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Friday, 21 June 2013

The Impact of PR on Debate ...

This morning I picked up a link from Discover Magazine and an article by Christie Wilcox who points to the fact that often people refuse to accept evidence which conflicts with their own agenda, ideology or concept of how things 'should be'. To a very large extent this, she says, is down to NGOs and others going beyond 'raising concerns' and actively promoting 'non-science' or flawed science set out in non-peer reviewed papers, or which is concocted from deeply flawed work which does not meet scientific criteria. Two quotes from her article highlight the problem -
 Kara Moses asked Guardian readers: “Should we wait for conclusive scientific studies before becoming concerned about an issue?” Her personal answer was no; that special interest groups should perform and publicize their own findings. “I believe they should be given a voice,” she concluded, “not dismissed out of hand for lacking the scientific rigour demanded by professional scientists.Quick to support her was Treehugger writer Chris Tackett. “The point here is that scientific proof matters in science, but it shouldn’t necessarily be what determines our actions,” he wrote. “We can intuit that some things are unwise or dangerous or against our values without needing reams of scientific data to back up our concerns.” While Kara’s piece talked only about the use of glyphosate (the pesticide known by its brand name RoundUp), Chris used it to attack both the pesticide’s use and Monsanto GM crops.
I disagree with both. All too often it is these half-baked and often deeply flawed and WRONG so-called 'studies' that the mass media make a huge storm around, scare the gullible into all manner of silly 'health' concerns, and then fail to publish any sort of convincing retraction when properly conducted studies expose the truth. By then, the damage is done. Writers like Chris Tackett refuse to accept scientific evidence which does not fit their 'intuitive' position which is that all pesticides are bad and all GM crops are bad. Any evidence to the contrary is immediately labelled as 'lies paid for by Big Pharma' or by 'Big Oil' if it's anything to do with the environment or the climate.

In my career one of the most important lessons I learned (the hard way sometimes) was NEVER investigate something with an idea of what might have caused it or happened. You will always be blinded by what is known as 'expectation bias' and will see only the answers you wish to see. All too often it is the un-scientific 'public relations' version of facts, more 'intuit' than real, that gets into the public mindset. And once there, it is, for around 50% of the population, almost impossible to correct it. Perfect example, mentioned in Ms Wilcox's article, the link between autism and vaccines. Now proved to be false, there are still a large number of people who swear the scientists are wrong and refuse to allow their children to vaccinated. Even the doctor who started that load of garbage having been struck off the medical register doesn't stoop their campaigning. Now he's a 'martyr' to their 'truth'.

It can be seen in all the debates surrounding Climate Change. No reasonable person actually denies that the climate is changing in some ways, what an increasing number do doubt is that Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the WWF, Government or anyone else actually knows the cause. Most of the supposition is founded on computer modelling and most of the data they use has been 'smoothed', 'adjusted' and even 'invented' based on very small samples of tree rings, bark or sediments from lakes. No amount of protest from some of those whose work has been subsumed and sometimes blatantly misused seems to make any difference to the campaigners - who accuse anyone who dares to challenge their 'evidence' of being in the pay of 'Big Oil'. If only! The truth is that much of what these 'intuitive' campaigners want is to turn back the clock to some idyllic past moment with fewer people, 'natural' food, less industry and less commerce. Bad news folks, it never existed. Second bit of bad news, there is no way us switching off all electrical power in Europe and North America, will make one jot of difference to the climate.

Apart from all our cities collapsing in ruins and those of us who have the skills or the means, will be forced to become scavengers and hunter gatherers - probably destroying anything that was left in the process.

There are a lot of scientists who point to these models and show how they ignore a range of past events, because the data has been 'smoothed' out or simply not included. Like the Medieval Warm Period, when Greenland could support cattle. I was reminded of that by the following note in a piece offering a series of lectures on history -

"2. Climatic Changes: The population situation came at a most unfortunate time, since, almost at the same time, the climate of Europe suddenly turned colder and wetter. Indeed, some historians believe that Europe may have entered a "mini Ice Age" in the 14th century, as evidenced by the heavy clothing depicted on portraiture of the time and later. These climatic changes meant crop failures. Crops either froze in the fields or else were subject to rot in the granaries from the dampness of incessant rains."
As Josephus, who sent it to me commented ...
 Obviously, this was anthropomorphically induced by Marco Polo's international travel and the Hordes of Genghis Khan irresponsibly allowing their Yaks to fart in Europe.
As the quote above suggests, Europe suffered badly when the climate swung back to 'colder' because they had no means of adapting rapidly to it. I would suggest that instead of trying to 'control' our climate we need to look at adaptation tactics. Instead of trying to outlaw fuel, heating, transport, industry and commerce, we should be finding ways to make it and all our other activities more adaptable and much more environmentally friendly. I have yet to meet a dedicated 'Green' of any persuasion who was able to make any practical suggestion for providing reliable, stable energy, reliable supplies of food and clean water or anything else. The mindset revolves around a fantasy of cottage industry, self-help and 'communal effort'. None of which is in any way realistic.

No, it is most certainly NOT a good idea for NGOs like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and WWF to launch what amount to publicity campaigns based in their own, frequently biased, and often unscientific 'research'. At best it does nothing but alarm some sections of the populace, and at worst, it leads to campaigns which drive policy into dead-end directions and perverts scientific study. That is what is wrong at present with the entire Climate Change debate as I was reminded again yesterday when reading the latest copy of Scientific American. The piece on the Tar Sands in Canada is a classic of 'intuition' versus science. The writer doesn't like oil, doesn't want oil, hates the industry - so the scientific studies are dismissed.

No, the so-called campaigning NGOs do not have the right to trumpet abroad their 'intuited' fear campaigns. Anything they wish to promote as 'science' should and MUST be subjected to the same rigours as every other scientific study.

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