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February 18, 2011

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.

Anyone besieged in the unforgiving world of science politics deserves to be cut some slack for inevitable (metaphorical) 'bad hair days'. In my case, there's been some three decades of fairly unrelenting (and more literal) regrettable hair! Few are more deserving of such tolerance than the UK government's chief scientist, John Beddington, who, as I know from personal experience, has to be admired on many counts: for his courage and integrity in helping wean science policy debates away from narrow sectoral interests and towards neglected global challenges like hunger, inequality, environmental degradation and diseases of poverty; for his championing of interdisciplinary problem-focused research against the prejudice and vanity of elite disciplinary institutions; and for his refreshing straight talking in an otherwise oppressive Whitehall climate of double-speak.

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.

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The problem is that "sceptic" has been hijacked by those who are actually practising pseudoscpeticism, to go along with their pseudoscience. They have no interest in verifiable results which contradict their political, ideological or religious views.

I applaud John Beddington for simply telling it straight. This is long overdue from someone in his position and hopefully more scientists, who are bombarded increasingly outrageous claims that are seldom supportable, will take up his call to finally put their collective foot down. It is a great drain on resources to have to pander to every wannabe Galileo who feels as entitled to be taken as an authority on a subject as Einstein or Newton would be, quite often with little to no training in the field they espouse on while sometimes needing to overturn the laws of physics (quite seriously).

Galileo was as right as anyone could have been, they are most often not.

The problem also lies with the politically and ideologically motivated, industry funded, think tanks and special interest groups who drive PR campaigns to fool the public, politicians and the press into accepting these pseudosceptics as being sources of scientific authority. It's almost a weekly event nowadays.

If you don't believe it's as serious as John Beddington believes, take one look at the intricately documented campaign by the tobacco industry to sow FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt) on the links between smoking and diseases like cancer and respiratory illnesses, which had been scientifically linked in the 1950s in the peer reviewed literature, yet legislation was delayed for 50 years by a PR campaign that including the establishment of scientific groups, who worked to undermine the scientific weight of evidence using scientists with an ideological and/or political axe to grind. Their unoffical slogan became, "Doubt is our product".

If you really want to get a real idea of how pernicious these special interest groups have worked over decades to sow doubt and suspicion on everything from links between smoking and cancer, to CFCs damaging the ozone layer, and now on the science of climate change (which is accepted by every single national scientific academy in the world to say the least) I suggest you read 'Merchants of Doubt' by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway.

Nice post Andy

not much to add ; life is interesting in many companies : there you come to realise more often than not that many officers who have a 'position', and you assume are experts, really are no such experts and just don't get it, even the basic fundamentals. Should you accept their incompetence, as they represent Authority within the company ?

This is the same question today with science in general, with climate in particular !

As to J. Bowers comment : this is really quite superficial ; the money is now clearly on the "alarmist " side, with governments funding any science and study supporting it, funding also NGOs which also receive very serious monies from private fundations, etc. Private companies see how most States intend to create climate related markets (financial markets, new energies, energy savings, etc.) and invest to take advantage of such policies, and will struggle if such perspectives may disappear : they have serious investments to make profitable !

Andy, if you want to make serious money as a climate researcher then you go work for Exxon and charge over $1000 a day as a consultant, or go work on Wall Street.

* http://profmandia.wordpress.com/2010/03/11/taking-the-money-for-granted-%E2%80%93-part-i/
* http://profmandia.wordpress.com/2010/03/22/taking-the-money-for-granted-%E2%80%93-part-ii/

I believe we should not be discussing climate change skepticism and (academic or public) debate about the safety of genetically modified organisms as if they were related - lumping them together sounds like something dreamt up by Monsanto's PR team.

It would appear to me that John Beddington has been "hoodwinked" with regard to the GM issue, including it seems many others who should know better.

Has John Beddington read William Engdahl's "Seeds of Destruction"?

Is he aware of the shameful situation in the US with regard to the FDA?

Is he on the AGRA Watch newsletter list (Africa does not want GM crops)?

Has he read Scientists for Global Responsibility and Helen Wallace's excellent work on Research Agendas and Patenting?

Has he read the Global Food Security Act (http://rajpatel.org/2010/04/14/more-likely-to-feed-biotech-corporations-than-the-worlds-poor/)?

Apparently, The Royal Society itself had extensive ties to the corporate sponsorship of industrial biotech firms (please correct me if this is wrong).

I believe it is vital the public are skeptical about its scientific institutions and governments. The public must research what they feel is ethically in question both here in the UK and from a geopolitical perspective (http://www.grain.org/briefings/?id=217, The real agenda behind agricultural reconstruction in Afghanistan and Iraq).

Do not be intimidated. The public has the right to question and to debate. Many scientists and decision makers have vested interests and limited knowledge outside their own fields.

WHY has John Beddington got it so wrong on the GM/precautionary principle/open debate issues? I would welcome other comments.

Research:

The GeneWatch report concludes that science does have an important role to play in society and in the economy. However, there is an urgent need to re-assess what has been delivered by the major political and financial investments made in the bio-economy over the past three decades, and to reform the current decision-making systems for R&D investments. Scarce resources must be allocated more effectively.

http://www.genewatch.org/article.shtml?als%5Bcid%5D=396424&als%5Bitemid%5D=566067

"The biotech barons and their friends deserve a prize for sleaze that goes way beyond the rest of politics", said Dr Wallace,

"It is time to stop unaccountable advisors from pushing pseudo-scientific claims about the future of the biotech economy"

So where does that leave the apparently forgivable John B?

Hey guys!! Much of “Epistemology” has arisen either in defence of, or in opposition to various forms of “Scepticism”. Indeed, one could classify various theories of knowledge by their responses to“Scepticism”. E.g., the problem of other minds, or the problem of induction, can be seen as restricted forms of scepticism that hold that we cannot have knowledge of any propositions in some particular domain normally thought to be within our ken.

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