01.10.2007

Green Jelly

Science has brought us many great achievements, but we need to be wary of its misuse, says Adrian Glamorgan

Science has brought us many greatachievements, but we need to be wary of its misuse,says Adrian Glamorgan

Whenthe dietician came, a concerned family member visitingthe hospital ward asked would it not be possible forthe patient to have a glass of freshly juiced vegetablesand fruit, perhaps some wheatgrass in it.

The dietician replied they were still doing researchinto the goodness of these things. Instead, there wasa small tetrapak of water, corn syrup, sodium caseinate(milk protein), sucrose, high oleic sunflower oil, canolaoil, milk protein isolate, corn oil, soy protein isolate,potassium citrate, magnesium chloride, tricalcium phosphate,emulsifier soy lecithin, E322, stabilisers, E460, E466,E418, flavouring, sodium citrate, choline chloride,with much more...and vitamins.

In short, a drink styling itself as a "completebalanced nutritional supplement drink". There wasgreen jelly for dessert. The private hospital also givesthe patient the option to tick the "healthy choice"option (on the back of the menu). If you've got theenergy, stroll down to the coke machine in the lobby.

I'm glad we have hospitals. When things go wrong withthe body, hospitals can do fine things. But too oftenthe tail wags the dog. It's not science, but a whitecoat dressed up as science. It's a white coat that saysall the chemicals in a tetrapak are what we need, whena part of us might, with some credible justice, suspectthat a juiced up cocktail of biodynamic vegies can'tbe beat. Back then at uni doctors did about an houron nutrition in an entire seven years of intense study.It's not about the "science," so much as who'sboss? Other points of view are not appreciated. Ayurvedicmedicine regards the food we eat as the first line ofdefence in health and, accordingly, pays thorough attention.The white coat of science won't look at Ayurveda because...whoknows? So much is unspoken. Is it because it's Indian?Pre-scientific? A fad, of several thousand years standing?Iridology as ancillary diagnosis was discovered by adoctor, but try telling that to others in his profession.It doesn't...fit.

What if it's not about the "science," somuch as who's boss? There is a trade in authority goingon here. The white coats, and the authority of the clipboard,can be science in drag, a mock pretence of the scientificapproach to serve just another hierarchy. In the widerworld beyond hospitals, more than half of all the world'sscientists work for the military or for military purposes.The rest find it hard not to be engaged in corporatework funded by pharmaceuticals. Note I come here topraise science, not to bury it. I speak in favour ofa science based on rigorous observation, the posingof an emerging hypothesis, fair testing and a fearlessappraisal of results: this is what we need more of,not less. Science as a methodology is one of the extraordinaryachievements of our species. But the public needs tobe wary of science being used by power, for power'ssake.

The recognition of global warming has been one of science'sgreat achievements. Over the last 40 years, but particularlythe last 20, the disparate specialties of science, fromgeology to meteorology, from computer modelling to zoology,have learned to cooperate and exchange perspectives.The collaborative effort that has led the overwhelmingpreponderance of evidence to be put at the feet of governmentsin a way that can't be ignored is of immeasurable benefitto us all. Now we know why it rains in Antarctica, whenonce it only snowed; why rainfall in southwest Australiahas dramatically declined. Yet, for those few scientistswho explore alternative points of view, I am grateful.Although the evidence is all down one end, it's importantthat rigorous science is used to test our now-conventionalthinking. This is not the same as saying "the jury'sstill out on climate change"!

The growth of nuclear power is another matter. Initiallyled by curiosity, splitting the atom opened up the possibilityof understanding the origins of nature, and massivelydestroying an enemy. Some of the world's best scientistspeered into the mysteries of the universe to contemplate,at first with zeal and then increasingly with horror,how a city could be incinerated in seconds. The ColdWar saw the manufacture of nuclear materials throughprocessing in nuclear reactors which also produced electricityas a byproduct. These nuclear installations were militaryin nature and had to be military in protection. Therewas a white coat down every hallway. But those who hadlooked through frosted glasses into a thousand sunsburning into a mushroom cloud pondered whether coldscience on its own was enough. Without values in ourthinking, where were we, where are we, being led? Science,as part of its method, needs to anticipate the flow-onconsequences of its deeds. This takes time. Time tocontemplate, reflect, observe some more.

Nuclear reactors use enormous amounts of greenhouseemissions in their decades of construction, decadesof decommissioning, and storage of poisonous waste overtens of thousands of years. Ah, nuclear waste. Let'sbring rigorous scientific thinking to this question.Observe how damaging concentrated radioactivity is,ready to leak into the biosphere. No one knows how tosafely deal with the radioactive leftovers. It lastsfor tens of thousands of years, sometimes hundreds ofthousands. Observe the vulnerability of waste to bestolen and made into a radiological weapon, for buriedrods to be upset geologically. Notice again how it tiesup our attention for hundreds and thousands of generations.We have to guard it for longer than the pyramids havesat at Giza. And for much more. Seriously, the nuclearemperor has no clothes. In the name of science, as wellas humanity, we are entitled to ask, and expect an answer:what about the waste? The (mostly) men in white coatsor political masters cannot just presume a solutionwill pop up one day. They cannot tell us a technofixis just around the corner. They cannot just ignore thequestion. This is not science: it is a convenient assumption,a lick and a half-promise. Served as green jelly.

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