Sunday, March 24, 2019

A Wave From the Fast Lane

This is one of my busiest times of the year, but I felt the need to reach out and just let all of you know I'm still here. We're coming to the last month of the semester, spring yard work season has just begun, and there's a lot going on. So here's a few things going on in science and medicine--just to keep you in the loop.

The Cannabis Debate Heats Up

In just a few short months since Governor Wolf's re-election, when he said recreational weed was off the agenda for the moment, to now, where Lt. Governor Fetterman has undertaken a "listening tour" to get a real sense of how Pennsylvanians come down on this matter, the debate has resisted being put "on hold."

Intuitively, a lot of us cleave to the notion that adding more intoxicating substances to the social mix just has to be a bad idea. Others of us choose a more libertarian way: let grown-ups do whatever they want, as long as it's properly regulated for the sake of the safety of the general public. What one thinks is one's personal view and is formed from any number of influences, including one's own experiences and reflections, as well as the resulting personal politics and spirituality.

But there's also a scientific debate and it's broader than just medical science, and includes criminal justice, sociology, psychology, economics, and political science. That's all over the place right now! One example currently flooding the internet is the link between schizophrenia and marijuana use. I'm seeing a lot of this on Facebook right now. I addressed this in great detail in my previous blog entry, so I won't do so further here. I will place this debate in the framework of a new debate that's emerged this week.

What is Science, Really?

The new debate is around the real meaning of positive or, by extension, negative results in scientific studies. In a piece published last week in Nature Valentin Amrhein and colleagues--as well as over 800 other scientists--argue that it's time to retire the concept of statistical significance. A discussion of this concept is nicely done in this article in Vox, so I won't get deeply into it here. But a very short version of the whole thing is that the culture of science has grown dependent on this very complicated and subtle concept. They argue that statistical significance has led us to many unsupported conclusions, conflicting study results that perplex the public, and a false dichotomy that suggests that a thing either "works" or it doesn't, that a thing is "there" or "not there."

I see this in my office when people come in and say something like "Last year medical science said that a little red wine is good for my heart. But last week I heard that it's bad for your heart. Which is it?" This is often followed by either throwing up of the hands as if to say "I give up!" or by a kind of defeated reconciliation that "nobody really knows what's true, so why should I care?"

Having taught research methods for many years, I can say that I heartily agree with Amrhein's group: there's too little nuance in interpreting scientific results, but good news bites require that nuance be tossed out the window. Click bait has no time for Deep Thought.

I find that one of the most useful services I provide for my patients, and my students, is to help them understand how to sort this all out. I'm not sure how this change of heart will play out over the next decade, but I like the direction we're heading. Science isn't a destination; it's a journey.

The Complicated Fabric of Science and Society

So there's other science-y stuff in the news: genetically engineered babies in a Chinese research lab, new data about daily aspirin use in people who have never had a heart attack or stroke, climate change and whether or not we should pursue or abandon nuclear well as the whole medical/recreational marijuana thing. We are interested in science for its own sake, just the sheer beauty of understanding our world. We are interested in it because it leads to technologies that can improve our lives. And of course we are interested in it because it helps us make public policy.

It's on this last point that I'd like to emphasize that in policy matters, people have opinions that are wholly personal, religious, or aesthetic. A technocracy is governance based purely on objectively good science with a utilitarian aim. Alternatively such a government might serve an agreed-to philosophical or political good. Historian Loren R. Graham reported that nearly 90% of Soviet Politburo members were engineers--science in the service of a communist ideal was their aim.

While much of the world doesn't operate with technocratic governance, science is still used to tell us things about how fossil fuel use affects our climate, how vaccines affect public health, what sorts of medicine are effective for what uses, how to grow food, how markets work, and so on. It is what's in our hearts that determines how science is then used to inform what actions we take as a society. It is important to note that knowledge is constantly evolving. We learn new things. We develop better methods of "knowing" the truth of the world we live in. All the while, our hearts moderate the incoming information, and color our opinions of it with our personal views.

Knowing that's the case, and explicitly acknowledging that in any conversation about objective scientific information, could really improve our public discourse. And knowing that what we know now is only the best estimation of the objective truth right now, might remind us to reserve a little skepticism about what the future might hold.

Peace...and happy springtime!
Image: G. Hodan in public domain search