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When I read the recent headline that our nation’s primary public health agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has been “prohibited” from “using seven words in official documents used for next year’s budget,” I found myself stomping around the house in disbelief.
As clarified by the CDC director, the truth of this news is probably less provocative than the face value of that headline. And yet, the preponderance of evidence points to an ongoing and relentless effort to undermine science and scientific principles by our political leaders. The proverbial last straw has landed on this camel’s back.
In 1996, a federal budget bill stated that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”
Subsequently, Congress eliminated funding for Gun Violence Prevention Research at the CDC. Funding declined from $2.6 million in 1996 to zero in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017, despite a request for $10 million for each of those four years.
This lack of funding prevented scientific research that may have helped address firearm violence in this country, like a 2009 study of suicide rates in California that was funded by local Tuolumne County dollars to identify that, over the prior decade, for every firearm-related homicide in rural parts of the state, there were approximately four firearm-related suicides.
A disrespect for science can cause politicians to blunder into the realm of pseudo-science in response to public outcry, designing legislation with good intentions but with disastrous results.
In 2001, AB 487 was approved by Governor Davis requiring physicians in California to receive 12 hours of training in pain management because of a perception “that physicians consistently fail to manage their patient’s pain appropriately” in part due to “… undertreatment and undermedication.”
The passage of this bill coincided with the release of new opiate medications by pharmaceutical companies. The encouragement to prescribe long-acting narcotics provided by AB 487 in conjunction with savvy marketing by pharmaceutical companies helped pave the way to today’s opiate addiction crisis.
Pseudo-science and ideological convictions may even misguide us to oppose sound science. The trail of scientific discovery is littered with the lives of scientists whose sacrifices have resulted in the eradication of smallpox, travel into space, the control of yellow fever and endless research that has either proven or disproven contemporary theories.
To ignore the practical benefits of new discoveries discounts the sacrifices of these modern explorers. If such neglect aggravates global climate change or results in a chronically ill child contracting an unnecessary infectious disease in school, it is nothing short of tragic.
Scientists must also bear some of the blame for public skepticism. Real science is humble. While scientists are generally superb at describing their fields of expertise, they are often not so good at translating their knowledge to the masses. Science has unfortunately abdicated marketing to the corporate world that stands to prosper from the sales of products and services that are the fruits of science.
Here in Tuolumne County we are trying to change that. A program called the Exploratorium of Health Care Careers will visit every public school in the county this year. It is also active in Calaveras County and will be starting in Merced County this spring.
The program is made possible by an intrepid group of volunteers from many scientific and educational backgrounds who are seeking to introduce local 7th, 8th and 9th graders to the wonders and rewards of careers in science and health care.
But to bring new generations into those fields we must encourage students to ask questions. They must shed their fear of asking the “wrong” question. We cannot do that if our leaders prohibit our best scientists from asking certain questions or “using seven words” — or for that matter even one word — in their quest to understand our world better and to improve our lives for tomorrow.
If we accept this kind of scientific censorship we degrade the quality and integrity of our science and lower the expectations of tomorrow’s scientists.
In today’s world, with all its diversity, we need to instill our youth with evidence-based and science-based reasoning, so that tomorrow all of us — from the vulnerable fetus to the transgender community — can benefit from opportunities that represent our entitlement.
Stuart Stolp is a Sonora doctor.