Which scientific consensus?

On the face of things, the point that green campaigners are illogical in supporting the scientific consensus on climate change and opposing the corresponding consensus on genetically modified food is unanswerable. If only science were all that counts! But once we switch attention to politics and business a sinister logic for the green/Greenpeace positions appears.

The climate change and GM food cases provide a remarkable parallel. For each there is a scientific consensus – not unanimity but a great majority amongst scientists – facing an opposition which is at least partly ideologically motivated. So far, so symmetrical. But the contrast between the opposition ideologies and the related differences in resources and power as measured in the conventional terms of money, access to governments or international rule making bodies like the World Bank, WTO, IMF, and so on, means that there is an asymmetry between the two cases although that has nothing to do with the science as such. What it does have to do with is power, and who employs the scientists and how their research projects are funded. (The contrast here is by no means clear cut because of the involvement of renewable energy and nuclear power lobbies on one part and efforts to reduce chemical pesticide use on the other.) Especially with the obvious importance of governments, corporations and wealthy individuals for university funding it becomes possible to argue the position that the more resources are made available to scientists (or anyone) working in a particular field, the less trustworthy their results. Perhaps the climate change and GM food debates would be better if green campaigners argued the trust issue openly.

For trust, and lack of it amongst  some people, is the crucial point. For myself, I am intellectually persuaded that the case for GM food is a very strong one. Yet I cannot help still harbouring a lingering suspicion about it, because of who is involved in developing and promoting it. The problem is that it ought to be illogical to pick and choose between scientific discoveries, given that technologies based on scientific truth work in the world, which is why we use them instead of magic. Yet no one has yet established that it is illogical to believe the old saw: ‘He who pays the piper calls the tune’.


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