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Editorial: Don’t blame the scientific messenger

The classic Henrik Ibsen play, “An Enemy of the People” — presented on a floating barge stage in Charleston last month — tells of a physician who discovers that pollution from a tannery has corrupted local health baths, the chief economic support of his town.

When the doctor warns that using the baths may cause illness, townspeople and leaders turn on him savagely for damaging the town’s prosperity. They drive him away as an enemy of the people.

This message — that honest science can get researchers into trouble — was repeated last weekend to more than 100 brilliant students as they arrived for the yearly National Youth Science Camp. In the Martha Wehrle Opening Lecture at the University of Charleston, Dr. Felix “Jay” Lockman of the Green Bank radio astronomy observatory cited various scientists who were punished for discovering the truth. His examples:

n Galileo was kept under house arrest until his death for teaching that Planet Earth orbits the sun. In a letter to astronomer Johannes Kepler, Galileo wrote that rival scholars refused to look through his telescope and see proof. “What shall we make of this? Shall we laugh or shall we cry?” he wrote. (Dr. Lockman didn’t mention a fellow Italian thinker, Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake in 1600 for teaching the same theory.)

n Rachel Carson, author of “Silent Spring,” was denounced fiercely by chemical industry leaders for writing that pesticides such as DDT were killing wildlife and causing human cancer. Yet her warnings proved true. DDT was banned, and her work helped create the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

n Academics Paul Crutzen, Frank Rowland and Mario Molina won a 1995 Nobel Prize for proving that CFC chemicals in aerosol sprays were damaging the protective ozone layer in the sky — although they previously suffered endless attacks from chemical chiefs. DuPont’s chairman called their work “a science fiction tale... a load of rubbish... utter nonsense.” He was wrong, and CFCs were banned.

n Decades ago, several researchers warned that tobacco smoking caused lung cancer and other deadly illnesses. They were trashed or ignored — but today, the whole world knows that cigarettes are lethal.

Here’s a local example: The late Dr. I.E. Buff of Charleston warned that miners suffer “black lung” disease from breathing coal dust. He was disputed and attacked — but in the end, he was proven correct.

Science is an enormous boon to humanity — but the struggle to reach the truth can be stormy indeed.

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