Science in Society Archive

Science for Democracy

Politically Correct Science for the Masses

Real democracy does not just mean the right to vote. People must also have access to the information they need to make an informed choice; that’s why scientists must be free to tell the truth and express their views accordingly on scientific issues Prof Peter Saunders

Shaping science to politics

When US scientists produced a report warning that the current level of greenhouse gas emissions would almost certainly lead to unsustainable climate change, the Bush administration did not simply ignore their findings. Instead, they changed the report to make it appear that the scientists’ conclusions supported the administration’s policy of doing nothing to reduce carbon emissions ([1] Scientific Integrity in Washington, SiS 49, [2]). That was not just a bit of political spin; it was a fundamental denial of democracy. Fortunately, the true picture on climate change could not be suppressed for long. The research had involved scientists in different countries and the results could not be concealed even by a body as powerful as the US government.  

At the time, the episode may have looked like yet another excess of an administration notorious for relying more on faith and instinct than on reality [3]. Now, however, more governments seem inclined towards policy-based evidence. We can see this in many fields, especially in supporting how effective government policies have been [4, 5], but it is in science that it is most marked.

In other areas, both the government and the public accept that there is a great deal of subjectivity and scope for differences of opinion, as for example, in economics.  So a government does not have to be too concerned if there are economists, even highly prestigious ones, who disagree with its policies. As long as the government can find some other economists on its side, and it is pretty much bound to, it can claim to be following the best economic advice.

In contrast, most people think of science as objective and reliable. People who talk about science to the public do often acknowledge that all scientific knowledge is provisional. After all, Newtonian physics was eventually superseded.  But this kind of uncertainty has little direct bearing on the decisions governments take. There may be some practical issues about which there is still some uncertainty, but that’s seen as a matter of not yet having all the evidence, rather than there being more than one legitimate view. 

If a policy can be claimed to be based on science, it acquires a privileged status. Anyone who disagrees is treated like the crank who claims to have designed a perpetual motion machine. The same applies to feeding the world without genetically modified crops or keeping the lights on without nuclear power.  

Hence, to accept that there are legitimate doubts about the science is much harder than to acknowledge that some reputable economists disagree with the direction of government policy.

That’s why governments are so anxious that what is accepted as science is in line with what they want to do. They tend to appoint as advisers people who will produce the advice they want to hear. Indeed, the advisers may be connected more or less closely with the special interests that lobbied for the policy in the first place.  And once the governments have got the advice, they want the matter closed. Scientists are expected to fall in line, like ministers are supposed to accept cabinet responsibility, and support in public whatever has been agreed, regardless of their own opinion on the matter.

Silencing scientists

Thus Ian Boyd, Scientific Adviser to the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), writes that the “voice of science” should be heard through advisory committees and “embedded advisers” such as himself [6]. It is interesting that he describes himself as embedded, a word generally used to describe a war correspondent who is attached to a military unit and can go only where the army allows him to go and report only what the army allows him to report.

Above all, he argues, scientists should not be the “voice of dissent” in the public arena. Once the government has decided what the science is, scientists should not disagree with it in public. This may remind you of the attitude of the Roman Catholic Church in the 17th century. Once it had decided that the Earth was the centre of the universe, it was not for a mere scientist like Galileo to insist that it is merely one of a number of planets in orbit around the Sun. At least, he was not to say it in public, which is why the Inquisition sentenced him to house arrest for life.

The foresight coordinator in the bureau of European policy advisers to the President of the European Commission makes much the same point, though in more measured language [7]: “To enable more-understandable, evidence based policies, we must rely more on science from the outset. Once a consensus is achieved, scientific evidence is less up for debate.”

In the US, soon after Obama became President in 2009, the White House sent a memorandum to heads of government departments and agencies requiring them to produce policies for scientific integrity [8]. The process is still not complete. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), 22 departments and agencies have produced either draft or final policies [9]. Of these, the UCS considers only 6 to clearly promote scientific integrity, 5 to require more work, and 11 are either inadequate or not yet finalised, generally with no indication as to when they will be. Worryingly, among the agencies with unsatisfactory codes are Education, Energy, Overseas Aid and Agriculture.

One agency that has not produced a code is the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). In 2012, the FWS brought pressure on a scientist not to appear on a television programme reporting on deformities in fish caused by selenium pollution in rivers in Idaho [10]. Things may have improved since the days of George W. Bush, but not by as much as scientists had hoped.

In Canada, the Conservative Harper government is drastically reducing environmental regulations and monitoring; the latest example is the removal in November 2013 of much of the protection from many freshwater fish and their habitats [11].  To make it easier to push this through, scientists in the government departments and agencies that deal with the environment are being prevented from speaking to the media about their work, even on matters not directly related to government policies. A Natural Resources geologist, for example, was denied permission to talk to the media about a paper he had published in Nature on a flood that had occurred in northern Canada 13 000 years ago [12].  Canadian government scientists attending a recent Polar meeting in Montreal were told by email that if they were approached by a journalist, they should hand over a business card and make an appointment to discuss the science in the presence of a minder.

This worldwide trend in silencing scientists for political ends is extremely worrying. It is a grave threat to both the advancement of science and to democracy, as it effectively curtails people’s access to real information that is potentially vital for their safety and well-being, and based on which they can exercise their rights as voters. It is also an intolerable restriction on the freedom of individual scientists to speak as both scientists and ordinary citizens.

To conclude

The scientists’ role in policy making is to present the scientific facts and uncertainties as best they can so that society can decide on the best way forward. In practice, of course, it is governments that take decisions, but in democracies the public must be able to hold them to account, and we cannot do that if we do not know what those facts and uncertainties are.

Scientific advice given to governments must be available to the public. What is more, we must be allowed to see the advice as it came from the scientists, not in a version that has been doctored to support a policy. This is not an especially radical proposal; reports of the select committees of the UK parliament already include all the evidence that was submitted to them.

Scientists, including those working for the government, must be allowed to speak freely about the science. If they disagree with the account given by the government, they should be allowed to say so. If the government has a good case – if it does not then it should think again – it should be able to defend its policy. If the government has decided that other factors outweigh what the scientific case alone would suggest, then it should be open about that.

The public’s loss of confidence in what the government tells them about health, for example, was due  not so much to the change in the advice about BSE (‘mad cow disease’), but to the fact it came after years of categorical assurances that there was no danger whatsoever. The television clip of the Minister of Agriculture, John Selwyn Gummer, feeding a beefburger to his four year old daughter was a very powerful image that the public has not forgotten. You can still find it on YouTube [13].

The right of scientists to report their findings and to express their opinions on the science that underpins government decisions is not a special privilege for one particular group. It is essential for good decision making and it is essential for democracy.

Governments should be doing all they can to promote and liberate science, not conniving with corporations to constrain it. This is particularly important at a time when the heavy hand of corporations is operating in scientific publishing to such an extent that information vital to people’s health is being deliberately erased from the public record [14, 15] Retracting Séralini Study Violates Science and Ethics and Open Letter on Retraction and Pledge to Boycott Elsevier, SiS 61).

Article first published 27/01/14



References

  1. Saunders PT. Scientific integrity in Washington. Science in Society 49 4-5,  2011.
  2. “Bush Aide Softened Greenhouse Gas Links to Global Warming”. Andrew C Revkin. New York Times, 8 June, 2005. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/06/08/politics/08climate.html
  3. “Faith, certainty and the presidency of George W Bush. “ Ron Susskind , New York Times, 17 October 2004. http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/17/magazine/17BUSH.html?_r=0 20/1/14.
  4. The LSE GV314 Group. Evaluation under contract: Government Pressure and the production of policy research. Public Administration. doi:10.1111/padm.12055, 2013.   http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/padm.12055/pdf   20/1/14
  5. The LSE GV314 Group. Evidence-based politics. Government and the production of policy research. http://www.lse.ac.uk/government/research/resgroups/CPPAR/Documents/Evidence-based-politics-Government-and-the-production-of-policy-research.pdf  20/1/14.
  6.  Boyd I. Point of view: making science count in government. eLife 2013;2:e01061, 2013. http://elife.elifesciences.org/content/2/e01061 20/1/14.
  7. Schmitt D. The great divide. The Scientist, 1 December 2013. http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/38364/title/The-Great-Divide/  20/1/14.
  8. White House Press Office, 9 March 2009. Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies. http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Memorandum-for-the-Heads-of-Executive-Departments-and-Agencies-3-9-09/
  9. Goldman G, Bailin D, Renaud A, Rogerson P and Grifo F. Grading Government Transparency. Union of Concerned Scientists, Cambridge MA, 2012.  http://www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/scientific_integrity/grading-government-transparency-report.pdf
  10. “Can federal scientists speak out freely?” USA Today, 27 June 2013. http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/columnist/vergano/2013/04/06/hansen-federal-scientists-communication/2053077/
  11. Casselman A. Changes to Canada’s fisheries law alarm biologists. Nature  News, 25 November 2013. http://www.nature.com/news/changes-to-canada-s-fisheries-law-alarm-biologists-1.14234?WT.ec_id=NEWS-20131126    27/11/13
  12. “When science goes silent.” Jonathon Gatehouse, Macleans, 3 May 2013. http://www2.macleans.ca/2013/05/03/when-science-goes-silent/
  13. “UK Agriculture Minister and BSE, Mad Cow Disease, from 1990.” YouTube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QobuvWX_Grc 20/1/14.
  14. Ho MW and Saunders PT. Retracting Séralini study violates science and ethics. Science in Society 61 (to appear).
  15. Becker H et al. Open letter on retraction and pledge to boycott Elsevier. Science in Society 61 (to appear).

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Ken Conrad Comment left 27th January 2014 15:03:01
As a Christian (I belong to no church), I embrace empirical science that is objective and seeks the truth. I challenge however any science based philosophy that puts human knowledge above God or that subjectively tries to redefine Him. Over two millennia ago, Aristotle (384–322 BC) taught that the earth was the centre of a ‘perfect’ universe in which the movements of the stars were circular and never ending. The church adopted Aristotle’s view, (the accepted world view), and applied it to scripture. In an article writen by Mark Van Bebber entitiled “What is the lessons that Christians should learn from Galileo?”, he states, “The historical account of Galileo's struggle for acceptance is not, however, a black and white issue. In fact, it is one of the most interesting and complex historical events recorded. Galileo's trial was not the simple conflict between science and religion so commonly pictured. It was a complex power struggle, fought upon the foundations of personal and professional pride, envy, and ambition…Ironically, the traditional beliefs that Galileo opposed ultimately belonged to Aristotle, not to biblical exegesis. Pagan philosophy had become interwoven with traditional Catholic teachings during the time of Augustine. Therefore, the Church's dogmatic retention of tradition was the major seat of controversy, not the Bible. It may also be noted that Pope Urban VIII was himself sympathetic to Galileo but was not willing to stand against the tide of controversy. In reality, the majority of persecution seemed to come from intellectual scientists whose monopoly of educational authority had been threatened. During Galileo's time, education was primarily dominated by Jesuit and Dominican priests.” Van Bebber further states,“One of the most important aspects of Galileo's "threat" to education is that he published his writings in Italian, rather than Latin, which was the official language of scholarship. Galileo was attempting to have his ideas accepted by common people, hoping that they would eventually filter into the educational institutions. Thus, Galileo was regarded as an enemy of the established scientific authorities and experienced the full weight of their influence and persecution.” According to Charles E. Hummel, “Galileo was a passionate, powerful character who could dominate any room or discussion. His talent and wit won a variety of illustrious friends in university, court and church circles ... At the same time his biting sarcasm against those whose arguments were vulnerable to his scientific discoveries made him some formidable enemies. Galileo thrived on debate... His professional life was spent not only in observing and calculating but also in arguing and convincing. His goal was to promote as well as develop a new scientific world view.” Charles E. Hummel, The Galileo Connection (InterVarsity Press, 1986), p. 82. Peer review is referred to as “one of the sacred pillars of the scientific edifice”. Peers however are not without bias and that is to be expected. They are human beings dealing with the same vices as anyone else. If scientists, politicians and religious authorities are to have any credibility they aught to respect freedom of thought welcome criticism and not use the peer review process as a tool to manipulate science for money and power. I don’t think it has changed a lot since Galileo’s time other then the fact that the powers that be have become somewhat more sophisticated and/or politically astute in dealing with those who oppose the status quo. Then again, it depends in what country you live in and/or the nature of the status quo you are challenging. Scientists as well as all individuals are still marginalized and persecuted for daring to state an opinion or make choices that challenge the integrity of institutions and/or influential individuals with a reputation or agenda to protect. As Lord Acton correctly stated, “Power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Ken Conrad

Peter Saunders Comment left 30th January 2014 15:03:43
While I agree that the scientific views of the Church at the time did owe a lot to Aristotle, the idea that it’s the sun that moves is in the Bible. (Joshua 10:13 "And the sun stood still…") I don’t know if the majority of the persecution came from what you call intellectual scientists, but I’m sure the factors you mention were important. As they are today: governments and corporations would not be able to suppress scientists whose work challenges them if there were not so many scientists and scientific societies more than willing to help them. I find it very depressing to hear so many scientists confidently dismissing Séralini’s work when they clearly have not read the paper, still less gone through the arguments that followed. They are like children in a playground who don’t know what the fight is about but still get some sort of satisfaction from joining in on the side of the bully.

Ken Conrad Comment left 31st January 2014 08:08:01
Catholic theologians were evidently grasping for ways, albeit illogical to accommodate Aristotle’s geocentric worldview. They were more concerned with politics and in turn they manipulated scripture for political reasons. Galileo went to great lengths to explain that his science was in no way incompatible with Scripture. He explained in a letter to the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, “I think in the first place that it is very pious to say and prudent to affirm that the Holy Bible can never speak untruth – whenever it’s true meaning is understood.” The poetic quotation from the book of Joshua prompted considerable debate and misunderstanding. Its use of pictorial language was not meant to and should not have been given a strictly literal interpretation. The dismissal of Séralini’s work is indeed disheartening. Ken

Todd Millions Comment left 4th February 2014 07:07:58
Forgive me Mr Conrad(its a requirement).-"Luther and the Pope,are two whores discussing chastity."-Paracelceus(WHO WAS THERE).Luther by the by though coperniciuns should be killed.Pushing it further(with cause)-The bible was as I'm sure your aware-written by jews and greeks and edited by roman lawyers.So-how much truth could there be in it?As my rebbe the beloved Issac Asimov,pointed out,according too Kings,god fearing wheels are ovals.Hipathia knew this-paid a rather steep price for it,and then we all did.Prof Saunders,this was well done-Buckminister Fuller explored the theme further in Critical Path and Grunch of Giants.You may enjoy them if your unfamiliar with them.

John Pozzi Comment left 30th October 2014 07:07:09
For direct democracy and natural abundance consider www.grb.net

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