Science in the Service of Ideology

March 05, 1991|By ALBERT SEHLSTEDT JR. | ALBERT SEHLSTEDT JR.,Albert Sehlstedt Jr., now retired, wrote about science for The Sun.

''The perversion of German science and scientists under the Nazis is a case in point of what can happen when science gets under political influence,'' Barry Commoner, the biologist and environmentalist, said 30 years ago.

Nothing has occurred in this country in recent decades that could equal in horror the Nazi medical experiments on human beings. Still, it is legitimate to ask how individual scientists act to shape public policy and public attitudes. Conversely, what roles have big government, big business and private institutions played in exploiting technical information to buttress their own perceptions of the ''good of the country?''

Nuclear radiation, the ''greenhouse effect,'' pollution of waterways, the use of chemical pesticides in agriculture -- issues linking science and public policy pop up in newspaper headlines and television news. Is the ozone ''hole'' over Antarctica eventually going to bathe the globe in deadly radiation? Is the ''nuclear winter'' scenario an inevitable consequence of a war among the world's great powers or a subtle but sincere plea for global disarmament, -- or both?

The citizen can be forgiven for wondering what to believe.

In February 1989 the National Resources Defense Council, a ''public-interest'' group, reported that a chemical pesticide named Alar poses an ''intolerable risk'' of cancer to pre-school children who ate apples treated with the substance. A month later, several government agencies responded that the council's charge lacked ''scientific validity.'' But then the apple growers announced a halt to the use of Alar because ''public confusion reigns supreme.''

''What's a mother to do?'' asked Meryl Streep, the actress, head of Mothers and Others for Pesticide Limits, in testimony before a Senate committee.

Among the complicating factors in these kinds of controversies are the agendas -- hidden or otherwise -- of the disputants. This problem has been addressed in a report, ''Improving Risk Communication,'' published by the National Academy of Sciences, the organization founded in Abraham Lincoln's administration to advise the federal government on scientific and technical matters.

''Those most strongly motivated to communicate about risk are often those with the strongest interest in the decision [that is to be made about possible risks]. Whenever a personal or social decision affects interested groups or organizations, conflicting messages reflecting the interests of those groups or organizations may be expected. . . .

''As with other communication in a democracy, the intent of the participants in risk communication is sometimes political. That is, messages about risk are sometimes intended to influence the beliefs or actions of those to whom they are addressed.''

In general, there appear to be two political sides in many of these scientific and environmental controversies.

On the one hand are privately-financed organizations and many prominent individuals who say they are protecting people from risks generated or tolerated by bottom-line corporations or politically-dominated government agencies. A common thread in such allegations seems to reflect an underlying but deeply felt concern about social injustice in its many forms.

On the other hand are the corporations and other powerful entities of the establishment which say the interest groups are gnawing away at the foundations of a productive economic system and skewing their scientific data to advance their own goals.

A calming voice can sometimes be found in other studies prepared by people more distant from the heat of invective. For example, the Science Advisory Board of the Environmental Protection Agency cautioned last September: ''It is sometimes tempting to think simplistically about the sources of environmental risk as being a particular industry, a particular product or a particular pollutant.

''But the sources of environmental risk are much more diverse and complicated than that. In fact, the sources of risk are often to be found in the day-to-day choices made by individuals, communities and businesses. . . .

''In a sense, the very existence of the human race inevitably poses some level of environmental risk. People necessarily generate wastes . . . [and] people necessarily destroy or infringe upon some natural habitats when they construct their own.''

Consider houses. Modern, well-insulated but poorly ventilated houses often trap radon within their walls. Radon, a naturally-occurring, radioactive product of the planet upon which live, is now the second-leading cause of lung cancer (after smoking).

And radon constitutes a ''significantly greater'' risk to human health than nuclear-power plants, according to Lee Salmon, a health physicist at the Environmental Protection Agency.

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