Sat, Oct 05, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Scientific reason is being replaced by political propaganda

Academic integrity is being crushed on behalf of corporate power by the UK’s chief scientific adviser, but the stakes are too high for political games with truth

By George Monbiot  /  The Guardian, LONDON

It is as clear and chilling a statement of intent as you are likely to read. Scientists should be “the voice of reason, rather than dissent, in the public arena.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin? North Korean leader Kim Jong-un? No, Ian Boyd, chief scientific adviser at the UK’s Department for Environment.

Boyd’s doctrine is a neat distillation of policy in Britain, Canada and Australia. These governments have suppressed or misrepresented inconvenient findings on climate change, pollution, pesticides, fisheries and wildlife. They have shut down programs that produce unwelcome findings and sought to muzzle scientists. This is a modern version of Soviet

Lysenkoism: crushing academic dissent on behalf of bad science and corporate power.

Writing in an online journal, Boyd argued that if scientists speak freely, they create conflict between themselves and policymakers, leading to a “chronically deep-seated mistrust of scientists that can undermine the delicate foundation upon which science builds relevance.” This, in turn, “could set back the cause of science in government.” So they should avoid “suggesting that policies are either right or wrong.” If they must speak out, they should do so through “embedded advisers (such as: Shut up, speak through me, don’t dissent — or your behavior will ensure that science becomes irrelevant.)

Note that the conflicts between science and policy are caused by scientists, rather than by politicians ignoring or abusing the evidence. Or by chief scientific advisers.

In an online question-and-answer session hosted by his department, Boyd maintained that 50 percent of tuberculosis infections among cattle herds are caused by badgers. He repeated the claim in an official document called Science to Inform TB Policy. However, as the analyst Jamie McMillan points out, the figure has been sexed up from inadequate data. Like the 45-minute claim in the Iraq debate, it is “spurious, simple to take on board, and crucial in convincing parliament.”

The badger cull as a whole defies the findings of the £49 million (US$78.6 million) study the previous government commissioned. It has been thoroughly dissected by the leading scientists in the field, which might explain why Boyd is so keen to shut them up. It is one of many ways in which his department has binned the evidence in setting its policies.

On Sunday Boyd’s boss, British Secretary of State for Environmental, Food and Rural Affairs Owen Paterson, told the Tory party conference not to worry about global warming.

“I think we should just accept that the climate has been changing for centuries,” he said.

A few weeks ago on Any Questions, he managed to repeat 10 discredited claims about climate change in one short contribution.

His department repeatedly misrepresents science to appease industrial lobbyists. It claimed that its field trials of neonicotinoid pesticides on bees showed that “effects on bees do not occur under normal circumstances.”

Hopelessly contaminated, the study was in fact worthless, which is why it was not submitted to a peer-reviewed journal.

Similar distortions surround the department’s refusal to establish meaningful marine reserves, its attempt to cull buzzards on behalf of pheasant shoots, and its determination to allow farmers to start dredging streams again, turning them into featureless gutters.

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