TODAY'S PAPER
Scattered Clouds 46° Good Evening
Scattered Clouds 46° Good Evening
OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

What stents teach us about our politics

Science again prompts us to respect the essential roles of data and facts

A British medical study found that inserting stents

A British medical study found that inserting stents to relieve chest pain is useless for many of the hundreds of thousands of patients who get the devices implanted each year. Photo Credit: AP

The fire hose of news gushed freely last week.

It started with the Mueller investigation indictments and guilty plea, continued with an investigation into a deadly terror truck attack in lower Manhattan and debate over congressional testimony by tech executives about Russian election-related ads on social media, and moved on to the House GOP tax plan.

The fallout from each was radioactive and endless.

Another impactful story trickled into the periphery at week’s end. A British medical study found that inserting stents to relieve chest pain is useless for many of the hundreds of thousands of patients who get the devices implanted each year. Medication alone, it turned out, produced the same results.

The findings overturned decades of accumulated wisdom and left cardiologists worldwide stunned.

And what was the response?

Mostly, acceptance. And calls to rethink guidelines about when to use stents and to do more research. No one denied the data was real or insulted the researchers. There’s a lesson in there for our politics.

Another story that managed to crash our collective conscience, however fleetingly, was the World Series win by the Houston Astros. Beyond some wildly epic games and the warm story of a team lifting spirits in a hurricane-ravaged city, the victory was a testament to the power of analytics.

Houston’s front office has people with engineering and computer backgrounds whose job is the quantitative analysis of baseball. Their effectiveness is measured not only by the World Series title but by the fact that a St. Louis Cardinals staffer was arrested for trying to steal Houston’s secrets by hacking into its computers. There’s not that much mystery involved. Deeply delving into stats informs decisions about which players to sign and what strategies to employ.

And what was the response?

Pretty much what it has been. Teams are beefing up their analytics departments and hiring managers who are receptive. Data doesn’t lie. Certainly not like people.

A third story that registered barely, if at all, was the latest chapter in the long quest to answer the question: How did people get to the Americas?

A new paper used a spate of recent discoveries — an ancient settlement in Peru, old stone tools in Chile, a mastodon kill in Florida — to argue that rather than crossing a land bridge from Russia to Alaska that appeared during the Ice Age and then making their way east and south, humans used boats to move more quickly along fishery-rich coastlines.

And what was the response?

Careful consideration by colleagues, an insistence on more reflection, and plans for more archaeological expeditions along the Pacific coast in the search for more facts.

That’s the thing about science. It’s not instantaneous. It requires patience and contemplation. You gather evidence and use that to prove or craft theories. You don’t make up facts or mischaracterize what you know to fit a narrative, or reject facts because they don’t lead to a conclusion already drawn. You don’t accept data only when it suits your purposes.

Criminal investigations, crowd counting, scoring tax or health care proposals — they’re all forms of the scientific process. And the data they collect leads to conclusions one can’t avoid.

Which made for an interesting moment Friday afternoon when a group of federal agencies, with White House approval, released a report written by federal scientists that said humans are the main driver of climate change and that damage from that already is occurring across the United States. Top members of the administration hold a completely different view. A White House spokesman tried to downplay the study, but the facts in it are what they are. The administration “supports rigorous scientific analysis,” he said. But it also has suppressed science and scientists.

The gusher met the trickle. For now, the trickle won.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

Columns