Science in a Hyperpartisan Age

Two recent commentaries (L Rosenbaum. NEJM 2017; 376: 1607–09; DJ Hunter et al. NEJM 2017; 376: 1605–7) discuss the intersection of science and politics.

Some key points from the first commentary:

  • “When doubt is wrapped up in one’s cultural identity or powerful emotions, facts often not only fail to persuade, but may further entrench skepticism.”  This is referred to as “biased assimilation.”
  • People with “higher levels of science comprehension are actually also the most adept at dismissing evidence that challenges their beliefs.”  Liberals, “for instance, are far more likely than conservatives to dismiss science suggesting that genetically modified foods are safe.”
  • “It’s easy to forget that most scientific facts, and related policies, don’t induce tribalism. You don’t see partisan battles over treatment for myocardial infarction.”
  • Dan Kahan, an expert on the way emotion and identity affect our interpretation of scientific facts says that our president “is our science communication environment polluter in chief.”  Such polluters “cunningly incite cultural battles that ultimately heighten distrust of science.”
  • For vaccine skeptics, if criticized, will try to elicit a backlash against the “academic elite.”

The second commentary focuses on the issue of climate change.  Key points:

  • “Average temperatures have increased by 1.3 to 1.9 degrees F over the past century…and increases have accelerated in recent years…the three hottest years recorded in the U.S. were 2012, 2015, and 2016.”
  • Summer heat waves increase mortality, worsen mosquito-related diseases, jeopardize crop production, increase ozone which worsens lung function, and contribute to forest fires.  Increases in “extreme heat leads to more aggression and violence.”
  • Climate change increases severe storms like hurricanes and cause indirect effects like waterborne-disease outbreaks.
  • The authors advocate for the CDC’s Building Resilience against Climate Effects (BRACE) (https://cdc.gov/climateandhealth/)
  • “U.S. leadership is critical to global action. Jobs in the renewable energy sector…already outnumber those in power generation from coal, natural gas, and oil combined.”
  • “Climate change has become unnecessarily politicized.” Tools for discussing this topic: http://climateforhealth.org/lets-talk -1 hour webinar available and links to specific ways to make an impact.

My take:  While I concede that I am not an expert on this topic, it is clear that climate change is having effects on population health and there are ways to reduce the future impact. Please don’t call me an elitist.

 

 

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