Viewpoint: ‘The science of things that aren’t so’ should not drive public policy

This article originally ran at Forbes and has been republished here with permission of the author.

The quality and reproducibility of published scientific articles are increasingly being called into question.  Some of their shortcomings are related to flawed experimental design or execution, while others are due to scientists forgoing rigor and objectivity in favor of advocacy-driven pseudo-research. This latter phenomenon is particularly disturbing, because by its very nature, science rejects the notion that fudging is OK if the end justifies the means.

In 1953, Chemistry Nobel Laureate Irving Langmuir described a visit to the Duke University laboratory of J. B. Rhine, who was claiming that his ESP experiments confirmed an authentic psychic phenomenon that could not be predicted by chance.  It turned out that Rhine was only selectively counting data in his experiments, omitting the results from subjects he believed were guessing in order to humiliate him.

Langmuir called this “pathological science,” or the “science of things that aren’t so.”

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What Langmuir was describing was a result of deviation from proper experimental methods; scientists don’t get to pick and choose their data points.  Another serious problem is nowadays cropping up among certain scientists who are willing to sacrifice scientific rigor and objectivity for policy advocacy.  As the Scientific Alliance put it in a recent article on “Misuse of Science,” “Rather than having evidence-based policymaking, we end up having policy-based evidence picking.”

Often the “policy” being advocated amounts to intractable opposition to whatever research, product or technology the scientist-advocates happen to dislike.

The most recent high-profile scandal resulting from this form of scientific abuse surfaced last month when a Brussels-based blogger discovered on the Internet a September 2010 memo by Henk Tennekes, a toxicologist associated with the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).  The memo described a June 14, 2010 meeting of IUCN scientists at which they agreed – in advance of obtaining the data– that

four key research papers will be published in peer reviewed journals.  Building on these papers a research paper will be submitted to Science (first choice) or Nature (second choice) which would…demonstrate as convincingly as possible the impact of neonicotinoides [sic] on insects, birds, other species, ecosystems functions, and human livelihoods.

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During the 20 years since their introduction, neonicotinoids have become the most widely used class of pesticides in modern agriculture.  Safe for humans (notably, farm workers) and other vertebrates, they were developed to target pests that feed on crops selectively while greatly reducing the amount and frequency of pesticide applications per acre and the exposure of beneficial species.  Because they are highly successful, technologically as well as commercially, many environmentalists loathe and want to ban them.

So, a bunch of scientists got together in Switzerland in 2010 to talk about writing some papers.  What’s new about that?  Nothing–except for the way they plotted, and that the results of the “research” papers were predetermined:

The high impact paper would have a carefully selected first author, a core author team of 7 people or fewer (including the authors of the initial four papers), and a broader set of authors to give global and interdisciplinary coverage…A parallel <<sister>> paper (this would be a shorter Policy Forum paper) could be submitted to Science simultaneously, drawing attention to the policy implications of the other paper, and calling for a moratorium in the use and sale of neonicotinoid pesticides.  We would try to pull together some major names in the scientific world to be the authors of this paper.  If we are successful in getting these two papers published, there will be an enormous impact, and a campaign led by the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) etc. could be launched right away.  It will be much harder for politicians to ignore a research paper and a Policy Forum paper in Science.  The most urgent thing is to obtain the necessary policy change to have the pesticides banned.

In other words, a group of scientists planned a coordinated, complex attack on an important technology they didn’t like, a campaign more appropriate for the sinister Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s 1984.  They planned a cascade of “research” papers–whose authors, placement and conclusions they considered more important than any actual experiments or data–designed to stampede politicians into banning an entire class of critically important state-of-the-art pesticides.

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Making the story even more sordid, the European Union–which eventually adopted such a moratorium 16 months earlier than the scientists hoped–reportedly funded the Task Force to the tune of €431,337 in three equal tranches of €143,779 between 2011 and 2013 as part of the €24,014,125 appropriated for the IUCN between 2007 and 2013.

Related article:  Why hobby beekeepers may present the biggest threat to honeybee health

If the supposedly “independent” scientists and the “independent” EU authorities were colluding, how can private business and farming interests–and ultimately, consumers–get an even break?

This scandal has received extensive coverage in Europe, but little attention so far in the United States.  That’s unfortunate, for two reasons–one immediate; the other, longer-term.

Of immediate concern is that regulatory processes are underway in both the U.S. and Canada that are related to this episode.  Canada’s recently re-elected Ontario provincial government is in the process of imposing restrictions on neonicotinoid pesticides, ostensibly to protect bees.  In the U.S., a USDA/EPA-led pollinator protection task force has been conducting “listening sessions” preparatory to the release of its report, expected in early 2015–and the activist Pesticide Action Network, echoed by other advocacy groups, has been touting the now-discredited work of the IUCN’s Task Force on Systemic Pesticides as Exhibit 1 in support of a neonic ban.  Regulators in both countries need to be publicly reminded how politicized and suspect is the “science” of the IUCN Task Force’s claims.

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More broadly, this kind of manipulation of science to serve predetermined, anti-social policy goals risks corrupting and discrediting one of the vital engines on which our civilization depends for progress.  Just over a year ago, a cover story in The Economist was “How Science Goes Wrong.”  The article– just one straw in the wind–pointed to a number of possible failings:

  • experimental results that can’t be successfully replicated by other scientists;
  • pre-publication “peer reviews” that fail to detect or correct major errors;
  • a predilection of scientific publications for studies advertising new and sensational results and an almost complete neglect of studies reporting negative results;
  • academic careerism that impels researchers to sometimes “fudge” their results to achieve the publication credits that bring renown and tenure.

Thanks in part to the IUCN Task Force’s strategy paper, we can now add to that list “policy-based evidence picking.”

Henk Tennekes–whose memo gone astray caused the uproar–is unapologetic: “Of course it was a campaign plan and the participants knew that.  I understand that some people find this an unscientific way of working, but I find it easy to defend in this situation.”

Such defense of the indefensible brings to mind the statement of the late environmental scientist Stephen Schneider:

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…we are not just scientists but human beings as well.  And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climatic change.  To do that we need to get some broadbased support, to capture the public’s imagination.  That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage.  So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have.  This ‘double ethical bind’ we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula.  Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.

It’s one of the oldest and sorriest stories in human experience: the end justifying the means.  In the case of attempts to ban neonicotinoids, the means are dishonest, and the end is both unwarranted and anti-social.

Such cynical advocacy places all of societal decision-making in jeopardy.  As MIT meteorologist Richard Lindzen sagely observed, science “provides our only way of separating what is true from what is asserted.  If we abuse that tool, it will not be available when it is needed.”

The activists’ war on neonicotinoids underscores the need to restore the integrity of the scientific process–starting with the widespread condemnation of activists whose arguments are based on the science of things that aren’t so.

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Henry I. Miller, a physician, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy & Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.  He was the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology. Follow him on Twitter @henryimiller.

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