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Opinion Piece

Is Science Sacrosanct?

Originally published on ABC’s Drum on 22 July 2011.

Every good scientist will tell you that being critical is essential to the discipline’s survival. Scientists must be critical of both the results of their peers as well as the nature of experiments undertaken themselves.

This means when science comes under attack, scientists must be extraordinarily clever at retaining the ability to question their own field, whilst still defending it in the public.

Last week Greenpeace activists undertook the deplorable act of destroying a genetically modified wheat crop being grown by CSIRO scientists. The crop was being developed in order to better understand its makeup and potential effects.

The criticism of these actions provides a perfect case study of how scientists can remain critical of their field and protect their science at the same time.

There is no doubt that science has been under attack for a number of years now. Particularly in the field of climate change, the work of scientists is now more than ever being scrutinised and criticised by a sceptical public.

Wild claims about falsification and destruction of evidence are available in all newspapers, with some scientists even receiving death threats because of their work. This has left many demanding a fight back against anti-science warriors in an attempt to rebuild public trust in the field. For many, the attacks by Greenpeace on Thursday were clearly the last straw.

Greenpeace, who are, and should be considered, a ‘pro-science’ warrior were widely condemned for hypocrisy in destroying scientific experiments. Yet, the attacks on Greenpeace, while genuinely deserved, need to be questioned, particularly in the context of a scientific community who is beginning to ramp up their efforts to protect their field.

In defending its actions on Thursday in an e-mail sent to supporters, Greenpeace stated:

We love science. We live by science. But not all science is equal. Greenpeace has a long history of challenging commercial interests masqueraded as public science – scientific whaling and nuclear testing are prominent examples.

It is a point that makes sense. The ethical nature of scientific experiments has to be questioned and done so properly. Not all science is, as Greenpeace states, equal, and some should not be completed at all.

For example, very few people were willing to condone nuclear testing undertaken by the French, even though this was done under the auspices of finding out more about the effect of nuclear bombs. Protests against Japanese whaling are widely popular even though these hunts are conducted on a ‘scientific basis’.

At some point, we, as a society, must decide that there are lines that cannot and should not be crossed, even if they provide significant opportunities for an increase in our knowledge base. It is, with this in mind that Greenpeace destroyed these GM crops last week.

In destroying a scientific experiment, Greenpeace stated that they believed that GM was dangerous enough that we should not even be conducting scientific experiments into the practice. We should just leave it alone.

Yet, the responses by many on Thursday rarely dealt with this criticism and instead had an overtone that science is sacrosanct and all scientific endeavours should be protected at all costs. Destroying science is inherently bad.

As was stated on Twitter:

*All* violent attacks on science must be repudiated & stopped>> Greenpeace breaks into CSIRO site and destroys GM wheat http://bit.ly/qS7GRU

These arguments left very little room to question whether Greenpeace had any genuine concerns over the crops in question and if in this case, the science undertaken should have been done so in the first place? Such a framing of the debate can create a risk of pro-science advocacy losing the very critical nature of the field they were trying to protect itself and this is where anti-science organisations can capitalise.

To be able to properly defend science we need not only to be able to defend the discipline as a whole, but also defend the particular practices, experiments and reports, as well as be critical of or disown (if ever required) science that has not met with this standard. This is where climate scientists have suffered.

While the vast majority of climate science is clear in stating that the world is warming due to human activities, this fact has been brought down because of questioning of a few particular instances, which scientists have found difficult to defend in the public sphere. Through defending the specific science that has come under attack in this case, scientists may be able to deflect their detractors and create a stronger defence of their field.

Looking at the particular science that Greenpeace decided to destroy, for example, shows that through defending science not only in the general, but also in the specific, scientists are able to create a stronger defence of their field. It is through looking at the specifics that one can see how deplorable Greenpeace’s actions were.

These experiments were not the same as nuclear testing or scientific whale hunts. They were, however extremely controlled tests on a strain of wheat crop that has the potential to significantly help those with a range of different health problems. The flimsy way Greenpeace undertook the stunt gives the strongest indication of why this trial couldn’t have been as bad as Greenpeace has said.

@dr_krystal on Twitter asks a number of questions of Greenpeace to show that concern for human safety was not at the forefront of Greenpeace’s mind in this stunt. These questions included; ‘I wonder if @GreenpeaceAustP hired those whippersnippers? They look pretty industrial – how did they clean them after?’ and ‘What did @GreenpeaceAustP do to ensure it didn’t cause uncontrolled release of GM plants into the environment after WHIPPERSNIPPERING them?’, and ‘How can we be sure @GreenpeaceAustP action today hasn’t lead to the release of GM plants into environment? Where’s your documentation?’

What @dr_krystal shows was that either Greenpeace were either extremely clumsy or that it was not a real concern about the crop that lead to their activities. Either way it is clear that their actions were not due to a concern about human safety, but rather were a media stunt to bring attention to an issue that Greenpeace had clearly already made their mind up on, even before this science could come in.

In destroying this crop they not only broke the law, but set back scientific exploration into an important field for at least a year. All this was done for the sake of a media stunt.

The Greenpeace action last Thursday provides a great case study of how scientists can effectively respond to attacks on its field. It is a response such as this that has been lacking in many debates over the past years. Yet, we must also learn from the Greenpeace experience.

Science is not inherently sacrosanct and we cannot treat it as so. If we are not critical of this great field we face a potential problem of losing some of what is great about it.

We must defend science, but we also must do so cleverly and in a critical manner. It is only through doing so that we will ensure that high quality science is protected and cherished into the future.

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About Simon Copland

Simon Copland is a freelance writer and climate campaigner. In his spare time he plays rugby union and is a David Bowie fanatic. He is a regular columnist for the Sydney Star Observer, blogs at The Moonbat and tweets at @SimonCopland.

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