Science can mean different things

molecular model

Increasingly, farmers and ranchers agree that “sound science” is science that sounds good to them rather than science that is scientifically sound. Bad science, on the other hand, is science that sounds bad to them even if the majority of scientists agree on it.

For example, a Nov. 2014 poll by Purdue University and Iowa State University showed that “more than 90 percent of the 173 scientists … surveyed … believed climate change was occurring, with more than 80 percent attributing climate change … to a combination of human activities and natural causes.”

By “contrast, 66 percent of 4,778 corn producers surveyed said they believed climate change was occurring, with 8 percent pinpointing human activities as the main cause,” while “31 percent said there was not enough evidence to determine whether climate change was happening or not.”

The reason for the wide differences, the researchers explained, is pretty simple: “Scientists … are saying climate change is happening, and agricultural commodity groups and farmers are saying they don’t believe it.”

Belief system

So, if you believe it, it’s science; if you don’t believe it, it isn’t science. Fine, but that describes politics, not science. Indeed, noted the Purdue-Iowa State researchers, “Whenever climate change gets introduced, the conversation tends to turn political.”

The same changeover occurred in an Oct. 25 New York Times op/ed titled With G.M.O. Policies, Europe Turns Against Science, written by Mark Lynas, a Brit who serves as “the political director for the Cornell Alliance for Science at Cornell University.”

The column, a 1,500-word blast at 17 European nations that recently banned the “cultivation of genetically modified crops,” begins with a cannon shot; he groups the nations into “the ‘Coalition of the Ignorant.’”

Maximum effect

Lynas, a writer, not a scientist, chose those words for maximum effect, of course, because his ignorant “coalition” includes several nations that all but invented science: Germany, Austria, France, Denmark and Italy. Now, however, he writes, their acceptance of these GMO “prohibitions expose the worrying reality of how far Europe has gone in setting itself against modern science.”

But, he immediately adds, “True, the bans do not apply directly to scientific research …” Wait a second; the “bans do not apply directly to scientific research…”?

So, in fact, this “Coalition of the Ignorant” has not set itself “against modern science.”

Looking ahead

The nations’ leaders, in fact, may well understand how important GMOs will be in the future because the “cultivation” bans (temporary? permanent? Lynas doesn’t say) “do not apply directly to scientific research.”

Those two facts explain the politics behind GMOs in Europe, not the science, and neither has anything to do with ignorance — other than the author choosing to ignore the political reality of most European consumers and leaders. In short, the bans are more about the next election than what’s next in science.

Greater truth

Lynas’s polarizing op/ed may have hit on the greater truth about science than either he or Cornell University or the GMO-promoting Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—which gave his boss, the Cornell Alliance for Science, a $5.6 million grant in Aug. 2014 to, ironically, “depolarize the charged debate around” GMOs—ever could have dreamed of.

That greater truth, a career scientist friend of mine explains, is our “failure to accept that the role of science is to reveal the mysteries of nature while the role of society” — and, yes, that includes poetry as well as politics — “is to reflect on the meaning and value of the mysteries that have been revealed.”

Society shouldn’t blindly accept science nor should it make science a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. Instead, science and society “should be complementing rather than competing in — the quest to reveal the unknown truth about nature, which, of course, includes us.”

That, he adds with a wink, isn’t science; it’s wisdom.


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Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children.



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