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.”


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.



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