Sounds of self interested silence

  • 30/03/2004

I write this to provoke, not to insult. It is increasingly important to understand that in the modern world, the term "sound science" is becoming the choicest of insults. Science is a passive hireling, not to bring policy reform, but to delay, prevaricate and to dismiss. And scientists are hired guns, used by various interests to intimidate - with high-falutin knowledge - and to disinform with talk of complexity and uncertainty.

In the US, this has become a fine art. President George Bush is a staunch believer in "sound science" - from issues concerning climate change, to nuclear waste to arsenic in water. The president makes sure that he is attentive to only what is 'empirical' and 'peer reviewed' information. It is another matter that this sound science is not so sound, or that peer review simply means that there will be umpteen delays in taking action on what we already know. Science is turned into a disingenuous perpetrator of public fraud.

Washington Post recently published an article on the origins of the term, "sound science" and tracked it back to the campaign of the tobacco industry that sought to undermine what was indisputable: the connection between smoking and disease. In 1993, the tobacco giant Philip Morris and its public relations firm created a non-profit group called the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition to fight regulation. Since then the phrase has gained many friends. US vice president, Dick Cheney found it useful to invoke this profane god when he urged for the opening of Alaska for oil drilling based on "sound science and best available technology". The pesticide industry, likewise, has urged regulators in the US not to restrict toxins, saying, "sound science says pesticide sprays are safe and effective".

The latest fisticuff in public policy is whether the consumption of excessive sugar is unhealthy in our diets. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has concluded that there is a link between junk food and obsesity; unhealthy diets are leading to a growth of non-communicable diseases: cardiovascular diseases, diabetes type 1 and 2 and bone fractures. But when its report was released last year, the US government went into overdrive to protect its powerful sugar lobby. It officially wrote to WHO, in a letter that was subsequently leaked, that the report "fails to meet the standards of the US Data Quality Act, lacks external peer review and mixes science with policy." Questioning the scientific basis becomes the weapon of every government and industry to protect their interests.

But it is global warming that brings out the best out of the believers of sound science. They use an obvious uncertainty, regarding a phenomenon that the world can best predict and take precautionary action against, to argue that not enough is known and that what is known cannot be trusted. Bush used this classic excuse to pull out of the Kyoto Protocol - the global agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Once again, public policy was sacrificed at the altar of uncertainty.

It is not different in India. Today, sadly, scientists get invariably aligned against public interests. But I think it is more often because of a force of habit, than direct interests, in protecting the polluter. It could be because scientific literacy is low and therefore, scientists have tended to be much more contemptuous and arrogant than even their counterparts abroad. By habit, they have built a caste system, which allows only a select few into the world of "sound science". Worse, they will not actively engage in any public discourse, because that is about policy and not science. But they will ensure that anyone who does so gets dismissed, because it is not based on "sound science". Its their domain, after all.

This attitude, in our increasingly science-intensive societies, is a sound disaster. In the West, scientific issues are at least publicly debated and even George Bush and his "sound science" caucus will get a run for their money as more and more citizens (including) scientists engage with and put public pressure on policy systems to deliver. But not in India, where scientists have taken silence to be their best insurance. And worse, arrogance, as their best cover.

When we raised the issue of the science of diesel particulates and the need for policy reform for vehicular pollution, scientists were highhanded in their dismissal of these issues. Now, when the issue of pesticide contamination has been raised, scientists are quick to argue - in closed policy making circles, where they are appear as privileged providers of clarification - that these issues are still not understood and that the proponents for change are unscientific and not credible. It is another matter that they who are responsible for integrating science into policy have never really succeeded in their own jobs and that today, the regulation of pesticides in terms of human safety is nothing short of a criminal offence in India.

But why condemn the self-silenced? We must find ways of moving ahead. For this we must comprehend why the Indian scientific establishment is losing its confidence to creatively engage in public concerns. Then we have to build scientific literacy, so that open debates take us to logical and rational conclusions on the state of knowledge and the need for action. In other words, the role of science in democracy must be revisited with a new intensity.

But in all this we must also realise that science is not the ultimate truth. Scientific uncertainty can never really be eliminated, even in the best of sound science. All conclusions involve some uncertainty and are creatures of the nuances of interpretation. Therefore, science must guide policy, but ultimately, societal values and ethics must underwrite that policy code. That is what we could call "sound science".

- Sunita Narain