Weird Science

I like science.

I always liked studying science, for which I had a natural aptitude, and I like reading about it still.  Any kind of science captures my interest—the natural sciences, the social sciences—in no small part because I feel it is an important endeavor to helping us make sense of the world around us, and the things and people in it.  A certain respect for science seems not only admirable, but wise, which is part of the reason the Bush administration’s continuous displays of their contempt for science to further their agenda makes me want to pull my hair out and hit something with a bat.

An editorial in today’s Washington Post reveals another example of their aforementioned disdain for scientific evidence, once again with potentially deadly consequences:

A large body of scientific evidence suggests that the free provision of clean needles curbs the spread of AIDS among drug users without increasing rates of addiction. … The administration claims that the evidence for the effectiveness of needle exchange is shaky.

The editorial refutes the claim in short order, then wraps up with the following:

Respecting science does not appear to be the administration's priority, however. Not only is it refusing to spend federal dollars on needle exchange, but the administration also is waging a campaign to persuade the United Nations to toe its misguided line. The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, which is heavily reliant on U.S. funding, has been made to expunge references to needle exchange from its literature, and the administration is expected to continue its pressure on the United Nations at a meeting that starts March 7. The State Department's new leadership needs to end this bullying flat-earthism. It won't help President Bush's current effort to relaunch his image among allies. And it's almost certain to kill people.

I can’t even begin to fathom the impetus behind twisting science so as to derail a program that provides free, clean needles to drug users which has been shown to curb the spread of AIDS.  (Not to mention other communicable illnesses spread in the same way, such as hepatitis.)  Even from a fiscal perspective, the program makes sense; it is surely more cost-effective to provide needles than for our healthcare system to administer costly care to those who fall victim to AIDS through drug use, people who are, to state the obvious, unlikely to be covered by any sort of healthcare plan.

Nothing about this is smart.  One can only surmise that those who seek to deter free needle programs are motivated by a sense that their provision will encourage drug use, but such a position is rooted in the same fantasyland that allows people to convince themselves that making free condoms available encourages sex among teens.  Handing out free needles may very well feel as though it does little to reduce drug abuse, but if it stems the spread of AIDS, value is yet to be found in the endeavor.

Rarely can legislation fundamentally alter human habits; it more frequently simply criminalizes or legalizes an already common practice, without doing much to alter the commission of the underlying deed.  There is a real world out there that must be acknowledged when constructing policies so inextricably linked to human behavior.

A Protestant theologian called Reinhold Niebuhr wrote something called the Serenity Prayer, which has been reproduced on plaques, mugs, collectible plates, laminated prayer cards, posters with kittens, and all other manner of paraphernalia.  “God, grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and the Wisdom to know the difference.”  Sometimes it is indeed wise to respect the folly of humans, to know that the change you want to make isn’t necessarily the one you can make.  That’s reality, and ignoring it makes for bad policy.

We don’t call ourselves the reality-based community for nuttin’.

-- Shakespeare's Sister