Letters re:"Science Triumphant? Not So Fast"

Copyright 1998 The New York Times
January 25, 1998

Skeptics Ignore a Century of Scientific Triumph

To the Editor:

I take issue with John Horgan's dour view of the accomplishments of science in the recent past (Op-Ed, Jan. 19). While difficult problems remain in the the areas of neoplastic disease and genetics, we have barely entered the realm of molecular biology wherein the answers to the cure of these disease lie.

Let's put things in perspective: The life expectancy of a baby born in the Bronze Age was 40 years. In the United States in 1900, more than 3,000 years later, a mere five years had been added. Now, largely due to advances in medical science, a newborn can expect to live for 76 years. In short, for each year since 1900, almost four months have been added to an American's life span. How fast must we go to satisfy Mr. Horgan?

GLENN A. LANGER, M.D., Little River, Calif. The writer is professor emeritus of medicine, University of California at Los Angeles.

Politicians Must Wait

To the Editor:

John Horgan (Op-Ed, Jan. 19) attacks the wrong target. No responsible scientist has promised an imminent "cure" for cancer, nor has hope been extended that mental illness will soon yield to scientifically based remedy. What we have seen are promises by political leaders to attain results by ordering scientists to deliver.

It was President Richard M. Nixon, against responsible scientific advice, who declared "war on cancer." It was President Ronald Reagan who admonished scientists to make nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete." A politically motivated order for scientists to produce is not the remedy.

To cure cancer, we indeed need science, but we must start with basic insight into biological processes -- only then will application and medical advances follow. Nuclear weapons are a threat that must be incorporated into the international political agenda. Science cannot be coerced by politicians or be blamed for failure to deliver on demand, but this is precisely what Mr. Horgan is do-ing.

WOLFGANG K.H. PANOFSKY, Stanford, Calif. The writer is director emeritus of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.

Thorough Investigations

To the Editor:

John Horgan contends that many recent advances in science have been touted as breakthroughs, but they have not yet resulted in treatments for disease (Op-Ed, Jan. 19). In support of this, he states that "scientists have served up finding after finding proclaiming the discovery of genes that supposedly control complex human traits." But scientists are generally more cautious when discussing genetic controls. This was the case last week as University of Texas biologists refused to say that their genetically rejuvenated cells had drunk from a "fountain of youth."

Mr. Horgan seems to believe that a true scientific advance would immediately result in an effective clinical treatment. But good science moves in increments, slowly accumulating proof of the nearly invisible footprints that nature leaves for us. While individual findings may hint at one or more disease mechanisms, a large number of investigations and the occasional need for new technology are sometimes necessary to elucidate such pathways.

Advances in science should be regarded as steps in solving important puzzles. Although we are beginning to see part of the pictures, we should not stop work until the final pieces are inserted.

GREG T. ALLISON, Piscataway, N.J.

Gains in Gene Work

To the Editor:

John Horgan's statistic that cancer mortality rates, despite $30 billion in research, have not changed significantly in 50 years (Op-Ed, Jan. 19) does not take into account the life expectancy increase that humans have experienced since the early 1950's. This indicates some progress inasmuch as the incidence of cancer rises with age. Had science failed utterly, we would have observed a marked increase in cancer deaths.

Furthermore, few of the old epidemic diseases like smallpox, tuberculosis, cholera, malaria and influenza have been completely eliminated. Why should we expect total eradication of cancer and other afflictions associated with increased longevity?

Medical science has not failed, but its progress is often stymied by difficult problems and by dead-end investigations that must be checked to avoid overlooking an unknown cure. Gene alteration is in its infancy. Only time and research will determine how useful it will be in curing the diseases that still afflict us. Having survived a brain tumor similar to one that killed a close relative, I am hopeful that genetic manipulation may protect my children's offspring from a similar problem.

JULIAN KANE, Great Neck, N.Y. The writer is a professor of geology at Hofstra University.

Too Much Pessimism

To the Editor:

John Horgan asserts that science has made "little progress at understanding, or healing, our fantastically complicated minds" (Op-Ed, Jan. 19). The evidence he offers for his conclusion is that many depressed patients have relapses following electroconvulsive therapy.

While researchers have not yet identified treatments that can help every depressed patient, that hardly justifies such a negative appraisal of psychological and psychiatric research. Hundreds of controlled studies in peer-reviewed professional journals have demonstrated the effectiveness of both psychotherapy and medication for treating depression and anxiety.

Mr. Horgan's pessimism about science is unwarranted. Scientific research has made a brilliant beginning at understanding the mind and still offers the best hope for finding effective treatments for what ails us.

SAUL E. ROSENBERG, San Francisco, CA. The writer is an associate clinical professor of medical psychology, University of California at San Francisco.

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