Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Science, government policy and public opinion

In last week's New Scientist magazine there was an interesting historical article about 'The relativity deniers':
Einstein's general theory of relativity, published in 1915, received an overwhelming public response - not all of it positive. Numerous accounts which appeared during the 1920s claimed to show relativity was wrong, and Einstein received many letters from laypeople who claimed to have found the ultimate refutation of his theory. Many of today's physicists and astronomers . . . continue to receive this kind of mail. On densely written pages - and, increasingly, in rambling emails, blog posts and online comments - self-proclaimed scientists keep trying to foist their astonishingly simple solutions to much-discussed problems upon genuine academics. Yet what flourishes today on the fringes of the internet was much more prominent in the 1920s, in the activities of a movement that included physics professors and even Nobel laureates.
The article goes on to describe the concerted political effort to discredit Einstein's work. All this has fascinating and disturbing echoes of current climate change denial, and concerted attempts to undermine climate science.

But it is broader than just climate science - there is a bigger issue about how scientific findings in many fields are responded to by both government and the public. In one issue of The Guardian last week - at the same time as this New Scientist article - there were three matters discussed that, together, made this problem clear.

First, there was a report about the government initiative to invite food giants such as McDonald's, PepsiCo, Unilever and Kellogg's to be at the heart of re-writing policy on alcohol abuse, obesity, and other diet-related disease. This is surely a kind of madness. The article, by Felicity Lawrence, reported on Diane Abbott (shadow public health minister) calling for an enquiry into this. Abbott is quoted saying:
There is a wealth of literature that shows that junk food and fast food is the worst kind of diet and rather than taking advice from people who peddle it we should be helping people avoid it. This government has already in just a few months sold out the interests of the nation to the interests of big business.
In the 'comment' pages the same day, Professor Philip James (president of the International Association for the Study of Obesity) writes:
By cosying up to the food industry the health secretary is ignoring all scientific thinking on obesity . . . When I was involved in establishing the FSA for Tony Blair in 1997, it became clear that ministers were under intense pressure from the food industry to exclude nutrition and focus solely on food safety. Later that year, when I produced a report for the government on the prevention of childhood obesity, the then minister of public health, Tessa Jowell, told me my proposals were extraordinarily radical because I suggested advertising and marketing might influence children's behaviour . . .
Obesity ballooned in the UK in the mid-80s when the food industry realised that intense marketing, particularly to children, profoundly influences purchases. Senior executives of large European food firms have told me that once they have a reasonable product, they lower the price, make it easily available, and use sophisticated and intense marketing to increase sales . .
David Cameron has said that obesity is everybody's individual responsibility. Lansley's reforms are the embodiment of that view. Thus the government is now flying in the face of all the scientific and public health evidence on what needs to be done, as set out by the chief scientist in 2007. It is a major setback for the health of the nation.
The second issue was discussed by Polly Toynbee, commenting on the government's decision to introduce a well-being index. She writes:
David Cameron did not invent happiness . . . On the contrary, he heads a government in the process of inflicting more pain than for many a long year. So why, next week, would he launch a great new plan to measure the wellbeing of the nation? "It's very brave," says Professor Richard Layard of the LSE, who has campaigned for these indicators for years . . . Cameron is making the announcement partly because he might as well embrace the inevitable: the Office for National Statistics was doing it anyway. Jil Matheson, the entirely independent chief statistician, has been working for a long time on ways to measure the emotional state of the nation . . . every model shows that the most unequal societies are the least happy. The Tea Party strand in British politics has set about an internet rubbishing of this view: though resoundingly refuted, it will never be budged by mere evidence. Even the rich in unequal countries are less happy than the best off in more equal countries . . . Losing your job is one of the greatest causes of misery. Being sacked makes people ill, losing their nerve and the will to work again . . .   Layard's research shows the lasting damage: even those who find jobs again are left for ever less happy, feeling life is more dangerous. The government has put deficit reduction before the damage done to people. As daily distress emails report cuts in services that do most to ease suffering, I find talk of happiness hard to swallow.
And as if this were not enough for one day, George Monbiot's column the same day was about TB in cattle and badger culling:
Tuberculosis in cattle is spreading rapidly: moving east and north from the south-west of England and south Wales . . .  It cost the government £63m last year alone in England, £120m since 2000 in Wales. Contact with badgers is one of the means by which cattle catch the disease. . . The governments of both countries believe they can help arrest TB by killing badgers . . . There is only one rigorous scientific trial of badger culling. This is the work carried out by the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB, led by Professor John Bourne. It took nine years and cost us £49m, and it is now being comprehensively ignored. Both administrations claim to be basing their culls on the outcome of this trial. Both are doing anything but. You don't have to read far to discover this. Bourne attached a covering letter to his report, in the vain hope that this would prevent anyone from misrepresenting his findings. Here is what it says: "Badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain. Indeed, some policies under consideration are likely to make matters worse rather than better." The main source of infection, it continued, is transmission not from badgers to cattle, but from cattle to cattle. "The rising incidence of disease can be reversed, and geographical spread contained, by the rigid application of cattle-based control measures alone." . . . The Westminster government has chosen the worst of all possible options: licensing farmers to kill badgers. This, Professor Bourne's report points out, "would entail a substantial risk of increasing the incidence of cattle TB and spreading the disease".

Monbiot goes on to blame the NFU (National Farmers Union), and the government's willingness to bow to their lobbying, as the reason for this non-scientific behaviour. He does so in rather intemperate language that the NFU, unsurprisingly, takes exception to.

But the overwhelming picture, from all these articles taken together, is of political unwillingness to take science seriously and to base policies on rational findings. Public opinion is no better, being easily swayed by emotive appeals rather than rational argument. I started off as a scientist, and this bothers me greatly. How is government ever going to act wisely in relation to climate change - with its immense implications for every aspect of our lives - if it can't even act with common-sense in relation to well-attested scientific results in these much smaller and limited fields?

However, we must not give up. Dogged persistence is required of us in these difficult times.
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