Written by Anna-Maria Arabia, CEO, Science & Technology Australia. First published on The Punch, 27 July 2011.
Over the last few weeks a disturbing trend has come to pass. Those sitting on both the left and right sides of political debates have sought to express their views by attacking and undermining the work of scientists.
On the right, Christopher Monckton continues to misquote, misrepresent and misuse science in his anti climate science parade across Australia. And climate scientists have had to endure death threats for getting on with the job and furnishing the public with much needed information.
On the left, Greenpeace thought it appropriate to destroy a crop of genetically modified wheat which dared be part of a scientific trial being conducted by the CSIRO, Australia’s premier research organisation.
Enough. In a democratic country such as Australia, there is no circumstance under which such behaviour is tolerable. It is unacceptable, extreme and counterproductive to attack scientists when their questions or conclusions don’t accord with our ideologies.
Scientists thrive on the pursuit of knowledge. As a society we rely on them to find answers to tricky questions that can make the world a better and safer place. We rely on them to debate, question, test and test again because as a society we want to feel sure.
But we can’t burn the laboratory because we don’t like the answers it may throw up.
We can’t pick and choose the science we like or dislike. Inevitably science will present us with problems as well as solutions – some will make us feel uncomfortable and others will save our lives.
Greenpeace has questioned the validity of the scientific results obtained after testing genetically modified wheat on the basis that the research was funded by the private sector. Should all research funded by the private sector be banned?
At the same time climate denialists claim that government funded research has an inherent bias. Should we similarly ban all research funded by the public sector?
Taken to their logical conclusions these arguments suggest that we should shut down all research effort across the world.
But the broader message such arguments attempt to convey is that scientists cannot be trusted, that scientists have no regard for professional conduct and have an inbuilt bias dictated by their funding source. There could be nothing further from the truth.
Firstly, as a matter of professional and personal integrity, scientists seek to break the frontiers of knowledge without fear or favour. Their research is rigorously and methodically conducted regardless of who funds it.
Secondly, the robust nature of the peer-review process operates to test ideas and refine our knowledge, not our personal beliefs. The peer review process by its very nature will set the cats amongst the pigeons.
Thirdly, and particularly in the case of controversial areas like genetically modified food the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator, considered to have amongst the best practices in the world, sets strict guidelines to protect our safety.
In an ideal world, no one would be starving, the planet wouldn’t be warming, we wouldn’t need medication to treat our illnesses ,and we’d have infinite natural resources to power our lifestyle. But that’s not reality.
Scientists hold the key to finding solutions to these challenges, and many others. It is critical that their quest for answers be supported, not denigrated.
Is genetically modified wheat safe for human consumption? Will it have a detrimental impact on the environment? The only way we will we ever know is by letting expert scientists get on with what they do best – testing and re-testing our knowledge.
As debate continues over the safety of genetically modified foods or the need for a carbon tax, it is imperative that the best and most reliable information available to us – findings published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature – is used to answer our question.
Should contrary ideas be considered and the status quo be questioned? Of course it should. Always. New and old ideas should be debated and tested using the same robust scientific methodology so we can always have the best information available at our finger tips. The very sort of information we have come to rely on to give us confidence to take medication; board a plane, and drive to work.
In an environment littered by differing and often opposing voices, it is easy to feel confused. Comments published in newspapers, on the internet and voiced through radio microphones have a legitimate place in an open democratic society like Australia, but they have a different weight to evidence produced through the scientific peer-review process.
In an attempt to discredit scientists in order to support their causes, Greenpeace and Christopher Monckton have effectively shot themselves in the foot and succeeded in discrediting themselves.