The inevitable collision between the scientific and public world

14 03 2010

Cover of the latest UNEP report

The scientific community prides itself in its ability to distinguish good from junk science thanks to a thorough and objective peer-review process. While this process has proved successful to foster scientific progress, it has been recently put to test when scientific issues became entangled with public policy debates. From the toxicity of chemicals like aspartame or tobacco in the 1980’s to the recent Climate Gate, more and more scientists get dragged into the public arena where brilliant or simply demagogic rhetoric trumps long and complex discussions about statistical significance. Scientists are ill-equipped to provide opinions when they are in reality accustomed to discuss about facts. As a result, you end in situations like Climate Change where both scientists and public leaders get frustrated at each other, leaving the door open for private and other interests to shape the debate in their favor.

A couple of months ago, MIT organized a conference with Richard Lindzen and other professors from the institution. Richard Lindzen is the A. P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology at MIT and one of the most famous voices against the climate change consensus. He is widely quoted in the conservative reports denying the existence of climate change. However, when one carefully listens to him, it becomes obvious that he does not deny the existence of man-induced climate change. He just argues that the data proving a anthropogenic climate change is not conclusive for lack of statistical significance. In a nutshell, he does not deny nor confirm climate change; he is indecise. During the same conference, Ronald Prinn, the TEPCO Professor of Atmospheric Science at MIT, strongly argued against Pr. Lindzen but finally acknowledged that the only difference between them relied on their different appreciation of the risk. Prinn summarized it well when he said: “My judgement of statistical significance for anthropogenic warming is very much dependent on my belief/fear that we don’t have another planet to go to.” Both were looking at the same data but saw different thing.

This is a well-known phenomenon called type I vs. type II error. And it goes well beyond the debate on climate change. A type I error is when you think something is harmful but it is actually not. On the opposite, a type II error is when you believe that something is benign but it is actually harmful. Scientific data will never give you a clear-cut answer i.e. this is harmful or not. Data will always be subject to interpretation. In our case, Prinn is so afraid of a type II error about climate change that he became a strong advocate about anthropogenic climate change.

One will find the same type of debate around chemical toxicity. Do you run the risk of being wrong about the toxicity of a chemical? or do you cautiously ban a perfectly safe chemical, thus preventing society from enjoying its benefits? This is all the more relevant for nanotechnology these days. We don’t have a lot of data on the toxicity of these new materials and yet, they show great potential to enhance our lives. What do you do then? Likewise, with GMOs, do you risk the health of some ecosystems to support research that could solve world hunger or design the perfect renewable fuel?

I am clearly not taking sides here. My point is that science is now caught up in the public debate and this is just the beginning. Be prepared to see more and more of these never-ending debates unravel around new technologies. Science will never provide us with the type of statements and expert opinion that the policy makers want. What we saw on GMOs or stem cells is representative of what may happen in the future. Regulations will dictate how technology will evolve and thus where potential winners will emerge. People and companies that will be able to bridge the “language gap” between the scientific and the policy world will have a competitive advantage. So, Are you one of them?

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2 responses

2 04 2010
Affectionate_beauty

How you think when the economic crisis will end? I wish to make statistics of independent opinions!

2 04 2010
llagarde

Good question and to your point, it is anyone’s guess? We should be back full speed ahead by the end of the year

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