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Breast cancer, scientific uncertainty, and the rise of women’s activism: A detective story


Dr. Ted Schettler & Carolyn Raffensperger

With Kaitlin Butler and Ann Manning


Carondelet Center, Sisters of Saint Joseph

Event Center, Room G-1

1890 Randolph Ave, St Paul, MN 55105


October 21, 2015, 7pm-9pm


Free and Open to the Public

RSVP appreciated – Seating is Limited: email

Up until the late 1990’s, health decisions were made like most other science-based decisions: you waited for scientific certainty, then you acted. This approach seemed to work for problems considered to have a single "cause" and a single effect (for example, vitamin C deficiency causing scurvy or a virus causing polio).*


By the 1980s, it was obvious that waiting for scientific certainty wasn't working for the emerging problems of the 21st century. These problems were characterized by long delays between cause and effect, many "insignificant" causes adding up to a big effect, and the ominous rise of chronic diseases like diabetes, asthma, and cancer.


Breast cancer is a case in point.  Over the course of one generation the prevalence of breast cancer rose from one-in-25 women to one-in-8.


Twenty years ago, SEHN recognized that waiting for scientific certainty meant that dead bodies had to pile up before action could be justified. To SEHN's small staff, this meant we needed to change the way science is used in decisions.


Scientific uncertainty is not a reason to delay action. On the contrary, scientific uncertainty is, itself, a compelling reason to take action soon. If we are flying blind, we need to slow down, ask ourselves what harm might lie ahead in the fog of uncertainty, and consider alternative ways of navigating the future.


Soon SEHN began creating and applying some very practical tools like the precautionary principle, which reverses the role of scientific uncertainty in decision-making. In the absence of scientific consensus, the burden of proof that an activity is not harmful falls on those taking an action. A second tool is the "cumulative impacts" approach to complex problems like breast cancer, asthma or global warming. Using this approach, scientists and citizens abandon the search for a single cause, aiming instead to consider many contributing causes which, intertwined and mutually reinforcing, add up to produce harm. A third tool comes straight from the origins of American government, which derives its legitimacy from the "consent of the governed," as the Declaration of Independence tells us. How can residents in communities give or withhold their consent? A fourth – and even more fundamental – tool comes from an ancient theory of government that stands in contrast to the view that government’s main responsibility is to protect private property, and to suggest instead that the purpose of government is to protect the common wealth and the common health of all of its citizens.


These tools unfolded from the everyday experience of regular people and communities who knew something was terribly wrong with the cavalier dismissal of pesticides, radiation and radioactivity, food additives, water contaminants, the sedentary lifestyle, too much "screen time" and more. With the extraordinary leadership of the breast cancer community, SEHN has found ways to change the rules of the game. Now communities are changing the rules for fracking, for pipelines, for coal plants, and for other projects that threaten our health, our children, our future.


Come learn about the next chapter in this story of science, women’s leadership and new, practical rules for changing the game. How to protect future generations is a detective story, but it's no mystery.


Please join us.  Everyone is welcome.




*Of course we now recognize that vitamin C deficiency itself does not have a single "cause," nor does exposure to the poliovirus, so even these "simple" cause-and-effect examples were being misconstrued.