Government science advisers misrepresent science. In too many cases after their appointments they soon begin to sound less like scientists than industrial lobbyists. So writes George Monbiot, in the Guardian today.
The BSE crisis 20 years ago was exacerbated by the failure of government scientists accurately to present the evidence. The chief veterinary officer wrongly dismissed the research suggesting that BSE could jump from one species to another.
Monbiot asserts that the worst example in the past ten years was set by Sir Mark Walport, the British government’s new chief scientist – see an earlier post on this site. In the Financial Times, he denounced the proposal for a temporary European ban on the pesticides blamed for killing bees and other pollinators, claiming that “the consequences of such a moratorium could be harmful to the continent’s crop production, farming communities and consumers.”
UK government ministers attempted to block a Europe-wide suspension of the neonicotinoid insecticides increasingly linked to serious harm in bees – as Monbiot puts it “fighting valiantly on behalf of the manufacturers Syngenta and Bayer”.
Government trials taken too late – after the toxins had already been widely deployed
The government had carried out field trials which, it claimed, showed that “effects on bees do not occur under normal circumstances”. But Professor Dave Goulson, one of the UK’s leading experts, explained to Monbiot that the experiment was hopelessly contaminated. The nests of bumblebees which were meant to function as a pesticide-free control group were exposed to similar levels of neonicotinoids as those in the experimental group. The study was also published only on the internet and not peer-reviewed.
Walport went on to suggest that the proposed ban would cause “severe reductions in yields to struggling European farmers and economies.” But following its investigation, published last month, the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee concluded that “neonicotinoid pesticides are not fundamental to the general economic or agricultural viability of UK farming.” In fact they can prevent a more precise and rational use of pesticides, known as integrated pest management.
Monbiot comments, “Those opposed to measures which protect the natural world are often far worse scaremongers than environmentalists can be. How often have you heard people claim that ‘if the greens get their way, we’ll go back to living in caves” or “if carbon taxes are approved, the economy will collapse’? “
The precautionary principle which some regard as the environmental ‘gold standard’
Walport’s definition: the precautionary principle “just means working out and balancing in advance all the risks and benefits of action or inaction, and to make a proportionate response.” Monbiot’s corrects him, pointing out that the Rio declaration, signed by the UK and 171 other states, defines it as follows:
“Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”
Less than a month into the job, Sir Mark Walport has misinformed the public about the scientific method, risk and uncertainty. He has made groundless, unscientific and emotionally manipulative claims. He has indulged in scaremongering and wild exaggeration in support of the government’s position. For this reason, he will doubtless remain in post, and end his career with a peerage. The rest of us will carry the cost of his preferment.
So why do some Government science advisers misrepresent science?