Commentary by Tom Ranken, Washington Clean Technology Alliance, October 13, 2011.
I took the family to Boston on vacation in September. During the time away, I read Patrick Moore’s book “Confessions of a Greenpeace Dropout: The Making of a Sensible Environmentalist.”
Dr. Moore was one of the original founders of Greenpeace in the 1970s. I heard him speak recently. While he remains a passionate advocate for the environment, his commitment to science has put him at odds with many in the environmental movement. He seems to me to be a man who has the vision of a radical environmentalist—but now embraces unusual solutions that are more often associated with the radical right. He makes you think.
Moore, a Ph.D. in Ecology from the University of British Columbia, parted ways with Greenpeace in the 1980s when the organization began to take positions that, according to Moore, were more religious in reasoning than scientific. He said that the environmental movement had “abandoned science and logic in favor of emotion and sensationalism.”
One key example he cites of this anti-scientific reasoning was the Greenpeace campaign to ban the use of chlorine.
It didn’t matter that about 85 percent of our medicines are manufactured with chlorine chemistry or that the addition of chlorine to drinking water represented the biggest advance in the history of public health. By 1991, four years after I left, Greenpeace had adopted a resolution calling for an end to “the use, export, and import of all organochlorines, elemental chlorine, and chlorinated oxidizing agents,” stating, “There are no uses of chlorine which we regard as safe.” They might as well have called for a ban on living because it is not safe either.
A disillusioned Moore goes on in his book to make the case for forestry, hydroelectric and nuclear power, genetically modified food, and fish farming as being pro-environment. Like I said, he makes you think.
Of course, when it comes to ignoring science, neither side is without sin. I mention the trip to Boston, because during that time Republican Presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann made her claims about the HPV cervical cancer vaccine. She said that the vaccine is a danger to society and could have negative effects on public health. She supported her claim by citing a conversation with an outraged parent who passionately argued that her daughter had become mentally retarded as a result of taking the vaccine.
Now drugs and vaccines are not to be treated as if they were candy. They are controlled substances. If not used properly, they can be dangerous. But these vaccines have been studied in thousands of people around the world. Safety continues to be monitored by the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the US Food and Drug Administration. More than 35 million doses of HPV vaccine have been distributed in the United States. The best science available shows that there are no serious safety concerns.
On the other hand, cancer is bad. The CDC says that most sexually active people will get HPV at some time in their lives, though most will never even know it. Every year, about 12,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and 4,000 women die in the U.S.
I would guess that both Ms. Bachmann and Greenpeace advocates don’t like to be associated with each other. I would also guess that both are very committed to their causes and want to do the right thing—both for 12-year-old girls and for the environment. But in many cases, these advocates have let their passions overcome their intelligence.
Science is rarely clear. A really smart scientist once put it to me this way: “Is it possible that Martians will visit the earth tonight? Yes. But that doesn’t mean we should set another place at the dinner table.”
Definitive knowledge is in short supply. Throughout history, there are many examples of accepted scientific truisms being proved false.
We should make decisions based on the best available knowledge. Is it possible that there are unknown side effects from the HPV vaccine? Of course, but the best science available informs us that those risks are miniscule compared to the risk of cervical cancer. For my wife and me, this was a no-brainer decision when my daughter was that age.
As complex as medicine and biology are, the challenges in understanding the environment are no less daunting. We need to recognize that a lot of smart and able scientists are working diligently to better understand how to achieve environmental goals that, in the end, all of us share. I have no doubt that these scientists will learn things that will challenge conventional wisdom. We must continue to challenge ourselves and our understandings.
No one wants 12-year-old girls to get cancer. No one wants to ruin the environment. While we all have strong opinions on what is right, we must endeavor to be reasonable—and skeptical—even of ourselves. There are times when the facts, the science, or the situation changes and, as reasonable people, we need to change our minds.