Nov 17 2014

Politics vs Science

What happens when your political or ideological views are contradicted by the consensus of scientific opinion regarding the evidence? It appears that a common reaction (depending on how strongly held the ideological views are) is to reject science. Not only do people reject the science specific to their issue, they reject science itself. They reason that if science disagrees with a view they strongly hold (and therefore “know” to be true) then science must be broken.

The latest example of this comes from the European Union. The role of chief science adviser, held by Professor Anne Glover, was recently axed by EU President Jean-Claude Juncker. There are conflicting reports as to the exact reason, but reading through everything it seems pretty clear to me. Her advice on the science, specifically with regard to genetically modified organisms (GMO) was politically inconvenient.

According to speeches given by Glover, her position, created at the beginning of 2012, was always a bit contentious. She said in a speech in New Zealand:

“I would say in-house politics did hamper the efficiency of the role. Many people in the Commission simply did not want a Chief Scientific Adviser, so it was a little bit difficult. I did have the necessary independence but I was often excluded from the essential information.”

She also recounted.

“I turned up and it was almost as if they had forgotten I was coming,” she said, adding that she did not meet her immediate boss – the then EU President, José Manuel Barroso – until day 51 because he “had other things on his mind”.

By all accounts Glover was energetic and efficient, marshaling European scientists for their opinions and advice to help inform policy. That, of course, if the obvious reason to have a science adviser. Increasingly, important government policies hinge upon scientific questions. It is simply not possible for politicians to make effective policy without having a solid understanding of the current science.

But in politics, facts are inconvenient. Having a science adviser go on the record indicating what the current consensus of scientific opinion is on an issue can make it difficult for a politician who wants to deny the science in favor of their ideology.

This is precisely why the scientific community, especially in Europe, is so upset about this decision. This is about the role of science in government. Politicians are essentially declaring that they care more about ideology than facts. This should be an outrage to every thinking person.

The decision was sharply criticized by Dr Roberto Bertollini, Chief Scientist and World Health Organization representative to the EU:

“Ideology and vested interests continue to dominate the public debate in Europe and elsewhere irrespective of the attempts to bring knowledge and science based advice in the picture.”

It’s clear that the decision to sack Glover was driven by anti-GMO politics in Europe. Greenpeace and other green organizations opposed Glover, and sent a letter to Juncker stating:

“The current chief scientific adviser presented one-sided, partial opinions on the use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture, repeatedly claiming that there was a scientific consensus about their safety. We hope that you as the incoming commission president will decide not to nominate a chief scientific adviser.”

Just to be clear, Greenpeace does not want the EU Commission to have a chief scientific adviser because they disagree with the science on GM technology.

According to a Telegraph source: 

“She’s controversial because of her views on GM. Juncker doesn’t like the idea of GM crops being approved by the EU on scientific grounds. Even worse, she had upset the French.”

Ironically, on the Guardian piece about the sacking (which interestingly ignored the GMO part of this story), the very first comment is:

“I heard the last Scientific Officer speak once, she sounded like a shill for the GMO industry. Better off without the role.”

Conclusion

Our modern civilization is complex, and is getting more complex every day as technology advances, populations grow, globalization advances, and the effects of our industry weigh more heavily on the environment. Our collective quality of life will increasingly depend on how efficiently and effectively we run our civilization.

Perhaps the greatest threat to efficiency is ideology, which appears to be a major glitch in the human brain. No one is free from its grasp. Ideology is a reality-distorting lens that affects how we see everything and affects how we think through motivated reasoning.

Our best hope is science, which potentially puts corrective lenses onto our ideology. Science is a reality-check. I can’t think of anything more important to the crafting of efficient and effective policy than to have the process informed by the best science available.

Any individual or organization that would oppose science, or the role of a science adviser, because it disagrees with their ideology, is anti-scientific and a significant regressive force in our civilization. They should be soundly criticized.

Further, if there were any doubt that the anti-GMO forces are essentially anti-scientific, their opposition to the EUC science adviser role should have removed any such doubt.

 

 

37 responses so far

37 Responses to “Politics vs Science”

  1. Insomniacon 17 Nov 2014 at 9:57 am

    You can notice these various ideology based intrusions in science policies on a regular basis in Europe, as anti-science attitudes are rampant. The public resentment towards GMOs is stronger here than in the US, and major media outlets don’t do a good job of bringing useful information to try to correct this. On the other hand, strong and well-funded NGOs and other organizations steadily gain ground thanks to their efficient propaganda that resonates with people’s concerns. It makes policy makers not willing to actually hold reasonable positions publicly.

    Honestly, I don’t know what can be done about it except waiting for a cultural shift (which can take decades, if it ever eventually happens). Social media may also be helpful, but I don’t know of any entity using them efficiently to promote scientific thinking and respect for science in public policy.

  2. RickKon 17 Nov 2014 at 10:14 am

    Every new technology has people standing in the way for ideological reasons. What are some of the historical parallels to the current anti-GMO stance?

    Anti-vax is obvious. Has anyone seen any history on resistance to things like air travel, cars, plastics, electricity, etc.? I haven’t done much digging for such examples but would be very interested in anything others might have read.

  3. jsterritton 17 Nov 2014 at 10:38 am

    It occurs to me that this is another area where professional societies and academia should speak out. The firing of Glover was based on political expediency. First, there was a clamor for her removal. Then, a clamor to eliminate her position entirely.* Where are the outraged letters from professional societies, science organizations, and journals? Currently, political pandering and PR campaigns based on fear and ignorance are “winning” little victories for ideological minorities in Europe and elsewhere. This is a tide that must be stemmed: If bias, prejudice, and convenience win out over facts and reason, everybody loses. Scientists and their organizations, as well as academia, need to speak out against anti-science in whatever form it takes. Anti-science directly threatens the interests of science and society. Science can’t just keep its head down and stand on the strength of its methods at the price of losing a seat at the table.

    *This reminds me of the Simpsons episode where, after barely escaping a devastating collision with a comet, the townspeople set off to “burn down the observatory so this can never happen again!”

  4. locutusbrgon 17 Nov 2014 at 11:12 am

    @ insomniac
    Interesting.
    I naturally assumed that due to our high percentage of politically influential religious wackos that the United States leads in anti-science ideology. I always thought that the EU was better than the US in that respect. Another example of assumptions are dangerous, and continuing wide public acceptance of anti-GMO nonsense.

  5. hardnoseon 17 Nov 2014 at 12:14 pm

    The current scientific consensus can be wrong. It might change tomorrow. And “science” is often confused with ideologies that believe progress is always good.

    Being against GMOs, or wanting them to be labeled, is not necessarily ideological at all. The possible dangers are great, and the advantages to the public seem to be minimal.

    Scientific “skeptics” ignore all anecdotal evidence and only accept the kind of RCTs that many organizations cannot afford to do. It doesn’t matter how massive the quantity of anecdotal evidence — you will completely ignore it.

    Food allergies in children have supposedly increased dramatically — but you won’t even consider the possibility that GMOs could be involved.

    Where are the big long-term RCTs experimenting on children and trying to give them allergies? That kind of experiment wouldn’t even be allowed. But plunge ahead anyway, who cares if children get food allergies. There are prescription drugs for that.

    And we have no idea what other short and long term consequences there might be from all the various possible kinds of GMOs in food. Are they really all tested to guarantee safety? Even when big ag companies can afford to pay off the FDA?

  6. The Other John Mcon 17 Nov 2014 at 1:08 pm

    Trolling again, eh hardnose? How cute

  7. hardnoseon 17 Nov 2014 at 1:13 pm

    So “trolling” means not agreeing with the blog’s consensus? Do you have a tribal need to have everyone in agreement? That sounds more like ideology than science to me.

  8. mumadaddon 17 Nov 2014 at 1:26 pm

    You give the impression that you’re trolling because you swoop in and argue against points that haven’t been made, opinions not held by anyone here, and you do it using arguments that have been countered multiple times already.

    It looks like you don’t read beyond the title of the OP.

  9. mumadaddon 17 Nov 2014 at 1:33 pm

    RickK,

    Organ transplants, particularly heart.

    There were also the Luddites, but they were objecting to technology because it threatened their livelihoods rather than ideology.

  10. mumadaddon 17 Nov 2014 at 1:34 pm

    …and stem cell research of course.

  11. hammyrexon 17 Nov 2014 at 1:59 pm

    “Every new technology has people standing in the way for ideological reasons. What are some of the historical parallels to the current anti-GMO stance?”

    IVF comes to mind – “we don’t know the long term issues!” was the banner, even within this decade there exists some religious sentiment that people born from IVF are somehow “less” human than others.

  12. BBBlueon 17 Nov 2014 at 2:08 pm

    “Scientific ‘skeptics’ ignore all anecdotal evidence and only accept the kind of RCTs that many organizations cannot afford to do.”

    Hardnose: Not that you care, but that is the sort of statement that causes one to be ignored as an irrelevant troll.

  13. Johnnyon 17 Nov 2014 at 2:11 pm

    “Our best hope is science, which potentially puts corrective lenses onto our ideology. Science is a reality-check. I can’t think of anything more important to the crafting of efficient and effective policy than to have the process informed by the best science available.”

    My impression is that in the past you have advocated for skeptical philosophy to replace ideology. Now you seem to view it as a necessary compliment to ideology. Has your thinking on this matter changed?

  14. Steven Novellaon 17 Nov 2014 at 2:45 pm

    Johnny – no change. In my opinion, clear thinking it best served by trying to minimize our own ideology and follow instead logic and the process of science and critical thinking. However, it’s probably not possible to completely purge ourselves of all ideology, and so it’s good to have objective evidence as a check on your ideological tendencies.

  15. rezistnzisfutlon 17 Nov 2014 at 3:32 pm

    Secular societies that have far fewer in the religious contingent certainly aren’t immune to anti-science thinking. Not just Europe, but places like Australia, New Zealand, and even Japan and Taiwan. I think it’s just part of human nature, unfortunately – we reduce superstition in one area only to have it replaced by pseudoscience or woo in another.

    I remember having this same conversation with a friend from NZ where I remarked how nice it must be for them not constantly fighting against evolution deniers trying to remove evolution and add creationism in the science classroom and textbooks. He mentioned that yes, that is true, but they have many people who are anti-vax, anti-fluoridation, crank new age woo types who believe in all sorts of things.

  16. rezistnzisfutlon 17 Nov 2014 at 3:35 pm

    Not only is it probably not possible to purge ourselves of all ideology, there are plenty of topics that don’t have clear answers or simple solutions to them, including in science.

  17. Insomniacon 17 Nov 2014 at 3:48 pm

    @locutusbrg

    On religion affiliation and religious beliefs in general, you’re right indeed. However, the recent surge of nonsense regarding all things natural and alternative BS has not spared Western Europe either. Those are as widespread as it is in the US and it’s worse in some instances such as GMOs and nuclear power. The debate is largely tainted with worthless ideology.

    I sometimes say that in a way, it comes as a replacement of religion – the latter slowly fading away – with significant overlap existing between the two mindsets, in their extreme forms (anti-science attitudes and denial/rejection of evidence). Unsupported beliefs that stem from the naturalistic fallacy are likely to be more visible in the public sphere, at least in a country like France which has been deeply secular for a while now.

  18. Insomniacon 17 Nov 2014 at 3:57 pm

    @rezistnzisfutl

    I absolutely agree that there may be a zero-sum aspect to it, although these matters should really be looked at in a quantitative way.

  19. EtTuCarlon 17 Nov 2014 at 6:48 pm

    “RickK on 17 Nov 2014 at 10:14 am
    Has anyone seen any history on resistance to things like air travel, cars, plastics, electricity, etc.?”

    Plastic can probably be considered part of the anti-chemistry lobby, and Monsanto was battling that out in the 70s/80s.

    http://i.imgur.com/DPa29Bl.jpg

    http://i.imgur.com/0VCctm7.png

  20. Bill Openthalton 17 Nov 2014 at 7:09 pm

    As far as organic agriculture and GMOs are concerned, Europe (or at least the vocal parts of the European scene, such as journalists and politicians) is overwhelmingly (and depressingly) ideological. Organic is good, GMO is bad, and this is presented as self-evident.

    Organic is seen as the road to salvaging Europe’s small-scale family farms, and to preserving a romantic, almost jehova’s witness-like image of rural life (‘in harmony with nature’, which of course never existed). GMOs are perceived as threatening this vision in addition to being inherently unhealthy. The natural fallacy has found fertile ground indeed.

    The glee with which Seralini’s study was reported on was quite instructive — finally, the gut feel of the reporters had been vindicated. When the study was retracted, it was often presented as the result of lobbying by the industry (with the inevitable Monsanto leading the pack).

    What is really worrying is that many NGOs combine worthwhile initiatives (like transparency and accountability) with anti-GMO and pro-organic lobbying. The latter have indeed become a matter of ideology, and are perceived to be as morally righteous as good governance. As Insomniac mentioned, these ideologies are more often than not replacing traditional religion as the moral/spiritual foundation of large swathes of the population.

    Interestingly, the vision of government (and NGOs) as intrinsically good (in the moral sense, as opposed to private enterprise as ‘bad’) is gaining significant traction. Within the current hullabaloo around tax avoidance schemes, I hear more and more voices labelling the practice as ‘maybe legal, but immoral’. The governments that implemented all kinds of tax-based incentives to attract international businesses are let off the hook, and the companies and individuals who used them are presented as immoral.

  21. grabulaon 17 Nov 2014 at 10:09 pm

    @hardnose

    “The current scientific consensus can be wrong. It might change tomorrow.”

    strawman, no one is saying it can’t.

    “And “science” is often confused with ideologies that believe progress is always good.”

    Because you sometimes have a hard time with the english language:

    progress according to the english dictionary is:
    : movement forward or toward a place
    : the process of improving or developing something over a period of time

    When science talk sof progress it’s often the second but sometimes it’s just moving towards a goal. Your fear of science doesn’t change that.

    “Being against GMOs, or wanting them to be labeled, is not necessarily ideological at all. The possible dangers are great, and the advantages to the public seem to be minimal.”

    gross misunderstanding of the entire subject of GMO. You no longer need to weigh in on this but thanks for playing.

    “Scientific “skeptics”…”

    scare quotes just makes you look like the fool you are hardnose.

    “… ignore all anecdotal evidence and only accept the kind of RCTs that many organizations cannot afford to do. It doesn’t matter how massive the quantity of anecdotal evidence — you will completely ignore it.”

    Anecdotal evidence is next to worthless, if you understood science you’d know this. Large amounts of anecdotal evidence indicates aliens are flying light years to steal the jibbly bits from cattle…do you think this is true?

    “Food allergies in children have supposedly increased dramatically — but you won’t even consider the possibility that GMOs could be involved.”

    You won’t consider the possibility that tracking this has become more detailed and our instruments and methodology for tracking these things has become more sensitive. Also vaccines cause autism right hardnose?

    “Where are the big long-term RCTs experimenting on children and trying to give them allergies? That kind of experiment wouldn’t even be allowed. But plunge ahead anyway, who cares if children get food allergies. There are prescription drugs for that.”

    nice anti-science rant that has nothing to do with anything, ever.

    “And we have no idea what other short and long term consequences there might be from all the various possible kinds of GMOs in food. Are they really all tested to guarantee safety? Even when big ag companies can afford to pay off the FDA?”

    I know reading is difficult hardnose, and I guess you only remember the bits from this blog that are convenient to your conspiracy narrative but here ya go!

    http://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/19-years-of-feeding-animals-gmo-shows-no-harm/

    what else you got hardnose?

  22. jsterritton 17 Nov 2014 at 10:12 pm

    @Bill Openhalt

    “Interestingly, the vision of government (and NGOs) as intrinsically good (in the moral sense, as opposed to private enterprise as ‘bad’) is gaining significant traction. Within the current hullabaloo around tax avoidance schemes, I hear more and more voices labelling the practice as ‘maybe legal, but immoral’. The governments that implemented all kinds of tax-based incentives to attract international businesses are let off the hook, and the companies and individuals who used them are presented as immoral.”

    You lost me entirely. Are these topics related (GMO/organic and tax “hullabaloo”) or did you make a big left turn?

    “…many NGOs combine worthwhile initiatives (like transparency and accountability) with anti-GMO and pro-organic lobbying…”

    Who? What? Where? Why? When? (Citations?)

  23. Babananion 18 Nov 2014 at 2:36 am

    @hardnose Please consider a larger view. GMO crops have been demonstrated to produce more calories per acre or resist low water conditions. In many parts of the world, people die or grow up stunted due to lack of calories. GMO is proven to help them.

    GMO is not proven to cause allergies. It might, but it is not proven.

    So are we wiser to go with a proven way to save humans or are we wiser to let some humans die because some other humans might get allergies?

    Please ask these half a million people for their opinion on this debate.

    http://www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2014/11/un-slashes-food-rations-refugees-kenya-2014111562016957147.html

  24. grabulaon 18 Nov 2014 at 5:38 am

    Babanani, don’t get sucked in. Hardnose shows up with a contrarian attitude on just about every blog post Dr. Novella makes. He’s a “scientist” (his words) who doesn’t seem to have a strong grasp of science, even the basics. He’s got a thing for “skeptics” (his quotes not mine) and materialism and basically everything’s a big conspiracy. He absolutely does not bring value to any conversation.

  25. Babananion 18 Nov 2014 at 6:18 am

    Ah, don’t feed the trolls. Fair enough and I usually remember that, but since my job involves dealing with the fall out from the food cuts in the refugee camps, I am a bit prickly on GMO food right now. As Steve wrote about humans being unable to completely eliminate ideology, we also can’t completely eliminate emotion influencing our thoughts.

  26. grabulaon 18 Nov 2014 at 6:19 am

    There are a few GMO denialists that visit the blog. hardnose however is basically a science denialist and prob not worth the time unless like a couple of us, you have a slow job and a little time on your hand.

  27. Steven Novellaon 18 Nov 2014 at 7:26 am

    Since it came up – GMO are all tested for not only known allergens, but protein sequences common to allergens (and toxins). For example, all allergens have protein sequences that allow them to survive stomach acid intact enough to cause an allergic reaction. If they were broken down entirely to amino acids, they would not cause allergies. So, part of the testing of GMOs is to look for homology with such sequences.

    So far, there has not been a single report of an allergic reaction to a GMO.

    In fact, they’re working on GM peanuts that do not cause allergies. GM technology has the potential to virtually eliminate food allergies, if the green anti-science crowd would just get out of the way.

    http://www.wired.com/2008/11/peanuts-with-le/

  28. Bill Openthalton 18 Nov 2014 at 8:20 am

    jsterritt —

    Anti-GMO, pro-organic, anti-nuclear and anti-business (and capital) sentiments are rather prevalent in Europe (cf. a chap’s contribution on a radio programme: ‘I am against nuclear power like everyone, but I don’t think we can generate enough electricity without it’). They are not based on science, but on ideology, and as Steven describes, not amenable to modification no matter what facts are presented.

    Given the title of the topic (‘Politics vs. science’), the motivated reasoning behind letting governments, that took the initiative to create tax advantages, off the hook and putting moral blame on the people using them, seemed relevant.

    As far as NGOs confusing good governance and bad science are concerned, I offer Amnesty International (selling organic produce in their UK shop) or CEO’s (Corporate Europe Observatory) stance on the Séralini study (http://corporateeurope.org/news/how-efsa-dealt-french-gm-study-which-lessons).

  29. DavidSaulon 18 Nov 2014 at 1:43 pm

    For those in this blog that are clearly opposed to GMOs and claim that it is not ideological, do your own meta-analysis like all good skeptics should do. Find all the examples where people have been killed or harmed by GE food. Then do the same with organic produce.

    I’ll get you started: 3950 people seriously affected and 53 dead from organic sprouts in Germany in 2011.

    I wonder what the outcry would have been if this disaster had been caused by GE crops?

    Remember, nobody is arguing the all GMOs are 100% safe and Anne Glover certainly did not, but the scientific consensus is that they are no more dangerous than non-GE crops and probably less so because the the extra scrutiny they get.

  30. grabulaon 18 Nov 2014 at 11:02 pm

    “I’ll get you started: 3950 people seriously affected and 53 dead from organic sprouts in Germany in 2011.”

    I’m sure the reaction might have been different had this been a GMO crop but in either case I’m not sure it stands in support of either. E. coli can occurr in any crop organic or not and it’s usually a matter of hygene that’s the source of thee kinds of outbreaks.

  31. MaryMon 19 Nov 2014 at 1:17 pm

    A couple of days late to this thread, but I wanted @jsterritt to know that there were letters from science societies to the EU, some organized by Sense About Science, some on their own:

    http://www.senseaboutscience.org/pages/maintain-eu-chief-scientific-advisor.html

  32. Granton 19 Nov 2014 at 5:59 pm

    One thing I haven’t seen others mention on this story, that I picked up when I wrote my own take on it (see http://sciblogs.co.nz/code-for-life/2014/11/19/incoming-european-commission-president-scraps-chief-scientific-adviser-role/), was that Glover invited a number of NGOs, included those in the letters asking for the removal of the position she holds, to a discussion on how evidence might be better presented to the European Commission.

    I’d love to see a transcript of this meeting; it might shed light on how this has emerged.

    Steven’s point about ideologies (in policy) is one I made in my own piece, too. I agree, there is a place for evidence presented without ideological trappings of the various interest groups and it’s a key element to the CSA role. (This is not to say that this evidence should be the only player in policy formation.)

    jsterritt – there are many responses from ‘learned societies’ and people from academia, etc., countering the initial letters and, later, the removal of her position.

  33. jsterritton 20 Nov 2014 at 11:07 am

    Excellent. Thanks, MaryM!

  34. Granton 20 Nov 2014 at 10:04 pm

    Bill Openthalt – I wasn’t aware of CEO’s stance on Séralini’s work, perhaps shows their colours.

    MaryM – thanks for the link – good collection of other reading links there, I’m adding it to my comments for others than might wish for more follow-on material.

  35. Nickon 21 Nov 2014 at 3:56 pm

    regarding ideology, it is worth mentioning that while science (measuring/finding out what is actually happening) is the best tool to deal with much ideology it is entirely possible for scientific ideology to develop to be just as strong. (I believe Dr. Novella has said as much before.)

    There is one nice aspect to it however: the answer to a particular scientific ideology is more science. not pseudo-science or alternative science. just more, well-performed science. garbage “science” will not displace or disprove anything. but solid science will disprove and existing science, simply because that’s how science works.

  36. guerilla surgeonon 22 Nov 2014 at 10:10 pm

    In my country, your typical politician says “I want to do so and so, find me some scientific evidence that shows I’m right.”

  37. dawso007on 18 Dec 2014 at 4:45 pm

    I think that regulatory agencies like the FDA are good cases in point. On the issue of drug approval, they can have a scientific committee with near unanimity on not releasing the drug. The regulators on the other hand can cite politically derived regulations that allow them this action. The end result is a product that is released on the basis of imperfect clinical trials and potentially no scientific oversight. The prescribed drug is essentially an ongoing experiment in pharmacosurveillance.

    GD

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