JURIES AND SCIENCE

            Many of you remember the big  $289 million liability award for the school groundskeeper in California who sued Monsanto for Roundup causing his cancer.  At that time, I posted a warning:  it ain't over, so don't break out the champagne. 

             Well, a subsequent appeal dropped the award to $78 million, which is still no small amount, even for Monsanto (now owned by Bayer).  As these things go, we now have another appeal, and interestingly, the Monsanto attorneys have won their desire to split the case in two parts.  First, argue the science of Roundup.  Second, argue negligence.  Two completely different trials, with the second one being contingent on winning the first. 

   In case you missed it, this is brilliant, and I predict will result in Monsanto being completely absolved of any liability in the matter.  And of course that will extend to the nearly 9,300 other similar cases pending.  No doubt that initial verdict stimulated a massive bandwagon against Roundup.

             Why can I be so sure about the outcome and eventual exoneration of Monsanto and Roundup?  Because we do not make decisions based on empirical evidence; we make decisions emotionally.  We are emotional beings.  We have beliefs that trump data every day.  Data does not win arguments; emotion wins arguments.

             And so a dispassionate scientific inquiry into the question:  does Roundup cause cancer? will absolutely end in a hung jury.  When I say science is subjective, academics get their pants in a wad and dismiss me as a nut.  But just a couple of days ago I read an article by a scientist who had the courage to admit that science is subjective.  His point was that we pick what we see. 

             The reason I'm so adamant about this is because in 9 years of interscholastic and intercollegiate debate competition I learned that every data point could be re-interpreted in another light.  In these tournaments, we would debate one side affirmative for 3 rounds, and then debate the same topic negative for 3 rounds (called switch-side debating).  It truly helped me appreciate the different sides of an argument, but also awakened me to the fact that scientists do not agree on empirical data.  Which means I don't trust very much.

             And so in this trial, a 2010 study of 20 mice painted with glyphosate, the active weed killer ingredient in Roundup, caused 40 percent to develop tumors.  Bayer scientists will show the study was epidemiologically flawed and that animal experiments don't necessarily translate to humans.

             By the same token, when Bayer says its 40 years of studies and EPA bean counting has shown no association with Roundup and cancer, the scientists on the other side will say those studies had flaws and can't be trusted.  It'll be tit for tat for days as these scientists parse the meaning of "is." 

             This is why philosophy is so important.  Now all the humanities professors may cheer.  Science is bounded by what we can see and what we can duplicate.  What we see is completely subject to our philosophy.  "Why can't you see that?" we question a disagreeing person, incredulous that something so obvious to us is completely opaque to them.  Well, welcome to the human condition.

             Vaccines, human-caused global warming, pasteurized milk, local food systems, religion, and a host of other topics cannot and will never be decided on science.  They are decided philosophically.  Now, I may end up being completely wrong on the outcome of this case:  the complete exoneration of Monsanto.  But I don't expect to be wrong.  Time will tell.

  What was the last exasperating discussion you had with someone who believed completely different than you based on data they interpreted that was completely different than the data you "know?"