Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Denialists Ignore the Science

By Peter Bowditch

The media are favouring economic and ideological interests over the science in debates about climate change and genetic modification.

This winter saw several science-related stories taking up space and time in the media. The common thread was that scientists are being ignored, essentially on emotional or ideological grounds.

The big story was the proposed carbon tax. I’m not going into the economic arguments of a tax on carbon dioxide production versus an emissions trading scheme, because both of these are attempts to solve the same problem. The arguments against it are, on the surface, either political or based on self-interest, but the underlying thread is denial of climate change.

There are five denialist arguments that get thrown out on a regular basis. These are that:

• there is a controversy within science, with some scientists saying that other scientists are wrong;

• the climate is not changing or, if it is, the change has nothing to do with human activity and there is nothing we can do about it;

• the whole thing is just an excuse for people to make money;

• Australia is such a small part of the world economy that nothing we do will have any impact; and

• nobody else is doing it so we should not be the first.

The first of these is the staple of most denialist movements – there are scientists and researchers who dispute facts such as the connection between HIV and AIDS (some even denying the very existence of HIV), the safety and efficacy of vaccines, the historical facts of the Holocaust, the implausibility of homeopathy and the age of the universe.

Science is not a democracy where facts get decided by a majority. If the majority of scientists working in a particular field agree on something it doesn’t guarantee it to be true, but the lack of a guarantee doesn’t make crackpottery true either and doesn’t require it to be given equal weight and time.

The fact of climate change is almost beyond doubt now. There have been systematic changes in plant flowering times, animal breeding cycles and weather patterns that point to a fundamental and progressive change in the environment over the past century.

Climate is a very complex thing to model so there will probably never be absolute proof of the effect humans have, but the fact that over the past century we have liberated into the atmosphere carbon that had been captured over hundreds of millions of years cannot be denied. We need to start thinking about what we do when the oil runs out, and finding alternatives to burning fossil fuels can address two problems at the same time.

The other three arguments are just smokescreens to hide the real denialist agenda.

That it is just about money can be easily dismissed. The idea that thousands of scientists around the world are agreeing with each other just to maintain their grant income is no less silly than the idea that all the people involved in some way with the 1969 moon landing could be part of some great conspiracy of silence or that everyone who supports vaccination is in the pay of pharmaceutical companies.

The arguments that Australia is too small to make a difference and that we shouldn’t be first are specious. Australia is about 1.5% of the world’s economy but I’m not prepared to argue that as my family represents less than 0.00001% of the population of Australia I could save money by dumping my household garbage in the street rather than paying the council to collect it.

And I don’t see anyone arguing that Australia should not have given women the vote in 1901 but should have waited until everyone else did it. Being an example to others should never be considered to be a problem.

*****
Another anti-science-related story in the media was the attack by Greenpeace on the CSIRO’s trial of genetically modified wheat.

I would be surprised if any of the protesters, with or without the safety glasses and hazmat suits they wore while cutting down some grass, have ever seen natural wheat. It disappeared about 4000 years ago when the first hybrid between grass species was created.

In recent times the strength of Australia’s wheat export industry has been founded on the modification that made wheat resistant to rust fungus infection. We have been eating genetically engineered wheat for a long time, and adding genes in a controlled fashion would seem to be a better and safer proposition than spreading pollen around and hoping for a good result.

One irony was that Greenpeace claimed that not enough research had been done into the safety of GM wheat, so they fixed this by wrecking the research. “More research is needed” is the catch-cry of denialists everywhere.

I’m writing this in a country town at the centre of a large local canola-growing industry. The silo here is used exclusively for GM canola so that the “natural” seeds from other farms don’t get polluted. The oil from GM and non-GM canola is identical, but the irony here is that canola is itself a genetically-modified form of the rape plant, so again the objectors have probably never seen a natural canola plant.

Science loses again.

Peter Bowditch is Immediate Past President of Australian Skeptics Inc. (www.skeptics.com.au).