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HUMANITIES SCIENCE POLITICS

Science, People & Politics ISSN 1751-598x, 25th November, 2016. 18.00 GMT

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Editorial: Anthropocene v. anthropocene
Geophysical reality or social construct?

A social construct is as reified as the impact gravity has on the human
body if someone jumps from an aircraft at 35,000 feet. That is, the
question in the headline does not deny that changes today in Earth
systems result from human activity. Rather it sets up the debating point
which has preoccupied scientists since 2000 when Paul Crutzen and
Eugene Stoermer first coined the phrase to describe and explore
humanity's impact on Earth.

It is an imperfect analogy, but when Gulf War Syndrome was debated in
the early 1990s the initial determination of the US National Institutes of
Health that there was no such medical Syndrome was not denial of the
impact their many exposures to drugs and environment had had on the
body of soldiers. The issue was that in at least three contexts the
medics could not afford a mischaracterisation. There was, for example,
the risk model underpinning payment for medical treatment; the need
for a cogent framework within which to develop scientific-research
hypotheses; and - not least - the need for a proper context for patient-
centred clinical decision making.

Health care free at the point of delivery, whether paid for by the State
or private insurance, needs definitions unfettered by emotion or
poverty. Otherwise it is the body of medical knowledge, and thus all
human beings, who pay the price.

It was not so much cause and aetiology which mattered - though, of
course, they did -, but prognosis and outcomes of treatment options.
The medics had the skill to treat the presenting symptoms and
conditions. But what was crucial for them was to know the nature of
atypical symptoms, and at which stage of the patient's physiology and
developmental biology to intervene.

Actuaries and insurers needed a proper characterisation, because that
would enable them to recalculate risk models, important for national
financial planning, irrespective of whether those numbers underpin
private or public health-care models.

Geologists now have a similarly important problem. Is there a distinct
geological Epoch, independent of whether caused by the Earth-system
changes we live with today? What will geologists teach their students
10,000 years from now? Helen Gavaghan

Issue 4 (October - December), 2016. Volume VII. Science, People & Politics ISSN 1751-598x.

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Published Friday 25th November, 2016

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A print version would additionally have two blank pages, so this version is not routinely for sale as print, unless really wanted.

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