Water fluoridation got a thumbs-up in a 2006 study by the US National Academy of Sciences. But that did not prevent Irish anti-fluoridation campaigner and environmental consultant at Enviro Management Services, Bandon, Declan Waugh, from claiming that the US study did the opposite. His novel interpretation of the US paper underpins his discredited theory that fluoridation means Ireland has a higher rate of numerous serious medical conditions, including Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, Down’s Syndrome and thyroid disorders, among others.
Yet, despite his academic delinquency, Waugh has been given an environmental award and is feted as a “courageous whistleblower” by some segments of the Irish media. The same might be said of Gilles-Eric Séralini, professor of molecular biology at the University of Caen, France, whose work had led him to a controversial conclusion that lab rats fed Genetically Modified (GM) maize developed tumours. But other scientists criticised his methods and his paper was also withdrawn by the journal that originally published it.
Despite the unwelcome shadow now cast on his work, Séralini appears dressed as a valiant Superhero on one environmentalist website. Andrew Wakefield is another scientist who, despite being academically discredited for his study linking the MMR vaccine to autism, enjoys adulation in some circles.
Fear-driven and irrational vox populi’s impact on science policy
The fact that Seralini might be mistaken in his rat tumour claims—critics suggest the lab animals were genetically prone to tumours—is immaterial. Like Waugh he has become a lightning-rod for the environmental movement which ignores any shortcomings others might highlight. Indeed, both men are now paraded almost as scientific proof that science itself is wrong.
Increasingly, there are more and more European instances where ideology triumphs over scientific rationale. David McConnell, retired professor of genetics from Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, warns that politicians are now so in thrall to environmentalists peddling scientific mistruths that it is extremely difficult for research to progress.
Plant geneticist Peter Beyer professor of cell biology at the University of Freiburg, Germany, warns that with the departure from Europe of GM patrons like BASF and Syngenta, the region is now seriously falling behind the rest of the world in genetic research which itself has become a dirty word. Beyer shares his own experience: “Frequently students say ‘I can hardly tell at home what I am doing here.’ They are made to feel almost criminal.”
But while anti-fluoridationists and anti-GM campaigners capitalise on the public’s fear of the unknown, anti-nuclear protestors can focus on the known horrors of the Fukushima disaster. But have they gone too far in preventing research into the safe disposal of British nuclear waste, many thousands of kilos of which languishes in open ponds? Limited research funds are now available but research funding into plutonium waste disposal, driven by anti-nuclear opinion, dried up after the 1980s, according to says Simon Pimblott professor of radiation chemistry at the Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences of The University of Manchester, UK.
“It doesn’t matter if you are an environmentalist or a politician, this is a problem urgently needing a solution,” Pimblott explains. “Politicians sometimes don’t like the answers but science is science, these are hard facts and you need to deal with them.” He adds: “Greater scientific integrity and increased peer-reviewing is the only answer to bad science.”
But Beyer despairs of ever finding the answer. “It’s all mixed up into one big pot of fear,” he said. “I’m afraid there’s nothing you can do.”
Sociology and philosophy to the rescue
This debate inevitably throws up questions of scientific ethics. But the morality or otherwise of maverick scientists and campaigners is hardly the point when they are championed, not by the scientific establishment, but by people whose perspective does not necessarily follow the same logic.
Enter the new post-modern Sociology of Science which soothingly offers cultural reasons for why some scientific proposals and conclusions are unacceptable to citizens. The Artemisinin Project, which uses GM techniques to produce anti-malarial substances, provides a useful example. Claire Marris , research fellow in the Department of Social Science, Health and Medecine at Kings College London, UK, is sceptical. “Far from helping to promote the field, the use of the Artemisinin Project as a poster child could end up tarnishing the image of synthetic biology if the outcomes turn out to be less than triumphant.”
Should scientists rely, then, on sociologists, or even philosophers, to help produce “culturally acceptable” versions of their projects and conclusions? Some like Marcel Kunz, a biologist at Université Joseph Fourier, in Grenoble, France, warn the result will be slower progress. “If there is no universal truth, as postmodern philosophy claims, then each social or political group should have the right to the reality that best suits them,” says Kunz. If he is correct, this leaves the door wide open to so-called caped crusaders like Waugh, Séralini and Wakefield.
Gerry is a freelance journalist, based in Dublin, Ireland.
Featured image credit: CC BY-ND-2.0 by Michelle N
Go back to the Special Issue: Ethics, values and culture driving research