LLRC Journal Radioactive Times. Vol.4 No 2

Radioactive Times. Vol.4 No 2

"I don't know much about science but ..."

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The Low Level Radiation Campaign realised a long time ago that in addressing the accepted scientific model underlying radiation protection standards it is playing the same public role as the small boy in the story of the Emperor's new clothes. But there's a big difference. In the story the central myth collapses as soon as one person has the nerve to shout out The Emperor is naked!, while in reality a scientific paradigm, however weak it is, doesn't collapse until a critical mass of people is pouring scorn on it. The little boy has a lot of persuading to do.

LLRC and Green Audit have sunk a few pints over this, and conclude that a good part of the problem lies with the sources from which governments get their scientific advice.

Working on the possibly flawed assumption that Parliament can influence policy, they sent a questionnaire to British MPs to see just what qualifications they have in scientific and technical subjects. Over a quarter of respondents had none - not even maths O-level. And this was just the Members who had replied; Green Audit estimates that for all MPs probably around a third are not scientifically or mathematically literate.

Their report observes that:

People who do not have O-level maths may find themselves struggling with concepts such as ratios and percentages, never mind such technicalities as the statistical significance of research findings or inferential statistics. Does this matter? For many political decision, perhaps no. But in a world increasingly affected by scientific and technical knowledge those who are unable to understand basic concepts are at a great disadvantage. They are prisoners of the advice given by scientifically literate civil servants, expert committees, and lobbyists whose interests may be tied to transnational companies.
And the problem is not confined to rank-and-file MPs - Baroness Symons, for example, is a Minister, an ex-First Division civil servant and by all accounts extremely intelligent. She was recently asked whether she had read the reports criticising the safety records of Lockheed Martin and BNFL before taking the decision to hand them the contract to run Aldermaston. The Baroness said:
I wouldn't necessarily understand the individual bits. I have the humility to say that I am not a nuclear scientist, but there are those who are and who understand the reports in full, I have to rely on those with real expertise.
The implicit assumption is that the "experts" will not have become biased by their contacts with or employment in the industry or as a result of their education in nuclear physics. Unlikely.

And it's equally unlikely that Baroness Symons would consult experts who are just as capable of understanding "all the individual bits" but who are linked with Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth or NAG - the ginger group based near Aldermaston.

The official view is that NGOs, industry and independent committees like COMARE have equal access to committees of MPs and hence equal influence on the decisions of responsible ministers. But in reality there are filters and pressures which amplify pro-industry views and attenuate the voices of critics. Pro- industry bias on the "independent" committees can be seen, for example in Ray Baker's enthusiasm for genetic modification trials (Baker is the head of the Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council):-

.... we need to build even more confidence in this technology and it is vital to increase the size of [the experimental] trials.
At the same time the lack of funding of truly independent research means that its results suffer from a credibility deficit, and a highly efficient filter system exists to block ministerial faith in (or even awareness of) the opinions of NGOs and local interest groups. LLRC has first hand experience of this, and has been given reliable insights into the inter-departmental networking of civil servants intent on maintaining the status quo.

Green Audit concludes that any search for objectivity is a confusing waste of time. Anybody whose opinion on a subject is worth having can be expected to bring some baggage with it too. What is needed is a system which accommodates the baggage in the same way that the British system of justice accommodates irreconcilable points of view by testing them - trying them - before a judge and jury.

The British Parliamentary system offers another analogy, since its greatest strength is seen as the way the opposition tests legislation by subjecting it to bombardment.

Green Audit's proposed framework of oppositional scientific advice.
Government funds a Scientific Advice Unit which commissions and funds Citizen Scientists to undertake studies and review the evidence on specific areas where advice is needed. The system must ensure that the final decision makers have seen reports or abstracts from all sides of the issue.

I Don't Know Much about Science: Political Decision Making Involving Science and Technology. Scott-Cato M, Busby C, Bramhall R; Green Audit Aberystwyth 2000 ISBN 1 897761 21 X. 5 from Green Audit, Castle Cottage, Seaview Place, Aberyswyth SY23 1DZ or LLRC's usual address - The Knoll, Montpellier Park, Llandrindod Wells, Powys LD1 5LW.
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