Impossibility of Objectivity

A different view of environmental issues, a 3 part essay in the 5 December 2008 Newsletter of The Scientific Alliance, includes a useful discussion of objectivity. They conclude that we must all be able to recognize and accept facts, whether or not they support our arguments, and regardless of the source. I heartily agree, but place emphasis on the need for facts based on considerable research, not speculation based on one poorly done study. I also appreciate their discussion of mutagenesis (I’m hoping to post on the International Atomic Energy Agency’s reccomendations soon).

The impossibility of objectivity

Too often, disagreements on any issue – including scientific ones – are a dialogue of the deaf.  It is rare indeed for two people with radically opposed views to be prepared to listen or accept that there may be nuggets of truth in their opponent’s arguments. This does not just apply to activists with a firm belief in a particular cause, it is also characteristic of professional scientists who we might naively expect to behave better. The reason for this is simple. We all have inbuilt world views and biases, and they inevitably colour our judgement, however objective we strive to be. We talk about scientific facts, but (at the risk of sounding too post-modernist) many of these are based on a particular accepted interpretation of the available evidence. Scientists should always strive to be objective and base their conclusions on hard data. As the newly-fashionable Keynes said “when the facts change, I change my mind”. But the human mind all too often does not work like that. Consciously or unconsciously, we tend to look for evidence which supports our own views, and ignore or devalue contrary observations. It is quite possible to persuade someone of your point of view if they have no strong opinion in the first place, but almost impossible if they have already made their own judgment. This is why rational, evidence based argument so often fails to convince. It does not mean that scientists (and others) should stop doing it, but they should be realistic about the chances of success. The aim must be to persuade the non-aligned members of an audience, rather than win over opponents. Of course, there are examples of people changing their deeply-held beliefs, but these tend to be in the form of damascene conversions rather than a dispassionate weighing of the facts. Conforming to group beliefs is part of human nature. And it is not just a question of changing their mind; in many cases it means becoming a heretic and outcast from the group whose beliefs they shared. So, for a whole raft of reasons, we are all biased to some degree. The same evidence will be seen through a different set of lenses by people with opposing views, who may come to quite different conclusions. Both are being true to their beliefs and neither sees anything wrong in what they are doing. In most cases, where there is already some frame of reference, true objectivity is all but impossible. But this should not make reasoned dialogue impossible. Rather than decrying one’s opponent and ignoring everything he or she says – in the worst cases, simply indulging in ad hominem attacks – we should all be honest about our own inbuilt bias and be aware of how this influences our judgment. In my own case, for example, I tend to be sceptical of the received wisdom in any case where dissenters are automatically slapped down without a proper response, or where a scientific “consensus” in invoked. I do not instinctively distrust things which emerge from private industry. Yes, companies have their own commercial drivers, but they also have every reason to build a sustainable business rather than alienate their customers by going for a quick buck and ignoring environmental or health impacts. On the other hand, I am wary of reports from environmentalist NGOs, because in my experience they cherrypick facts to support their case, rather than drawing conclusions from the evidence. But this does not mean that I swallow everything coming from the private sector without question, nor that I assume everything Greenpeace says to be misleading. Judgments can rarely be black and white and we should not be blind to facts wherever we may find them. Readers of this newsletter will have their own particular preconceptions which will colour their own judgment. The same issue can generate both praise and criticism. And it is important that this is received with as open a mind as possible. We are all, after all, slaves to human nature, but we will only make real progress on thorny scientific issues if we are prepared to accept to valid evidence, whatever its source.

The next bubble?

Markets are usually created on the basis of scarcity but can sometimes get out of control. Keenness to invest in the next big thing leads to rapid inflation of prices and bubbles which finally burst when people begin to realise their folly. It started with tulip mania in the Netherlands in the 17th century, and the most recent example was the dot com boom at the turn of the present century. Could carbon markets form the next bubble? A whole industry sector has evolved in the last decade, based around tradable emission permits and the “Clean Development Mechanism” whereby industrialised countries pay developing countries to undertake carbon-reduction projects (which may well happen regardless of this funding). For the man in the street, there is “carbon off-setting” where the emissions from flights or other activities can be offset by paying for trees to be planted (for example). These are the papal indulgences of the 21st century. This means there is money to be made by the middlemen who act as brokers. And where there are new ways to create wealth, even if it may be illusory, a complex net of derivatives, futures and investment funds emerges. Private investors put their money into the funds in the expectation of making a better return than elsewhere. With backing for trading schemes from national governments and the EU, this looks to many like a safe bet. But the whole edifice is predicated on the orthodox view of anthropogenic climate change being right and the correct policy response being emissions reductions. However, some doubts must surely be creeping in across scientific and policy-making circles. There has been no rise in global temperatures for the last decade. We are assured by researchers that this is just a blip and the natural factors which have somehow masked the dominant effect of fossil fuel burning will soon recede and warming will return with a vengeance. But what if the present trend continues? How confident will national governments be in continuing with unpopular policies if the science which underpins them looks increasingly shaky? Already, we see ranks being broken, with the new governments of Canada and New Zealand taking a more cautious approach, and squabbling among EU Member States about coal-fired power stations and car manufacturers. What would it take to reach a tipping point where the carbon market bubble also bursts? Maybe we will not have too long to wait. Mutation breeding

The International Atomic Energy Agency is calling for greater use of “induced mutation” in plant breeding: subjecting seeds to radiation and screening the resulting mutants for useful traits. This, according to the IAEA spokesman, speeds up natural processes, and unlike genetic modification, does not introduce any new genetic material. Thus, in their view, it is safe and natural. This seems like semantics, since irradiation will randomly scramble the plant’s DNA. Among the majority of infertile seeds or deformed plants, there may be useful traits which emerge, but the damage done to the genome is uncharacterised. In one sense, this is of course what happens in the evolution of plants. Chance mutations occasionally provide some competitive benefit. But it seems illogical to characterise induced mutation as somehow natural, while the targeted and precise techniques of recombinant DNA technology are subject to far more stringent control and are suspect in the eyes of many. Surely it is the end result which matters, rather than how it is achieved. But organic agriculture, which aims to “go with the grain of nature” happily accepts radiation-induced mutant plants while rejecting GM crops, even if they have environmental benefits. Hopefully, the future lies in using the best of all approaches, based on what they achieve rather than their process. Doctrinaire approaches benefit no-one.

Hat tip to AgBioWorld.

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