Can we be confident that if we get the facts out that genetic control of mosquitoes will be accepted for testing to prevent diseases? In the face of anti-GM activists, scientists have their hands tied by an intractable force – a professional demand to simply present the facts. Should scientists become more persuasive by becoming activists?
My son had a valuable insight about conservative politics in the US: “Conservatives are always making the mistake that truth wins.” It illustrates a fallacy that scientists fall into. If we can simply get the truth about what we are doing and know into the publics’ hands, they will be able to reach reasonable conclusions. If only the world worked that way.
(A scientist in climate change science, Judith Curry, made a presentation recently that represents the prevalence of the “truth wins” error. I encourage you to take time to view it here . She nicely lays out the difference between stating scientific fact and becoming a pseudo-scientist activist. Interesting talk, but I think her conclusion is incorrect: truth will win hearts in the arena of opinion and policy.)
It is difficult for a scientist to become an activist and to maintain the respect of scientists who are not dependent upon them for a funding/employment stream. Why? The activist usually has to go beyond what is known and claim as fact that which they only wish were firmly established. The activist aims to put into public belief only knowledge that results in action. Scientific uncertainty does not motivate action.
We must get the truth out about GM mosquitoes, but we cannot expect those who categorically oppose the use of GM mosquitoes to care or behave similarly. Distortion, disinformation and outright untruth are all fair game. Their objective is not the inexorable advance of truth (as a scientist’s should be): it is winning.
As an example, in response to an article about GM Aedes I wrote an essay for Scientific American recently. I made certain assertions about the need for, and safety of, sterile mosquitoes such as are being used as the first applications of GM mosquitoes. As a scientist, I cannot claim that there is no risk, I cannot claim they will be effective in the long-run. If I do, I go beyond being a scientist because this can only be determined as we proceed in small safe steps.
I was writing opposite the director of GeneWatch, Helen Wallace, who presented an opposing view. Not surprisingly, she did not acknowledge that her concerns could be addressed by the slow incremental assessment of GM mosquito safety: large-scale release without assessment of the consequences was assumed. I know for a fact that easily obtained facts about community engagement in Brazil and Mexico were denied. Wallace states that “…Only in Malaysia did the company openly consult the public…” This is a blatant falsehood. You can see evidence to the contrary here or here. There were also the standard scientifically vacuous assertions about devious corporate motivations and the reckless influence of private donors on the progress of trials. But, as I have said, activism is not about science.
She also paraded a catalog of risks that are of potential concernin the release of GM mosquitoes. What did she cite? A report on which I was an author. (Was that an intentional “Gotcha?”) She didn’t mention that most of the issues the report raised were irrelevant to the technology she was commenting on. These are boilerplate narratives one can easily trot out that many will accept. But is it the truth? Does it matter?
It matters. The advance of knowledge and benefits of technology are not inevitable. When science and activism mingle, science suffers and poor public policy results. Worse yet is when health suffers. Just ask a kid who is allergic to childhood vaccinations and who has become infected with an easily preventable disease because his schoolmate’s parents believe that vaccines mistakenly cause autism e.g. here and here. For activists, there is always a conspiracy of dark powerful forces working behind the scenes who are keeping the truth from coming out.
A scientist can become an activist, but when one crosses that line, knowledge can be shaded and misrepresented because the objective is no longer truth: it is winning. Can those developing transgenic mosquitoes stick to the truth and still win a fair assessment for the technology? That’s what they’re asking for.