water droplets on glass during daytime

Beyond Doubt

Preliminary draft …

Humans’ reach and impact globally is unprecedented, and sadly culminating in diverse disasters. These include declining public health, pollution, species extinction and worsening global climate chaos.

The good news is that meeting challenges on one front can ripple out to improvements elsewhere, so how can we harness science, learn and gain social licence to act more wisely and to meet these challenges? The urgent need for and scale of concerted action is unprecedented.

Humans’ apparent triumph in evolutionary survival of the fittest is testament to our technological prowess, resilience and rapid adaptability, particularly in difficult times. We tend to live “in the moment,” and can learn from experience (though misinformation is tainting what is “learned”). The time for ingenuity based on strong knowledge of basic sciences, partnered with hard-nosed decisions to forgo well-marketed, harmful luxuries, has come.

Societies have a tendency, however, to discount dire predictions – particularly if persuaded that early action would be inconvenient. This tendency is aided and abetted by vested interests that over the past century have, for example, advertised brain-addling lead paint using children’s colouring books, marketed “mild” and filtered cigarettes as doctors’ preferences, and argued for agricultural and residential use of toxic pesticides that arose from World War II and the Vietnam War (some are still in use).

Key to maintaining these business interests is challenging strenuously every study showing harm, and funding studies designed to show no effect. Much has been written about this sorry history, recently in a Position Statement by the International Network for Epidemiology and Policy (see also related publications on the web page). Led by Colin Soskolne, a group of prominent epidemiologists published in 2021, “Toolkit for detecting misused epidemiological methods.”

Back to evolution, traits that were essential to survive cold, dark, winters in times of yore, and that will get us through tough times ahead, ironically impede progress against unseen, poorly understood modern hazardous exposures, and unprecedented consequences in the form of disease, cancer and climate chaos.

Responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have shown in fast-forward how actions to protect health are delayed until proof-of-catastrophe provides the necessary “political capital” for public health and political officials to impose inconvenient restrictions.

Arguments abound, time and again, against erring on the side of health by requiring lower pollution emissions, safer substances and products, organic, resilient agriculture. Mankind is a major player in systems we don’t understand, inter-dependent with life from the smallest soil bacteria, to the roles of giant whales in ocean ecosystems – yet we rely on natural processes and biodiversity for the air we breathe, clean water we drink and food that sustains us.

Too often, proof-of-catastrophe takes the form of incontrovertible proof that humans are being harmed, using the crude tool of environmental epidemiology. The esteemed epidemiologist David Ozonoff quipped that the definition of  “catastrophe” is “an effect so large, even an epidemiology study can detect it.” This can prolong profits and delays action for pubic health literally for generations. As the incontrovertible truth becomes apparent and is tested in courts, particularly under American law public health disasters such as related to smoking can and translate into billions of dollars to the multitudes who were harmed.

We rely on and join with a large number of scientists and scholars have been in the thick of dismantling doubt in the public interest. A few of these include Devra Davis, Bruce Lanphear, Michael Gilbertson, Anthony Miller, Colin Soskolne, Paul Héroux, Kathleen Ruff, David McRobert, Joe Ackerman, Margaret Friesen, the brilliant talented staff at major Canadian environmental justice charities and many more

December 22, 2021… to be refined and continued, with resources and focused topics