Let's hear it for scepticism: its suppression is one of the principal threats to science
Government Chief Scientific Adviser John Beddington should be forgiven for going over the top in attacking scepticism about climate change or genetically modified organisms, says Andy Stirling.
But one quality in just this kind of straight talking is that it subjects too-often concealed problems to long-overdue critical scrutiny. This is what is offered by John Beddington's recent animated call to a conference of UK government scientists, for "gross intolerance" of what he holds to be "pernicious", "fatuous", "pseudoscience". What is this 'pseudoscience'? For Beddington, this seems to include any kind of criticism from non-scientists of new technologies like genetically modified organisms, much advocacy of the 'precautionary principle' in environmental protection, or suggestions that science itself might also legitimately be subjected to moral considerations.
Who does Beddington hold to blame for this "politically or morally or religiously motivated nonsense"? For anyone who really values the central principles of science itself, the answer is quite shocking. He is targeting effectively anyone expressing "scepticism" over what he holds to be 'scientific' pronouncements—whether on GM, climate change or any other issue. Note, it is not irrational "denial" on which Beddington is calling for 'gross intolerance', but the eminently reasonable quality of "scepticism"!
The alarming contradiction here is that organised, reasoned, scepticism—accepting rational argument from any quarter without favour for social status, cultural affiliations or institutional prestige—is arguably the most precious and fundamental quality that science itself has (imperfectly) to offer. Without this enlightening aspiration, history shows how society is otherwise all-too-easily shackled by the doctrinal intolerance, intellectual blinkers and authoritarian suppression of criticism so familiar in religious, political, cultural and media institutions.
The point is not that science or scientists—themselves (thankfully!) human—are mystically immune to these tendencies. When the single largest area of global research expenditure is military and the principal driving forces behind science lie in narrow disciplinary agendas, rich world markets and intellectual property—there can be no denying that science is itself as political and power-laden as other social institutions. The fact that science is, as Beddington concedes, also always uncertain, profoundly compounds the legitimate scope that typically remains for openly subjective value judgement and interpretation. These are precisely the realities that Beddington's unmeasured language is in danger of suppressing.
The point is that the basic aspirational principles of science offer the best means to challenge the ubiquitously human distorting pressures of self-serving privilege, hubris, prejudice and power. Among these principles are exactly the scepticism and tolerance against which Beddington is railing (ironically) so emotionally! Of course, scientific practices like peer review, open publication and acknowledgement of uncertainty all help reinforce the positive impacts of these underlying qualities. But, in the real world, any rational observer has to note that these practices are themselves imperfect. Although rarely achieved, it is inspirational ideals of universal, communitarian scepticism—guided by progressive principles of reasoned argument, integrity, pluralism, openness and, of course, empirical experiment—that best embody the great civilising potential of science itself. As the motto of none other than the Royal Society loosely enjoins (also sometimes somewhat ironically) "take nothing on authority". In this colourful instance of straight talking then, John Beddington is himself coming uncomfortably close to a particularly unsettling form of unscientific—even (in a deep sense) anti-scientific—'double speak'.
Anyone who really values the progressive civilising potential of science should argue (in a qualified way as here) against Beddington's intemperate call for "complete intolerance" of scepticism. It is the social and human realities shared by politicians, non-government organisations, journalists and scientists themselves, that make tolerance of scepticism so important. The priorities pursued in scientific research and the directions taken by technology are all as fundamentally political as other areas of policy. No matter how uncomfortable and messy the resulting debates may sometimes become, we should never be cowed by any special interest—including that of scientific institutions—away from debating these issues in open, rational, democratic ways. To allow this to happen would be to undermine science itself in the most profound sense. It is the upholding of an often imperfect pursuit of scepticism and tolerance that offer the best way to respect and promote science. Such a position is, indeed, much more in keeping with the otherwise-exemplary work of John Beddington himself.