Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday broadsheet newspaper on 25 August 2013
“For every expert, there is an equal and opposite expert!”
With those tongue-in-cheek words, Sir Arthur C Clarke opened a June 1998 op-ed essay published in Science, journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It probably struck a chord, and he soon added it as a fourth to his better known Three Laws.
The dilemma he highlighted is even more acute today. How can politicians make the best possible public policies when there is no scientific consensus in many technically complex issues?
And what can the public do when politicians in office are using scientific evidence only when it suits them, and ignore all the inconvenient truths? In other words, when governments are being expediently ‘evidence-based’?
Responsible governments have to balance the short and long term public interest by carefully considering the options and likely scenarios. In modern societies, these often entail turning to experts for scientific analysis and advice.
But making the right decision isn’t easy when ‘experts’ come in all shapes and colours, and advocacy groups are also trotting PhDs in their single issue campaigning. Policies cannot wait until all debates are settled.
When experts and activists disagree, the public — and most journalists — struggle to make sense of their often contradictory claims. Confusion or panic doesn’t help anyone.
In the name of Science?
Take, for example, recent controversies about industrial effluent affecting drinking water, and suspected contamination of some imported milk powder. Scientific measurements and arguments were bandied around in both discussions, without much clarity or focus.
Yes, water quality is a major concern — and not just for the residents of Weliweriya, close to Colombo, whose demands for safe drinking water met with corporate cynicism and military force earlier this month. Much of the country’s surface and ground water resources are affected by nutrient pollution (from excessive use of chemical fertilisers), pesticide pollution or industrial discharges.
In this setting, finding pure water is a bit like looking for the ‘non-peeing section of a swimming pool’.
When a multiplicity of sources and factors are degrading our water, why bicker over a single indicator in Weliweriya? Dr Ranil Senanayake, Sri Lanka’s first systems ecologist, posed this query in a recent op-ed essay.
He wrote: “The misuse of objective science was seen…in respect of the statement put out by the company and by the government. The entire argument was on the acidity (pH) of the well water. The symptoms that the communities complained about go way beyond the acidity of the water. It suggests one or more chemicals contaminating the well water and affecting the residents. Testing for just one chemical will not help either.”
Dr Senanayake posed four questions to the company, answers to which can shed light on the extent (or absence) of health-threatening groundwater pollution. (Read full essay: http://tiny.cc/RSPh)
Weliweriya reached flashpoint due to a combination of pollution regulatory failure, weak local governance and, as some argue, over politicising of a local issue. Seeking scientific evidence appears to be an afterthought, when other arguments didn’t work.
Accomplished British science journalist David Dickson, one time news editor of Nature and New Scientist who died last month, was long concerned about the worrying trend of politicians cherry picking evidence and experts. He cautioned scientists and journalists to be wary about policymakers selecting science to legitimise pre-chosen and politically-motivated policies.
In an August 2009 editorial in SciDev.Net, Dickson noted how “praise-worthy efforts to promote evidence-based policy are sometimes undermined by politicians seeking ‘policy-based evidence’ — research that can be used to justify politically-motivated action.”
Dickson added: “Robust scientific findings, such as those linking human activity to climate change, or how animals are kept to disease outbreaks, can point convincingly to the need for immediate action. Conversely, bad science used to make social choices inevitably brings bad decisions.” (Full text: The Curse of Policy-based Evidence)
Probably the deadliest recent example of the latter kind is South Africa’s HIV/AIDS misadventure. President Thabo Mbeki, who succeeded Nelson Mandela and served from 1999 to 2008, ignored the well-established scientific consensus about a virus (HIV) causing AIDS and didn’t accept the essential role of antiretroviral (ARV) drugs in treating it. Instead, he and his health minister embarked on their own ‘alternative’ treatment regime, using garlic, lemon juice and beetroot — all in the name of African ‘traditional knowledge’!
The debacle was very costly. A 2008 study by Harvard researchers estimated that this caused the premature deaths of at least 365,000 South Africans living with HIV. It also set back South Africa’s public health progress by years.
How could this happen in post-Apartheid South Africa with its recently invigorated democratic institutions and an independent media?
The coterie that led President Mbeki astray took cover under African nationalism. Medical and other scientific professionals who questioned this idiocy were dismissed as blind promoters of ‘western science’ or denigrated as ‘agents of multinational companies’. (Sounds familiar?)
Only a few public figures sustained their criticism over the years. Notable among them were outspoken Desmond Tutu, novelist Nadine Gordimer, HIV activist Zackie Achmat and cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro (who signs as ‘Zapiro’). It took much courage to take on a popular president when he was utterly wrong.
Safeguarding Policy Process
‘Indigenous knowledge’ is also frequently invoked in our own policy debates. One instance when the government completely ignored scientific evidence and followed ‘alternative advisors’ was in April 2006, when it reverted Sri Lanka’s standard time from GMT+6 to GMT+5:30.
Our leading energy planning specialist, Dr Tilak Siyambalapitiya, released a detailed analysis of how the time change would affect electricity consumers. Other public intellectuals, including Sir Arthur Clarke and Dr Rohan Samarajiva, endorsed this position. But in the end, lobbying by astrologers, ultra-nationalists and some Buddhist monks won the day.
According to Dr Siyambalapitiya, maintaining GMT+6 could have helped save 0.5% of total power generation a year, which in 2012 tariffs was worth around LKR 900 million. Not small change, by any means…
All societies must guard against small but vocal minorities hijacking vital public policies for their ideologies (or simple economic gain). Increasingly, such groups use their own interpretations of ‘science’.
Some countries have been refining mechanisms to cope with complex and contentious technical debates with far reaching policy implications.
In a 2006 report, the UK Parliament warned that ministers “should certainly not seek selectively to pick pieces of evidence which support an already agreed policy, or even commission research in order to produce a justification for policy: so-called ‘policy-based evidence making'”
In a report titled Scientific Advice, Risk and Evidence Based Policy Making, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee said: “In considering evidence based policy, we conclude that the Government should not overplay this mantra, but should acknowledge more openly the many drivers of policy making, as well as any gaps in the relevant research base…”
The report urged policy makers to identify early the issues on which they need scientific advice and early public engagement, and get a wide range of advice from the best sources — particularly when there is uncertainty.
It also called for publishing the evidence, analysis and all relevant papers. In short, a rigorous and transparent process open to media and public scrutiny. Isn’t that a standard to emulate, now that Sri Lanka is burnishing its Commonwealth credentials?
David Dickson has argued that scientists have a responsibility to help ensure that only sound science is used to inform policy-making. Journalists, professionally trained in scepticism, can be useful allies in that process.
“We must apply the same scepticism to politicians who may be using science primarily to legitimise their actions — particularly when the quoted research has been paid for, either directly or indirectly, by a government…” he wrote in 2009.
Imagine that in our current furore over milkfood safety — or other scares like feared arsenic in rice — where the overbearing state is playing multiple roles of accusing, testing, judging and even banning.
In the resulting melee, public trust in experts and governance can be seriously eroded. Are we on our way to becoming a nation of credulous peddlers of endless conspiracy theories, à la Pakistan?