Earlier this year the “March for Science” became an international phenomena. From ordinary citizens to popular science gurus such as Billy Nye and Neil Degrasse Tyson, the call for “science-based policy” was made loud and clear. Those who criticised stringent environmental regulations to combat Climate Change were branded as “anti-science” and hurled numerous epithets designed to shut down dissent.
The political philosophy of the March for Science movement is itself unscientific. When it comes to environmental policy, the support for ever increasing government regulations is not based on sound evidence, but on the anti-market sentiments that have had growing popularity.
‘March for Science’ passes through Central London, April 2017
Publicly funded NGOs continuously support pesticide regulation in the UK and the EU that harm innovation and attack established research. The executive director of the European Food Safety Authority, Bernhard Url, whose organisations scientific research is apparently not part of “science based policy” has said: ‘If political actors discredit scientific organisations because they don’t like the outcome in one out of 100 cases, they diminish the reputation of an organisation that they as policymakers will need to rely on in future’.
NGOs such as Greenpeace have also pushed faulty information which has disastrously influenced policy. They associated the use neonicotinoids – synthesised particles based on the structure of nicotine, with the declining bee population. As a result the European Union banned these pesticides in 2013, and has called for expanding that ban to more products.
A peer-reviewed study published in Science found that use of neonicotinoid pesticides actually increased the bee populations in various field experiments. Lead researcher Ben Woodcock wrote, ‘don’t give up on neonicotinoids… [they] do have a vital role to play in food production… they can be used in low dosages, reducing the need for broad-spectrum insecticide sprays. They are also useful in controlling pests which have already developed some resistance to other pesticides.’ Apparently this is not the type of science needed in policy.
As a result of the unintended consequences of poorly researched policy, the alternatives used by manufacturers have caused significant harm. The EU’s own Joint Research Centre noted the potential impacts to bees that less researched alternatives could have. Instead of supporting something with calculated risks, the EU has incentivised the use of products with uncertain effects.
The march against science goes on. Chatham House researchers attacked wood-based biomass technology, a key renewable source of energy. Viewing the carbon-neutral energy source as providing only “short term” benefits, they would prefer rapid transition to more expensive and economically unviable renewables. Ignoring the economic costs of hurting biomass, they would slow down the transition occurring throughout Europe away from high polluting coal-powered station. This narrow focus without concern for economic impacts can hardly be considered scientific policy making.
These environmental organisations have put politics over science, denying the importance of economic concerns, and believing their views to be self-evidently true. The International Energy Agency blasted the Chatham House report for its ‘unsubstantiated claims and flawed arguments’. 11 out of 23 EU member states failed to meet their 2015 emissions targets, with the UK being the only large nation to successfully meet all its targets, thanks in part to its high adoption of biomass.
Wood chips about to be used as biomass
This leads to a more philosophical point about science in policy. Science does not tell us what to value or how to act. Science cannot tell us that the environment should be supported at the expense of the economy and the working lives of individuals. Science does not tell us a certain product is bad without understanding what the alternative products are. To think in such a way is a dangerous idealism that ignores reality. Policy should be consistent with the totality of scientific data, but not motivated by it, and not piecemeal.
This is ignored by the well-funded machine of environmental lobbies and activists who believe their values to be unquestionable, and are willing to push bad science for their political ends. The public and policy makers alike should therefore question those who claim to be for “science based policy”. They should learn to distinguish between scientists and lobbyists who use science as a buzzword for political purposes. For lack of criticism, these groups have managed to tarnish the good name of science.