Friday, February 27, 2009

FIRESIDE CHAT: Creationism, Intelligent Design, and the Environmental Professional

“Mr. Bryan, do you know the age of this rock?”
Clarence Darrow, Esq.

“Mr. Darrow, I’m more interested in the Rock of Ages than in the
age of rocks."
William Jennings Bryan, Esq.


In the 1925 ‘monkey trial’ attorney and three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, the ‘silver-tongued orator’, prosecuted John T. Scopes in Dayton, Tennessee for violating that State’s Butler Act. Jennings, also a fundamentalist preacher, ‘created’ a controversy that remains relevant to environmental professionals. Most, however, seem unaware of its relevance. Under the Butler Act:

“… it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.”

Defended pro bono by attorney Clarence Darrow under arrangement with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Scopes was fined $100 for teaching evolution theory. Many Americans’ familiarity with these events was enhanced by “Inherit the Wind,” originally a Broadway play in 1955, later a film in 1960, a television movie in 1965, again a Broadway play in 1998, and a book in 2000 (actually, a high school primer on the original book).

The tide against evolution turned in 1968 when the US Supreme Court, in Epperson vs. Arkansas, ruled that the religious purpose of State prohibitions against teaching evolution in public schools violates the US Constitution’s Establishment Clause. In response, the terminology of creationism later ‘evolved’ to ‘creation science’ to qualify its subject matter for inclusion in science classrooms. More recently it metamorphosed to ‘intelligent design’ (ID) after no ‘creation scientist’ succeeded at demonstrating a scientific content of ‘creation science’. Some 18 U. S. school districts today face local challenges to science curricula that would require inclusion of ID.

ID acknowledges evolution, but claims that its result is so well-suited to the needs of organisms, and so obviously nonrandom, that an intelligent force must guide it. The implied intelligence, of course, is divine. Scientists and religious thinkers generally agree that the scientific method cannot refute religion, though it can test specific religious beliefs, such as whether the earth is a few thousand years old or billions of years old, or whether it was created in seven days or maybe a tad longer. So, should ID be included in public school science curricula as an alternative to evolution via natural selection (Darwinian evolution)? What is the relevance, if any, to modern environmental professionals?

If science cannot refute religion, then the history of the earth really could include implementation of a divine plan for evolution. Perhaps historians could confirm this scientifically, as with carbon dating and other techniques. Should history curricula include such scientific endeavors. Should history classes teach science?

I offer two answers. One is that each field has boundaries, so science curricula should exclude religion just as religion and history curricula should exclude science. Another is that each field acknowledges contributions from other fields, so science curricula should acknowledge contributions of religion and history to advancing science, just as religion and history curricula should acknowledge contributions of science to advancing religion and history. A difficulty in the particular case of ID, however, is that it seems never to have contributed to science, especially to advancing science. To the contrary, it has been blamed for (or credited with!) retarding science.

ID originated from the religious doctrine of separate creation, that is, god’s creation of humans in his (or, these days, her) image. This is devastating for environmental professionals, inasmuch as the most basic premise of our field is that managing ecosystems means managing natural, agricultural, and artificial communities in accordance with sound principles of population and community ecology, all of which accept as true the reality of micro- and macro-evolutionary processes as explicated by extensive scientific research. Creationism, however, removes humans from nature, even from the premise that adverse effects exerted by environmental pollutants in field studies and laboratory bioassays can predict what might happen to ‘separately-created’ people exposed to those same pollutants.

In short, environmental regulation and environmental protection as we know them in the U. S. and abroad rely upon the validity of Darwinian evolution as their most basic premise. The same is true of public health regulation and protection, as exemplified by FDA criteria of demonstrating safety and efficacy of pharmaceuticals, in part based upon animal bioassays. Animal evidence, under separate creation, is irrelevant to public health and its protection. Acceptance of separate creation invalidates the premise of environmental and public health protection, and thereby undermines them. Environmental professionals have an interest in preserving, protecting, and strengthening environmental and public health protection and, therefore, a responsibility to challenge religion when it masquerades as science.

ID tries to make its religious fundamentalist premise more palatable in two ways. One way is to accept the course of evolution, and even its scientific basis, up to the point of agreeing on the sufficiency of natural selection to account for it. Yet, that is its Maginot line, where it fails in its own defense, for it cannot argue objectively that the design of sharks is intelligent any more than I can counter that the design of penguins constitutes Incompetent Design.

The second way ID tries to make itself palatable in the public policy arena is to claim merely to be another idea in the arena in which all scientific ideas compete. ID seeks the middle ground of fair, open minded consideration. To illustrate, the 26-August Science Magazine, under the headline “Dr. Frist Prescribes ID,” quotes Senate majority leader Bill Frist, MD of Tennessee (the Scopes state) saying:

“I think today a pluralistic society should have access to a broad range of fact… including faith… [teaching evolution and ID] doesn’t force any particular theory on anyone.”

Who among us can deny such a seemingly innocuous appeal to fairness and inclusiveness? Yet, scrutiny raises troubling issues. Dr. Frist and I both accept the fact of faith, but he appears to accept faith as a basis of fact. Both Dr. Frist and I accept the need for students to have access to a broad range of information, but Dr. Frist appears to accept the science classroom as a place for faith to be taught. What, indeed, would be taught? It would appear to be that the guiding force of evolution, until identified by the scientific method, must be divine as a default assumption, until such time as science refutes it… but, as indicated earlier, such refutation lies beyond science.

Science has suffered from its own tendency to communicate badly, thereby spawning confusion in the public policy arena. Is the ‘theory of evolution’ termed a theory because it really is uncertain? Some erroneously believe that the word ‘theory’ suggests uncertainty, whereas in biology ‘evolution theory’ rests on ground just as firm as ‘the theory of relativity’ in physics, ‘graph theory’ in math, and ‘probability theory’ in statistics. Indeed, these ‘theories’ rest on firmer ground than, for example, evidence used to convict criminals in our highly demanding judicial system. In fact, the word ‘theory’ in science connotes a body of related phenomena united by a nucleus of scientific principles. It does not connote uncertainty of our knowledge of those phenomena. If you like certainties, consider these: science dies when ID qualifies as a null hypothesis, and the marketplace will have little use for ‘science’ students seeking to advance it.

Copyright © 2009 by The Center for Health Risk Assessment and Management, a Division of RAM TRAC Corporation

Thursday, February 26, 2009

NEWS: PCB Dredging

Probably the biggest PCB dredging project ever contemplated is slated to begin this year after repeated delays over the past few years. This year the General Electric Company (GE) is scheduled to begin the project, whose price will approach $1 B, with a pilot project to demonstrate the technology and assess the results, including effectiveness and adverse impacts. The schedule may be delayed further, however, by a lawsuit to force EPA to pay for drinking water that might become contaminated by PCB mobilized by dredging. See Stillwater, New York paragraph in:

Related technical article: Michaels, RA.; and UM Oko. Bias in the US EPA baseline health risk assessment supporting the decision to require dredging of PCB-bearing sediments from the Hudson River. Environmental Practice, 9(2):96-111, June 2006; download full text from

Copyright © 2009 by The Center for Health Risk Assessment and Management, a Division of RAM TRAC Corporation

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

FIRESIDE CHAT: One Difference Between Pharmaceuticals and Pollutants

In recent months, psychiatric side-effects, including suicide, have been associated with the asthma medication Singulair, raising the technical issue of whether such associations are ‘causal or casual’. Media coverage has verged on exposé tone, leaving the impression that this pharmaceutical might have slipped through an FDA licensing process that should have been based upon two time-honored criteria: safety and efficacy. If Singulair were an air pollutant instead of a medicine, associated risks such as suicidal ideation and action should result in control (by EPA) to levels well below the danger point for even the most sensitive populations. These would include pregnant women and, for many or most pollutants, their fetuses and infants. Not so for Singulair: this conservative principle of pollutant regulation works differently for pharmaceuticals.

We want pharmacologically active agents to be available, specifically for cases where risks of a disease greatly outweigh risks posed by a treatment agent. That's why physicians can prescribe chemotherapeutic agents against cancer, even though the agents infrequently may also cause cancers. It's why they can prescribe immunizations, even though the vaccines infrequently may also cause adverse, including lethal, effects.

The death from suicide, even of one patient taking Singulair, is tragic, and illustrates a painful quandary: when to use (or not use) a medication that might prevent 10 or 100 or 1000 times the number of deaths that it causes. If properly prescribed, each medicine added to our arsenal of disease fighting agents contributes to public health, even though it infrequently might also exert adverse effects on an individual's health. I don't claim to know the way out of this quandary, but I do think that media coverage should be balanced by reporting both sides of the benefit-cost analysis. Medications are licensed for prescription use only, not because they are without risk, but because their proper use can mitigate enormously greater risks.

Copyright © 2009 by The Center for Health Risk Assessment and Management, a Division of RAM TRAC Corporation