Can science save us?

22 May, 2014

There’s a riveting book doing the rounds in our offices at the moment.

You may think you’ve heard it all before. In moments of exhaustion or relative lulls in the onslaught of health and environmental problems we face, you may even wonder whether the anger and angst directed at so-called “authorities” is justified.

Then along comes the cheerfully titled Poison Spring, to snap you right back into reality.

The author, EG Vallianatos, worked for the EPA for 25 years in its Office of Pesticides Programs. Together with science writer McKay Jenkins, he paints a scathing portrait of an agency that swings from being powerless to affect sensible changes to protect people and planet to, more darkly, one that’s actively engaged in covering up the truth about everything from dioxins to nerve gas to RoundUp.

It also presents a stark view of how heroic whistleblowers down the ages have been brutally silenced.

It’s lengthy and occasionally messy, as insider’s accounts often can be.

But it’s also a precautionary tale of what happens when you combine greed and stupidity. It’s a moral tale inasmuch as it demonstrates what happens when morality and a sense of service and responsibility to others goes out the window. It’s a tale of dark collusion between the EPA and the chemical industry as well as a tale of what happens when we use ‘science’ to sell the public a lie.

The book comes hot on the heels of an international gathering of scientists in Brazil which took a critical look at the so-called protectors of ‘good science’ – the UK’s Science Media Centre (SCM).

The SMC is the acceptable face of the sceptic movement here in the UK. It professes to make sense of the science – especially where complex issues like climate change and GMOs are concerned.

Its briefings and “expert reactions” have become a staple of British (and indeed international) mass media, and are featured regularly in places like the BBC and the Guardian, without so much as an editor’s eye or pen having gone through them.

Now there is an emerging body of evidence that shines a harsh light on the self-professed independence and objectivity of the SMC.

One researcher, for example, found that between 2011-2012 in UK newspapers more than half the SMC’s expert reactions were covered in the press and, in 23% per cent of cases only the SMC’s ‘experts’ were quoted – no other voice was present.

Worse, 60% of articles based on the SMC media briefings featured no non-SMC sourced material.

Another found that some 20 of the SMC’s 100 most quoted experts were not scientists – defined as having a PhD and working at a research institution or a top learned society. Instead they were lobbyists for, and CEOs of, industry groups.

Not surprisingly he also found that the SMC’s opinions were skewed towards corporate science which represents the interests of its corporate donors.

We hear a lot of guff these days about “good science” and taking an “evidence based approach” to complex problems. There’s a strong subtext here that if the dummies in the general public will only get out of their own way, science will save us all.

Most of this nonsense comes from people whose agendas are simply to maintain the corporate status quo.  Anyone who presents a different view is branded “anti-science” and that is – apparently –  a BAD thing to be. Or is it? I guess that depends on your definition of science.

As the challenging, but always good value academic and science writer Alice Bell writes: “When people use the term “anti-science”, I want to know what definition of science they’ve based their concept of anti on. Who’d be simplistic enough to be “pro” the whole of science? What sort of shallow, shampoo advert “science bit” approach to the complexities of modernity are they living by?”

Clearly science is in such a mess at the moment that we can’t even trust that ‘scientists’ are who they say they are, let alone that the ‘evidence’, whatever that is, speaks for itself.

Science is one facet of life, not the other way around. Giving science, especially corporate science, ascendency and complete dominion over complex social problems is what has led to this Poison Spring which Vallianatos writes about and which we are all currently wallowing in.

Clinging to the notion that science – as it is currently practiced, mispracticed, abused and misconceived – will save us is like clinging to a drowning man.

Let go. Think for yourself. Embrace the richness and complexity of life and we might all just make it to the other shore.

Pat Thomas, Editor