Fri, May 03, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Beware government scientists turned lobbyists

From badgers to bees, government science advisers in the UK are routinely misleading the population to support politicians’ agendas, with the chief scientist at the UK’s environment department accused of scaremongering and wild exaggeration

By George Monbiot  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Walport went on to suggest that the proposed ban would cause “severe reductions in yields to struggling European farmers and economies.”

Again, this is simply incorrect — in its exhaustive 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. The committee reports that all the rape seed on sale in the UK, for example, is pretreated with neonicotinoids, so farmers have no choice but to use them.

He then deployed the kind of groundless moral blackmail frequently used by industry-funded astroturf campaigns.

“The control of malaria, dengue and other important diseases also depends on the control of insect vectors.”

Yes, it does in many cases, but this has nothing to do with the issue he was discussing — a partial ban on neonicotinoids in European crops. This old canard (if you do not approve this pesticide for growing oilseed rape in Europe, children in Mozambique will die of malaria) reminds us that 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”?

However, perhaps most revealing is Walport’s misunderstanding of the precautionary principle. This, he says, “just means working out and balancing in advance all the risks and benefits of action or inaction, and to make a proportionate response.”

No it does not. 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.”

This, as it happens, is the opposite of what his article sought to do.

Among the official duties of the chief scientist is “to ensure that the scientific method, risk and uncertainty are understood by the public.”

Less than a month into the job, 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.

In defending science against political pressure, he is, in other words, as much use as a suit of paper armor. For this reason, he will doubtless remain in his post and end his career with a peerage. The rest of us will carry the cost of his preferment.

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