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Real Science


Michael Rosenthal

(3/2015) Ö the word scares many people, but the principles of science dominate every event that occurs. Even when you are not a scientist, or even a follower of science, science consistently affects your life. It is my hope that this series of articles can help readers utilize the principles of science in their daily lives and help make better lifestyle decisions.

I fell in love with science, chemistry in particular, in high school, where I was lucky enough to have a wonderful chemistry teacher. So, I have spent the ensuing years of my life studying and teaching college chemistry, a subject of which Iíve never tired. In this article Iíll touch upon a number of subjects that have been in the news lately, and that often have generated controversy, partly due to misunderstanding of the underlying scientific principles, but also often due to a yet incomplete scientific understanding of the issue. In ensuing articles Iíll explore these and other topics and encourage readers to make suggestions for topics, to comment to me on reaction to the things I write, and to develop a protocol of learning that goes beyond the simple publicity headlines. Iíll respect opinions that differ from mine, but Iíll hope for and encourage opinions based on scientific findings, rather than on emotion. We all (even I!) have emotional reactions, but my hope is to balance them with scientific analyses.

Letís start with something with which I had a personal experience Ė Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs). Over the years there has been a romance with UFOs, and the belief that we have been and continue to be visited by those from other parts of the universe. The beliefs were encouraged by the supposed sightings in New Mexico during the Cold War, and the culture built around the town, Roswell, in southern New Mexico. There is no firm evidence that we have ever been visited by aliens! Roswell has become a tourist center around the notion of alien visitors, and all of us are aware of the many science fiction films and science fiction books written about them. But the fact remains that there is no documented evidence that an alien has ever set foot on earth!

I have two personal anecdotes. Crossing the Hudson River once near Kingston, NY (I was a faculty member in those days at Bard College), I saw a mysterious silver, elliptical object hovering over the wetlands! It was hovering, it was an object, and it was unidentified! It would have been so easy to believe it was piloted by aliens. The second story occurred when visiting Roswell. While leaving the Alien Museum, a man behind us said to the staff member that the museum had absolutely convinced him that aliens had visited us. Believe it or not! Until firmer evidence comes along, I cannot believe it.

Another anecdote from that period involves overhead power lines. To a great extent due to a book and a subsequent three-part series of articles written in 1989 in the reputable and popular (we have subscribed for many years) New Yorker magazine, it became a popular belief that microwave radiation from overhead power lines could cause cancer. This belief led to a period of fear, even of driving oneís car under these power lines on a road trip. Electromagnetic radiation must have the energy high enough to do damage to human cells based on the equation: Energy = Planckís constant X frequency, where frequency is inversely proportional to wavelength. Thus high frequency radiation has high energy and can cause cell damage, and low frequency radiation cannot do so. This is why unfiltered sunlight, which has ultraviolet radiation, can tan you and can damage cells, and heat, which does not have such radiation, cannot do so. And why do you get warmed but not get sunburned when sunlight passes through the window? Glass absorbs the high-energy ultraviolet radiation and passes the low energy infrared radiation. We now recognize that there is not enough high energy radiation radiated from power lines to damage human cells.

Sometimes we discover things that do have the potential to harm us. You may have read recently that arsenic in rice, beer, and fruit juices poses a health hazard. It is agreed that inorganic arsenic poses a health hazard, and there are no federal limits for it in juice, rice, or most other food. Of particular concern is arsenic consumption by children. In May 2014 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that they are "conducting a risk assessment as the next step in a process to help manage possible risks associated with the consumption of rice and rice products". I believe that this is a matter worth watching, and that eaters of rice should seek rice with the lowest levels of arsenic. Articles in Consumer Reports magazine, the most recent in the January 2015 issue, are useful in learning about this issue.

Can we trust the FDA? The FDA has done much good work to recognize danger to us from food and drugs. It is worth watching their pronouncements. Can we believe that they are totally unbiased and always correct? Well, I am a believer in having skepticism of scientific results. It is well to examine the source of information to be sure the researcher is competent and unbiased, and then it is well to be alert for the confirmation of results, since even the most honest and well-meaning scientist can make a mistake. In our household we are continuing to eat rice, but we seek a product with low arsenic levels, and we limit our consumption.

So how do we tell whose data and results are less likely to be wrong and are not biased? One must always be skeptical of those who are likely to gain from the results. To that end, I have a good deal of faith in Consumer Reports magazine, in articles published in respected scientific journals (for example, Science, the monthly publication of the AAAS, the American Association for the Advancement of Science), a little less faith in government agencies (politics!), and real skepticism of newspaper and magazine articles that only reflect the opinions of the writer. One of the tenets of science is that one personís opinion should be reviewed and verified by others before publication. Even then mistakes are made, some accidentally, and some willingly. (We will talk about Cold Fusion as an example in a later article.)

Finally it is well to take note of the presence of the phrase, "This product has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration". When you see this phrase, beware! The product may not hurt you, but it usually means it has not been proven that it will do you any good. Many, many ads on television and even full-page or multi-page advertisements in respected newspapers and magazines for products to improve your health have this phrase on them. It usually means that it has no proven positive effect, other than to potentially make money for the seller.

Michael is former chemistry professor at Mount. St. Marys

Read other articles by Michael Rosenthal