendations has nothing to do with the politicizing of the findings, which are, after all, reissues of earlier recommendations. Trying to tie these recommendations to the “threat” of managed care is another deliberate attempt at fear-mongering. But I find the “small risk” argument to be an unpersuasive one: except for chemo, most women will tell you mammograms, sonograms, biopsies, anxiety, and even radiation are worth undergoing. Yes, evidence shows that only one in more than 1900 women’s lives were saved by early testing. But that one may have been my friend Natalie.








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While we recover from the fallout of New York’s Senate appointment, while we try to change channels faster than Illinois Governor Ron Blagojevich can appear on them, while we wait for the President’s new cabinet appointees (and the Senator from Minnesota) to be confirmed and seated, while we curse the snow and sleet, the higher property taxes, the cuts in service and mid-winter misery in general, let us now stop to sing the praises of science.

I wasn’t a science kid. I didn’t watch Mr. Wizard on Saturday mornings or beg my folks for a home chemistry set. I preferred language and music to theorems and equations. A generally good student, my only truly bad grade was in freshman college earth science. It wasn’t until I was well into adulthood that I began to realize just how much I value the process by which science and scientists seek to learn what is true.

“The scientific method is something all of us use all of the time. In fact, engaging in the basic activities that make up the scientific method — being curious, asking questions, seeking answers — is a natural part of being human.” So says the author of an article on the subject on a wonderful site called “How Stuff Works.”  Put in such accessible terms, it makes sense. Yet in the last decade, science has been regarded in certain circles as an authoritarian, unyielding,  unfeeling practice that stubbornly asserts it has incontrovertible answers to everything. One reason may be related to a widespread misunderstanding about the word “theory”.  As Wikipedia  points out,  “In everyday language a theory means a hunch or speculation… In science, the word theory refers to a comprehensive explanation of an important feature of nature supported by facts gathered over time.”  By mixing up the two meanings and by ignoring the process by which scientific theories are developed, it’s easy to decide science is guesswork dressed up to look like fact.

The fact is , good science – like good thinking – is open-minded. Sure, we might say we know something for certain, based on provable and testable information; for example, we’re pretty sure the world is round at this point. But the value of science isn’t in its insistence it has every answer, only that it has a method for looking and a willingness to reconsider earlier positions. As Dennis Overbye pointed out in the Science section of yesterday’s New York Times,“Science is not a monument of received Truth but something people do to look for truth.” Overbye went on to point out the parallels between science and democracy, both of them “willing to embrace debate and respect one another…”

How cool is that?

I doubt I’ll ever memorize the periodic tables or the geological ages of the earth but I have taken to reading more articles about earth science, life sciences and physical sciences. I’m interested in whether science finds a cure for cancer or arthritis or whether certain foods can positively alter brain chemistry, especially in the dead of winter. Mostly, though, I say hooray for President Obama’s promise to restore science to its rightful place. I certainly want to support debate, discussion, and inquiry – in short, any process that celebrates the pursuit of answers rather than the certainty anyone has them all.

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Seasonal Disorder

Today was the first day of autumn, also known in astronomy as the autumnal equinox, when the sun crosses the celestial equator from north to south and day and night are virtually equal in length. Autumn, or fall, as it applies to the northern hemisphere, conjures up all sorts of images, most of them based on the topography and climate of Canada and the northeastern and central parts of the United States, which is to say vibrantly colored leaves, warm days and cool nights, several major holidays, back to school activities and a swirl of social events. Even in more temperate climates, the quality as well as the quantity of the light changes incrementally. The angle of the sun shifts and the days are indeed shorter. In truth, we are shielded for a time from the depressing experience of leaving work in total darkness; daylight savings time, which continues into November this year, allows us a glimpse at the sun’s dying embers as we board the train. Conversely, we wake to darkness, as do our kids, which is a tough way to begin the day. But on this day, the equinox, the light and the dark are in balance. That does not mean that the Earth’s gravitational pull is, however. One of the enduring science myths is that you can stand an egg on its end on the vernal equinox, which has led many people to believe you can do the same during the autumnal equinox. The fact is, that standing an egg on end doesn’t depend on any equinox or solstice; it can be done by those relatively few who have patience and nothing else to do on any day of the year. This sad truth, which I am embarrassed to say I learned only recently, didn’t stop me from trying to continue the tradition that was begun by my husband, who might have known better but was so good at balancing his eggs and his life that no one would have suspected. I, alas, am not nearly so talented and after my egg fell over for a third time this afternoon, I used it to make cookies instead.

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The Human Animal

Last week my dog and I were off the mark. She had an ear infection and a sore paw; my hip was bothering me. I was crabby all week, predicting everything from shots to surgery to life in a wheel chair down the line. She was slightly annoyed, which meant she’d scratch her ear or shake her head; however the rest of the time, she seemed happy and content. Which got me thinking: we study animal behavior to understand how and why other species behave as they do, an academic area known as ethology. We also look at such behavior to compare and contrast it with human behavior; studies have shown that basic biological influences are at work throughout all species. And my own non-scientific study of my dog Molly’s behavior has left me convinced that, despite all those obedience classes, she is disposed to being both willful and manipulative, possibly a consequence of her being so good-looking. In that respect, she is an awful lot like people I know and others I read about on the gossip pages. On the other hand, she doesn’t appear to hold a grudge, obsess about things she can’t control, seek retribution, plot revenge or choose to harm others and then justify her actions. Perhaps we humans have evolved but sometimes I wonder if somewhere along the road, we missed a turn.

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