The politics of science and its doubters

Colin James’s speech to the NZ Veterinary Association, 25 June 2004

Start up Mount Taranaki in light clothing. Get lost in cloud, get very cold and get hypothermia. Expect a helicopter to come to the rescue, courtesy of the taxpayer. You are not responsible for your predicament and you count on the taxpayer to neutralise the risk you took.

Now go up the Port Hills here in Christchurch in a bike race. Ride down the wrong side of the road when the organiser has told you there will be normal traffic on the road and smash into a car. The organiser is hauled before the court and convicted of a criminal offence because she did not make sure you did not go on the wrong side of the road. She did not neutralise the risk you took.

Jump to the United States. You are fat. You have eaten McDonalds hamburgers. You sue McDonalds for not warning you in advance that its food is fatty and may contribute to you getting fat. You lose the case � there are limits even to the bizarre lengths to which the Americans can stretch their tort law. But some eateries now put warnings on coffee that it is hot in case you sue for scalding yourself.

These incidents are indicators of our sort of societies’ demand for risk-free longevity. Death is postponable and must be postponed. Death is not fair. Disease is not fair. Accidents are not fair. Disabilities are not fair. Disadvantage is not fair. Since society has made fairness a cornerstone value, someone has a responsibility to eliminate these unfairnesses and any circumstances that might give rise to such unfairnesses.

But who is this someone? Corporations cannot eliminate risk, whatever the courts insist. They can take reasonable care but that cannot include foreseeing what might cause offence or damage 20 or even five years later nor guaranteeing 100% safety here and now. Neither can the welfare state eliminate risk. The welfare state was initially constructed to ameliorate adversity, not eliminate it, and to reduce inequalities of opportunity, not eliminate disadvantage, much as some politicians would like it to. The state cannot make life fair for everybody.

Which brings me to science. Science, the hero for three centuries, seems to have become in the eyes of many a villain. It has become a villain because it cannot deliver certainty. It leaves some risk in our lives. Indeed, science has become risk.

I am not a scientist. My biology stopped in the fifth form, my chemistry in the sixth form and my physics with Sears and Zemansky in what was then 6A and is now the seventh form. Quarks and charm were not part of general physics parlance at the time. I have been a longtime subscriber to the New Scientist which keeps me tenuously in touch with science but that is as an onlooker, not even an amateur. My presence here is as a political analyst who must deal with science, particularly since genetic modification grew political legs. It is from that angle, from the perspective of politics, that I have framed what I am now going to say.

I do, however, know enough about science to have great gratitude for the freedom and riches science has bestowed on us. We eat well because of science. We live comfortably because of science. We communicate easily because of science. We live longer because of science.

I also have a love of new ideas and information. I owe that love at least in part to the revolution in inquiry and thinking that flowed from the reformation and renaissance: hypothesis, experiment, rejection or gradual reduction of doubt about the hypothesis — in short the valuing of all knowledge, whatever the risk in its pursuit. I emphasise all knowledge, whatever the risk.

So long live science. If science is blocked, we will be in danger of returning to a dark age of fear and myth, where shamans and superstition rule.

Science cannot eliminate risk. Indeed, science creates risk.

Imagine we are meeting 200 to 250 years ago. Now imagine the dangers electricity might bring into our god-fearing world, dangers to the body, sure, but maybe also dangers to the soul, for electricity travels through the ether. Now fast-forward back to today. With hindsight we know this child of science is dangerous, if not to the soul, at least to the body. Electricity has killed and continues to kill considerable numbers of people, both directly and indirectly in mines and at oil wells which provide the fuel for generating the stuff.

But even if the experimenters and developers of 200-250 years ago had possessed our hindsight, if they could have been certain about the implications of their inquiry and experiment, would they have laid off? Thank goodness, no. They were excited and determined. For a glimpse into that world of a couple of centuries or more ago, pick up the Lunar Men, Jenny Uglow’s book about the group of scientists, inventors and industrialists who celebrated and advanced science (and art) in the late eighteenth century.

But what if it was right now that science was discovering how to generate, store, transmit and use electricity? If the controversy over genetic modification is a guide, there would be widespread demands on Parliament to block its release from the laboratory into commercial use until science could prove it was absolutely safe. Some of those calls would come from scientists who would challenge the inherent uncertainties of the science behind the newly discovered and part-understood force. Some people would raid the laboratories to stifle the inquiry, just a anti-GM campaigners raided laboratories a couple of years ago.

The very nature of the scientific method precludes such a proof of safety. Certainty is the preserve of shamans, not scientists. Though science can come close to certainty, it cannot produce absolute certainty. There is always the possibility a new discovery or a new invalidating test. Quantum physics challenged the laws of Newtonian science.

The problem is partly the clash of rationality and irrationality.

I am irrational. The proof of that is that I live in Wellington. One day Wellington will fall down in an earthquake. But I choose to blot out that risk because there is nothing I can do about it and I have to live in Wellington because that is where the politicians gather. Science can’t stop earthquakes. Nor can the shamans.

But when it comes to food I can do something about the risks — or at least I think I can and I want to. The same goes for medicine. And energetic lobbies warn me of dangerous ingredients, dangerous production procedures and dangerous consequences for the ecosystem. And that sounds important even if I don’t quite know what the ecosystem is or why I should be worried about it.

For you at this conference, these lobbyists matter. Many of you are engaged in the production of food. And many of the rest of you deal with surrogate children, otherwise known as pets.

At this point I should acknowledge that our household does pay the extra for “free range” chickens and eggs and some organic food, partly for irrational motives and partly for the thoroughly rational motive of better taste. We have not long finished eating a swag of organic mandarins grown by a neighbour of Jeanette Fitzsimons which were much richer in taste than the factory ones. Organic apples taste better, too. In my teens I worked in an apple orchard. I know what they are supposed to taste like and Enza doesn’t.

I should also confess about Thomas. Thomas is a cat. When I was a kid a cat that tore leg ligaments and was in considerable pain would be given the stone-in-a-sack-in-the-stream treatment. Instead, to my astonishment at my irrational self, Thomas got the best part of $1000 of surgery and post-operative care — though I should add that we refused an offer from our vet of acupuncture. And we haven’t gone in for happy pills the New Zealand Herald recently invited pet owners to try — for the pets, I should add.

My partner, however, does get considerable pain relief from acupuncture and from osteopathy, pain relief that conventional medicine has failed to provide. The message from that for me, hitherto a doubter [to put it mildly] of “alternative” medicine, is: if it works, to hell with sceptics, science-based or otherwise. When I was a child my carsickness was briefly banished through a rubber strap hanging off the car; the strap lost its effectiveness the day my elder brother took it off without telling me and laughed at me when I said I hadn’t got carsick. I don’t dare tell this audience about the relationship I had with a tractor in my mid-teens.

My point here is to lead on to a paradox. Science has hugely improved the quality, safety and quantity of our food. It has conquered a great many ailments that once would have killed us or made us miserable. Put those together and we live longer and more healthily and most commentators think we will live longer and more healthily still in the next generation and the generation after that. And that has been going on for decades on a global scale, except in populations incarcerated in failed states.

So we became accustomed to science fixing us up, even when we brought the ills on ourselves by our irresponsibility.

But science has not conquered all ailments. It has not made us immortal. Indeed, the innovations of the past 40 years or so have been much less dramatic than over the previous century or so. Science, which promised so much, has failed to make us immortal.

And there was a cost in science. Science killed — or at least gravely wounded — God.

A book which profoundly influenced me in my late teens was Honest to God by Bishop John Robinson. The good bishop noted that science had progressively explained more and more of the inexplicable, which increasingly relegated to the margins God’s role as an explainer and soother of troubled souls in the face of the unknown. Science had chipped so many holes in God that not much was left. When one confronted that uncomfortable fact, Bishop Robinson said, one either had faith, a belief in God, or one did not. I found I did not and sometimes I think that is a pity.

But science has not replaced God. There remain some inexplicables. The old expectation science will eventually eliminate those inexplicables is waning. So some people have cast around for a replacement for God.

Which means looking beyond or away from science. A website indexing websites of alternative medicines lists 41 varieties, including crystals, ear candling, reflexology and shamanism. Some, such as acupuncture and many indigenous medicines, are explicable by science and some others may yet be in the future. Others, however, are not and will not be. And at this point we enter the realm of anti-science. If science can’t fix everything, then logically some of us will search for non-scientific fixes � for something that works, however improbably.

It is not a long step from there to believing that science may, or must, be contributing to the unfixable ills, a Frankenstein that has created its own monster. The planet is being raped and poisoned. Nature is being twisted to humans’ evil or greedy ends. Science is impure. Perhaps we need to rein science in.

And how better to rein in science than to use science against itself?

Listen to Lawrence Krauss in the New York Times in 2002 dealing with those who believe in alien visits and UFO sightings: “In a debate that confronts the results of science with pseudoscience, from alien abductions and crop circles on one hand to the health benefits of weak magnetic fields or young earth creationism on the other, the odds are stacked against science.” The reason: “We are constantly regaled by stories about limitless possibilities open to those with know-how and a spirit of enterprise. Combine that with a public that perceives the limits of science as targets that are constantly being overcome and the suggestion that anything is absolutely impossible seems like an affront. Modern technology has made the seemingly impossible almost ordinary.”

So of course aliens can and do visit. Pseudoscience tells us it is possible. Crop circle “researchers” promise to “shatter orthodox scientific arrogance” and tell us that “humanity is on the brink of amazing discovery and awareness”.

Now listen to the minority of scientists who deny global warming and/or deny it is attributable, or largely attributable, to human use of fossil fuels and other activity — despite mounting evidence that there is out-of-the-ordinary warming and that it has occurred contemporaneously with an increase in so-called greenhouse gases. And listen to the minority of scientists, often not biological scientists, who latch on to anecdotes to warn — despite a lack of convincing evidence — that genetic modification might irrevocably damage the planet and/or the biosphere and/or the human race.

The non-scientist listening to these minorities will register above all a lack of certainty. Since science is not democratic, there is no guarantee the majority view is the scientifically correct view — and indeed the heroic tales of science you may have happened on as a child have told you the majority view has often been falsified or superseded by a brilliant individual. There might indeed be aliens in our midst. The science just hasn’t got there yet.

So our modern risk-averse citizen might well choose, for a variety of reasons ranging from fear and psychological need to calculation of the odds or simple personal gain, to put credence in the minority view on climate change or GM. GM might pose a risk to one’s health. So avoid GM products and demand explicit and detailed labelling. Even better, stop it getting out of the laboratory and, even better, kill it in the laboratory.

Boil this down: for ordinary citizens science is choice. You choose what to believe and non-scientific factors will to a large degree decide what you want to believe. Moreover, the media don’t help because the media thrive on dissent and contest — or they put both sides of a story, giving shamans the same authority and validation as scientists on matters that should be the preserve of scientists. [By the way, I am not including here among the dissidents those scientists who argue, as David Williams did in the New Zealand Herald on Wednesday, for more rigour among experimenters and developers: that is application of the scientific method and will improve, not undo, science.]

Now stir in politics. Because science is choice, politics becomes the arbiter if scientists are at odds. GM is a classic case.

So Pete Hodgson and his mates in the cabinet either have to find a mechanism that the public will accept or make the decisions themselves. GM again is a case in point. The Royal Commission did not still the doubters, who simply redoubled their efforts. There is ERMA, a supposedly expert adjudicator. And there is the call-in procedure, whereby ministers get to make a highly technical decision.

And there are the Greens. They side with the minority on the science of GM. And they take an absolutist position. In the election campaign in 2002 they caused mayhem. They also provoked Pete into an unfortunate constitutional innovation. He ordered public servants to a media conference to confound the allegations of government toleration of GM sweetcorn on the loose. Given bureaucrats’ vow of political neutrality, this was an extraordinary event in the middle of a campaign: you can bet he would not have called out his loyal bureaucrats to defend National against an allegation.

We haven’t heard the last from the Greens on GM. Though they have 7% of the vote, they claim to speak for the majority. If Labour wins the next election there is an excellent chance the Greens will keep GM in the laboratory, for good or ill. Moreover, many of Labour’s middle class supporters would applaud.

Likewise about therapeutics, where the Greens have been waging war on the joint agency agreed between the Australian and New Zealand governments — in that case pushing choice and a lighter regulatory regime to keep relatively free access to alternative remedies and supplements, even though generally the Greens want more regulation of food in the name of safety to stop contamination, growth hormones and antibiotics to stop disease in factory farming.

Try the other side. National and ACT are gung-ho about GM, preferring the majority science. But, moved by tales of business profits foregone, they are attracted to the minority sceptics about global warming and, if in power, would not commit to the second phase-down period. On that issue, however, the Greens side with the majority science and damn the doubters.

The point for you as veterinarians is that politicians have to respond to political pressures, which politicians measure by counting votes. If the pressures to ban substances you routinely use and are convinced are safe grow intense, politicians will ban them. The only way to counter those pressures is to set in motion opposing pressures. I shall be intrigued to see whether you can and, if you can, will.

Moreover, there is an area where few would argue against legislative action: ethics. Since science is knowledge for its own sake, any ethical issues have to be dealt with by politicians. And if they didn’t, voters would demand they did. The problem for politicians — and, I should add, the media and the public — is defining the boundary between ethical constraints on science and shamanism.

But there is a bigger issue and it is one I know bothers Pete and his mates. It is the world’s view of this tiny country’s attitude to science and innovation. Is this a place to invest in research in or might Parliament stop you in your tracks? Is it a place to come looking for exciting ideas? The answer probably lies in the request I had for an interview with the BBC around election time in 2002, a request I did not have time to meet: an interview about what the BBC person called the anti-GM election. And, indeed, that is what it was and, unless National wins in 2005, that is what the next election may well be seen from outside to be, too, since Labour is likely to have to cater to the Greens’ demands on GM.

We should ponder that. In political terms it is a valid choice. And the Greens might have an ally in the new Maori party — many Maori insist GM is inimical to whakapapa. But if we are to take that choice to block a field of science, it should be with eyes wide open. Anti-science does not want the eyes open, only feelings. Wide eyes are science’s demeanour. The challenge for Pete is to keep the eyes wide. Do you reckon he can? And do you care?