Acting on the Science We Already Have

Elise Miller, MEd

“Our own thought process impacts the health of our ecosystem almost more than anything else,” Dr. Virender Sodhi explained at an Indian cooking class I attended last weekend. “The real problem is we most often take action on what we don’t know and don’t act on what we do know.”

His comments reminded me of a simple pie chart representing “our knowledge of the universe” that a professor I had in graduate school presented. One tiny sliver is labeled “what we know.” A sliver about twice the size of the first is labeled “what we think we know.” The next quarter of the pie is labeled “what we know we don’t know.” And the rest is “what we don’t even know we don’t know.”

As I reflected on this, I realized similar categories could be applied to the three CHE national calls we have scheduled this month. The first to be held this Friday, April 15th, might be described as “what we think we [are beginning to] know”—an update on the emerging science regarding environmental contributors to diabetes and obesity. The second call, on April 18th, will focus on “what we know we don’t know [but want to know]”—a forum for soliciting visionary ideas for NIEHS’ strategic planning process. And the third, on April 20th, will illuminate “what we already know [enough about to take action on]”—an interview with Carl Candor, author of Legally Poisoned: How the Law Puts Us as Risk from Toxicants.

In essence, though we may be light years away from understanding the mysteries and complexities of the universe, we do have evidence-based science which, if acted upon, could significantly improve the quality of our lives and the ecosystem—right now. For example, fossil fuel-based energy systems and manufactured materials that have driven industrialization for the last century are clearly compromising our health in myriad ways—from increasing chronic diseases and disabilities to depleting the ozone layer in our atmosphere. We know this. But have we stopped investing in these industries and turned our full attention to developing renewable energy sources and safer materials based on the principles of green chemistry? No. Another example is that many studies show our current agricultural system, which favors industrial farming, is leading to soil depletion, less nutritional food, and increased exposures to chemicals and antibiotics. We know this. But have we starting providing significant incentives for small farmers to boost their capacity to supply local communities with fresh, seasonal, pesticide-free foods? No. Still another obvious example is that research clearly indicates primary prevention is far more cost effective than trying to find treatments and cures once people become sick. We know this. But do we prioritize prevention-oriented practices, rather than the development of more synthetic pharmaceuticals? No.

I could of course give many other examples. But I think my point is clear: Even though there is much to learn—and our natural human curiosity will always compel us to seek greater understanding (and that’s a good thing), we our doing ourselves a huge disservice by not acting on the knowledge we already have. Little did I expect to hear this common sense wisdom articulated so succinctly in a cooking class, but as Dr. Sodhi also reminded us: “Our relationship to growing and eating food mirrors our relationship to ourselves, our communities and to life itself. If we disconnect from the first, we will no longer have the second.”

Please join us for these upcoming calls and help us through our working groups and other activities to continue to translate the environmental health science we have (and are continuing to learn) into initiatives that greatly improve public health now and for generations to come.


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