By: Francis P. Koster, Ed.D.

I have spent most of my adult life studying why society fails to act on new information that would protect lives and health. As we gain knowledge about how the human body interacts with external pollutants my sense of urgency grows, as does my frustration.

History is full of attempts by citizens and authority figures to stifle the spread of new knowledge.

In 1632 Galileo wrote a book claiming the universe revolved around the sun, instead of the earth as was the official viewpoint. He based his beliefs on close scientific observations through a new invention - the telescope. Because he had better scientific equipment, his observations caused him to challenge the commonly held beliefs of the time.i Those who disagreed with him wanted Galileo's ideas taught as theory rather than fact based science - something he refused to do.ii

In his late sixties, Galileo was sentenced to life in prison for teaching this controversial idea. Nine years later he died,iii still in custody.iv  This was a heavy price to pay for trying to introduce scientific fact into public dialogue.

In Galileo's case he was not issuing a warning. He was simply challenging a widely held belief by presenting new evidence. 

When it comes to warnings the same set of defense mechanisms swing into action, but with more casualties.

Take the sinking of the ship Titanic. The captain ignored a day-long series of warnings from other ship's captains who had sailed the route the day before and had only narrowly escaped a collision. They warned the captain that dangerous icebergs lie ahead,v yet the Titanic's lookouts were not placed on alert or issued binoculars!vi Because leadership failed to listen to warnings, 1490 people died.vii

Closer to home we have Camp Lejeune where warnings were ignored for years about polluted underground water supplies.viii Over one million military personnel and their family membersix were unnecessarily exposed to avoidable health risks because officials ignored the warnings. According to the Veterans Administration, those exposed to this contaminated water now have higher than normal rates of cancer of the male breast, esophagus, lungs, bladder and skin, as well as rare diseases of the liver, kidney and lymph glands.x

I could go on.

People comfortable in their beliefs will go to great lengths to reject new knowledge.

I lecture frequently on our future, and the choices we face. Over time I have come to recognize a number of the standard defense mechanisms.

The most popular defense is what I call The Hypocrisy Probe. In this scenario, the speaker is talking about threats to our environment and is challenged with questions like “Do you drive a Prius?” or “Do you eat organic?” If the speaker answers either of these questions with “no,” he is viewed as a hypocrite. The students then feel justified in rejecting the new information being presented by the speaker.

Another defense is what I call the “Do you still beat your wife?” scenario in which the speaker asks the audience “Would you rather destroy the United States natural gas industry or continue to be dependent on Arab oil?" This question cannot be answered intelligently because important considerations such as energy conservation, biofuels from algae, and a host of other wonderful, profitable alternatives have been left off the table.

Or non-scientists will stand up and point to piles of data and declare, "This is junk science." These individuals may have no knowledge of how the data was gathered, or by whom. They will use any strategy to create doubt.

One historic tactic is to suggest that no action is taken until we have "settled science" - implying that there may be new knowledge around the corner. Between the 1950's when scientists first identified smoking as a contributing factor to disease and the 1970's when regulations were enacted,xi sixteen millionxii people died from smoking. Many of these lives could have been saved, but the nation was lobbied by the tobacco companies to wait for the science to "settle."

Science, by its very nature, never "settles." And the people advocating waiting know that.

At least we have progressed far enough as a society that we no longer jail those presenting new information.

As more and more people in our society have binoculars to see the icebergs ahead, and as scientific knowledge explodes around us, the threats to public health and well-being will become more visible. These threats should not be ignored.

You can help us to ensure your children's future by making sure that new information gets a fair hearing. Carefully weigh the risks and benefits to you and yours, and have the courage to embrace the change that you conclude is needed.

ii Galileo Galilei: Father of Modern Science by Rachel Hilliam 2005