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Science, vaccines and frying our world

Let’s talk about science. You may not realize that lots of medicine is based on statistics. The Peace Corps assigned us public health doctors. Ours, Robert Carey, went on to an eminent career as doctor, scientist and long-term dean of an eminent medical school, plus Bob and his wife, Theodora, became lifelong friends. Bob came to see me when I called and told me to call him back immediately, regardless of the time, if I had any more symptoms, particularly a headache. I understood what worried him. An epidemic of meningitis was sweeping Iran and he wanted to catch it fast if I had it.

It was an educated guess reflecting his concern, but by the time he came back in the morning my eyes had changed color and he knew immediately that I had hepatitis, not meningitis. It took me months to recover completely but I was in good hands – he and Theodora turned their own place into a hospital for me for a few days and then put me in the Mission hospital when he had to go out of town – there were fancier hospitals in Shiraz but the Mission hospital had everything I’d need and a good and dedicated doctor in charge.

Diagnosing an individual patient is harder than it looks – there are too many symptoms and too little time to test for everything. So educated guesses are an important part of doctors’ tool kits. The statistics didn’t lie; but more information told a better story.

By comparison, when thousands of people are tested for approval of a vaccine, you get very precise answers – not about who is going to come down with which disease but what percent of the population will. That can be very precise. The bet has been 95-1 that the vaccines will prevent Covid, and if you win that bet, the payoff is huge. I’d take 95-1 odds, wouldn’t you?

It's that kind of convergence of massive evidence that reveals what’s going on with climate change. Long before any concern about global warming, Mrs. Eunice Foote discovered that carbon-dioxide traps the sun’s heat. She presented it to a major American science conference in eighteen fifty-six. Three years later, John Tyndall made the same discovery across the ocean. That’s now fundamental science. Repeated experiments with many different techniques have consistently demonstrated the rising temperature of the earth’s atmosphere all over the globe. And the time-line for the rise in temperature is also based on well-accepted science whose origins had nothing to do with global warming. Put it all together: we know and can even measure the impact of carbon-dioxide on temperature; we know when the earth started to warm; we can trace when the use of fossil fuels exploded, when the earth’s temperature increased, and put them together. There’s too much well-accepted science done and repeated by unrelated scientists all over the world to argue against that basic conclusion.

Yes, scientists make mistakes, but as their work converges, I wouldn’t bet they’re wrong, and I wouldn’t bet my life, my wife’s, my children’s or grandchildren’s that that science is wrong.

Sometimes skepticism makes sense. And sometimes it’s deliberate, commercial or partisan poison. To those folks who urge you either to refuse vaccines or to permit more use of fossil fuels and pipelines, tell them it’s too late for that nonsense; we know better, and the consequences are too serious.

Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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