It is the best of times, it is the worst of times. It is an age of reason, it is an age of nonsense. It is an age of options. It is an age requiring scientific decisions. It is an age that begs for science education.
Most of us are living the good life. There is no doubt that we are living longer and in greater comfort than ever before, but at a price. We fly through the air with ease, but that air is becoming polluted. We have more leisure time to spend in the sun, but that sun is beating down stronger through an ozone depleted atmosphere. We have conveniently packaged consumer goods, but we are beginning to drown in garbage. We protect our food supply with pesticides, we devise new materials, we clothe ourselves in novel fibers, we synthesize new medications, but we generate toxic wastes in the process. Indeed, we do have a few problems. But we also have the scientific ingenuity to come up with solutions.
These solutions, however, will not come easily. They are dependent upon scientific expertise on the part of some, and scientific literacy on the part of all. These requirements can only be met through formal scientific education, beginning early in life. Unfortunately, in North America, this is not taking place to the extent that our future well-being requires. By and large, we have a population not well versed in scientific principles or in critical thinking. The result is that when controversial issues arise, people are left to flounder in a sea of media accounts, buffeted back and forth between reassurances of safety and prophecies of doom.
We need good, reliable information, but in our newspapers articles about advances in science and medicine vie for space with astrology columns and accounts of flying saucer sightings. Our bookstores devote far more shelf space to "New Age" and paranormal publications than to science books. In the health section, scientific nutrition books are squeezed out by the latest miracle diets, which in turn try to outdo each other with outlandish promises of disease prevention or cure. The result is massive confusion about facts, about issues and about whom to trust. This situation is ripe for capitalization by those who offer the allure of simple solutions to complex problems.
How dangerous is scientific illiteracy? Widespread but wrong beliefs about cavemen and dinosaurs coexisting, bending spoons with the "power of the mind," astronauts becoming weightless because of the absence of gravity or the moon being larger when it is near the horizon are probably harmless. But beliefs about diagnosing disease by looking into the iris of the eye, or avoiding cooked food because it has been robbed of its enzymes, or curing cancer with coffee enemas are not. It is also sobering to realize that according to surveys 90% of the population cannot explain what is meant by the term "molecule."
Science is a rigorous discipline based upon experimental proof. For example, all that is needed to prove that the size of the moon does not change with its position in the sky is an aspirin tablet. When the tablet is held at arms length, it exactly covers the moon no matter where it is. The apparently larger moon on the horizon is just an illusion.
A little more scientific sophistication is required to prove that enzymes in food are not required by the human body. Enzymes are biological catalysts without which the chemical reactions that constitute life could not proceed. On a molecular level, enzymes are proteins, or giant molecules composed of amino acids. The human body is capable of synthesizing all the enzymes it requires from amino acids in the diet. In fact, enzymes in food cannot be absorbed. Like any protein, they are decomposed in the digestive tract into their component amino acids. But people unaware of these facts can easily be persuaded that enzymes are some kind of magical ingredient in food, perhaps something akin to the human soul. "Destroy the enzymes and rob the food of its nutritional value," goes the blatantly absurd claim. Those with even a modicum of scientific background are not fooled.
A different approach is required to investigate iridology, a pseudoscience which claims to be able to diagnose a variety of diseases by examining the colored part of the eye. Iridologists say that they can determine nutritional needs and the state of health of body organs by gazing into the iris. The problems they discover, such as "sub-acute liver intoxication" or "chronic gallbladder," can of course be treated with a variety of nutritional supplements which iridologists conveniently sell. However, unlike for the moon illusion, or for the breakdown of enzymes in the digestive tract, there is no simple experiment to prove that iridology is nonsensical. But the burden is not on science to prove that iridology makes no sense, it is up to the iridologists to prove that they can actually diagnose disease.
Such proof should be simple to come by, as is readily apparent to anyone versed in the scientific method. Just let a group of iridologists examine a number of subjects, some of whom have gallbladder disease, a condition said to be easily diagnosed through iridology. The identification of people with the disease would constitute proof that iridology works. This very experiment in fact has been carried out with five leading iridologists. The results? The same as one would expect by random guessing. Science is therefore justified in casting a wary eye on iridology.
Similarly, in the treatment of cancer, the burden of proof for the efficacy of coffee enemas, macrobiotic diets, nicotinic acid or camphor injections, laetrile tablets, raw juices, mega vitamins and urine infusions lies with the claimant. Such proof has so far not been provided. It seems that purveyors of these therapies are much more interested in hyping anecdotal evidence and in knocking the "scientific establishment" for being closed minded, than in taking part in scientific studies. Requiring scientific proof before accepting the validity of a treatment is not being closed minded. Indeed, it is the only mechanism we have to identify quacks and charlatans who prey upon desperate people.
Familiarity with science allows us to look at the world in a different light. It allows us to be logical in our convictions, rational in our fears, realistic in our hopes and reasonable in our decisions.