One of the most notable features of modern politics is how much easier it is today to be ‘involved’ in one way or another. That’s great. I’ve personally spent much of my energy in the past couple of years campaigning for better political education and other policies which do exactly that. Today, you can reach thousands of people through social media and have genuine influence with a single vote being cast for you – or by having any real-life experience in the areas you criticize, writes Matt Gillow.
One of the dark sides to that, however, is that much is commented on instantaneously – and people are encouraged to think with their gut in a split-second. That’s what gets retweets. All too often, lawmakers are basing their judgement on emotion and how social media will react, rather than cold, hard evidence and scientific fact.
The recent European Court of Justice ruling, which obliged the European Food Safety Authority to release a wealth of commercially sensitive data on the pesticide glyphosate, is the perfect example of split-second decision making which fails to pay heed to the evidence. Whilst encouraging greater transparency for consumers to make decisions is a good thing, the ruling raises intellectual property issues, acquiesces to lobbyists, and ignores the fact that many companies – which produce and sell products with pesticides like glyphosate – actually voluntarily release much of the information requested anyway. To top it all off – the ruling is based on junk science espoused by lobbyists and demonises safe products – to the detriment of the consumer.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer was instrumental in the verdict by adding glyphosate to a list of things considered carcinogenic. IARC’s list of carcinogenic products include chemicals found in carrots, celery, lettuce, jasmine tea and aloe vera – to name a few. The US House Committee on Space, Science and Technology, which has stated the IARC finding on glyphosate is an “affront to scientific integrity that bred distrust and confusion,” requested that (now former) IARC Director Christopher Wild appear before the Committee. Wild refused to testify, and his successor, Elizabete Weiderpass, has not responded.
The fundamental problem is that IARC misrepresents the relationship between hazard and risk. Risk is the hazard in question, paired with the degree of exposure to that hazard. In a practical example: a road is a hazard to pedestrians because while crossing it, you can get hit. However, identifying the real risk implies knowing whether people actually cross this street, and depends on the level of care they take while doing so.
For the agency, the best risk management process is to remove all hazards, even if their exposure doesn’t make them risky. Yes, residues of glyphosate is found in beer, but for beer to become a risk factor in relationship to glyphosate, you’d have to drink 1,000 litres a day. We’ll take it that in that particular case, it still won’t be the pesticide that will be your biggest concern.
According to science blogger The Riskmonger – Scientists working with toxic tort law firms are compelling IARC to produce monographs for the purpose of increasing their lucrative opportunities as litigation consultants. Collusion between tort lawyers and agencies such as the IARC for lucrative payouts is not only disconcerting and corrupt – but sets a horribly dangerous precedent. Any scientific innovation could soon fall victim of this procedure.
So not only has IARC become a front for junk science and peddling of bad news, but it has become a tool for trial lawyers seeking cancer findings by IARC which they then leverage in US courtrooms into multi-million dollar verdicts. In the case of school groundskeeper Dwayne Johnson vs. Monsanto, the judge ended up setting punitive damages at $39 million. By confusing hazard and risk, IARC has declared herbicides as carcinogenic when they are not.
The fact of the matter is that consumers are being peddled lies by junk science organisations, and crooked get-rich-quick litigation consultants are getting payouts off the back of dodgy opinions from IARC – with scientific research that is not backed up by their peers.
Junk science and split-second judgements based on a headline are infiltrating and harming commerce and courtrooms – and harming the consumer and taxpayer at the same time. But a move away from evidence-based policy making isn’t confined to science. In politics, legislators are increasingly voting on sentiment instead instead of taking a scientific approach.
Soundbites have infiltrated policy-making. In order to protect ordinary people and improve their daily lives – it’s absolutely essential that we make a return to evidence-based policy making when it comes to science. Instead, politicians, commentators and activists are pandering to their support base and their ideological tribes. People deserve better than policy-makers refusing to look past the headlines.