There Is Science and Then There is Military Science


This is the quotation that was next to my picture, smiling and cuddling an electron microscope, in my high school yearbook: “Seek truth and do not part with it…” Yeah, I can’t be the first person who had that idea in mind at least a little bit when considering a research career.  

There is a truth about the universe that is being revealed slowly.  It takes us a while to get things right.  I remember telling some people who thought religion and science were at odds with each other that perhaps whatever deity you believe in will only reveal what people will understand. 

If an apple falling on Isaac Newton’s head was God’s way of revealing the laws of gravity to him, it was probably because the work of Galileo had already paved the way for this knowledge to be revealed.  For the TRUTH to be revealed.  Yet Newton was not ready for genetic recombination. Now, most scientists I know would accept that as universal truth.   But, as Jack Nicholson said to Tom Cruise in “A Few Good Men,” — ” You can’t handle the truth…” (from the script by Aaron Sorkin).

That includes scientists, even ones who have been to the most prestigious universities and carry lofty titles and publish acclaimed papers and books.

I don’t really run in the ratified circles, but I do know a few dedicated academics who believe that there is an absolute truth at the end of academic research.  I have hurt their feelings by telling them of their naïveté.  I used to think I was naïve until a professor at a Midwestern university begged me not to leave scientific research –Told me it was the only place in the world where I would have the freedom to search for truth. This was a university that got a lot of its academic revenue from contracting drug studies from the pharmaceutical companies.  This was a man who did not have any room to hear what I said.  Since the academic department was supported mostly by drug studies, I bought into the dream that drug studies could support my original research.

As such, I had great bouts of righteous outrage whenever I heard of an academic who falsified data.

Einstein upset Newton’s apple cart by declaring that there were no absolutes.  I can’t tell if he was correct or not, but I know better now than to expect absolute truth.

The very least we can do is to let scientists express the truth about their findings.  Speaking as a scientist, I must honestly say — We do not do this.

I recently bought a T-shirt that says “Believe.”  Actually, the manufacturer meant it to be a tie-in product with Peter Pan’s side-kick Tinkerbelle.  Remember – clap your hands if you believe in fairies (and you will save Peter Pan’s life).

I think it is more general.  What you believe in colors what you see in the world. People tend not to reveal or believe in things that will hurt the position they have taken. Which brings me to the military.  I did some training in various universities in various countries, but when I joined the military – THEY were the ones who were going to teach me – a neurosurgeon – psychiatry.  They called it “on the job training” – no classes, no diploma, just sink-or-swim.

I soon found out why people said “military psychiatry” was as much an oxymoron as “military intelligence.”  As soon as I was discharged from the service I made directly for a university to get a formal residency in psychiatry. But the years I practiced psychiatry in uniform were valuable in teaching me what not to do by presenting a plethora of  bad examples.

By now, I’m sure you have heard of “Agent Orange.”  A couple of decades ago, the average citizen might have guessed this was some new spy movie or comic book hero. Actually, this was a highly toxic defoliant used on the jungles of Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War which has been credited with hundreds of thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of children born with birth defects.

Closer to home, the substance is said to have caused increased rates of cancer, nerve, digestive, liver, skin and respiratory disorders to our veterans who served in that area at that time.

It is not in the interest of the Military to admit responsibility for anything that could help reimburse veterans for disease producing conditions. Time marches on and so do our soldiers, being directed to new wars in new places – but facing the same dangers.  Bullets, bombs and toxins launched – if not as weapons – at least to help our chances at victory.  They really don’t ever want to claim chemical or biological warfare.  They just want a tool to give them an advantage.

So the veterans of our new millennium wars in the Middle East have their own types of mysterious illnesses – generally grouped under the heading of “Gulf War Syndrome.”

What could be causing these maladies? Dust.

We have been to this place before.  Back in the 1920s, the “Curse of the Pyramids” that killed anthropologists turned out to be a fungus — Cryptococcus neoformans.  I know this to be true — even learned it in medical school from a wonderful professor who had a biblical thirst  for the truth. This same fungus is today a leading killer of AIDS patients and others with compromised immune systems.   It is a nasty enemy causing a form of meningitis. When we do not know exact answers, mankind has always been creative in constructing them – we call them myths. Mythology is easier to believe than science.  It lets us all feel equal, this dealing with mysteries.  The minute you believe in science, you have to believe that there is someone who understands what you do not.  The years of study, the letters after the name, might be worth something.  But the difficulty in understanding is a gap between your knowledge, and the ability to know what is going on. People can grab this space and misinterpret knowledge.  It is a hard place to catch the deviation from truth, if someone has already made the decision to believe a certain source.   It takes a lot of personal work to decide what is true.  It takes knowledge and research and time few of us have. We have heard of Agent Orange. We have heard of Global Warming. How many of us can review the data, and make decisions?  How many of us even try? This is a reminder that we cannot stop trying. Not ever.

It is difficult to stop being naïve.  Responsible adulthood is not easy — it may be frightening.  I have known aged people who never took the leap. I do not know how much of the world’s history has been propaganda.  At least I can admit that I do not know.

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