Okay, the title of this post is a tad harsh. "Science is a scam"? Surely not!
What I really mean is that science, as it is increasingly practiced today, is a scam. There is nothing wrong with the scientific method, so long as it is not misunderstood as the be-all and end-all of inquiry. But the way modern science is carried out is more and more problematic. Bureaucratized, corporatized, and above all politicized, science is becoming a highly questionable endeavor.
Let's take a specific case much ballyhooed in the press: the claims of a British scientist that a common food additive, sodium benzoate, can damage DNA.
According to the British paper The Independent:
Professor Peter Piper, a professor of molecular biology and biotechnology, tested the impact of sodium benzoate on living yeast cells in his laboratory. What he found alarmed him: the benzoate was damaging an important area of DNA in the "power station" of cells known as the mitochondria.
Now, I can't say how Professor Peter Piper conducted this experiment, but it seems a safe bet that it went a little something like this: He cultivated a few yeast cells in a petri dish. Then he backed a dump truck full of benzoate into the lab and unloaded its contents on the petri dish, burying the yeast cells under an avalanche of preservative. The cells, overwhelmed by this onslaught, began acting in peculiar ways.
No matter that a human being would have to consume an Everest-size mountain of sodium benzoate to ingest a comparable quantity of the stuff. What matters is that sodium benzoate has now been "shown" to be dangerous to our precious bodily fluids - er, I mean, our DNA.
But harm alone is not enough. The harm must be linked to health issues that get a lot of media coverage. Professor Peter Piper does not fail in this task. Quoth the prof:
And there is a whole array of diseases that are now being tied to damage to this DNA - Parkinson's and quite a lot of neuro-degenerative diseases, but above all the whole process of ageing.
Now we're really on to something. Not only can we say that sodium benzoate causes harm, but this harm may present itself as Parkinson's disease - surely one of the trendiest diseases around, at least since Michael J. Fox developed it. Moreover, the harm may actually cause - or accelerate - the process of aging! And who among us, in our youth-obsessed culture, wants to grow old?
And then, the master stroke.
[Professor Peter Piper] advised parents to think carefully about buying drinks with preservatives until the quantities in products were proved safe by new tests. "My concern is for children who are drinking large amounts," he said.
Ah, the children! What will we, as a society, not do to protect our little ones from the slightest risk?
Having established the danger of sodium benzoate and linked it to such eminently media-worthy concerns, the savvy researcher's next step is to do a full-court press with the press. The flurry of articles about sodium benzoate, always with reference to the terrible dangers posed to our kids, shows that Professor Peter Piper has not neglected this side of this job.
What, then, is likely to be the upshot of this uproar?
Professor Piper, whose work has been funded by a government research council, said tests conducted by the US Food and Drug Administration were out of date.
"The food industry will say these compounds have been tested and they are complete safe," he said. "By the criteria of modern safety testing, the safety tests were inadequate. Like all things, safety testing moves forward and you can conduct a much more rigorous safety test than you could 50 years ago."
Two salient points leap out at us from the above paragraphs: First, Professor Peter Piper's work is funded by the government, and second, it's clear that only more tests - more adequate tests, more rigorous tests, more modern tests, i.e., more expensive tests - can get to the bottom of this whole issue.
And who better to carry out these tests than Professor Peter Piper himself? Who is in a better position to get the next dollop of government grant money?
The politicians who are already jumping on the anti-sodium benzoate bandwagon are hardly going to object to further funding. Neither is the bureaucracy that subsidized the initial round of research. Nor will the trial lawyers who sniff an opportunity to sue the manufacturers of soda pop (a leading source of sodium benzoate) for their aging clients' aches and pains.
And so more money will be spent, more research conducted on yeast cells in petri dishes, and at the end of the day we will probably figure out that people have been getting Parkinson's disease and growing old for a long time, even before the advent of Coca-Cola. But in the meantime, many researchers and bureaucrats and politicians and lawyers will have made quite a good living off this particular avenue of scientific investigation.
Think I'm exaggerating? Hunt down a copy of Edith Efron's book The Apocalyptics and see for yourself.
No, science when properly carried out is no scam. But science as it is increasingly conducted today ... well, that's a different story.
Updated on May 29 to make the snark in paragraph 5 ("Now, I can't say how ...") even snarkier.