Friday, February 05, 2010

Science Contaminated by Government

By Diana Hsieh

In prior posts, I've recommended this New Yorker article on the widespread problem of olive oil contamination: Slippery Business. That risk of contamination is one reason why I prefer to cook with coconut oil, lard, and butter.

This fascinating story about the possibility of massive government corruption of science might be a case when "toxic oil" was not to blame. In the early 1980s, a mysterious outbreak of illness in Spain left hundreds dead and thousands seriously injured. It was quickly blamed on contaminated cooking oil. In 1989, some oil producers were sent to prison, even though the supposed toxin in the oil was never identified. Similarly, as even supporters of the standard account admit, scientists haven't ever been able to reproduce the symptoms of the supposedly toxic oil in lab animals.

Even worse, even the epidemiological data looks like it was corrupted by a young government determined to quell the panic. The article says:

In order to demonstrate that the oil had caused the illness, government scientists needed to be able to show, for example, that families who had bought the oil were affected, whereas those who hadn't were not; that the aniline in the oil was indeed poisonous and that the victims were suffering from aniline poisoning; and, bearing in mind that such commercial cooking oil fraud had been widespread for years, just what had changed in the manufacturing process to cause the oil suddenly to become so poisonous. To this day, none of these basic conditions has been met.
You'll find the details in the article. The most fundamental problem is simply that the cause and the effects don't seem to match up: many sick people didn't consume the supposedly toxic oil, many oil-consuming people didn't become sick. And that's just for starters.

Do I know what happened here? Of course not. The article might be mere conspiracy-mongering; the author might be twisting the facts to manufacture doubt and controversy where none should exist. Or perhaps the author's complaints and doubts are completely justified. I can only say that, if the article is accurate in its basic information, the government's story doesn't merely smell fishy: it's stinks to high heaven.

The simple fact is that governments cannot be trusted with science. Scientists at the government trough are often quickly wedded to grand theories based on political pressure rather than evidence. Then, because they seek to maintain public trust above all else, they cling to those grand theories as dogmas, even as contrary data accumulates. In the process, they often cause serious harm to people by preventing them from living as well as they might -- or preventing them from living at all.

Essentially, to the extent that science is affected by political pressure, it works on the principle of stare decisis -- meaning "maintain what has been decided and do not alter that which has been established." To support their political paymasters, scientists must adhere to precedent, however wrong.

Of course, some scientists might be willing to buck political pressures, but they risk being marginalized or fired for speaking out. Others might be more remote from those pressures, and so able to do good work in quiet. But for any politically warm topic, I trust government science as much as I trust the State Science Institute on Rearden Metal -- meaning, not at all.

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