Daddy scientist doesn't know best

September 3, 1999

While it is amusing to be called authoritarian by Steve Jones (even if being compared to a Nazi is entirely ludicrous), the issue of genetically modified crops is too important for his views to go unchallenged ("Soya beans are political hot potatoes", THES, August ).

Jones's arguments seem confused and contradictory. Of course the problem of genetic modification is political - it was never anything else. The question is the level of risk to which the public are to be exposed. It is therefore not unreasonable to allow them to participate in the decisions on genetic testing. This makes it different from private decisions on the risks of smoking. If I smoke I primarily risk my own health, whereas growing GM crops puts at risk the welfare of a great many other people. This risk is also, as Jones admits, of a different magnitude from the smaller individual risks with which we are familiar, as exemplified by the article on indestructible weeds in the same issue. Giving myself cancer is one thing, ruining the food chain of an entire continent is a different matter. It is not for Jones or for multinational companies to tell the public what is "safe". They are not the ones running these huge risks.

While Jones dislikes authoritarianism, he offers a well-meaning but misplaced paternalism. His attitude of "Daddy scientist knows best" grates horribly. Like many scientists, he discounts the views of the public, preferring to believe the problem is a lack of understanding or poor communication. Neither is the case. As Ulrich Beck pointed out, almost all major change in health and environmental protection has occurred despite established scientific opinion, rather than because of it. Scientists are not trusted because the scientific community has not shown itself to be trustworthy. Experts are in league with big business and the public is frequently lied to. Just as importantly, the questions scientists are claiming to have answered are often political rather than scientific ones. Noticeably Jones has not suggested mechanisms to avoid the disaster he says could occur happening.

His views also seem somewhat contradictory. Why are GM crops needed if "our world is saturated with food"? Ending poor conservation would do more for food production than GM foods will. And if the problem is simply a lack of public understanding, why are GM foods not clearly labelled? There are those who might think it is Jones himself who is a tad authoritarian, rather than the Greens.

Jon Mulberg Lecturer in sociology, University of Reading, and convenor, Green Party treasury team

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