Tuesday, November 27, 2012
Cancer epidemiologist Geoffrey C. Kabat, who is also the author of Hyping
Health Risks: Environmental Hazards in Daily Life and the Science of
Epidemiology has written an excellent and thought-provoking, but
mis-titled column at Forbes on "How Activism Distorts the Assessment of
Kabat identifies many things wrong with how the International Agency for Research on Cancer evaluates the cancer-causing potential of chemicals and products, such as cell phones.
All three of these flaws came together in IARC's assessment of cell phones: undue emphasis on a small number of positive epidemiologic studies from a single group, when the much larger body of studies indicated no elevated risk; the improper influence of an activist researcher (the lead author of the anomalous positive studies) on the deliberations of the working group; and, finally, a tilt toward the "precautionary principle." [link in original]Kabat goes on to note the influence of the IARC on how government agencies with coercive regulatory power decide which substances or products to control or ban, and says the following:
What these distortions and abuses make clear is the need for a firewall between advocacy and science.This is half-right and half-wrong. It is not advocacy, per se, that is the threat here, but the fact that government agencies can force others to comply with the conclusions -- mistaken or not -- that advocates for one scientific position or another hold. In fact, Kabat's evidence helps make a compelling case for the separation of science and state. Unfortunately, Kabat does not appear to see this, as far as I can tell from reading this column, and as a result, implies that government regulation of products based on cancer risk would be okay, provided that:
[T]he scientific evidence needs to be evaluated rigorously and dispassionately by people who do not feel they know the answer but whose sole goal is the accurate assessment of the evidence. People who know the answer and have an agenda are believers and advocates, and they should have no role in assessing the science.I understand why Kabat is saying something like this, but this is absurd: Suppose, based on my evaluation of the evidence, I have concluded that something commonly found in food is dangerous. Why should I not be free to both put my conclusions into practice ad warn others? We do indeed need a firewall between activists -- especially those whose non-objective epistemology warps (or even prevents) their evaluation of scientific evidence -- and the public. However, that firewall is similar to that between church and state. For the same reason the state shouldn't promote any religious view, it shouldn't promote unproven scientific theories, speculation, or philosophical views (such as the precautionary principle). The state should not be in the business of funding science (thereby robbing people of money and creating a warped incentive structure for scientists in the process) or regulating chemicals and other products (violating the rights of producers and consumers alike, and causing problems such as those Kabat demonstrates).
Science should be privately funded and the decision to use a chemical or product should be left to the individual, informed by the findings of private organizations he trusts, such as Underwriters Laboratories or the Consumer Union. Activism could not distort the evaluation of scientific evidence on a nationwide scale like it does today without the government's help.