Science has been called the engine of our prosperity and the mother of invention. The scientific method isn’t perfect, but it is the best system we have to develop reliable expert knowledge. But science is under attack in many ways and this has direct impact on the health and future of us all.
I recently reflected upon this after noticing on my bookshelf two of my favorite books Ashes to Ashes: America’s Hundred Year Cigarette War, by Richard Kluger, and The Cigarette Century, by Allan Brandt. Both books are good reads. Kluger won the Pulitzer Prize for his book in 1997 and Brandt’s book was a finalist for that prize about 10 years later.
Both books lay bare the actions of tobacco companies to undermine science. By the 1950’s there was overwhelming evidence that the cigarette was deadly. Rather than responsibly act, the industry decided to ‘create doubt’. In the interest of profit, they distorted truths, created biased messaging, and aimed to erode the basic methods through which science endeavors towards knowledge and certainty. Their methods worked, and the cost was millions of lives.
We need agreed upon norms and methods by which expertise and best evidence is established and made available. Questioning authority, debate and dialogue are valuable. Distorting facts and undermining expertise for profit or self-interest is not. Science moves slowly, but it provides a light and a path toward better health in a civil society.
Brandt AM. Inventing conflicts of interest: a history of tobacco industry tactics. Am J Public Health. 2012;102(1):63‐71. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2011.300292