Science in Society

No 61 Spring 2014
Edited by Mae-Wan Ho
Institute of Science in Society
ISSN: 1474-1547 (print)
ISSN: 1474-1814 (online)

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From the Editors - Politically Correct Science for the Masses
No Nuclear
Fukushima Crisis Goes Global
Congenital Hypothyroidism & Fukushima Fallout in the US
UK Government’s Great Nuclear Blunder
SiS Commentary
Caution Needed for the Precautionary Principle
Safeguarding Science for Public Good
Thousands Condemn Retraction & Pledge Elsevier Boycott
Chorus of Condemnation on Seralini Retraction Worldwide
Retracting Séralini Study Violates Science & Ethics
Open Letter on Retraction and Pledge to Boycott Elsevier
Ban GMOs
GMO Labelling & Non-GMO Labelling a Win-Win
Hawaii’s Big Island Leads the Way in Banning GMOs
Don’t Grow Bt Brinjal
Resource Depletion Alert
Phosphorus Starvation Threatens the World
ISIS Director Wins Science Award
Food & Agriculture
New European Seed Legislation: Winners and Losers
New Science of Water
Large Structured Water Clusters Caught on Camera
New Science of the Organism
Natural Gene Therapy for Precision and Safety
Philosophy and Science
The Gospel According to Popper
Science in Scociety 61 cover
Technology Watch
New Hazards in GMOs from Synonymous Mutations
ISIS Interview
Mae-Wan Ho Answers 10 (actually 11) Questions on GMOs, Science, & Life
Holistic Health
The Forgotten Organ – The Human Microbiota
How Microbes Influence our Minds

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

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).

Fully referenced versions of all the articles including this editorial are available on ISIS members website:

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