Mixing the science of GM foods with politics will always be messy


11:02 am - May 29th 2012

by Sunny Hundal    


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I’d to return to the rumbling controversy that is the GREENS vs SCIENTISTS showdown, a.k.a. the decision by some Greens and some environmentalists to protest at the GM foods site at Rothahmstead on Sunday.

I wrote a piece for the Guardian that didn’t convince all detractors, and I got some excellent replies I’d like to address.

I said on CIF: “The divide is not between ‘pro-science’ and ‘anti-science’ political parties at all. Rather, politicians and parties will always side with science when it suits their constituency or aligns with their interests.” — Let me elaborate.

Why do most politically active right-wingers Conservatives and UKIPers deny climate change? It seems to me the science is irrelevant; they deny it because they hate the political implications of global warming and the cost of mitigation. They’ve convinced themselves that AGW is a far-left conspiracy to raise their taxes and change their lifestyle.

So they deny the science is even accurate and leap on anything that confirms their prejudices. The science became political when it moved to political action, and therefore had to be undermined by the deniers.

The parallel to the GM foods debate is that Greens and environmentalists are also motivated primarily by the real world impact of GMO.

As the GM foods industry is dominated and controlled by large corporations, it make senses for environmentalists to attack GMO regardless of the science. Because the moment it goes out of the lab and is owned by a Monsanto for eg, it has real-world consequences.

To be clear there are questions to be asked about GMO science itself, and to pretend the questions are irrelevant is foolish. Even climate science is beset by uncertainty. But my point is that this is more than about the science: this is about the politics and the economics of GMO.

* * * * * * * *

To address Adam Rutherford’s comment:

It is my belief that the Green Party are viscerally opposed to the science, typified by Jenny Jones’ tweet last night: ‘For those who want to understand anti GM concern, on why it won’t feed the world or be a miracle cure: gmfreeze.org’

I read that as being a pre-judged, which is an ideological opposition to scientifically acquired knowledge.

I refer to this attempt to categorise the Green party:

I don’t think Greens are anti-science, I just think their economic, social and environmental concerns lead them to raise these issues (though TTFB did make errors in their refutation).

The issue of ownership is indeed a problem, and the behaviour of monolithic companies such as Monsanto has had a negative impact on biotech-driven farming. But this is a problem of capitalism, not science.

But this is like saying scientific research has no consequences, and the people who have to deal with those consequences should like it or lump it.

Should people concerned about the growth of nuclear weapon technology, or (hypothetically) human mutation, ignore the potential consequences? Not really. It’s the job of elected representatives to voice those concerns and ask (possibly ignorant) questions. They may even campaign to stop funding. The court of public opinion drives democracy – to ignore that opinion is dangerous. The Monsanto problem should not be dismissed away, at least not for elected representatives of the left.

Just in case anyone has any doubts, farming, is the precise opposite of natural. Nothing is less natural than farmed food, as it is the direct result of artificial selection.

Possibly, but on a smaller scale surely? There have been recorded cases of people introducing new crops to areas and drastically affecting the local ecosystem. GMO is an attempt to accelerate or drastically modify the evolutionary process. Fair enough, but let’s not pretend it doesn’t come with bigger pitfalls than a slower process.

IMHO, the Green Party, the Soil Association, FoE, ETC and most representatives of GM opposition are not interested in that conversation taking place. They are viscerally opposed.

No, you misunderstand them. Their thinking is that actions like this force the debate into the public conciousness much better than non-events.

It’s figuratively no different to students smashing the Tory Party HQ in 2010. They were vilified in the press but the real victims were the Libdems, thanks to the debate that followed.

* * * * * * * *

If scientists want to ignore public opinion or deny it’s also their job to assuage public concern, they’ll lose the battle on GMO like last time. Or they’ll end up relying on Monsanto to fight their corner, which might do their cause even more harm.

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About the author
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
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Reader comments


1. Chaise Guevara

@ Sunny

“As the GM foods industry is dominated and controlled by large corporations, it make senses for environmentalists to attack GMO regardless of the science. ”

Argh. So even if science created GMOs that could feed the world and had no health risks or negative environmental impact, environmentalists should still attack it “regardless of the science”, presumably while waving the banner of obtuse stupidity.

Pro-tip: if you find yourself advocating a course of action regardless of the relevant facts, it’s a good idea to go back and at least double-check your reasoning.

2. Spudman101

“Possibly, but on a smaller scale surely? There have been recorded cases of people introducing new crops to areas and drastically affecting the local ecosystem. GMO is an attempt to accelerate or drastically modify the evolutionary process. Fair enough, but let’s not pretend it doesn’t come with bigger pitfalls than a slower process.”

This is the common problem of viewing these things in terms of “natural” versus scientific. How do you define one process as “slower”? A tiny mutation can have a huge impact on a plant, why are the pitfalls smaller when this happens “naturally” in the wild completely unchecked versus in a controlled environment where the effects can be observed and the spread of the mutation can be stopped?

Arguing against the testing of genetically modified food in these terms is like arguing against crash testing for cars on the grounds that the testers may make a mistake and end up making cars extra dangerous. I mean, it could happen, but it exactly the kind of thing this testing is designed to prevent.

Fair enough, but let’s not pretend it doesn’t come with bigger pitfalls than a slower process.

In the opinion of the relevant scientists, that is not really the case. Some people will distrust them, preferring their gut instincts, or material produced by opposing vested interests like the Soil Association. When those people look in the mirror, they will find an answer to the question ‘what does someone who is anti-science look like’?

As long as Greens are fine with Monsanto using technique A for crop breeding, and opposed to a public reseach institute using technique B, it is kind of a nonsense to say it is about corporations and not the science.

Pointing at climate denialists works only so long as your goal is merely to demonstrate you are not alone, not uniquely stupid.

Which is fair enough, but that seems a somewhat limited ambition.

‘People suffer confirmation bias.’

‘Politicians will court public opinion.’

O RLY?

Forcing the debate into the public conciousness cuts both ways though, there’s nothing to stop the MSM using the eco-fascist tag. Besides what debate do you mean? If this article by the head of GM Watch is anything to go by the anti GM crowd are just reheating old concerns and bringing out the dog-whistle Monsanto. NVDA cannot be justified by the fact it attracts public attention alone. Otherwise NVDA would be simple vandalism .

Obviously the best way to break the corporations hold on GM is to attack publicly funded trials.

That makes perfect sense.

7. Chaise Guevara

@ 2 Spudman

” A tiny mutation can have a huge impact on a plant, why are the pitfalls smaller when this happens “naturally” in the wild completely unchecked versus in a controlled environment where the effects can be observed and the spread of the mutation can be stopped?”

That’s what I’d like to know. I’m sure it’s something do to with the natural world being awesome and nothing bad happening in it ever.

8. Shatterface

I said on CIF: “The divide is not between ‘pro-science’ and ‘anti-science’ political parties at all. Rather, politicians and parties will always side with science when it suits their constituency or aligns with their interests.”

Which makes your argument an ad hom.

Given the hysteria over ‘Frankenstein food’ we could easily counter that the Greens are exploiting press and public hysteria – which is overwhelmingly on the side of the fruitbats – but we don’t because its about the science not the motivation.

Why do most politically active right-wingers Conservatives and UKIPers deny climate change? It seems to me the science is irrelevant; they deny it because they hate the political implications of global warming and the cost of mitigation. They’ve convinced themselves that AGW is a far-left conspiracy to raise their taxes and change their lifestyle.

And by attacking the scientists rather than the science of GM you ally yourself with the anti-intellectuals of the AGW deniers. You legitimate their appeal to gut feeling and paranoia.

But this is like saying scientific research has no consequences, and the people who have to deal with those consequences should like it or lump it.

Should people concerned about the growth of nuclear weapon technology, or (hypothetically) human mutation, ignore the potential consequences? Not really. It’s the job of elected representatives to voice those concerns and ask (possibly ignorant) questions. They may even campaign to stop funding. The court of public opinion drives democracy – to ignore that opinion is dangerous. The Monsanto problem should not be dismissed away, at least not for elected representatives of the left.

There’s no comparison between GM crops an the arms industry: weapons are designed to kill – killing is a logical and necessary consequence of the arms industry.

You can’t argue that the arms industry, because it entails research and development, means that any other industry which entails research and development is therefore comparable.

9. Shatterface

It’s figuratively no different to students smashing the Tory Party HQ in 2010. They were vilified in the press but the real victims were the Libdems, thanks to the debate that followed.

Well yes, its figuratively no different from students smashing up the Tory party HQ, just like that was no different from any other expression of mindless, impotent, hysterical rage.

If scientists want to ignore public opinion or deny it’s also their job to assuage public concern, they’ll lose the battle on GMO like last time. Or they’ll end up relying on Monsanto to fight their corner, which might do their cause even more harm.

As already pointed out, attacking a publicly funded research project is precisely the kind of idiocy which will push the research into the hands of big business and outside democratic oversight.

GM is just the latest plant breeding technique. Plant breeding to produce crops like wheat, barley and maize has gone on for millennia. It’s the reason why we manage to feed ourselves.

There’s not the slightest hint of a coherent argument against biotechnology in the piece above.

I used to have a lot more time for Greenpeace and FoE. Then came the Brent Spar incident when they started to lie. Brent Spar was a North Sea oil platform used as a distrubution hub between oil rigs and tankers. At the end of its useful life, it was going to be scuppered. Then Greenpeace decided to become involved: It contained radioactive materials! They said. It’s full of poisons that will pollute the sea for decades! So instead of creating a man-made reef that would have been a useful fish breeding site it was towed to Norway and scrapped. No radioactivity above normal background was released and lots of money was spent but the fish lost their breeding site and Greenpeace got away with a load of lies and hype.

I’ve become more sceptical of FoE, Greenpeace and the Soil Association since then. They appeal to the emotions of their supporters and are prepared to be as low, dishonest and manipulative when, to me, they should be above such behaviour. The way they play politics has sunk lower since, and they’ll lose more votes from people like me. What worries me is that the votes they do pick up will be from an increasingly emotional, irrational fringe just when we need good environmental pressure groups to keep pushing for positive change.

12. Shatterface

GM is just the latest plant breeding technique. Plant breeding to produce crops like wheat, barley and maize has gone on for millennia. It’s the reason why we manage to feed ourselves.

Its also, as Jarrd Diamond has pointed out, the reason why the developed world is the developed world, not the developing world.

We were lucky to live in areas where the plants and animals were easy to domesticate. For those less fortunate the science had – and has – to develop to a point beyond simply selecting from available strains to breed together.

13. Sean Halsey

As the GM foods industry is dominated and controlled by large corporations, it make senses for environmentalists to attack GMO regardless of the science. Because the moment it goes out of the lab and is owned by a Monsanto for eg, it has real-world consequences.

But in this case, as your link shows, Rothamsted Research had pledged that any results would not be patented and would not be owned by any private company. So that simply cannot be the concern.

@1 “Argh. So even if science created GMOs that could feed the world and had no health risks or negative environmental impact, environmentalists should still attack it “regardless of the science”, presumably while waving the banner of obtuse stupidity.”

At the moment, we produce more than enough food to feed the world without needing to use GM crops. The problem is an economic and political one. GM technology is pretty much irrelevant to the problem.

And in responding to Sunny’s point about the technology being in the hands of large corporations, you completely miss what he was saying. Corporations have one, and only one, goal: to make as large a profit as possible. The profit in the GM industry comes from tying farmers to repeat purchases of your seed and pesticides. To use the technology in a way that could feed the world, you’d need to get something that increases yields (and no GM crop to date has done that) into the hands of subsistence farmers. Since they can’t afford to buy new seed every year, there is little, if any, profit in making such a crop.

In short, the fact that the technology is being used for purely commercial purposes means that it’s never going to be used in a way that could help feed the world. If the questions about the broader environmental impact of GM crops are now sufficiently well answered (the last time I looked at that question was over a decade ago), then I would be one Green whose problem with the technology is solely down to the way it is used. And that is very much a political and economic question, rather than a scientific one.

15. Albert Spangler

I wish there were a way of having some kind of vague consultation with some actual geneticists, biologists and other experts in this field. Obviously, the public don’t generally care about the methodology of science, but I would at the very least like to hear from scientists about the usefulness/dangers of public GM testing.

Obviously this is difficult in itself, how you separate those paid up by the industry from those who are trying to get to the truth would be difficult, but more worthwhile than the constant back and forth I see all the time. I normally love seeing debates take place but I get the distinct feeling that very few people who comment on these issues are qualified to do so accurately.

I would love it if we actually had some kind of scientific liaison to come forward and speak about these issues, because I’ve read a number of these GM/green articles and debates, and I have not come away feeling any more enlightened or sure of my position than when I first started.

16. Chaise Guevara

@ 14 Green Christian

“At the moment, we produce more than enough food to feed the world without needing to use GM crops. The problem is an economic and political one. GM technology is pretty much irrelevant to the problem.”

I don’t think admitting distribution is a problem means abandoning all potential solutions that aren’t based on distribution. If we could grow crops more efficiently *where they were needed* that would be a big help.

“And in responding to Sunny’s point about the technology being in the hands of large corporations, you completely miss what he was saying.”

No. What you say in the rest of your post is true, but when Sunny says he’ll oppose this stuff “regardless of the science”, he’s admitting he’d deliberately make a decision while ignoring central facts. He’s tubthumping for applied ignorance. It would be like me saying I’d support any GM project regardless of what it did and who controlled it.

@16

We seem to agree that GM as it stands is not going to make a difference to feeding the world. The only plausible way for that to change is for the technology to be developed and deployed by governments and NGOs, rather than corporations. Or possibly for governments to force corporations to develop the right kind of GM crops and give them to the right people. And if either happens, then Sunny’s objection to GM is pretty much irrelevant as control of the technology would no longer be corporate.

The only plausible way for that to change is for the technology to be developed and deployed by governments and NGOs, rather than corporations.

Just to be clear, that means that in this case, which is about precisely such non-corporate science, you would tend to agree that Sunny and the Green party are in the wrong?

19. Charlieman

@12. Shatterface: “We were lucky to live in areas where the plants and animals were easy to domesticate. For those less fortunate the science had – and has – to develop to a point beyond simply selecting from available strains to breed together.”

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. It can thus be argued that the biggest change in agriculture was a result of ship building.

The food that we eat in Europe and Asia changed after 1500; before Columbus, there were no potatoes, chilli peppers or maize outside the Americas. Those plants were transported overseas and through propagation, local variants were developed. It was not all plain sailing (sic) because new species created new problems.

GM is akin to discovering the Americas. It could be powerfully productive if used responsibly or it could be destructive. That is not an argument for being overly precautious. Nor for irresponsibility.

20. Charlieman

@17. Green Christian: “We seem to agree that GM as it stands is not going to make a difference to feeding the world. The only plausible way for that to change is for the technology to be developed and deployed by governments and NGOs, rather than corporations. Or possibly for governments to force corporations to develop the right kind of GM crops and give them to the right people. And if either happens, then Sunny’s objection to GM is pretty much irrelevant as control of the technology would no longer be corporate.”

I do not follow your argument.

Commercial seed sellers *do* develop variants that are likely to produce sterile, non-productive seeds. They have done this for donkey’s years using traditional non-GM propagation techniques. It is certain that they will try it with GM variants.

Green Christian’s response is to “control” GM development and distribution by government action. ie to remove any incentive to develop GM.

But it is the last sentence that confuses me: “And if either happens, then Sunny’s objection to GM is pretty much irrelevant as control of the technology would no longer be corporate.”

My concern about GM is cross pollination, a scientific argument. I separate economics.

21. Charlieman

@OP, Sunny: “Why do most politically active right-wingers Conservatives and UKIPers deny climate change? It seems to me the science is irrelevant; they deny it because they hate the political implications of global warming and the cost of mitigation. They’ve convinced themselves that AGW is a far-left conspiracy to raise their taxes and change their lifestyle.”

If only it was that simple. On LC, the pro-AGW arguers have rarely presented their cases well. Too often, they have gone off on a huff when asked a simple question. Just because there is a scientific consensus for AGW does not preclude a debate.

If I may go off on one of my hobby horses: when global warming occurs (I am uninterested at this point about cause), what will happen to people living on low islands close to the sea? What have the pro-AGW arguers done for them?

22. Trooper Thompson

@5

“If this article by the head of GM Watch is anything to go by the anti GM crowd are just reheating old concerns and bringing out the dog-whistle Monsanto”

He mentions Monsanto only once, with regard to one of their products. I can, of course, understand why the pro-GM crowd don’t want Monsanto’s name mentioned.

@ Charlieman,

“GM is akin to discovering the Americas. It could be powerfully productive if used responsibly or it could be destructive. That is not an argument for being overly precautious. Nor for irresponsibility.”

Sage words. No doubt you recognise that there will be a certain amount of dispute with regard to the definitions of ‘overy precautious’ and ‘irresponsibility’.

“There have been recorded cases of people introducing new crops to areas and drastically affecting the local ecosystem”

GM crops?

24. Just Visiting

In Germany two weeks ago, the GM Show Garden (Gentechnik-Schaugarten) at Üplingen announced it’s closure, after ongoing costly vandalism and staff even being threatened with Pepper-Spray !

http://www.schaugarten-ueplingen.de/

http://www.laborwelt.de/aktuelles/nachrichten/2012-05/neuer-daempfer-fuer-gentechnik.html

‘It’s figuratively no different to students smashing the Tory Party HQ in 2010. They were vilified in the press but the real victims were the Libdems, thanks to the debate that followed.’

Hold on, the Libdems were the real victims? I’d like to see the ‘logic’ you used to reach the conclusion that the Libdems were the ‘victims’ in this situation. Surely Tory HQ sofas, students getting their fees tripled and everyone injured in the protests were the victims. The Libdems shafted one of their major constituencies, they aren’t the victims of the student protests and I’d like to see how you come to that conclusion.

‘As the GM foods industry is dominated and controlled by large corporations, it make senses for environmentalists to attack GMO regardless of the science. Because the moment it goes out of the lab and is owned by a Monsanto for eg, it has real-world consequences.’

That doesn’t apply in this case though, does it? So raising that is a red herring.

‘Should people concerned about the growth of nuclear weapon technology, or (hypothetically) human mutation, ignore the potential consequences? Not really. It’s the job of elected representatives to voice those concerns and ask (possibly ignorant) questions. They may even campaign to stop funding. The court of public opinion drives democracy – to ignore that opinion is dangerous. The Monsanto problem should not be dismissed away, at least not for elected representatives of the left.’

Your conflating WMDs with human mutation, which is an ongoing process that has led to homo sapiens sapiens over the millions of years since homo erectus.

There is only one MP with a scientific background. Because many elected representatives are ignorant they will of course ask ignorant questions. A media where well informed people debate the issue, like a parliament that has people prepared to research and understand issues, seems to be a pipe dream.

In your CiF comment you touched on this

‘Last night I attended a talk entitled “Science Communication and Political Divides” (Storifyed here) and I was relieved to hear one scientist admit: “Scientists are not very good at doing politics.” She went on to say: “Evidence has to be considered in a public light,” which is exactly right. They were referring to drugs policy in that context (Prof David Nutt and his firing around drugs policy), but the point was the same: don’t expect politicians and the public to formulate policy merely on the basis of scientific evidence.’

By this do you mean generally ignorant politicians play to peoples fears whipped up by a hysterical media who also lack the skills to understand science but want to sell papers with scary stories on the front page and prevent rational debate on evidence based policy making in this country.

I agree with you, but I think we should change it so whether something works or makes scientific sense or is possible is actually important.

This notion of ignoring evidence and ‘going with your gut’ and after finding some ‘spurious’ evidence to support it by cherry picking things on google, as with the article by James MacKenzie where he quoted things out of context that he didn’t understand and made himself look decidedly stupid.

The Greens are trying to position themselves as the new Libdems (and while they’d certainly be a preferable alternative) and they could offer a real alternative if they were prepared to argue for evidence based policy (something none of the main parties support currently) and engage the public in honest constructive debate about policies having given them access to all the facts available.

You could call all three main parties anti-science, because they ignore scientific evidence if it doesn’t match what their ideologies say is correct.

“Why do most politically active right-wingers Conservatives and UKIPers deny climate change? It seems to me the science is irrelevant; they deny it because they hate the political implications of global warming and the cost of mitigation. They’ve convinced themselves that AGW is a far-left conspiracy to raise their taxes and change their lifestyle.”

Shurly shum mishtake, the above should read:

Why do most politically active left-wingers Labourites and Greens support the catastrophic theory of climate change? It seems to me the science is irrelevant; they support it because they love the political implications of global warming and the spending on mitigation. They’ve convinced themselves that the anti AGW movement is a far-right conspiracy to lower their taxes and maintain their lifestyle.

Of course both versions are pretty much bollocks but they have approximately equal truth values.

Pro-tip: if you find yourself advocating a course of action regardless of the relevant facts, it’s a good idea to go back and at least double-check your reasoning.

Way to go for missing the point entirely.

As long as Greens are fine with Monsanto using technique A for crop breeding,

Eh? Who said they were?

Pointing at climate denialists works only so long as your goal is merely to demonstrate you are not alone, not uniquely stupid.

I’m not pointing at climate denialists to say they’re stupid. I’m saying they’re behaving that way for a reason, however annoying you might find it. Their aim is to protect their taxes and bloated way of life. From their perspective it makes sense to deny climate change.

There’s not the slightest hint of a coherent argument against biotechnology in the piece above.

I’m not making an argument against biotechnology.

But in this case, as your link shows, Rothamsted Research had pledged that any results would not be patented and would not be owned by any private company. So that simply cannot be the concern.

I suppose the view of environmentlists is that if this legitimises GM tech in general as something we should accept without question, then it strengthens the likes of Monsanto, even if there’s a bit of publicly funded research on the side.

Eh? Who said they were?

I do. When have they ever campaigned against or boycotted any non-GM commercial seed variety?

From their perspective it makes sense to deny climate change.

That may be so, from a sufficiently amoral perspective. Even so, viable tactics change depending on the resources available. If some oil company or billionaire were to slip enough money to the Greens to fund an equivalent campaign to the climate change denialists, it might just work, Otherwise, as you can see from the feedback here and elsewhere, they are going to lose, and damage related causes in the course of their defeat.

29. Shatterface

Should people concerned about the growth of nuclear weapon technology, or (hypothetically) human mutation

The stonishing X-Men have just had their first gay wedding so I, for one, welcome our mutant overlords.

30. Chaise Guevara

@ 17 Green Christians

“We seem to agree that GM as it stands is not going to make a difference to feeding the world. The only plausible way for that to change is for the technology to be developed and deployed by governments and NGOs, rather than corporations.”

Something like that. Probably the most effective model would be what happens in the medical trade now, where privately developed drugs go off-patent in a relatively short time, making them available far more cheaply. So governments don’t have to pay for research, and drug developers profit off the exclusivity period. However, it does depend on the law surrounding IPR in GM – I don’t know what it is, but I bet their patents last longer than they do for medicine. Maybe this needs to change?

However, as others have pointed out, the case in the OP isn’t corporate, so do you think Sunny’s wrong to back the protesters?

Have just found this by the xlnt Martin Robbins:

Okay, the last paragraph of this post by @sunny_hundal at @libcon is so wrong I have to deploy a multi-tweet rant
“If scientists want to ignore public opinion” – the protestors at Rothamsted have nothing to do with public opinion, and have no right to
claim any sort of representation on their behalf. Most members of the public spoken to in the park supported local research. Most members
of the wider public hardly support the sort of hard left anti-corporate ‘global science conspiracy’ rhetoric on display, and indeed
many Greens probably wouldn’t support the protestors saying “we don’t need GM because we have a wide range of pesticides to use”
“Or they’ll end up relying on Monsanto to fight their corner” – connecting the Rothamsted scientists to Monsanto is grossly unfair. They are
not in the same corner as Monsanto, good quality public research is the best way to keep the claims of Big Corp in check
Whoops, writing a blog post on Twitter. End of rant.

Here endeth the lesson

32. Chaise Guevara

@ 27 Sunny

“Way to go for missing the point entirely.”

I notice you haven’t bothered to explain this amazing point that is so important it means you can safely ignore reality. I’m guessing that’s because there isn’t one.

Sunny wrote,

Last night I attended a talk entitled “Science Communication and Political Divides” (Storifyed here) and I was relieved to hear one scientist admit: “Scientists are not very good at doing politics.” She went on to say: “Evidence has to be considered in a public light,” which is exactly right. They were referring to drugs policy in that context (Prof David Nutt and his firing around drugs policy), but the point was the same: don’t expect politicians and the public to formulate policy merely on the basis of scientific evidence.

People were naive if they genuinely believed that Ministers would heed a group ostensibly setup to provide scientific advice to mitigate harms and classify drugs according to a system (the ABC system) ostensibly setup for ranking drugs by “comparative harmfulness”.

After all, only four years before Nutt’s dismissal the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee published a report expressing “concern at the Government’s proclivity for using the classification system as a means of ‘sending out signals’ to potential users and society at large—it is at odds with the stated objective of classifying drugs on the basis of harm and the Government has not made any attempt to develop an evidence base on which to draw in determining the ‘signal’ being sent out.”

The-then Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, dismissing Nutt from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, said he “cannot have public confusion between scientific advice and policy”. Interviewed by the Times, Johnson added, “As for [Nutt’s] comments about horse riding being more dangerous than ecstasy, which you quote with such reverence, it is of course a political rather than a scientific point.”

(After Nutt compared the risk of horse-riding to the risk of esctasy consumption, the-then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said she was “surprised and profoundly disappointed” and “sure most people would simply not accept the link that he makes up in his article between horse riding and illegal drug taking”.)

After Nutt’s dismissal, Dr Les King resigned, followed by Marion Walker. Later, three other Council members – Dr John Marsden, Ian Ragan and Dr Simon Campbell – met with Johnson and then resigned. Shortly before mephedrone was classified Class B, Dr Polly Taylor resigned. After the classification, Eric Carlin resigned – he wrote to the Home Secretary, “we had little or no discussion about how our recommendation to classify this drug would be likely to impact on young people’s behaviour. Our decision was unduly based on media and political pressure. … I am not prepared to continue to be part of a body which, as its main activity, works to facilitate the potential criminalisation of increasing numbers of young people.”

Nutt’s view was/is that “illicit drugs should be classified according to the actual evidence of the harm they cause and pointed out that alcohol and tobacco caused more harm than LSD, ecstasy and cannabis” (Wikipedia). Funnily enough this is the ostensible purpose of the ABC classification system: “to make it possible to control particular drugs according to their comparative harmfulness either to individuals or to society at large when they were misused”.
http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200506/cmselect/cmsctech/1031/103105.htm

Nutt’s error was to make public his disagreement – implicit or explicit – with policy.

We shouldn’t “expect politicians and the public to formulate policy merely on the basis of scientific evidence,” just as I shouldn’t expect my nephew to tidy his room when he’s told. We expect as in “ought to happen”, not expect as in “will happen”.

I was relieved to hear one scientist admit: “Scientists are not very good at doing politics.”

Carlin said on his blog, “I am not a politician and I was not appointed to ACMD as a politician. I was appointed for my 15+ years’ experience of managing services for drug users and young people-led/influenced prevention services, in the latter developing the evidence base which might help reduce harm rather than relying on failed moralistic approaches.”

http://ericcarlin.wordpress.com/2010/04/02/my-acmd-resignation-letter-to-the-home-secretary/

Vernon Coaker would write of cannabis being classified B that, “We [the Labour Government] do not dispute the Advisory Council’s findings and we have fully taken into account its assessment of the harmfulness of cannabis in accepting all the recommendations bar that relating to classification.

“The Government remains committed to evidence-based policy making. But policy making often involves an interpretation of the available evidence, and scientific advice is one, but not the only factor contributing to policy. Experience, values, and judgement are all important contributors to policy making.”

Notes:

1. the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 removed the statutory requirement to appoint to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs at least six people with “wide and recent experience of … (a) the practice of medicine (other than veterinary medicine); (b)the practice of dentistry (c)the practice of veterinary medicine; (d)the practice of pharmacy; (e)the pharmaceutical industry; (f)chemistry other than pharmaceutical chemistry.)

2. AFAIK, Alan Johnson, Jacqui Smith and Vernon Coaker did not have science degrees or wide and recent experience of medicine, dentistry, pharmaceuticals or chemistry.

34. Chaise Guevara

@UKL

“AFAIK, Alan Johnson, Jacqui Smith and Vernon Coaker did not have science degrees or wide and recent experience of medicine, dentistry, pharmaceuticals or chemistry.”

Given that, from your comment above, Johnson thinks that when science and policy disagree that means science is wrong, Smith thinks that comparing the lethality of horse riding and ecstasy means you’re saying there is a “link” between them, and Coaker thinks science is science and policy policy and never the twain shall meet… if these characters DO have science degrees, they must have slept through all the lectures.

Of course, if drugs policy has a purpose other than reducing the harm and crime caused by narcotics, that would change things, but nobody seems to be saying that. This will no doubt sound paranoid, but it’s almost as if politicians think that taking a hard line on drugs will make them look tough and thus win them votes, and that any issues that don’t affect their personal success can go hang.

I remember deciding not to vote for a Labour candidate when their flyer claimed that the Lib Dems wanted to legalise heroin (which I’m unconvinced was even true), and ‘countered’ this view by saying “but heroin is a dangerous drug that destroys lives”. Someone using that as a counterargument is either incredibly stupid or deeply dishonest, and either way doesn’t deserve votes.

26

Good post, science may be neutral but politics and individual values are not, it’s usually the powerful who determine which facet of the truth prevails.

36. Chaise Guevara

@ 26 Falco

“Why do most politically active left-wingers Labourites and Greens support the catastrophic theory of climate change? It seems to me the science is irrelevant…

…Of course both versions are pretty much bollocks but they have approximately equal truth values.”

Not sure this is valid. The statements *look* about as reasonable as each other, all else being equal. But the thing is, all else is not equal. If one side is listening to the science and the other is ignoring/twisting it, surely one is more deserving of being accused of treating science as irrelevant than the other?

I mean, would you say: “Creationists love the idea that evolution is false and atheists love the idea that it is true, therefore they are equally guilty of ignoring science in favour of idealism”? Even though evolution is, in fact, real, and its discovery may have played a part in people becoming atheists in the first place (just as learning about climate change can lead people to become environmentalists)?


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    Mixing the science of GM foods with politics will always be messy http://t.co/Kp2DENau

  2. cutchswife

    RT @libcon: Mixing the science of GM foods with politics will always be messy http://t.co/ZDViKUlw

  3. Jason Brickley

    Mixing the science of GM foods with politics will always be messy http://t.co/G24vzrbw

  4. leftlinks

    Liberal Conspiracy – Mixing the science of GM foods with politics will always be messy http://t.co/MUpjRMWO

  5. Ed Yong

    @bengoldacre @laurawheelers @TomChivers @edyong209 – my reply to the debate on GM foods 🙂 http://t.co/gKGF5aUx

  6. J-P Stacey

    @bengoldacre @laurawheelers @TomChivers @edyong209 – my reply to the debate on GM foods 🙂 http://t.co/gKGF5aUx

  7. Martin Robbins

    Okay, the last paragraph of this post by @sunny_hundal at @libcon is so wrong I have to deploy a multi-tweet rant http://t.co/tKclQrW0 :

  8. Barry Woods

    Okay, the last paragraph of this post by @sunny_hundal at @libcon is so wrong I have to deploy a multi-tweet rant http://t.co/tKclQrW0 :

  9. Jenny Jones

    Me > Why mixing the science of GM foods with politics will always be messy http://t.co/gKGF5aUx (cc @AdamRutherford @mjrobbins @alicebell)

  10. Laura Wheeler

    @bengoldacre @laurawheelers @TomChivers @edyong209 – my reply to the debate on GM foods 🙂 http://t.co/gKGF5aUx

  11. Godwin Oyewoleturner

    Mixing the science of GM foods with politics will always be messy …: As the GM foods industry is dominated and… http://t.co/XfldAutC

  12. sunny hundal

    Me on the Greens and GM foods debate again this morning > 'the science and politics of GM foods' http://t.co/rAWTzcuV

  13. Caroline Allen

    Me on the Greens and GM foods debate again this morning > 'the science and politics of GM foods' http://t.co/rAWTzcuV

  14. Jack Mcglen

    Me on the Greens and GM foods debate again this morning > 'the science and politics of GM foods' http://t.co/rAWTzcuV





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