Source: BBC Radio 4: Today Programme
URL: http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_9723000/9723825.stm
Date: 25/05/2012
EventAre we descending into a new Age of Unreason in public policy?

  • Nina Fedoroff: President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science
  • Tom Feilden: BBC science correspondent
  • Mark Henderson: Author of The Geek Manifesto
  • Chris Mooney: American journalist, author of The Republican Brain
  • John Pickett: Fellow of the Royal Society, expert in planet chemistry
  • Justin Webb: Presenter, BBC Radio 4 Today programme

Justin Webb: Here's a question: is the Enlightenment over? Earlier this year, the President of the AAAS, America's leading academy of science, claimed that the politicisation of science, on issues such as climate change, genetic modification, evolution even, was driving the U.S. into a new Dark Age. And over here, scientists complain that politicians routinely cherry-pick data, casually disregard the facts when they don't fit their preconceptions. So are we descending into a new Age of Unreason in public policy? Our science correspondent, Tom Feilden, has been weighing the evidence, and has found some encouraging signs that the geeks are fighting back.

Nina Fedoroff: Belief systems, especially if they're tinged with fear, are not easily dismantled with facts...

Tom Feilden: The President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Nina Fedoroff, uses the platform of her address to the leading scientific academy to sound the alarm over the denigration of science in public policy debate.

Nina Fedoroff: This isn't a new problem, but it's an urgent and growing problem. Fewer people believe in climate change with each passing year. And the conviction that vaccinations cause autism is alive and well. What a tragedy.

Tom Feilden: Away from the podium, Professor Federoff was even more frank, claiming she was "scared to death" by the mounting contempt shown for science across a range of issues, from genetic modification and immunisation strategies to evolution, but particularly on climate change. And warning that America was in danger of slipping into a new anti-rationalist Dark Age. 

Nina Fedoroff: If you're speaking from your best scientific knowledge, and you're saying "World, wake up. This is what's happening, these are the facts", if we don't do something about it, with every year it gets harder and harder, and we're doing - nothing. Zip. Zero. So that's why I'm scared to death. Where are we going?

Chris Mooney: Essentially, what you have is this incredibly militant rejection of the best available knowledge. 

Tom Feilden: Chris Mooney, the author of Unscientific America and The Republican Brain, who identifies this slide into unreason with the rise of the American Right.

Chris Mooney: And oddly, bizarrely, people who think that they can put their knowledge ahead of that, in some way, and think that they can argue the point better than all the world's scientists, and that their view is going to triumph, even though it's not in the scientific literature. Even though they don't even have a grasp of the issues, really. But that's the state of affairs.

Tom Feilden: Things are a little different here, according to the author of The Geek Manifesto, Mark Henderson, where the problem is not so much people turning their faces against uncomfortable truths, but rather that we don't appreciate the vital role science has to play in evidence-based policymaking. 

Mark Henderson: There's very little of what you might term "anti-science" in politics, very few MPs who are actively hostile to what science has to offer. But there is, I think, a much broader problem of indifference to science. It's simply not something that the vast majority of our elected representatives, and indeed civil servants, have actually thought about.

[Crowd noises.]

Man's voice: "... I don't know what you're taking, but I will never bruise [?] again..." [Crowd laughter.]

Tom Feilden: But there are also signs that things are changing. A series of demonstrations by scientists outside homeopathy clinics have attracted hundreds of people to turn up and deliberately swallow massive overdoses of herbal remedies. And all to no noticeable effect. 

[Crowd counts down, cheers, whoops, etc.]

[Rustling noises.]

John Pickett: Well, here we are at the crop...

Tom Feilden: While in the past, the prospect of having your experiment trashed by anti-GM campaigners might have sent plant scientists scurrying back to their ivory towers, the threat to destroy the latest trial, of a genetically modified wheat variety that's been engineered to deter aphids and cut down on the use of pesticides, has brought Professor John Pickett out of the Rothamsted Research Station on a mission to win over the sceptics.

John Pickett: There are a lot of people out there who are actually rather worried, because they don't really understand what we're doing, and so I thought it was very important to engage, so that we could explain and answer the kind of questions that people might have. And I think this is a very important aspect of public debate and we should provide evidence to the public, and to the body politic, so it can discuss the matter, in view of that evidence.

Tom Feilden: It seems the "geeks", as Mark Henderson likes to describe them, are fighting back.