The small Alaska city where I make my home is far from a backwater community. It is the state capital, and a college town, and because of its isolation it is one of the most "wired" communities in the nation.
So solid scientific facts are not hard to find. Just a click of the mouse can answer many questions.
That's why it was so disturbing recently when the Juneau city assembly ignored the advice of local dentists and several scientists and voted to stop adding fluoride to the city's water. We can get by without fluoride in the water, since good dental hygiene will protect our teeth from decay, but that's not the issue. The issue is a growing lack of public confidence in science, and that's something that all of us should worry about.
As Neal Lane, former head of the National Science Foundation, once told me, science is the driver of many forces, including our national economy.
The anti-fluoride campaign began decades ago as a darling of a right-wing political organization and propaganda still gushes forth. Yet the National Institutes of Health, the American Dental Association, the U.S. Surgeon General and many others have looked at the evidence and concluded that fluoride helps protect us, and especially our children, from cavities. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently hailed the fluoridation of drinking water as one of 10 great public health achievements of the 20th Century.
Oddly enough, you don't hear much about chlorine, one of the most common chemicals used to purify our drinking water. Without it, we would spend a lot of time throwing up from sicknesses like giardia. So we add chlorine, despite the fact that it reacts chemically with any organic matter found in water. A common byproduct is chloroform, which the National Academy of Sciences identifies as a cancer-causing agent.
Instead, we ban fluoride. The logic flies in the face of science, and that's why it should concern us all. It's hard to look at public reaction to many issues -- from fluoride to evolution -- and not conclude that people, especially Americans, are losing faith in science.
There are several reasons why. Science is a work in progress during which today's conclusions may be rewritten tomorrow. What was good for us to eat yesterday is bad today. That's because new evidence is developed that builds new understanding and we are better off because of that process. But science takes it on the chin.
If they can't tell us what's right the first time around, why listen?
That's part of the problem, but I fear the real culprit is much more serious. It lies in the often heated debate over evolution.
A recent study published in the journal Science found that about one-third of Americans do not believe in evolution, a figure that is much higher than in Europe and Asia. This column cannot resolve the debate over evolution, but in some ways the fight parallels the issue of fluoride.
There's a reason why virtually every major university in the world has a department of evolutionary biology. There is a huge amount of evidence demonstrating that we became what we are today through gradual evolutionary changes over many millions of years. The evidence is so convincing that the issue doesn't even come up among scientists.
Over the years I've attended scores of scientific conferences, representing most disciplines, and I've never heard two scientists argue over whether evolution is theory or fact. They debate some of the finer points, like the forces that drive evolution, but Darwinism is accepted as fact. Some of them have even seen evolution occur in their laboratories through the study of animals that go through many generations in a short period of time.
Most of the argument against evolution, of course, is based on religious teachings, not science. There is a serious conflict here, and I suspect it is the root of the problem. I recently heard a local pastor tell his television audience that evolution is "the greatest hoax ever perpetuated on the American people."
The debate has deteriorated into a mudslinging contest in which both sides will lose. Time magazine published a wonderful debate in its Nov. 13th issue between atheist biologist Richard Dawkins and Christian geneticist Francis Collins. Both are thoughtful scholars who have pioneered their fields, and who have spent a lot of time wondering about the meaning of it all.
Dawkins argues that evolution provides an alternative answer to the question of how we got to where we are. We have the answers now, he says, so we don't need to use God as an explanation.
Collins argues that he can be a good scientist and still believe in both evolution and God, because God must have set the rules and started the ball rolling, using evolution as a tool.
It's a wonderful debate, exploring both sides, but midway through it focuses on fundamentalist Christians who argue that evolution is contrary to scripture, and thus cannot be true.
"Why bother with these clowns?" Dawkins asks.
Collins shoots back that "we don't do a service to dialogue between science and faith to characterize sincere people by calling them names."
There's much more to the debate than that brief exchange, but I think it sums up what's so wrong with the current confrontation between science and religion.
Christians who don't accept evolution are clowns?
Scientists are taking part in a great hoax?
As a science writer who once studied for the ministry, I can tell you firsthand that embracing evolution can be difficult. Dawkins is right in suggesting that evolution answers questions that were once left to God, and it does provide an alternative explanation for the origin of life, and even purpose and morality.
So it's no mystery to me why at least some Christians may feel intimidated by it.
But it doesn't scare a man like Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute. He believes in both.
"I am still able to accept and embrace the possibility that there are answers that science isn't able to provide about the natural world -- the questions about why instead of the questions about how," Collins says in the debate.
Both men are smart and forceful, and couldn't be more in disagreement. Maybe there isn't an answer.
But this much is clear. There is a huge gap between those who embrace scientific findings, and those who see science as a threat that is in conflict with beliefs they hold dear. The loser, I fear, will be science. And for that we will pay dearly.