SURVEY – LIFE SCIENCES: The new risks to scientific progress
POSTESCRIPT: GEORGE POSTE
Financial Times 28-Oct-1999 01:48:10 am
Public debate about the safety of biotechnology is being driven by an irrational retreat from reason and an unattainable desire for complete freedom from risk.
In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Bottom comments that "truth and reason keep little companion together nowadays". This well characterises the state of affairs in the public debate about progress in biotechnology.
Cloning, embryo research, the prospect of transplanting animal organs to humans, genetic screening for future disease risks and, most notoriously, GM food have evoked strident public debate about the control and moral boundaries of biotechnology and its increasingly influential role in medical and agricultural research.
History will likely not judge kindly any of the participants in this debate.
Single issue activists offer over-simplified and distorted sound-bites about impending disaster that play well to the public gallery and to an uncritical media ever eager to trumpet half-truths and create the appearance of controversy, conflict and unchecked commercialism.
Politicians, trapped increasingly by the need to proffer populistic and cosmetic spin, succumb to effete obfuscation in the hope that public attention will shift to more pressing affairs of state such as the performance of sports teams or the social lives of the latest crop of transient celebrities living out their 15 minutes of fame.
Equal lack of sinew and resolve pervades the scientific community. In common with politicians, the BSE debacle has undermined the credibility of all scientific pronouncements about safety.
This dilemma is compounded by the reluctance of scientists to engage in the cut-and-thrust of public debate, reflecting a combination of misplaced arrogance, genuine unease in facing potential media hostility and the risk of stereotypic portrayal as nerds isolated from the rigours of the real world.
Finally, the negative image projected by the biotechnology industry in handling the GM food debate will become a classic future business school study of ineptitude in public communications.
The only thing that unites these disparate communities is the issue of risk, real or imagined. Claim and counter-claim or, more commonly, the absence of sufficient evidence to reach any firm conclusion, have generated public confusion and fear, political indecision, eroded trust in government, in science and in industry and emboldened anti-technology lobbies to seek prohibitions on biotechnology research.
History is replete with examples in which technological change, by threatening the established order or in challenging societal notions of "naturalness", provoked charges of scientific hubris and of science "playing God".
The theological denial of the heliocentric Copernican universe, the 17th century public outrage at William Harvey's relegation of the human heart to a mere mechanical pump rather than as a sacred repository of the soul, the vitriolic condemnation by the 18th century medical profession of Dr Jenner's new-fangled vaccination, and the Victorian apoplexy over Darwinian evolutionary theory; these are mirrored in more contemporary manifestations of the "shock-horror" contrary-to-nature syndrome in which the headlines of the moment proclaimed the dangers of organ transplantation, open-heart surgery, in vitro fertilisation and now, the ultimate horror of horrors, GM foods.
These, and myriad other examples of public fear and foolishness about technical developments that we now take for granted, nay, expect and demand as our right, share common origins in public ignorance of science and in the threat perceived by the established economic and political powers.
In the past people feared science because they did not understand it. Today they fear it because they believe that they understand it.
Two pernicious principles now contaminate all aspects of public debate about risk. The first is the polarising principle, now refined to a fine art by segments of the media in adopting bullying interviewing techniques for the sole purpose of provoking controversy and polarisation of opinions about complex, multifaceted issues.
This principle requires that anyone with the legitimate credential to be viewed as an expert is to be viewed with suspicion and made to look absurd unless they can state unabashedly, with eye fixed firmly on the TV camera, that there is absolutely no risk, under any circumstance, to any individual, at any time.
The polarising principle is applied routinely for the purposes of contemporary theatre masquerading as sophisticated debate. The inability of science to satisfy the polarising principle by not claiming infallible knowledge about complex issues is quickly portrayed as science failing society. The more serious danger is that politicians will formulate public policies to accommodate this highly-flawed principle rather than pursue measured and objective analysis.
The second principle emergent in the field of risk assessment is the precautionary principle. This principle emerged in environmental management but has extended its reach into the broader domain of public policy, including the consolidated version of the treaty establishing the European Union.
According to the precautionary principle, any activity in which a theoretical risk might exist should not be undertaken unless its outcome can be predicted fully in advance. The onus of proof rests with those who propose change. Since the full range of technical and social consequences of change can never be predicted with absolute precision, the principle is a prescription for paralysis.
By institutionalising caution it offers the allure of false security while precluding experimentation and change. In short, it creates categories of "forbidden knowledge".
None of the remarkable advances in agriculture, aviation, chemistry, computing, energy, metallurgy and materials, medicine and telecommunications that have transformed living standards over the past two centuries would have overcome the hurdle of the precautionary principle.
Societal embrace of the two "P" principles, particularly by the media and by the academic salons of post-modernist deconstructionism who seek to deny that there is any such thing as reliable knowledge and who view science merely as a social construct, reflects a montage of traditional fear of change, the anti-scientific attitudes prevalent among the chattering classes who resent the rise of a new techno-elite and the understandable human desire for safety.
I do not assert that science and technology should be immune to detailed public scrutiny and government oversight. The dizzying pace of progress in biotechnology raises perplexing legal, ethical and social issues. The technical community must be in the vanguard of publicising these issues and in contributing to a sound public policy framework for their careful review.
The way forward lies not in Lord Melchett's root-grubbing in a GM plantation in the claimed "name of the people", nor in absurd references to GM crops as "biological nuclear explosions". Rather, governments must show the political will to formulate policies for assessing both the risk and benefit of new technologies using robust evidentiary standards rather than knee-jerk responses to scaremongering and rumour.
Where uncertainty exists, as will always be the case, the ambiguities should be acknowledged and actions implemented to reduce uncertainty by sensible experimentation and not by surrender to the irrational tyranny of the mob.
When catastrophe strikes, it is to technology that we turn for relief. To cite Peter Huber's recent Wall Street Journal editorial: "Fear nature, not technology".
Technology does not spawn catastrophes with the relentless frequency of nature. Technology distances us from the tragic consequences of these natural forces. It is our principal defence against a natural world which accords us no unique or privileged status.
Who among us would discard the economic comfort and health protections of the late 20th century made possible by inexorable scientific progress to return to the Hobbesian reality of life as nasty, brutish and short as still endured by far too many on our planet?
Technological change expands the range of possibilities for society and also the range of outcomes. Unpredictability and ambiguity will always be fellow travellers with technical innovation.
The accelerating pace of technology shows no sign of abating. The likelihood is that the widening polarities of choice and the new wealth generated by technological innovation will be accompanied by social divisiveness. The new knowledge-based economies, notably those driven by web-based commerce and genetics, already reflect this dichotomy.
The potential for conflict between winners and losers in the transition from brawn to brains as the engine of economic change and power is omnipresent. It will intensify unless governments act to build an educational system that bestows sufficient technical literacy on the population to enable them to distinguish technical fact from fiction, put risk in perspective and to build a future workforce that can compete in a world that will be shaped increasingly by ever faster technological change.
Or, to end this commentary, as we began it, with Shakespeare's sage analysis in Measure for Measure: "Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win. By fearing to attempt."
* The author is chief science and technology officer of SmithKline Beecham
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