Good, bad or indifferent? It’s all a matter of perspective

I have good news and bad news. Which do you want first? Wait, this is my column so I guess I have to decide. The only reason I asked is because I’m not sure which news is good and which is bad.

The words “good” and “bad” do not have strict, scientific definitions. In fact, the two words probably best describe a spectrum in which some things are perceived as good and other things are perceived as better or worse. Good and bad are values, not facts. But we use a lot of euphemisms for the two concepts and sometimes that’s bad.

There are things that most humans agree are good and bad. Most humans think killing other humans is bad. Unless, of course, it’s to avoid something we think is worse. It seems most humans think love and affection are good. I sure can’t figure out some people’s taste though.

Science doesn’t deal in values. Science deals with the physical world and matters that can be verified with empirical data. In fact, some scientists think that things like religion and morality are bad. These are often the scientists who claim that we should fund scientific research because science does so much good.

Obviously, the same science that brings us electric lights also created the electric chair. The science that discovered antibiotics has created the antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The same science that created the nuclear bomb now provides us with nuclear-powered electric plants.

It isn’t science that is bad. It’s how science is applied that can be considered good or bad. Those scientists who attack religion as bad fail to recognize that it is not religious belief, but the application thereof that may be bad — just as with science.

Did you know that generally a person with a common cold heals cuts faster? So are colds bad or good? I suppose that depends on how seriously you are cut. If it is just a scratch, then no one cares and the cold is miserable (another word for bad). If the carotid artery is severed, a cold is the least of your worries. But there might be an advantage to having a cold if you have a serious cut on the arm. The faster the cut heals the less chance of infection. Colds can be good.

The parasitic amoeba, Entamoeba histolytica, can make us deathly ill, but millions of people seem to harbor it with no apparent ill effects. So is the amoeba bad or good? That depends on which group you’re in.

I much prefer to be healthy. Healthy is defined as not having anything abnormal, out of order, or bad going on. So the word health is a euphemism for good. The fact is there are numerous things in my life that are bad: work, meetings, other drivers, broccoli ... so am I healthy? If I am not, then I must be unhealthy, or un-good. Isn’t that the same as bad? It is if I am eating broccoli.

If I have a disease, I am not at ease. That’s not good. So it must be bad. So is broccoli a disease? Of course! But since bad is a relative term, there must be some things worse than broccoli. No, wait, I’m serious.

Is high blood pressure worse than gout? People with high blood pressure are at risk of heart attack and death. Someone having a gout attack will not die. They probably only wish they could. Hydrochlorothiazide is a commonly prescribed water pill for lowering blood pressure, but it is one of the major causes of gout attacks. So is Hydrochlorothiazide good or bad? Sorry! Science doesn’t deal in value questions.

So, we have 20 percent of the American economy devoted to the science of health (good) care. Is that good? Well, I have good news and bad news.

Which do you want first?

Gary McCallister is professor of biology at Colorado Mesa University.


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