Helen Lewis, editor at the New Stateman, asked some regular bloggers at the New Stateman to write about when, and why, they changed their minds. This is a very interesting read, and this reminded me of the “coming out” of Mark Lynas about GMOs ten months ago. It is quite interesting to read, or hear about how Mark Lynas completely shifted opinion regarding GMOs. The bottomline, and what I think is really important, is that: exposed to scientific evidence supporting anthropogenic climate change, Lynas came to the conclusion that he could not hold anti-scientific opinions on other issues, such as GMOs.
Sadly, not everyone has the same consistency, even when we talk about scientists. Far from relying on the scientific consensus on a subject —especially when they are no experts on the subject in question— some cherry-pick the evidence. Thus, you’ll find some denying that climate change occurs, or that it is man-made, claiming that this scientific field is corrupted; but they’ll often claim that their support of GM technology stems from scientific evidence, that it is, as Ford Prefect would put it, Mostly Harmless. One of these scientists is Claude Allègre. Others will mirror these positions in saying that climate change is happening but that GMOs are dangerous. The AAAS happens to have issued several statements regarding these two issues. Here is one of them on the former, and on the latter.
What these two attitudes tell us about the scientists who hold them? Well, basically, while their day job might be to “do” science (although Allègre is retired), they do not seem to understand its inner workings. Or, and this is worse, they knowingly manipulate the narrative on the production of knowledge that is science to further some ideological interests of their own.
These scientists are quite rare, fortunately, but are very vocal. Pretending, like Séralini, that you are falling victim to a conspiracy to silence you, or, to compare yourself to Galileo, doesn’t further the public understanding of how scientific research is made. Quite the contrary: how many times had I to explain to some friends of mine that, no, Séralini is not some kind of martyr or some new Galileo (I usually don’t have to explain the same things about Soon, Baliunas and other climate change deniers) but simply someone who has some commercial interest in fearmongering on GMOs, he sells books about it (some of which do seem to be quite cranky to be honest). Furthermore, on a strictly scientific point of vue, his experiments do not stand scrutiny… More subtle than the Galileo argument, however, their publications in peer-reviewed journals maintain the illusion that, in a particular field, the scientific community is deeply divided about an issue… A good way of marketing doubt, as Erik Conway and Naomi Oreskes put it in their book, “Merchants of Doubt”. According to Oreskes and Conway, PR companies were actively involved in the denial of climate change in the U.S. When Séralini published his now retracted paper, the marketing of the had been perfectly orchestrated: a deal with one magazine, a book and a “documentary“ published within one week…. Not only the attitudes reflect each other, the strategies are the same. Some claim that a PR firm was hired by the CRIIGEN to publicize the study, but I have yet to find evidence for that.
How a layman or woman can choose between conflicting positions in science? Well, as I and others wrote before, looking where the consensus is may give a clue. Of course, the majority might be wrong. There has been examples of a whole scientific community being wrong, here’s one. Quite often, however, these examples date back to a time when scientific inquiry —as we understand it today— didn’t exist. Going with the majority (and I’m not talking about a 51-49 % difference, here, but about a 95 – 5 %) is generally a safe bet. Why? It’s not like scientists are sheepishly following the mob. If 95 % of scientists of a particular field agree on something, that is because there is good evidence supporting the consensus.
It’s hard though for people to understand that: journalists often tend, in the name of “balance” to present both positions as equally valid. This false balance has consequences on the public outreach of scientists, be it on climate change or GMOs. Sometimes, it is even worse: they play right into the schemes of Séralini and the likes to try to get a “scoop” (fr).
I personally think that scientists, especially, like Séralini, when they work in a teaching institution, have a duty to the public besides producing knowledge: to inform about science and its subtleties. By refusing to do just that, Séralini and others scientists who either deny the reality of climate change or who are fearmongering about GMOs betray their mission as scientists.