People power should not be underestimated

October 22, 1999

Grave damage has been done to science over the past few years by politicians and industrialists. Big companies with fat wallets have cosied up to politicians, beguiling them with the promise of rich industries generating jobs and exports - and even saving the world's growing population from hunger. Politicians, eager to bring in the loot and the jobs, and to see new industries growing up to take the place of decaying ones, have been too willing to listen. They have been uncritical in examining the claims of their new-found friends. They have also been contemptuous of the public, uttering bland reassurances that all was safe, when the science would not bear such certainty.

Small wonder that the public has lost faith. But who has it lost faith in? It suits businessmen and politicians to make out that it is a loss of faith in science, to wring their hands and ask for more programmes in the public understanding of science and more curbs on the media, which is blamed for the scaremongering. But it is not, on the whole, the scientists who are mistrusted by the public but the politicians (who are seen as corrupt) and the companies (which are seen as domineering, greedy and economical with the truth).

The latest work from the Economic and Social Research Council (page 7) underlines yet again what academics have been pointing out for many years. The public is not stupid: people are not particularly hostile to innovation, but people accustomed to living in democratic societies dislike being flannelled by those who have an obvious vested interest in one side of the argument. Where risks are a matter of choice, people prefer to decide for themselves. White-water rafting is popular, nuclear power stations are not.

On the whole, there is a reasonably good understanding among the public in developed countries, and perhaps particularly in Europe, about the limits of science. People know that today's received wisdom will be replaced by next year's new discovery. What causes distrust is when politicians and others pretend to a degree of certainty that is unrealistic. Telling the public that beef is safe - and anyway stopping eating it will hurt the meat industry - invites scepticism. Introducing Terminator technology to stop genetically modified crops spreading and then claiming there is no risk of them doing so does not carry conviction. In the present uncertain times, scientists should keep their nerve and politicans and industrialists should mend their ways.

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