Politically Correct Science Undermines Public Health


November 25, 1992|By ELIZABETH WHELAN

The modern cinema often portrays the early 20th century as the gilded age of romance and comfortable leisure. But, it also was a world with the persistent stench of raw sewage and suffocating air pollution, a world haunted by misery and early death from tuberculosis, diphtheria, influenza and diarrheal diseases.

To be sure, advances in medical science have been wondrous since the days of early public-health pioneers like Homer Calver. Science largely has conquered infectious disease and our children frequently live a quarter-century longer than children born in Calver's day.

Still, all is not well. The practice of preventive medicine is being undermined by a new medievalism: ''politically correct'' science -- which abandons the principles of science in favor of ideological agendas and social aims. It is dogmatic and intolerant and it threatens to push health costs upward without improving public health by forcing on America an inverted public-health agenda dominated by political demons, while far more serious dangers are ignored.

In truth, premature death and disease today are caused primarily by lifestyle factors. Some 2 million Americans die each year. Half of these are premature deaths, meaning they can be postponed.

Of those 1 million, some 500,000 premature deaths are directly related to cigarette smoking and other uses of tobacco. Another 100,000 are linked to the abuse and misuse of alcohol, adding up to 60 percent of all premature deaths. The additional 400,000 are linked to the failure to use lifesaving technology such as seat belts and smoke detectors; the failure to screen and treat life-threatening diseases, particularly hypertension and treatable malignancies; reckless recreation, such as skiing, diving and hunting; the abuse of addictive substances, including HIV-infection from IV drug use; promiscuous sexual practices and more. These are the real threats to public health today.

Now, how do these scientific realities square with the public-health advice we receive every day? The answer: They do not square very well at all.

Examine the public-health ''advice'' offered in popular magazines. These publications recommend reducing the risk of disease and death by avoiding the ''carcinogens'' on barbecued chicken; they warn of the hazards of ''potentially carcinogenic'' PCBs; they spread alarms about dioxin treated coffee filters, and they decry the alleged dangers of useful, health-promoting food additives like sodium nitrite, BHA and BHT. To reduce the risk of cancer, one recent magazine tells its readers to ''keep dial face clocks 5 feet and digitals 3 feet'' from our beds.

The inverted health priorities based on politically correct science don't stop with popular magazines. The same nonsense -- non-science -- also dominates federal and state ''environmental health'' legislation. It can even be seen in resolutions proposed by the American Public Health Association.

Why do we have public-health policies that are so far afield from science?

First, the manufacturers of the leading cause of death -- cigarette companies -- spend nearly $4 billion each year advertising and promoting their products -- and this clearly buys silence in the media and special attention in legislative chambers. Nothing could make these merchants of death happier than to see cancer-prevention efforts focused on ''killer apples'' -- and to have the word ''carcinogen'' used so frequently that it loses all meaning. Remember, when everything is dangerous, nothing is.

Second, it is human nature to avoid blaming oneself for ill health. Better to blame others -- particularly ''industry'' -- than to look at our own lifestyles.

The third reason is ideological. Ideology has creeped into public-health and environmental policy. This ideology is anti-capitalist; it sees man, industry and technology as the enemy of nature, and has abandoned science, reason and rationality in favor of intuition, inconsistency and a commitment to goals other than improved public health. Those practicing politically correct science never address real, documented public-health threats. Nature, always benign, is the new God and environmentalism and consumerism are the new religions to worship and protect.

Isn't it time to return to peer- reviewed, mainstream science and reject once and for all what is perhaps the darkest side of politically correct science -- the antiquated, destructive view that a growing industrial economy is the enemy of a clean environmental and a healthier people?

Now is the time for reason and rationality, a time for public-health professionals to reclaim their profession from Hollywood and the political activists, and a time to acknowledge that we all want to protect the earth, human health and our high standard of living, but that science and technology are the solution to, not the causes of, our ills.

Dr. Elizabeth Whelan is president of the American Council on Science and Health. This commentary is excerpted from a recent speech at the American Public Health Association.

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