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Don’t stifle debate with flawed or incomplete science

Friday, August 24, 2007 | 1:00 p.m. CDT; updated 12:09 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Contrary to those beliefs espoused vocally in various circles, we as American citizens are indeed fortunate in the avenues available to us to express our opinions without fear of repercussion. For example, in letters to editors, calls to talk show hosts, assemblage in protest or support and as columnists, we are free to convey our approval or disapproval of everything from actions of government, federal or local, to displeasure at our neighbors’ penchant for loud music or a cluttered yard.

Our freedom of expression is virtually absolute — we are empowered to refer to our leaders as we see fit — all too often in unflattering terms that cross the line of common courtesy and human dignity. The Internet has given everyone, from the learned erudite to the intellectually challenged, a platform from which one may provide reasonable discussion of issues or merely launch diatribes of invective and vulgarity.

Reasonable people can agree to disagree. Whether the subject is war, crime and punishment, education, the economy, politics or on any number of issues — foreign or domestic, substantive or minuscule — the exchange of ideas is healthy. I believe most of us are properly embarrassed or irritated at the intemperate invective spewed by those who either know or should know better; however, that is the price we pay for freedom.

Nevertheless, it is not all “fair and balanced” on the street of equal access to communication. There are unfortunately a few topics to which the window of debate has been shuttered despite evidence that the data used is both incomplete and inconclusive, as is the manner in which it was gathered is subject to obvious bias, regardless of how well — meaning the intent.

One of these is found in the crusade against secondhand smoke. It is a known fact that smoking is clearly a health risk, resulting in increased cancer and cardiovascular disease. It is also not a secret that secondhand smoke is an unwelcome invasion of the eyes and nose of others, particularly irritating to those of us who do not smoke.

Consequently, a host of studies have made some startling conclusions, several of which claiming secondhand smoke is even more hazardous to the bystander than to the user. The Surgeon General and many health agencies assert that secondhand smoke increases the risk for heart disease and lung cancer by 30 and 25 percent, respectively. Any discussion of this issue has been effectively silenced with little opposition as smokers are considered social pariahs.

These claims are alarming — but do studies actually support them? These “facts” are based on estimates of the sum of secondhand smoke doses inhaled by nonsmokers over a lifetime. That this is impossible to equate should be apparent — how is it possible to quantify the concentrations of secondhand smoke in the air, differentiating that from emission of carbon monoxide from auto exhausts and impurities discharged by industrial plants?

Global warming has also achieved sacred cow status in that any disagreement as to its cause and effect is somehow immoral, anti-intellectual and unscientific. We are inundated with graphs, charts and computer models advertising melting of the polar ice caps and the ensuing flood and famine which will obtain unless we park our SUVs and cease the burning of fossil fuels.

Nevermind that the temperature has increased but six-tenths of a degree in 125 years and climatic change occurs naturally without regard to human activity — I don’t recall any reference in Geology 101 to fossil fuels contributing to the end of the Pleistocene Era (the Ice Age).

There is nothing wrong with dissent; however, we need to hear both sides. To stifle debate by burying the opposition under flawed or incomplete science is dangerous. The world has experienced this phenomenon — a perfect example was the premature banning of DDT, the consequence being the recurrence of Malaria in epidemic form.

Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at JKarlUSMC@aol.com.


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