Opinion | Paul Olson: Making sense of the world with science

When George Washington awoke with a sore throat on Dec. 12, 1799, he received treatment from three doctors practicing the best medical care of that time. In order to balance his body’s four humors (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood) over the next 12 hours, Washington was bled of 80 ounces of blood (about 40% of his total blood volume). He was also given an emetic to induce violent vomiting, received an enema and had a toxic mixture applied to his throat to produce blistering. After a day and a half of this abuse, Washington died.

The problem with the humoral theory of medicine was it had no scientific basis. No one had bothered to subject the practice to rigorous testing to see if it actually was beneficial to one’s health. Diligent work by many scientists gave us the germ theory of medicine, so now we rely on hand washing, vaccines and antibiotics instead of bleeding and purges. I am a big fan of science. It has given me quality medical care, jets, iPhones, the internet and electric lights.

The 2023 Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded to Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman for their discoveries, which led to the development of mRNA vaccinations, including those developed during the COVID-19 pandemic. A Commonwealth Fund study estimates that COVID-19 vaccines prevented more than 3.2 million deaths in the U.S. and saved the country $1.5 trillion. Quite an achievement. Yet there is so much disinformation circulating on social media about medicine and science that there is a troubling anti-science sentiment in America.

A 2021 Pew Research study found only 29% of Americans had “a great deal” of confidence in medical doctors, down from 40% a year before. A 2022 Financial Times study found just 33% of self-described Republicans had “a great deal of confidence” in the scientific community in 2021 versus 66% for self-described Democrats. This huge gap causes unnecessary antagonism since science’s pursuit of knowledge should not be a political issue.

When I was growing up, doctors and scientists were held in high regard, and we marveled at successes such as the polio vaccine and the moon landing. A shameful effort to discredit science was the tobacco industry’s decades-long campaign to cast doubt on research indicating smoking was harmful to one’s health. We currently see similar actions by the fossil fuel industry and politicians to influence the public to believe there is no agreement among researchers regarding the causes of climate change.

A 2013 analysis of 11,944 studies on global climate change and global warming published in peer-reviewed scientific literature between 1991 and 2011 found that of those studies which express a position on human-caused global warming 97.1% endorsed the consensus position that humans are causing global warming. There is no controversy, yet only 49% of Americans believe climate change is caused mostly by human activities according to a 2023 survey.

Regardless of one’s political beliefs, 100% of humans will experience the effects of climate change. Though it’s far from the ocean, Colorado State University’s Department of Atmospheric Science is a leader in climate research and hurricane forecasting. Their studies of La Nina and El Niño weather patterns will help Summit County know what to expect for snow totals this winter.

The Programme for International Student Assessment tested 600,000 15-year-olds from 77 nations in 2018. The U.S. ranked 17th in science knowledge and only 36th in mathematics. How embarrassing. Let’s hope our local schools will maintain high standards in STEM courses so students are prepared for college courses in math, science, engineering and technology and are ready for life in the real world.

Scientific illiteracy can be harmful to ourselves and our nation. Fact-check medical and science claims you see on social media before sharing it. Medical questions can be answered by, or and can help in verifying science claims. If you have questions about the updated COVID-19 vaccine, don’t ask a politician, ask your doctor.

Much of the stress we feel in life comes from uncertainty. Let’s be thankful for advances in medicine that give us more confidence when dealing with personal health decisions. Let’s appreciate scientific research that gives us answers about our world and improves our lives.

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