Home >Opinion >Online-views >Science-deniers must be denied

Denialism, also known as pseudo-scepticism, is the deliberate culture of denying scientific facts or theories, regardless of overwhelming evidence in their favour, for purely ideological or political reasons. This is what is playing out in the anti-GM (genetically modified), anti-climate change, anti-nuclear and anti-vaccinations arena in the 21st century. Strangely, GM deniers and the climate change deniers are on either of side of the political spectrum, depending on what suits their political viewpoint, scientific facts be damned. At the global level, the left denies the safety of GM technology and nuclear technology, and most on the right deny the prevailing global warming and benefits of early childhood vaccination.

Then, there is a sub-section of people among the deniers who concoct their own parallel science to counter the mainstream scientific consensus. For every scientific opinion, they whip up a counter opinion based on their own scientific data and confuse the debate so badly the issue sinks into a political quagmire. The net result is that society is denied the benefits of technology and, in many instances, individual lives are affected directly.

Without a doubt, politics intrudes when, for example, conservative Republicans in US legislatures they control pass anti-anthropogenic global warming legislation and don’t want their governments to take any action to mitigate it. It guarantees catastrophe in the future. It is the future generations that pay the price for the inaction of today’s politicians. Not to be outdone, left-wing parties across the world have their own brand of science denialism with respect to genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

In India, Kerala happens to be the only state which, under its last Left Front government, declared itself a No-GMO state, egged on by some “parallel" scientists. Using parallel science arguments, former environment minister Jairam Ramesh clamped a so-called temporary moratorium on Bt brinjal. When the state exerted its authority, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government used a hard stick to beat the anti-nuclear lobby and go ahead with the commissioning of the Kudankulam nuclear reactor.

Both anti-GMO and anti-climate change activists use the same kind of tactics to agitate and militate for their own purposes, albeit at the opposite ends. They both reject science, attack their opponents and cherry-pick scientific data to suit their purposes. It is the same thing with anti-vaccine activists in the US who propagate that vaccination causes autism, which has been refuted by leading medical establishments.

Another tactic of science deniers is the use of false equivalence to pretend there is a debate. There are two or three such non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in India that fight against GM crops using false equivalence. False equivalence is the use of aggressive tactics to outshout scientists who are sure about evolution, vaccines, and global warming. They even suggest that scientists must not be allowed science. They want scientists to be on tap, not top.

There are people who think HIV does not cause AIDS because of some news sources that think there is a debate—so bring one person from that side to the table for debate and, more often than not, that person shouts the loudest and wins. If they cannot win, then they say they are not scientists, but would like to add how a given technology has socio-economic impact on societies and communities and the environment.

These woolly-headed arguments further confuse the debate and their purpose is served when the decision makers put a technology on hold, temporarily or permanently. The most abhorrent idea that decision-making bodies and organizations have come to accept is to bring a sense of “false balance" to the debate by giving a seat at the table to these deniers.

The unfortunate thing is that the public falls for the false equivalence logical fallacy, because most often they don’t trust governments, and it is comforting to hear an authority-like figure trying to protect their interests by stopping governments ‘doing harm’ to their subjects or the environment. Modern day sociologists call this democratization of science, which is actually mobocratization of science.

Under the prevailing uncertain circumstances, decision makers are trying to decide on modern technologies by assuming subjective possible outcomes. Bayesian decision theory posits that an individual has a prior belief, receives new information and then combines prior information with the new information to form a post-ante belief.

Bayesian theory has been applied to decision making in various fields. This theory assumes that individuals process information optimally. Information processing does not always conform to the Bayesian principles. Existing beliefs need not always converge, and in many cases diverge. While there may be a broad scientific consensus about the safety of GM foods, public opinion might be divided. This implies that people may not be willing to accept scientific facts and might give more weightage to non-scientific information.

Brandon McFadden and Jayson Lusk, in an article in the journal Food Policy, published this year, suggest that factors that govern decision making can be misinterpreting the information or data, making illusionary correlations, cherry-picking data, knowledge, political affiliation and cognitive functions. Generally speaking, science deniers are creating havoc in the science and technology space, whether or not they understand what they are talking about with devastating effect. Science deniers must not be allowed to prevail and must be denied.

Shanthu Shantharam teaches plant biotechnology and biotechnology innovation management at Iowa State University and was formerly executive director of the agricultural group of India’s Association of Biotechnology-led Enterprises. He is a former biotechnology regulator with the US department of agriculture.

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