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Good Science, Bad Science, Uncertain Science

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The blogosphere and twittersphere have been ablaze recently with new views on a debate that has simmered for years: the fact that misuses and abuses of science are not restricted to those on the political right, or to the high-profile issues of evolution or climate change.

The revival of this debate has been prompted by two things: a controversial ballot initiative in California requiring the labeling of certain food products containing "genetically modified organisms" or GMOs; and an article in the Yale Environment 360 by Fred Pearce, a respected freelance author and journalist based in the UK who has written extensively about environmental issues. The title of Pearce's piece is the rhetorical question "Why are environmentalists taking anti-science positions?" In this article, Pearce laments that some in the environmental community make statements or stake out positions that are not supported by science, or are even contradicted by science, and he argues that this is a serious mistake, potentially comparable to the tactics of climate contrarians and the well-documented anti-science positions of some on the right.

Pearce argues, and I agree, that the mind-set that says science can be manipulated in the service of a greater good is deeply dangerous to society and rational public policy. I have been highly critical, as readers of my work on these pages know, about the despicable misuse of science by some climate skeptics and deniers, but I have been equally disparaging of left-leaning environmentalists or well-meaning policymakers who make similar mistakes, such as this example in California. As I state here:

Science is not Democratic or Republican. Scientific integrity, logic, reason, and the scientific method are core to the strength of our nation. We may disagree among ourselves about matters of opinion and policy, but we (and our elected representatives) must not misuse, hide, or misrepresent science and fact in service of our political wars.

But there are some important distinctions that should be made. First, those who manipulate, misrepresent, or misuse the science of climate change or evolution do so in fields where a vast amount of compelling and conclusive science is available, and where the degrees of freedom for disagreement are small -- far smaller than the disagreements that are pushed by deniers and creationists. If you argue that the climate isn't changing due to human activities, or the changes aren't going to have costly consequences, or smoking doesn't cause cancer, or the Earth is 6,000 years old, you can do so only by ignoring or misrepresenting a massive and persuasive body of science.

The science is more complicated or weaker -- and the room for legitimate disagreement is far larger -- in areas such as GMOs, nuclear power, and hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) -- examples discussed by Pearce. As a result, there is less accord among scientists or environmentalists or policymakers about appropriate policy in these areas.

Sometimes this is the result of incomplete science or gaps in our knowledge: We often simply don't know enough. Proponents of fracking, for example, argue that there is no evidence of adverse impacts on groundwater quality. While this isn't entirely true, the greater problem is that we just haven't looked very hard. And when we do look, we find impacts.

Sometimes this is the result of unavoidable uncertainties in the science. While there is some degree of uncertainty (in the sense of "a range of possible outcomes") in just about all science, that degree varies from field to field. And not everything is equally uncertain -- beware those who point to natural uncertainties to discredit entire fields.

Sometimes this is the result of subjective perceptions or ethical judgments in how to interpret or weight the science in the context of broader social values. When this is the case, improvements in science and understanding may have no effect whatsoever on perceptions and political positions.

Take GMOs. The debate over GMOs suffers from all three factors: more and better science is needed; there are significant uncertainties in what we think we already know; and some of the positions held by both supporters and opponents of GMOs are actually based on issues completely unrelated to the science. This leads some to "cherry pick" or even misrepresent the science that is actually available -- a key strategy regularly used by climate contrarians. The California GMO labeling campaign is largely playing on people's fear (unfortunately, like campaigns for almost anything these days). In this case, the arguments being highlighted by anti-GMO activists focus on the risk to public health from eating foods containing GMOs. Here I agree with Pearce: There is little or weak scientific evidence for this risk and some campaigners in California are indeed exaggerating or misrepresenting it in order to sway voters. I and many other scientists decry that approach. But absence of evidence of a health risk is not the same as evidence of absence. Reading the literature, I can say that the evidence for health problems from eating GMOs is extremely limited and unconfirmed, but that is not the same as saying we know them to be safe. Much more, and better, scientific research is needed on these risks.

Perhaps more importantly, there are other complicated and potentially serious risks and objections to GMOs -- not all of them purely scientific -- including the risk of gene pollution, misuse of agricultural chemicals, financial and economic questions about market dominance, concerns among farmers about monopolistic and predatory practices of a few companies, and interference in farming practices. These risks deserve more research and analysis, and they are certainly legitimate grounds for disagreement among environmentalists and others, or for arguing that some precaution and transparency in labeling are justified.

Nuclear power is another example of an issue where there is both considerable hyperbole, but also sufficiently complex and nuanced problems to permit disagreement, even using good science. The "environmental" and scientific communities are not monolithic. Some "environmentalists" have long supported nuclear power because they give greater weight to some of its advantages compared to either its disadvantages or its alternatives. Do you believe that climate change and greenhouse gas emissions are a greater threat than the health risks of the nuclear fuel cycle and that renewables will not fill the gap quickly enough? How do you balance voluntary versus non-voluntary risks? Or high probability/low consequence risks compared to low probability/high consequence events? Can the risks of nuclear proliferation be eliminated in all countries with "non-military" nuclear programs? These are complex issues only partly informed by "science" and I do not believe that strong and principled opposition to nuclear power is necessarily "anti-scientific."

What does this mean?

First of all, intentional or misleading representations of scientific findings should be universally condemned, regardless of your politics.

Second, on issues of critical public policy, where science is inadequate or uncertain, efforts must be made to fill the gaps in our knowledge. This requires investment in science, open public discussion and debate, and patience.

Third, on complex issues where science is only one piece of the puzzle involving subjective individual values, ethical judgments, political preferences, or social and economic priorities, advocates should not use (or hide behind) bad science to make non-scientific arguments.

I repeat what I said earlier: We may disagree among ourselves about matters of values, opinion, and policy, but we and our elected representatives must not misuse, hide, or misrepresent science and fact in service of our political wars.

By the way, while it should be obvious that I liked Pearce's article, I think he gets the DDT story wrong, but this is subject for a different post.