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Whipping up hysteria over scientific developments

Shanthu Shantharam, April 29, 2013

Science always faced opponents from the medieval times is nothing new.  However, the kind of organised “culture” war against main stream science in today’s world is unprecedented. It has evolved into a multi-million dollar protest industry.

This culture war is best illustrated by the dire circumstances in which the two frontier technologies, GM crops technology and nuclear power technology find themselves in India. Vague ideas about the safety and utility of modern technologies based on cuddly feelings for all things “natural” and some sort of violation of nature by the ill-informed “arrogant” scientists who do not take into consideration technology’s impacts on society and culture have formed a seductive narrative of the Luddite movement around the world. 

Europe seems to be the epicentre of all such movements, partly due to the fact it served as the major staging area for the two World Wars in the last century that has left a deep scar in the psyche of the Europeans.


Germany’s Angela Merkel is regretting now for completely abjuring nuclear technology under constant protest by the greens.  Several activist groups in Europe have been exporting their anti-science philosophy with support from private donors and by the European Union (EU). It is often said it is a clash of the views on “world order”espoused by North America and the EU that is played out in other parts of the world, mostly the developing world.

The real foot soldiers of this proxy war are the activist groups and non-governmental organisations who also fashion themselves as the “civil society”.

The modus operandi of the activist groups is the relentless misinformation campaign and floating conspiracy theories that rattle the public. Opposition to modern gene splicing technology, nuclear energy, and vaccination, is some of the technologies for which the left (dubbed wrongly as progressives)supported by little more than junk-science, hysteria and paranoia.

On the other hand, the right denies global warming and evolution that are based on the best possible scientific consensus. The present agriculture minister in Madhya Pradesh government said the most ridiculous thing about GM crops by saying that eating GM foods, vegetarians will become non-vegetarians.

A militant farmer’s leader in Karnataka used to scare farmers by saying that young girls working in Bt cotton field attain puberty faster than others. The left cannot stand commercialisation of science by the private sector whereas the right wants every human activity to be taken up by free entrepreneurs. Libertarians go to the extreme of suggesting that there is no need to regulate any business activity involving technologies and the market forces will settle all issues.
 
Partisanship has invaded the science reporting by the fourth estate as well, thereby completely politicising science and technology through mass media. Science sociologists from the University of Sussex have dubbed this phenomenon “democratisation” of science and technology. Actually, it is the “mobocratisation” of science where it is free for all throw all sorts of misinformation, disinformation and innuendo to discredit technologies that they do not approve.

Closed minds


The repetitive narrative on GM crops and nuclear energy in India is that they are unsafe, untested, and must not be deployed at any cost.  The left is no mood to hear the global scientific consensus on these technologies, and for them all regulators who permit the deployment of these technologies are inept and corrupt, and scientists who have a favourable opinion of them are corrupt and in the pocket books of the companies.

  In fact, the anti-GM lobby has not yet met a biotech regulator whom it likes.  Similarly, activists who are organising the anti-nuclear protests in Koodankulam do not accept any number of scientific expert opinions that the nuclear power plant has been established to some of the world’s best possible safety features.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh squarely blamed overseas funding of these activists of their war on nuclear power and GM crops. The protestors did not take this offensive from the prime minister kindly. There is ample evidence to show the money trail of these activists.  Another narrative about Bt cotton in India is that it is a total failure and caused suicidal deaths of cotton farmers.  Many independent and peer reviewed studies on the performance of Bt cotton gives them a thumbs up, but the naysayers do not agree. 

That such a killer crop is adopted by almost 95 per cent of cotton growers in India does not seem to budge them.  One distinct group of stakeholders missing in the technology debates is scientists who know and understand science better than anybody. 

As much as one recognises that all stakeholders can express their opinion on any given subject in a pluralistic society, one should not forget that mere “opinions” on science does not become facts. Everybody is entitled their opinions, but not to their own facts. Scientific facts do not change due to a popular vote. In science consensus is developed over a period of time based on reproducible experimental evidence and empirical data.

Both right and the left  decry peer-review in science, and even go to the extent of setting up their own seemingly authentic “scientific bodies” and their own “scientific journals” and their own group of scientific “peers” to convince the gullible public that their views and opinions are coming from ‘authentic” scientific bodies.They have seriously undermined the global scientific consensus on the safety and utility of GMOs and nuclear energy by refusing to accept the main stream science.

The suspended animation of the Bt brinjal in India is a classic case of how the opposition has forced the politicians to say no to it in spite of the two committees of scientific experts had cleared it.With the kind of public confusion around modern biotechnology and nuclear energy, it is very difficult for policy makers to develop public policies needed for the safe deployment of modern technologies for the public good.

In an impoverished population like in India, it is not very difficult to gather paid crowds in support of any cause.  This gives the false impression that the public are opposed to one or the other technology.

Mendacity and hyperbole should have no place in scientific discourse.The cacophony of the right and the left is completely confusing the technology issues.  Scientific policies cannot be framed based on feel-good fallacies and value systems of the anti-scientific right or left. Laissez-faire politicisation of science and technology issues is really hurting the nation’s economic development that is so crucial in the present day knowledge-based economy. 

(Shanthu Shantharam is working at the Seed Science Centre and Biosafety Institute for Genetically Modified Products)

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