Science under siege

By David Robert Grimes

The tranquil setting of Rothamsted park in the English countryside is the home of one of the oldest agricultural research centres in the world, and not where one might expect a pitched battle. Yet this weekend a showdown will occur that epitomises the shaky relationship between science and ideology.

Researchers there have been working to produce a strain of wheat bred to include a pheromone that occurs naturally in some plants. This pheromone repels aphids, which as any gardener can tell you are serious pests. If the crop is successful, farmers would no longer have to use potentially hazardous insecticides, reducing massively our agricultural footprint.This would be a massive boon to the developing world, where crop failure often mean death and suffering.

Of course, a certain degree of apprehension is natural, especially when tabloids come up with junk science monikers like “frankenfood”. But this research is publicly funded, open and designed to investigate if such solutions are viable. Yet for anti-GM vigilantes “Take the flour back”, this distinction matters little. On Sunday May 27th, they have vowed to destroy the experiment. The scientists involved have shown admirable conduct; understanding the fears of the protesters, they have offered detailed information and arranged a neutrally chaired meeting for discussion and clarification. Such outreach is commendable, but has fallen on deaf ears – the protesters have ignored the invites, and a major petition from the public and instead remain determined to vandalise an important piece of research.

Worse still, their information is flawed and has been thoughtfully analysed and refuted by numerous scientists, both inside and outside the project. But this is exactly the problem; the protesters are not motivated by scientific concern. Rather they are propelled by an storm of dogmatic mantras and an unthinking static party line; a cynical neo-ludditism, preferring destruction to dialogue, undoing to understanding.

Ideology is dogmatic and expounds a certain viewpoint, regardless of the quality of the evidence. Science is a method of enquiry and demands an open mind, decided purely on the weight of evidence without any consideration of petty prejudices, political persuasions or reckless religiosity. Arguments from authority, antiquity or anywhere else can be dismissed by means of an experiment which anyone can reproduce. Ideologies tend to be far more difficult to shift.

Once ideology comes into the fray, there is a curious double standard with regards to scientific research – evidence deemed supportive of that ideological standpoint will be lauded while evidence contrary to the position held will be denigrated or ignored. Worse still, research is oft misquoth, misrepresented or blatantly fabricated to try and lend some gravitas to a particular viewpoint. While this is deeply dishonest, it is used so often it has become a tool of the trade in pushing an opinion. In essence, trying to make the evidence fit the conclusion rather than the converse the scientific method demands.

This is precisely what is happening in Rothamsted, and rears its head whenever a politically or religiously sensitive subject comes up. It would be very easy to illustrate this with the American right’s propensity to climate change denial and creationism, but it occurs closer to home – while research shows nuclear power is the cleanest and safest method of energy production, opponents often use thoroughly debunked sources to bolster their position;  anti-nuclear activists give Chernobyl death tolls in the hundreds of thousands, whereas  scientific investigation has shown 28 deaths from acute radiation and 15 deaths from thyroid cancer, no increase in solid cancers or fetal mutations, and a small increase in lifetime risk of thyroid cancer for those directly exposed. Fukushima has resulted in zero deaths and is unlikely to ever do so. If this seems surprising, it is because the science and medicine tends to get discarded when pushing an issue.

In a similar vein, anti-vaccine protesters still cling to the discredited work by Andrew Wakefield as ‘proof’ vaccines cause autism, conveniently ignoring the deluge of scientific evidence to the contrary. The dark irony in such examples is that those championing the pseudoscience of anti-vaccination are the ones who suffer most from it, losing children to easily preventable diseases such as measles.

What will happen at Rothamsted is anyone’s guess, but it serves as yet another reminder that no matter what the ideology, right or left, liberal or conservative that there will be elements who don’t need proof, and will not change their opinion in the light of new information. This blind reliance on dogma over evidence is the reason science and politics don’t mix; science demands that in the light of evidence, even the most hard held belief must be adjusted. Ideology all too often denies evidence to preserve faith in it. Until we learn to value evidence rather than rhetoric, there will be no easy solutions.

David Robert Grimes is a doctor of medical physics and science writer with a keen interest in public understanding of science. His work has been published in the Irish Times and thejournal.ie.  He keeps a Ockham nominated science and medicine blog at www.davidrobertgrimes.com . Dr. Grimes is not affiliated with Rothamsted research – if you would like more information, please visit www.rothamsted.ac.uk

 

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0 Responses to Science under siege

  1. Mike B says:

    Nice article, thanks. Would also be good if someone could spend a few minutes writing down point by point commentary on some of the points raised by anti-GM activists, eg on Newsnight recently. The trouble with media discussion is that there’s no space for references or any form of peer review yet that’s what interested members of the public need to delve into.
    (Or maybe someone has done a commentary feature on that Newsnight discussion? Let me know if it exists! Thanks.)

  2. Alex Wassall says:

    Could I get a link to some of the scientific investigation’s about Chernobyl death tolls?

    I know people who repeatedly tell me that statement is incorrect and I am struggling to find definitive information either way.

    Thanks

  3. Alex Wassall says:

    Thanks David. Very comprehensive and amazing given the myths floating around.

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