Time to speak up against the doom merchants

February 4, 2000

Academics have a duty to help dispel the bunkum in scaremongering debates, says Steve Farrar

Here is a vision of the future. Dark skies drizzle filthy rain on polluted cities. In the overcrowded slums, asthmatic, cancer-plagued hordes daily gamble their lives with each processed meal. The few scraps of forest not replaced by monotonous fields of crops are dying. Billions of people grub out bleak existences even as the seas start to rise to cleanse them from the planet.

This catalogue of horror stories has long pervaded environmentalist literature and has now gained a firm grip on the public mind. It is a vision that has been trotted out for decades.

Recall the shrill voices of the 1970s and then look out the window. Prophecy and reality seem to have come adrift at some point, but this does not stop the nightmare scenario being repeated. Pollution, starvation, over-population, global warming and environmental destruction - steps must be taken before it is too late, we are constantly told.

Recently, there was a new scare, one that threatened to wreck modern society. But this panic was fundamentally different - unlike the open-ended and often vague predictions, it had a deadline. The stroke of midnight on January 1, 2000, to be precise.

As has become apparent, the Y2K bug failed to show. There was a genuine problem that computers might get confused by the switch from 1999 to 2000, but it turned out that it was fairly simple to put right.

Nevertheless, the government responded admirably. Some Pounds 50 million was spent on publicity urging businesses to pay for specialist help; state computers were debugged at a cost running into hundreds of millions of pounds; and troops stood ready to be deployed if the bug paralysed the emergency services.

It is understandable that the public panicked. Information technology is playing an ever-increasing role in our lives and most people do not grasp how it works. We relied on the experts to get the predictions right; it seems they didn't.

Anthony Finkelstein insists the truth is somewhat different. Many experts in academe suspected the millennium bug was one part technological to nine parts hype, yet few spoke out. Finkelstein, professor of software systems engineering at University College London, was one of those who did.

"Nothing happened here, and the evidence suggests that nothing happened in those countries where there were significantly fewer preparations. You would have expected at least some problems to occur, if only as a result of bad fixes," he says. The handful of reported glitches, including one at a United States nuclear fuel reprocessing plant, seem to have been little more than the usual background count of system failures.

With hindsight, Finkelstein can ask why it was that so few of his peers would add their voices to his debunking of the hysterical claims. "On the whole, the academic community took a stance of ironic detachment from Y2K despite the fact people knew it was being hyped. We should have spoken up more clearly."

A few doubtless believed the predictions might be correct. Others, perhaps, were reluctant because they might compromise corporate sponsorship from companies in the forefront of the debugging campaign. Most probably did not want to get drawn into a controversial debate. But by failing to emphatically argue the counter point, the millennium bug scare was free to mushroom and huge amounts were wasted on unnecessary fixes -Jmoney that hospitals, for example, could have spent more usefully elsewhere.

Perhaps this would have been the case regardless of any academic intervention. But maybe the worst excesses of the panic could have been curbed. It is telling that Cambridge University is reported to have spent a relatively small amount tackling the problem, on the advice of its own computer experts.

"The lessons are clear," Finkelstein says, "professional engineers and scientists in academe and elsewhere have a responsibility to ensure that there is well-balanced comment in public areas. When there is a scare like this, we have to push our way to the front and say something."

Other scares are not so easily disposed of. The public is now frightened of genetic modification, despite there being no definitive evidence that it poses a threat to health or environment.

Arpad Pusztai's controversial experiments with genetically modified potatoes and rats have been rubbished for being fundamentally flawed and mishandled. US research showing that the monarch butterfly suffered when exposed to pollen from GM corn seems likely to be revealed as testing a wholly unrealistic scenario.

The stakes are high. With the world's population heading towards 10 billion by 2050, the problem of how to feed everyone is pressing. The phenomenal rise in agricultural yields with scientifically bred varieties of wheat and rice in the 1960s has allowed food production per capita to reach its highest since reliable records began. To maintain this effort we need to get more food from less land - in short, biotechnology. The alternative is mass starvation or the horror of enforced population control.

The GM food scare took plant scientists by surprise. Tony Trewavas, professor of applied biochemistry at the University of Edinburgh, admits:

"We had known about GM technology for 17 years and we thought the panic would just go away because it was such nonsense."

But it did not go away. After the BSE disaster, the public was in no mood to eat what they were given without question. When the US corporation Monsanto decided to force GM soya on us, backed by a government insistence that everything was OK, alarm bells started to ring. Monsanto's assurances were dismissed as commercially motivated propaganda, while green campaigners were viewed as honest crusaders defending us from more science gone awry. Curiously, the protestors' mix of moral and commercial concerns has been overlooked.

So what of academics, the unbiased experts to whom the nation should be able to turn in this debate? Again they were slow to react but are now increasingly vocal. "We realised we had to say something because so much of what was being said was just junk science," Trewavas says. In fact, very few academics have waded in against GM foods, and those who tend to have little or no expertise in plant biology.

Trewavas, an ardent supporter of GM food work, is angry at the commercial businesses that have tarnished a technology that he wants to see feed the world's growing population. But he is also angry at those anti-GM scientists who claim to have specialist knowledge of plant biology they clearly do not possess.

It seems likely from a scientific perspective that the GM scare will wither eventually as it slowly dawns on everyone that no solid evidence of a problem has emerged. In the meantime, who knows what the human cost in terms of starvation due to inadequate food supplies will be or how much more land will have to be cleared for less productive crops.

For both Trewavas and Finkelstein, the recent scares should be object lessons for the role of the academic in any future scares: not to toe a line decreed as correct by their peers - independent thought is vital to drawing balanced conclusions and gaining public trust - but to ensure that the debate is fair and that the evidence offered is genuine.

Global warming is an example of one such scare in which scientists are contributing intelligently and are now starting to have a positive impact on policy. Of course, it is still up to the politicians to act wisely on that advice.

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