Has the public's understanding of science devolved into a perverse worship of uncertainty?

A few years ago, Slate journalist Daniel Engber, wrote a provocative, and I think highly accurate, article describing the corporate strategy of "manufactured uncertainty" that was used for years to question the scientific consensus that cigarette smoking causes cancer. Similarly, he argues, some environmental activists use the same approach to challenge the scientific consensus that the GE crops currently on the market or safe to eat and beneficial for the environment. "If private industry can bewitch the government with contrarian science, so, too, can they. ..Doubt is their product, too, in the form of the 'precautionary principle. "

He says,"According to this moral and political dictum—which, like all visionary environmental legislation, has been embraced in the past few years by the European Commission and the city of San Francisco—the manufacturer of a new technology carries the sole burden of proving its safety. So if you wanted to introduce a genetically engineered crop into the wild, you'd first have to demonstrate, beyond any possible doubt, that it does no harm. That sounds reasonable enough. But let's say your crop had the potential to feed thousands or millions of people? If the precautionary principle were law, someone who wanted to stop you from sowing this golden rice would only have to produce the whisper of uncertainty and the suggestion that more studies were needed."

"Thus the eco-advocacy groups play Big Tobacco's game: They call for data and rest their case...The Center for Food Safety says of animal cloning, "[N]ot enough research has been done"; of GMOs, they "could pose serious risks"; of food irradiation, it "can do strange things" that "scientists still do not fully understand"; and so forth. These scare tactics may be venerable, but the vigor with which they're now pursued—and the scientific language used to promote them—owes something to the success of the corporate style.""

I highly recommend this article.

More like this

I've never understood the lack of ability to put risk or benefit in context, but I firmly blame the media for it. Every health related story tells us that x will kill us or y will make us live longer without noting that the change is very tiny compared to everything else.

Sure, let's talk about safety of things like irradiation, but let's put it in context! Risks from irradiation are much smaller than risks of food borne illness. Risk from consuming fructose is far out weighed (pun intended) by the risk of simply consuming too many calories.

One almost wonders if the distraction from the real problems is intentional.

By Anastasia (not verified) on 31 May 2012 #permalink

Utterly perverse. False equivalence leads to ignorance.

By John Silver (not verified) on 31 May 2012 #permalink

Excellent post. Uncertainty has been used as a tool to manipulate populations for decades, not only in science, but in politics. Fear of the unknown, the unusual, the potential threats, etc have lead to genocide and modern-day military actions. It is especially effective on non-critical thinkers.

To some, uncertainty was the reason to venture over an ocean, west in a covered wagon or to the moon. Exploring uncertainty and even controlling uncertainty, maybe converting uncertainty to certainty with evidence, is the wonderful stuff of science.

I suspect there is a bell curve to vulnerability to this kind of motivation. I've never made a decision based on fear and can't understand how anyone could recommend precaution in the absence of plausibility or evidence.

The remedy is education and time. The question is, can we afford to wait that long? Of course, those that can afford the funds and calories to be uncertain are the ones forcing the discussion.

By Kevin Folta (not verified) on 31 May 2012 #permalink

That's not only in health-related areas. Risk/benefit analysis is totally absent in a lot of other areas.

Like airport security, for example.

By Alex Besogonov (not verified) on 01 Jun 2012 #permalink

Respectful Insolence, a science blog on this website, also gives some examples of this.

Ummmm, I feel compelled to point out that "the corporate style" you refer to didn't succeed. It failed. At least in the First World, which is where the environmental activists want to win.

The tobacco companies only survived by selling their products in unregulated markets like Africa and SE Asia. I don't think environmental activists have the same goals at all.

By Ian Kemmish (not verified) on 04 Jun 2012 #permalink

Interesting, but the scenario of a scientific answer to poverty raises far more political questions than it does scientific ones. Such solutions have often proven less than helpful, which is putting it mildly.

By northierthanthou (not verified) on 07 Jun 2012 #permalink

let us say that a crop has the potential to feed millions. let's not as this is pure speculation.

golden rice will not replace hundreds of land races of oryza saved by thousands of small farmers around the world.
So monoculture will feed millions, only I wont be able to save the seed because of patents and monsanto will buy up all the competing seed companies and destroy their stocks so there wont be a viable alternative supply.

this is often floated as the reason why we should move towards, invest in, and accept gmos.
just as general motors bought up urban streetcars and shut them down right afterwards, so will monsanto and the other gmo companies intend to destroy open pollinated seed companies.