Science and sensibility

By Pascale Palmer
August 17, 2010

Last week I heard in the news that breast cancer death rates are down nearly 30 per cent since 1980, and although I of course think good thoughts about figures like these and the new wonder drugs and breaks-through we have from time to time, my happiness is tinged with very personal sadness.

Last month my mum would have turned 69. She was a fiercely loving woman with huge brown eyes and soft hands. She had come all the way from Mauritius, via Paris, to marry my dad, have three children and live in the depths of Lincolnshire, which she found preposterously cold. Somewhere in her mid-40s she was diagnosed with breast cancer and despite the chemotherapy and the carrot juice, and the quiet raging against it all, she eventually died.

During my mum’s illness we put some of our hopes in the drugs that were being administered, but it was a strange empty feeling - to have your mum’s life in the hands of boxes of branded pills and nasty-coloured drips. But what I have to remember is that even the drugs she had back then which couldn’t save her, were part of the scientists getting it righter and righter, so that last week’s announcement on a decrease in cancer rates could happen, and so that my generation and the next could face breast cancer with much better odds.

Science is a process: scientists of all hues stand upon the shoulders of those who went before, pushing knowledge a little further and a little more towards the limits with each new piece of painstaking research. Sometimes their work adds just the tiniest movement forward, sometimes, but rarely, there is a leap in understanding. But even that work culminating in a dead end means the science fraternity can move more securely and confidently in another direction.

When we think about the development of cures for cancer and HIV and AIDS, we seem to get this: we see that drugs get better over time, that it takes years to find the right products in the right proportions to interact with the right cells and bodily processes. We understand that it can take generations of work to effectively relieve people of pain and symptoms and disease, without burdening them with crippling side-effects.

We should think of the idea of science as a process across all research areas - not just medicine - whether it is creating more energy-efficient cars, better ways to extract metal from their ores, new educational methodologies, better farming techniques, water conservation technologies, new building materials or climate change. Yes, climate change.

Climate science is a process just like any other, so we need to start understanding it as such. Let’s stop looking to climate scientists for absolute answers, because they don’t have them yet, but they are well on their way. Specifically because science is incremental - because it is a slow accretion of information - specific events can happen in the world that the science can’t at that very moment offer concrete proof to explain.

But when the vast majority of experts say that it is likely that an extreme weather event or change in climate is attributable to man-made climate change, that’ll do me. And whether, on the day of reckoning, that group of scientists ends up being right or wrong on one specific case study, I frankly don’t care. I also believe that whatever ‘scandals’ hit the headlines regarding climate data from particular research institutes, they must be put in the context of the overwhelming body of research going on across the globe.

What I really care about is that thousands of respected experts are at present using the sum total of their knowledge and rational thinking to come up with intelligent and logical conclusions to help them and others understand something that is pretty much impossible to prove at this point in history.

My mother was a French teacher and so she worked every day with the idea that understanding comes through incremental stages - that she couldn’t put a piece of Moliere or Racine in front of 11-year-olds and expect them to decipher the meaning. What she also knew when she was ill was that the scientists who had developed the drugs that fought her cancer were doing the best that they could with the knowledge they had at the time.

At present climate research indicates that damaging changes are happening now and that reducing emissions of greenhouse gases from human activity could help decrease the frequency and intensity of catastrophic events such as the Pakistan floods, the devastating heat-wave across Russia and the severe cold snap across southern Latin America.

So let’s accept that what we have on the table regarding the science on climate change is as good as it gets right now and that we, as non climate scientists, would do well to inform our understanding and opinion of the issue from this overwhelming body of research.

© Pascale Palmer is CAFOD’s Advocacy Media Officer.

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