“Asbestos reproval business” (Previous science errors)


Everyone loves science even if they don’t realize it. I thought I didn’t care for it in junior high, when my obsession with baseball was at its peak. I failed to comprehend that chemistry made possible the glove that a diving Ozzie Smith used to snare line drives. I remained clueless about physics being behind the Neikro brothers’ fluttering knuckleballs.

By college, I still hadn’t developed an appreciation for science, taking as little as I could en route to my degree. I was much more into AC/DC and Jane’s Addiction, all while being indifferent to how principles like acoustics, dynamics, and resonance were enabling me to rock out to Van Halen’s latest.  

Whether one is into baseball and music, or any other activity, science makes it possible. Still, there are a few folks who describe themselves in so many words as anti-science. This is most ironic when they make such declarations on a cell phone, i-Pad, or social media forum. But most anti-science sentiment comes from those who largely embrace the field until it brushes up against their pet cause. This can happen with adherents of astrology, cryptozoology, creationism, energy healing, homeopathy, or those denying climate change, vaccines, and GMOs.

Being unable to cite scientific evidence for their ideas, these proponents try and build support for their positions by tearing down the opposing notion. This represents the argument from ignorance since disproving the prevailing scientific consensus would not buttress their contrarian position. When trying to tear it down, they often point to past mistakes made by scientists, but in so doing fail to understand what science is – a self-correcting, self-critical, self-challenging research method aimed at understanding how our world works.

These types may say that medics once thought smoking was healthy, that scientists branded thalidomide as safe, or that the consensus was once that our planet was a stationary plane (this point is not made by two specific sets of anti-science groups, the flat Earthers and geocentrists). Often, such assertions are mistaken, but the more relevant point is that those making them are misunderstanding or misrepresenting what science is. Past mistakes were part of the process and they are not a good reason to reject conclusions in an unrelated field, especially ones as grounded in overwhelming evidence as are GMO safety, climate change, vaccines, and evolution.

One approach favored by the selectively anti-science is to claim that scientists once declared asbestos to be safe. Asbestos is a generic name for six silicate mineral types, which humans have used for 5,000 years to create flexible objects that resist fire. The EPA considers all six types to be human carcinogens and asbestos is responsible for nearly all mesothelioma cases. Because of these dangers, asbestos use has been significantly curtailed since the 1970s and some nations have banned it entirely.

The selectively anti-science try to use the fact that asbestos was used for millennia as a strike against science. Yet it is only because of research and the development and refinement of the Scientific Method that anyone today knows that asbestos is harmful.

Even if scientists got it wrong the first time, the continued research that defines the Scientific Method means they eventually got it right. This point was made by the brilliantly-nicknamed Credible Hulk: “The premise that ‘science was wrong’ takes for granted something we only know thanks to science, which, according to the claimant’s conclusion, cannot be relied upon.” Indeed, the science makes it clear that asbestos has damaging effects, but according to the detractors’ reasoning, that can’t be believed since science is saying it.

Besides that, the claim that science thought asbestos was safe has little support. Proponents of this idea sometimes try to combine it with the appeal to antiquity gambit and assert that ancients knew what stuffy modern medicine doesn’t. They claim that Pliny the Elder noticed adverse health effects among slaves who wove asbestos into fabrics. While the Roman author did reference asbestos thrice in his Natural History, none of those passages mention consequent health problems. If anything, Pliny might have considered asbestos to contain healing properties, writing that it, “effectually counteracts all noxious spells.”

Twentieth Century physicians and medical researchers didn’t declare it safe; they just didn’t know enough about it until they started doing the science their detractors say can’t be trusted.

According to The History of Mesothelioma by D.D. Smith, the earliest documented case of the disease was likely in 1767, but it was another 200 years before the connection to asbestos was made. Regarding the silicate minerals’ connection to lung disease, the Credible Hulk wrote, “It was in 1928 that the first non-tuberculosis case of asbestosis was unambiguously diagnosed, named, and documented. Compelling preliminary evidence of an association between asbestosis and malignant mesothelioma didn’t emerge until the late 1940s or early 1950s, and it wasn’t until the 1960s that a strong scientific consensus started to take shape.”

By then, asbestos had been used for thousands of years and only about 100 years ago did the study of its effects begin. There had never been a scientific consensus  about its safety. Rather, the Scientific Method revealed its dangers, which are now known because of decades of rigorous independent study and sound research. That same method got us the truths about GMO safety, climate change, vaccines, and evolution, which is why even if those with contrarian views on those topics were right about science once being pro-asbestos, they are still wrong about what that means to their pet cause.

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