Scary Science Research Follows th' Illistion Returns

September 26, 1990|By Morris E. Chafetz

WASHINGTON. — WE COUNT on scientific research to protect us against our prejudices, validate our guesswork and be objective. Most of us don't want to face the fact that research can be contorted to accommodate social values. I contend that it's done all the time in studies of human behavior.

In the physical sciences almost all factors can be measured, predicted and controlled for. NASA was able to predict the arrival time, within a few minutes, of the astronauts on the moon. But in the science of social behavior, objectivity is at best tenuous. Findings require interpretation, and science interpreters are as affected by the social mores swirling about as the rest of us.

The study of alcohol problems, with which I am familiar, is an example. During the early years of the 20th century, when the temperance movement was reaching a prohibitionist crescendo, scientific studies on alcohol focused on its deficits. After repeal, the country cautiously began to accept alcohol as an accompaniment to social intercourse. Predictably, researchers responded with an abundance of scientific studies showing the benefits of alcohol. The story is a stunning example of the mercurial nature of science when society attempts to legislate behavior.

In the past 15 years, we have come full circle, and alcohol is again in the proverbial doghouse. Fear is the reason: fear of kids taking drugs, fear of drunk drivers, fear of illness and death.

First, castigating young people about their drug experimentation in the late '60s and early '70s caused them to point their collective finger at their elders' drug of choice: alcohol. Subsequent research showed that young drug experimenters had also tried alcohol, so alcohol was labeled a ''gateway drug.'' Using statistical correlations to blame alcohol for illegal drug use is like saying daily use of alcohol leads to financial well-being: A survey showed graduates of the Harvard class of 1940 who drank every day had higher incomes than those who drank occasionally or not at all.

The second major impetus against alcohol was the fear of drunk driving, which became one of the most emotionally charged issues of the past decade. The image of thousands of innocent victims being struck down by drunk drivers forced people to become concerned about taking alcohol and driving.

The ''truth'' about the makeup of drunk-driving deaths, however, is vastly different than the slaughter of innocents drawn by advocacy groups and blitzed by the media. A sober look at the Department of Transportation figures contradicts popular belief: 52 percent of the people killed in drunk-driving deaths are the drunk drivers themselves; these drivers are not innocent victims. Another 20 percent of the deaths are passengers who have chosen to ride with a drunk driver; these passengers are not innocent victims. And 11 percent are drunk pedestrians who walk in front of a car; these pedestrians are not innocent victims.

Finally, fear of alcohol comes from our frenetic pursuit of health. Statistical studies on health and well-being are studied like catechisms, which will, if followed piously and painfully, reduce the risks of illness and accident, and delay death. Pleasure is to be avoided as a celibate man avoids a seductress. Health faddists give up alcohol for purified water. The 1990 draft recommendations of the national dietary guidelines state: ''Alcoholic Beverages are not Part of a Healthful Diet.''

Statistics and fashion do not lead us astray in alcohol studies alone. When the National Academy of Sciences estimated that passive smoking causes 3,800 lung-cancer deaths annually among non-smokers in the U.S., who would question the estimate? It certainly never occurred to me to do so, until I noticed another story on lung cancer.

An environmental group was lamenting the 20,000 lung-cancer deaths annually linked to radon -- a deadly, naturally formed environmental carcinogen. I asked the researchers at the Academy of Sciences if the study on passive smoking had been ''controlled'' for radon. I was told it had not. As far as I'm concerned, the failure to control for radon makes worthless the academy's estimates for lung cancer among passive smokers.

Another fear is that the food we eat is carcinogenic. Robert Scheuplein, of the Food and Drug Administration, states that the risk of dying from cancer by dietary exposure to both natural and man-made carcinogens is 7.7 percent. The risk of dying from natural carcinogens alone is 7.6 percent. Obviously, natural is not better.

We need to ask ourselves why we are letting science and statistics seduce us into a life of enduring rather than living? Novelist Walker Percy said science is robbing us of the human spirit and leaching the sovereignty out of us as individuals. Perhaps a look at the bewildering proliferation of advocacy groups will provide a clue to the cause of our increasing helplessness.

In 1970, there were 828 advocacy groups operating in the health and science area. In 1980, there were 1,337 groups and by 1990, the number had jumped to 2,162. In public affairs the number of groups rose from 532 in 1970 to 2,292 in 1990. Advocacy groups function to guide the perplexed through life by catering to their fears and providing simple answers.

I head an organization dedicated to teaching people to count on themselves and not on the experts if they want to stay healthy. I can only conclude that I haven't succeeded very well; the manipulation of science and statistics by advocacy groups and experts is turning health into a sickness for a lot of people.

Dr. Chafetz, head of the Health Education Foundation, chaired a committee of the presidential Commission on Drunk Driving.

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