Lawmakers are often pressured by ideologues to pass laws based on bad science.
Science is not done in the courtroom or in the halls of legislature, but all too often, ideologues try to do so through the legal system. They try to pass new laws requiring bad science to be made compulsory, thus forcing others to live by their ideology. Examples abound, and today we're going to look at just a few of these. While we do, keep in mind that any time you hear about lawmakers considering passing a law in support of what appears to be a scientific finding, you should always approach with skepticism. By way of advisory against this practice, I offer the following maxim:
The most familiar example of this is Young Earth Creationism, backed by legions of fundamentalist lawmakers worldwide trying to change education standards to require the teaching of religious creation stories in place of science-based history. This particular movement is so pervasive that specific examples are superfluous. One need only visit the website of the National Center for Science Education to get the latest updates on virtually all such pending legislation. But there are many other examples of legislated pseudoscience, more insidious, that give a better impression of being about protecting the public. Let's look at a few of these.
In 2013, New York City attempted to pass a ban on sugar-sweetened drinks larger than 16 ounces. As of today the bill is still being appealed and debated. Now, obviously, large soft drinks are an easy way to quickly consume a lot of calories, thus contributing to obesity and all its related health problems. So why is this bad science? As the judge rightly pointed out, the law was "arbitrary and capricious". The ban is gutless because only certain retail channels are affected, but it's bad science because virtually any restaurant meal contains far more calories than even the largest soft drink. Many retail coffee shop drinks contain more calories. Such a ban would wrongly inform the public that large soft drinks are worse than other equally available calorific offerings, like the famous hamburgers, pizzas, and fish and chips served throughout New York's iconic food scene. If the intent is to limit the number of calories a person can buy on the spot, then the law is entirely pointless. But if the motivation is merely to stroke voters' popular recognition that soft drinks are unhealthy, then it's a win.
Vaccines are acknowledged by virtually all medical professionals as perhaps the single most important public health initiative in history. Vaccines have prevented more diseases than any other medical advance. For this reason, most public school systems require that students be vaccinated; schools being the places where germs are swapped most often. Yet, due to the increasingly popular public belief that vaccines do more harm than good, much pressure is put on lawmakers to allow parents with unscientific beliefs to be exempted from this, thus damaging herd immunity, and defeating the whole purpose. Let's look at the 50 United States as an example. 19 of the states, which include the majority of the population, allow philosophical exemptions, meaning that anyone can be exempted for virtually any reason they wish to identify as a belief or a philosophy. But even if you live in the 31 states that don't allow these exemptions, 29 of them allow religious exemptions, which means that all you have to do is state that your anti-vaccine beliefs are religious. Presto, you're in, no vaccines needed. Only two US states, Mississippi and West Virginia — accounting for 1.5% of the national population — fully protect their public school attendees by allowing no exemptions. Laws leave 98.5% of students unprotected.
Worldwide, practitioners of discredited or pseudoscientific medical modalities, such as naturopathy, have worked to get licensure for their professions recognized by the government. One example is House Bill 612 in the state of Pennsylvania. Skeptics sometimes react to such licensing positively: If they have to be licensed, it would mean that they have to pass some scrutiny and must deliver real services. That's what the naturopaths hope you're going to think, but it's not the case at all. There are no standards for naturopathy. In most of the world, anyone can hang out a shingle and legally call himself a naturopathic doctor. But this law would make that illegal in Pennsylvania, for all except those whom the state board of self-certifying naturopaths accept fees from. The law would wrongly imply to consumers that licensed naturopaths, by virtue of their being licensed, are valid medical practitioners; when in fact they are merely fee-paying members of a private club that has neither legitimate standards of practice nor any scientific foundation.
The Saanich school district in British Columbia, Canada is one of a growing number that have imposed strict controls on the use of Wi-Fi network connectivity due to pressure from citizen groups who believe that radio signals are harmful. This is a fundamentally unscientific position, and these groups are usually motivated by the naturalistic fallacy and also promote similar xenophobic causes like opposing water fluoridation and promoting organic produce. Even if radio were harmful, what would be the benefit of banning a single narrow frequency, or a source as weak as Wi-Fi that's barely a whisper against all the other sources of radio all around us — cell phones, TV and radio, the sun? A principal argument used by anti-Wi-Fi activists is that the World Health Organization added radio frequency to group 2B in 2011. This was popularly misunderstood as classification as a carcinogen. In fact, it was not. Group 1 is the WHO's classification for carcinogens; group 2 is for substances for which further research has been requested. Group 2A includes substances for which some evidence has been found, and group 2B is for substances for which no evidence has yet been found. In fact, the WHO statement on RF says:
Public pressure often drives lawmakers to act against established science, often under the guise of "an abundance of caution". One such example comes from the states of California, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, New York, and Washington, all of which have enacted statutes limiting or banning the use of the preservative thimerosal from vaccines, because thimerosal contains mercury, and mercury is a neurotoxin. Sounds like it makes sense... until you consider basic chemistry. Elements like mercury, carbon, oxygen, or anything are not usually found in nature in their pure form. They are almost always chemically bound to other elements to form the compounds we see in our world. Salt is widely used and found throughout our bodies; yet its two elements, sodium and chlorine, are both extremely toxic and dangerous in their pure elemental forms. Similarly, the mercury used in thimerosal is chemically bound as ethylmercury, and has never been found to represent a danger. Fortunately these states all allow exemptions for public health emergencies.
In 2012, the country of Kenya joined those that have banned genetically engineered crops. GE crops, also called GMOs, allow botanists to confer staple crops with genes from other plant species that are resilient against certain specific threats, such as pests, drought, or disease. This allows superior crop yield with much reduced need for pesticides and fertilizers, a necessity in famine-stricken countries like Kenya. But Kenya's government yielded to pressure from groups promoting unscientific beliefs like GMOs are radioactive or affect the consumer's own genetics in some way, or are otherwise nonspecifically harmful. The direct result is continued famine in Africa while champagne corks pop in the offices of Western anti-biotech activists.
How about pseudohistory? The claim that Gustav Whitehead made a controlled flight in an airplane in Connecticut two years before the Wright Brothers is one that's largely promoted by a single researcher, Australian John Brown. And, despite virtually all historians and authorities like Smithsonian insisting otherwise, the state of Connecticut voted in 2013 to change their holiday "Powered Flight Day" to honor Whitehead instead of the Wrights.
In 2012, the state of North Carolina mandated that changes in sea level must be estimated using historical data rather than by using current scientific models. Their language was eerily similar to that used by Young Earth Creationists who urge that when biology or evolution are taught, assertions of flaws or weaknesses in the theories must be given as well:
When something has economic impacts as profound as those that come with a rising sea level, economic interests are sure to get involved. Which is better, a long-term plan that accommodates the actual sea-level, or a short-term plan that denies any rise to realize short-term savings in redevelopment costs? Especially for a coastal state like North Carolina, the only rational choice would be to demand the very best and very latest in sea level data.
It's also important to note that politicians don't always need an ideology to legislate based on bad science; sometimes all they need is ignorance. A really famous case is the 1897 "Indiana Pi Bill" where a physician, Edwin Goodwin, believed he had found a way to create a square with the same area as a circle. His was an honest attempt at mathematics, which he believed would have useful implications in things like measuring real estate lots. The Indiana state legislature didn't know any better and actually deliberated the bill, until a visiting mathematics professor, Clarence Waldo, recognized what was going on and explained that Mr. Goodwin, well-intentioned though he might have been, had merely discovered a few amateurish ways to estimate pi — but pi was already well established in mathematics, and had been for millennia. Upon learning this, the state Senate expeditiously took the bill behind the barn and shot it.
Since then there have been no serious efforts to legislate the redefinition of mathematical truths, despite a number of urban legends. But given the other fiascos that lawmakers have managed, we shouldn't be surprised to see this happen, or worse. Keep science in the lab, and keep laws in the courts. Don't let them mix.
Correction: In the recorded version of this show I said "methylmercury" instead of "ethylmercury". That's exactly wrong. Ethylmercury, as shown in this transcript, is correct.
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