The “Liberals” And Science

by Shanthu Shantharam - May 19, 2015 05:32 PM
The “Liberals” And Science

Their modus operandi is simple—confuse the public, increase anxiety, and politicize the issue; if nothing works, file a PIL. 

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For the better part of the 20th century, so called “liberals” on both the left and the right have been waging a war on climate change, the theory of evolution, vaccination, nuclear energy, and genetically modified (GM) food, and have polarised the world. The big question is, why so many reasonable people disbelieve science in spite of enjoying the fruits of modern science and technology in their daily lives.

For those who have tracked the global movement against nuclear energy or GM foods or vaccinations, a pattern seems to emerge that cuts across all such social movements.

The worldviews of those supporting and those opposing these technologies are vastly different. Any dialogue between the two is a really challenging task. Positions have become so hardened that it is affecting development of nations. Some governments have become tired of engaging with “civil society”, and have initiated serious actions against groups that are impeding development in the name of assessing the safety of the technologies and their risks to the environment. India has banned the international NGO Greenpeace from receiving any foreign funding. This action is sure to send a strong message to other NGOs who carry on unreasonable agitations to stall or deny development projects.

Professor Marcel Kunz, writing in the prestigious EMBO Journal, describes the anti-science movement as the post-modernist assault on science. He argues that the rational scientific view of the world has been painstakingly constructed over millennia to guarantee that research can be subjected to the most rigorous objectivity tests, and verify universal truths through experimentation. Scientific authorities are challenged not only for their honesty and professional integrity, but also the methods they use in the process of scientific inquiry. The ironic situation with liberals bashing science is that all of them believe in the science of climate change and accept it and even fight for it, whereas they simply dismiss the science of GM food and accuse all GM scientists of being corrupt and dishonest.

Anti-GM activists have gone so far as to even construct “parallel science” to challenge mainstream science. For example, the notorious Seralini experiments of feeding GM foods to rats that subsequently developed horrible cancerous growths. The whole thing was proved to be a fraud, and the journal retracted the paper after a huge protest from the mainstream scientific establishment.

There are NGOs in India who keep alleging that GM crops have killed cows, buffaloes, sheep, and peacock, have caused skin irritation in cotton field workers, and led to early puberty in young female workers in the field. Anti-tech NGOs organized a group of 100 Ayurvedic physicians to write a letter to the Ministry of Environment to not allow Bt brinjal as it will affect their medicine system. When investigated, it turned out that most of these physicians knew next to nothing about Bt brinjal or its science. The same goes for a petition with 250 scientists as signatories. More than half of them were not even scientists, and the other half had no knowledge or expertise in new biology.

The tactic here is simple—hoodwink the government by saying doctors and scientists are opposed to GM technology,
and therefore it must not be allowed.

It is not very easy to counter bad science all the time. It takes time and money, and how many can afford it? A group of civil society activists have started a $25-million 25-year GM food safety testing experiment in Russia. It is really hard for mainstream scientists to imagine how a controlled experiment can be conducted on humans for such a long period and obtain any meaningful data or information. But, then these activists are determined to prove that GM foods will be harmful to humans in the long run, and want all regulatory agencies around the world to stop giving authorizations until their experiment is over.

This is wholly unacceptable to modern science, but because these zealots have the capacity to create a ruckus, many national and international organizations, to just buy peace, have acquiesced to their ludicrous demands. The net result is that science suffers and progress stalls. To accept the demands of the post-modernists to treat all views as equally valid is to slow or shut down research. This Luddite mentality should not be allowed to have any say in decision making in science and technology.

For industry and farming, India needs a reliable source of power. That can only come from nuclear power, also one of the cleanest sources of energy
For industry and farming, India needs a reliable source of power. That can only come from nuclear power, also one of the cleanest sources of energy

Environmental activists love to partner with post-modernists or the so called “liberals”. It is amazing that these same liberals are also referred to as “progressives”, when in fact they demonstrate the worst regressive attitudes toward modern science and technology. But they are not willing to give up their mobile phones, cars, and computers.

Nuclear technology is opposed in India based on what happened at Fukushima in Japan, a one-in-a-million event of a tsunami. India has taken all steps to protect the Kudankulam nuclear project in case of such natural disasters. But that does not satisfy the liberals. The other important reason is that India signed a nuclear agreement with the US that has opened avenues for bringing energy to the masses through an industry that is considered to be one of the cleanest sources of energy. Surely, India must explore all other alternative forms of energy to suit local needs, but for industry and farming, India needs a reliable source and that can only come from nuclear power.

The argument against modern technologies is that they are unsafe, uncertain, and too risky. The activists would rather have alternative energies like solar energy and other renewable energy sources, and use agro-ecological methods to do agriculture. Their proposals for alternatives seem fine, until one starts to think through the practical aspects of serving uninterrupted goods and services to the masses over a long term. They steadfastly refuse to include nuclear energy in a mix of options that can be fitted to regional and local conditions.

Post-modernists have become sceptical about modern science and technology based on some well-known cases of scientific malpractice by the tobacco industry and a few pharma companies. But if one were to step back and take a broader view of how modern science and technology have improved the quality of life for millions, the effects of the misdemeanours are really tiny.

Even here, what is at work is the ability of the scientific enterprise to correct itself through a peer review process.
Granted that the peer review process has not always ensured accuracy of scientific progress, but there is no real alternative to assure the quality of science. The process has a stellar track record. The irrefutable evidence is the quantum of scientific progress achieved since the 18th century.

Post-modernists want to redefine the way science needs to be done by infusing socio-political thought into the process of scientific query. But the goal of scientific enterprise is to establish inalienable and unvarnished truth through experimental verification. Religion, society and cultural factors are strictly off-limits, which the liberals do not agree with. They interpret science as a part of the societal construct of humans, and therefore, science necessarily impacts society and its components, which is why social factors need to be included in assessing the utility and suitability of modern science and technology.

It is not easy to quarrel with this line of thought, but empirical science cannot factor in social, political and cultural factors to obtain non-corrupt data to establish the cause and effect relationship. The physical and biological nature of the universe does not operate on principles of sociology. It is perfectly legitimate for social thinkers to study the sociology and politics of scientific enterprise, but they cannot dictate the design of scientific experiments.

In India, both nuclear technology and GM foods technology have come under severe attack from left wing liberals, and now from the right wing of the Sangh Parivar. Several leading nuclear experts attested to the safety of the Kudankulam nuclear energy plant, but the activists would have none of it. The UPA II government had to come down heavily on them to go ahead with the project. Ironically, the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh and the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch do not seem to believe the science and scientists involved in developing GM foods.

It is really not the science, but things other than science that seem to drive these activists to keep fighting against these technologies at a time when the country is reeling under acute power shortage and future food security is under severe threat due to the effects of climate change, and serious water crisis in agriculture.

War on science has been going on since ages, and is nothing new. Pioneering scientists have been condemned as heretics by the Church, and it is the same kind of people who have been attacking the sciences they become uncomfortable with. They appoint themselves arbiters of society and become interlocutors whose views must not only be respected, but implemented. Many of these objectors to modern science and technology consider themselves “thought leaders” whose views on a subject are supposed to be authoritative.

Yet, if one looks at these “thought leaders” in the anti-GMO firmament, most of them have no knowledge of modern biology, and yet advise the government and the parliament on biotechnology’s safety and utility and even agitate, and militate against it. If nothing works, they file a PIL in the court system that will take decades to settle.

The same is the case with the nuclear energy protestors. Agitation is the most common route used in India for political purposes. Liberals thoroughly confuse the public, increase anxiety and politicize the issue so much that any chance of reconciliation is thrown out of the window. They also rope in the media with a saleable narrative and amplify it. Every campaign activist makes a careful decision to choose a narrative that suits his worldview.

The anti-GM lobby has been way more accomplished in shaping media coverage than scientists. Misinformation abounds in both nuclear technology and biotechnology debates, and it becomes a potent political tool that would take decades to resolve. Anti-technology activists have become epistemicological brokers presenting themselves as trusted intermediaries for knowledge transfer to those who have shared values.

It is critical for the general public and the not so science or techno savvy politicians to be wary of these knowledge brokers as most of them are not really trustworthy, with no expertise in the subject they are talking about. It is a gigantic task to influence public opinion; sensational and negative narratives are a lot easier to sell than thoughtful and constructive ones. But the scientific community and other right-minded people should not yield to these purveyors of fear and anxiety at the cost of the country’s development.

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Shanthu Shantharam is a Professor of Biotechnology at the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore. A former biotechnology regulator with the United States Department of Agriculture, Dr. Shantharam has served as a consultant to UN-FAO, UNIDO, World Bank, and Asian Development Bank. He was responsible for initiating the development of India’s biotech regulations in the early 1990s when he was a Fulbright Scholar at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute.

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