Though Greens sometimes get their science wrong, they’re better than most
Some have threatened to quit the party for its stance on GM food, but scientists need to learn to engage with politics
On a regular basis I see someone complaining they won’t be supporting the Green party because it’s “anti-science”. This isn’t true of course. After some well-deserved criticism, party activists have taken steps to change those stances.
Yet some scientists keep attacking them. Yesterday, the Green London assembly member Jenny Jones said she was planning to attend the “Take the Flour Back” protest at Rothamstead Research, which is against genetically modified foods. Naturally a mini-storm of criticism on Twitter followed.
“Take The Flour Back” are opposed to GM wheat. They aim to visit Rothamsted Park, where it is being grown as part of an experiment, and destroy the crops. In an unusual step, the scientists involved have tried to engage with the protesters too, to little avail.
In this case I’ll agree with the scientists that many of the assertions made about the GM trial are false. The Greens should accept that, even if they remain opposed to GM foods more broadly.
But some of the criticism is unfair.First, the Conservatives and Ukip are far more scientifically illiterate than the Greens. They are actively trying to sabotage the debate on how to deal with climate change, and most deny it is even taking place.
Given that scientists are utterly failing to engage or lead the debate on climate change – why not spend more time dealing with that bigger problem than attacking Greens over small things? Our planet is dying thanks to global warming and some scientists think this GM outrage should be a top priority? Really?
Second a newsflash for scientists: none of the major political parties will take on board all your recommendations. If you want one, then vote for the minuscule Science party. Every political party has to weigh up a range of interests that sometimes conflict with each other.
Last night I attended a talk entitled “Science Communication and Political Divides” (Storifyed here) and I was relieved to hear one scientist admit: “Scientists are not very good at doing politics.” She went on to say: “Evidence has to be considered in a public light,” which is exactly right. They were referring to drugs policy in that context (Prof David Nutt and his firing around drugs policy), but the point was the same: don’t expect politicians and the public to formulate policy merely on the basis of scientific evidence.
Science has real world results. In the case of GM foods, the industry has become concentrated in the hands of a few companies that have started patenting and exploiting farmers and consumers from developing countries.
The divide is not between “pro-science” and “anti-science” political parties at all. Rather, politicians and parties will always side with science when it suits their constituency or aligns with their interests.
Conservatives and Republicans will side with scientists when big corporations benefit (GM foods, nuclear power) and oppose it when big corporates are losing out (renewable energy). Greens support the science on climate change, but oppose GM food research and development for economic and sustainability reasons. Whether scientists like it or not, voters are also swayed by those concerns.
The challenge for scientists isn’t to merely focus on what the evidence says. It is also to convince the public that their suggested course of action is the right one, even when the public is sceptical for perfectly valid reasons. Ignoring those concerns and calling them “luddites” just doesn’t work. Perhaps this is why scientists are failing to get faster action on climate change.
• Follow Comment is free on Twitter @commentisfree