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Friday, December 02, 2005 

AMA Op-Ed: "loopy times," and what medical professionals can do

Though I'm not an MD myself, much of my research and my reading centers on medical issues, while another passion (as regular readers certainly must have noticed) is the "controversy" over evolution, and educating the public about the issues involved with that. So, in a nice convergence of these two topics, the American Medical Association has published an Op-Ed on the topic of evolution denial.

I’m afraid we live in loopy times. How else to account for the latest entries in America’s culture wars: science museum docents donning combat gloves against rival fundamentalist tour groups and evolution on trial in a Pennsylvania federal court. For those keeping score, so far this year it’s Monkeys: 0, Monkey Business: 82. That's 82 evolution versus creationism debates in school boards or towns nationwide—this year alone.
The most important part of his piece, IMO, addresses the role of the medical community in this "controversy:"
The medical community as a whole has been largely absent from today’s public debates on science. Neither the American Medical Association nor the American Psychiatric Association has taken a formal stand on the issue of evolution versus creationism. When physicians use their power of political persuasion in state legislatures and the US Congress, it’s generally on questions more pertinent to their daily survival—Medicare reimbursement, managed care reform, and funding for medical research. Northwestern’s Miller believes that the scientific community can’t fight the battle alone and that, as the attacks against science accelerate, the medical community will have to use its privileged perch in society to make the case for science. “You have to join your friends, so when someone attacks the Big Bang, when someone attacks evolution, when someone attacks stem cell research, all of us rally to the front. You can’t say it’s their problem because the scientific community is not so big that we can splinter 4 or more ways and ever still succeed doing anything”

So what does one do? How can a medical student, a resident, or a physician just beginning to build a career become active in these larger public battles? Burt Humburg, MD, a resident in internal medicine at Penn State’s Hershey Medical Center, is one role model. He’s been manning the evolutionary ramparts since his medical school days in Kansas in the late 1990s when he became active in Kansas Citizens for Science. On a brief vacation from his residency volunteering as a citizen advocate for the federal trial in Pennsylvania, he said education is the key role for the physician. While he realizes that medical students, residents and physicians might not view themselves as scientists, per se, he sees himself and his colleagues as part of the larger scientific collective that can’t afford to shirk its duty. “The town scientist is the town doctor, so whether we want it or not, we have the mantle—the trappings—of a scientist”.

There are many ways to get involved; from the most rudimentary—attending school board meetings, sending letters to the editor, and volunteering at the local science museum—to the more demanding—running for office, encouraging a spouse or partner to do so, or supporting candidates (especially financially) who are willing to speak out for science.

I hope Costello's call is answered. Those of you who may feel that this topic isn't your concern--you're wrong. Many of the same people who deny evolution are the same ones who refuse vaccination, who deny that HIV causes AIDS (such as Phillip Johnson), who claim that abortion causes breast cancer (such as DI petition signer Joel Brind), who think that there's some big conspiracy by the "scientific elite" against the common man. Many have a fundamental mistrust and misunderstanding about science, and evolution denial is only one way it manifests itself.

I know, it's much easier to stay in your office and not deal with the issue, but please, we can use your help. Write a letter to the editor--people seem to respond better to those "M.D." initials after a name than the "Ph.D." (="ivory tower elitist") ones. Especially if you're a well- known and respected member of your community, showing that you support the teaching of evolution in your school district can really help. There are other ways you can help listed here, and every little bit helps.

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About me

  • I'm Tara C. Smith
  • From Iowa, United States
  • I'm a mom and a scientist, your basic stressed-out, wanna-have-it-all-and-do-it-all Gen Xer. Recently transplanted from Ohio to Iowa, I've spent most of my life in the midwest (with 4 years of college spent out east in "soda" territory). My main interest, and the subject of my research, is infectious disease: how does the microbe cause illness? What makes one strain nasty, and another "avirulent?" Are the latter really not causing any disease, or could some of those be possible for the development of chronic disease years down the road? Additionally, I've spent a lot of time discussing the value of teaching evolution, and educating others about "intelligent design" and other forms of creationism. My interest in history of science and medicine is also useful as a way to tie all of the above interests together. [Disclaimer: the views here are solely my own, and do not represent my employer, my spouse, that guy who's always sitting by the fountain when I come into work, or anyone else with whom I may be remotely affiliated.]
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