Legends and myths in science

The discipline of hard science

Setting public goals for science

The myths and legends of BSE

Biotechnology and the Soil Association

RISKY CHOICES, SOFT DISASTERS? is a report that summarises key lessons from social science research in the area of environmental decision-making (available at www.gecko.ac.uk). It was produced through the Global Environmental Change Program whose funding ended this year after 10 years of research. The report can either be read as an inspirational recommendation for community-led decision making on environmental policy or, if you are sensitive to these things, as a continuing attack on objective science, and a selling job on social science as being the saviour in this period of mistrust and uncertainty.

I believe that what good points that the report may have to make are drowned out by an inability to separate out different issues by causal reasoning. For instance, it is probably common sense that national conservation programs should be based on data that benefits from local knowledge (i.e. forest cover in W. Africa), but do we really need social scientists to rush in and claim that only they can see this? The key issue here is the design of the study, not a failure of science or evidence of its autarchy.

Where the report gets it totally wrong is where it begins to come up against empiricism that is objective rather than subjective. Social scientists have long fought their corner on the basis that they are an objective science BUT reserving the right not to be confined within the disciplines that that brings, wanting instead the freedom to be subjective as well. Thus subjectively, social scientists in this report have empirically determined that there is a gulf between the perceptions of policy-makers and the British public on biotechnology, such that profound misunderstandings have taken root and resulted in a distrust of scientists and government. There is no attempt to understand why this misunderstanding took place, only to observe it as a phenomenon (the blessed focus groups), take it at face value, apportion blame in a trivial way, and only see their own tools and techniques as a solution to this misunderstanding. Where is the analysis on whether the dispute that is at the centre of this misunderstanding is justified? How did it arise and what confidence level can be placed on all the factors?

I am perhaps in an unusual situation. A doctorate in biochemistry and primary research in the pharmaceutical industry is combined with a change in life direction to develop sustainable horticultural systems. I have experienced both worlds of the biotechnology protagonists, and I can give answers to those questions.

the discipline of hard science

Scientists that I have worked with embrace objective empiricism. They seek answers that are rarely subjective since peer review leads inevitably to critique from colleagues. Observations and answers lead to the next question and often eliminate the need to answer other questions. The great advantage objective science has over subjective science is that any trained person can read a description of the work and have very high CONFIDENCE that they can reproduce the result reported. This comes from discipline, peer review and objectivity. The use that is made of that result is another matter, and it is my experience that it is rarely scientists who ever get to make those decisions.

Sometimes there are things that objective science canít answer. These things donít often get funded because funding is probably the only major power that scientists have over objective science. Their role in determining what research is funded is as significant in peer review as is the acceptance of results for publication. Again, in the main, this is a mechanism for maintaining the CONFIDENCE LEVEL in science. In a sense, the use of the word PROOF when related to scientific discovery is only valid when this level of confidence is maintained. (Donít for a minute believe that this means that objective scientists are dull and reductionist in everything they do. The advantage lays with them as the other side of their brain can be developed by personal passions. How many non-scientists do you know who have science as a weekend hobby?)

REGULATION is the non-science world's means of maintaining confidence in science. Thus when a scientific discovery is made use of, mature societies regulate its use so that there is confidence that there is social gain rather than social harm. Thus we elect politicians to regulate the use of science and, in the case of biotechnology, they have done so with legislation both national and EU wide dating back to the early nineties. It is strange though that regulation is only valuable to the subjective thinker when it supports their view, but ignored when it is inconvenient for what they oppose. Scholars of the document produced by the Five-Year Freeze Campaign against biotechnology will notice that it doesn't once mention the current and historical regulation of biotechnology.

setting public goals for science

There is something that is missing from objective science nowadays - the role of politicians in setting goals for it. I remember the sixties when Harold Wilson remarked on the white heat of science and technology and decades before and since have had similar governmental enthusiasms. However, Margaret Thatcher killed off that approach in the 80ís when in her fanaticism for the market to be supreme, she applied market logic to science, thus divorcing a public role in determining the benefits from science. Thatcher compounded this by reviewing all public research facilities and hiving off those whose research was considered to be near-market. Thus centres of horticultural research excellence such as Rothamsted and Wellesborne became agencies that took their lead from the market rather than the aspirations of the British public. This is significant for the type of products coming from biotechnology in this country Ė it is probable that there would have been more examples of golden rice (altruistically funded) if we still had a publicly integrated research base. The bioengineering of cereals with the ability to fix their own nitrogen may not have foundered in public university research if its backing from government research funds had been greater. A wider base in publicly funded biotechnology would also have been an important stimulus to informing public policy and debate on biotechnology.

the myths and legends of BSE

So let me now expose the fatuity of the Global Environmental Change Program when it comes to talk about agriculture and biotechnology. The legend is that BSE gave rise to the publicís distrust of science and scientists. This is tangled up with the second legend, which is that government mismanaged it. Thus scientists advised government on BSE, and government was culpable because they acted on the advice of their scientists. The myth is that the scientists were in the wrong (remember, science didnít create BSE, the pressures of commerce gave rise to it); or that their advice was wrong when the conditions of animal waste handling for feed use were changed (I donít think anyone could have foreseen that the prion protein was so indestructible, or that it existed anyway, or that if it existed, it would not be benign in the way that sheep scrapie is); or that the advice they gave on transmission to humans was wrong (100,000s of infected cows, but only 40 or so humans Ė tricky to be confident about risk with such contrasting numbers and a continuing difficulty in understanding the exact process of transmission). The FACTS have yet to be obtained since the public inquiry into BSE has yet to be published. I donít know whether scientists or government were wrong, though I have been as angry and as upset as anyone that BSE happened. This is what I do know:

I blame myself and every other member of the public for not bothering to know that animal wastes were being fed to ruminants and that bovine products (such as gelatine) were being used in a whole range of processed non-meat foodstuffs. It was not scientists who took the decision to feed animal waste to ruminants, or to put beef-derived products in so many foodstuffs Ė it was commerce.

Thus it was commerce that blighted agriculture, and it confirmed to me the extent to which the food industry had become driven by the needs of food processing. Thus food manufacture becomes an assemblage of ingredients of known chemical and physical properties and it is irrelevant what is the origin of these ingredients Ė I once bought some biscuits that contained broad beans and fish oil amongst its ingredients, but they werenít sold as fish-pulse biscuits! I suppose you could blame scientists for developing food technology (Thatcher worked in food technology after she graduated in chemistry) but ultimately food processing only thrives because people buy the products. People continue to buy the products of food processing and food technology except that they can now have the ingredients produced organically. Anyone for organic frozen oven ready chips or cans of organic fizzy pop? Is this good nutritional food now that itís organic?

More recently, the products of biotechnology have thrown up another lesson on food processing and food technology. The ubiquity of soya and maize products was recently demonstrated in a whole range of processed foods and in animal feeds through DNA tracing and the enforced labelling of GM contents. This was the real discovery, the reliance on these two imported ingredients as additives for our processed and packaged food industry, not the fact that GM products were entering into our food.

biotechnology and the Soil Association

Iím not going to rehearse the reasons why it is my belief that the publicís anxiety over biotechnology has been artificially manufactured. I was there at meetings of the Soil Association Council three years ago when it determined that it was going to do so, acting in concert through its unrevealed links with other organisations. The Soil Association board was uniquely anti-science, partly because they didnít understand it, but mostly because they believed that science only created threats to organic farming rather than opportunities (of course, this didnít stop them from embracing food technology and food processing). I could detail all the incidences where science was seized upon to prove that biotechnology is unsafe, whereas the reality is that the science did not prove anything of the sort. Instead, I want to give you an indication of the CONFIDENCE LEVEL and STANDARDS OF PROOF that the Soil Association has used to promote its own cause. The Soil Association has recently had four out of five judgements upheld against it by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) for the propaganda it puts out about organic food. Here are the judgements as given by the ASA:

1.  "YOU CAN TASTE THE DIFFERENCE"; Complaint upheld

The Soil Association sent the results of a MORI poll in which 43% of consumers who expressed a preference for organic food said they preferred it because it tasted better.  They also sent a testimonial from a head chef who believed that organic food tasted better than conventionally produced food.  The Authority concluded that, in the absence of more rigorous evidence, such as blind "taste" tests, the claim was unsubstantiated.  The Authority asked the Soil Association to remove the claim and not repeat it unless they held convincing substantiation.

2.  "IT'S HEALTHY"; Complaint upheld

The Soil Association sent a copy of an internal e-mail that reported the results of a Rutgers University study that had set out to prove that organic produce did not contain more nutrients, but apparently found to the contrary.  The Authority considered that the claim "It's healthy" would be seen, in the context of a leaflet urging readers to move from a diet of non-organic food to one of organic food, as implying that organic food was healthier than non-organic food.  The Authority noted that people's health depended more on the composition of their diet than on the nature of individual foods.  Because the Soil Association had sent no clinical evidence to show that a diet consisting of organic products was more healthy than the same diet consisting of non-organic food, the Authority considered that the Soil Association had not substantiated that implication.  The Authority asked the Soil Association to remove the claim.

3.  "IT'S BETTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT"; Complaint upheld

The Soil Association sent their General Standards for Organic Crop Husbandry.  The Authority noted that organic farmers had to comply with the principle providing for "The maintenance or development of valuable existing landscape features and adequate habitats for the production of wildlife with particular regard to endangered species".  The Authority accepted that organic farming set out to protect the environment but noted they had sent no evidence to show that that objective was achieved in practice.  The Authority asked the Soil Association to remove the claim.

4.  "IT'S GMO FREE"; Complaint not upheld

The Soil Association sent a copy of that part of their standards that dealt specifically with Genetic Engineering.  The Authority noted that genetically modified organisms (GMO) were prohibited in organic farming and food processing.  The Authority noted that only a few GMO crops were grown in the UK and those were grown for trial purposes only.  It therefore rejected the complainants' assertion that likely cross-fertilisation from neighbouring GMO crops meant that no crops could claim to be GMO free.  The Authority considered, moreover, that readers would infer that the claim related to the rules for growing organic crops and concluded that the presence of genetic pollution would not devalue claims that organic produce was GMO free.  The Authority accepted the claim.


The Soil Association referred again to their General Standards for Organic Crop Husbandry.  The Authority noted that organic farmers were expected to "Ensure the ethical treatment of animals" and to adopt "animal husbandry techniques which meet the animal's physiological, behavioural and health needs".  The Authority noted that, although, the General Standards provided for the ethical treatment of animals, the Soil Association had sent no evidence to show that that was achieved in practice.  The Authority asked the SOIL ASSOCIATION to remove the claim.

Thus the Soil Association, which gives the impression that it can confidently condemn biotechnology, is incapable of substantiating claims for its own area of interest. Moreover, an insight is given into the STANDARDS OF PROOF that the Soil Association adopt in argument when they give as example the findings of an opinion poll and the opinions of a chef as to the taste of organic food. So what is the CONFIDENCE LEVEL that can be put on anything the Soil Association has to say?

This ASA adjudication is awash with irony. The Soil Association used this tactic itself of complaining to the ASA when Monsanto ran a series of adverts in newspaper colour supplements. Now that it has been used against them, the Soil Association has protested loudly, wanting the judgement reversed, while Monsanto graciously accepted their judgement. But the greatest irony is that of the complaint that was not upheld, on the claim that organic food is GM free. This adjudication tends to blow a hole through the organic movements sloppy arguments about contamination, and belies the scaremongering on biotechnology trials and the threats to remove certification. The ASA have laid out the simple logic that since so few types of biotechnology crops were being trialled, then the risk of cross-fertilisation was low. Contrast this with the public perception that the Soil Association has created that pollen from GM trials is a hazard in the same manner as radioactivity or pesticides. And that the presence of pollen from GM, irrespective of species origin, is sufficient to cause removal of organic certification, even though there is no logic in that, and there would be difficulty codifying a standard that would obtain for that (i.e. it would be open to legal challenge).

Reading the Risky Choices, Soft Disasters? report, you get the sense that there is an underlying thread in the philosophy of social scientists in their approach to what is sometimes called hard science. They believe that what is wrong in contemporary scientific innovation is the assumptions and attitudes that people bring to evaluating scientific information that could imply a bias or a need for resolution before critical decision-making is entered. Iím not sure I would want to disagree with that, since I maintain that there is a bias brought by those who care not to engage with objectivity. I disagree that scientists need more resolution than others since their discipline in interpreting what research means, and nothing more, should not lead to bias. In a world that is increasingly being battered over the head by subjectivity, science is continuing to observe the need for value free discovery that still has a high level of confidence. We are the fools if we donít treat it with a bit more respect and use it wisely.

Dr Mark Fisher, 26 July 2000

www.self-willed-land.org.uk  mark.fisher@self-willed-land.org.uk