The Risk-Monger

Policymakers are developing a reflex to require that the research community determines the scientific consensus on certain issues, climate change and electro-magnetic fields being recent examples. Should we be surprised that scientists are rarely able to deliver a clear consensus or that they resent that their debates are interfered with?

At the recent European Commission “Scientific Consensus” conference on EMFs, when two scientists had become fed up with each other, one retorted: “Well, that is your consensus view, not my consensus view!” In other words, I’ll get a group of my scientists to refute yours (this, afterall, is how the IPCC was formed). This is politics and it can be expected when people who normally have been trained to challenge their presuppositions are put in a room to try to agree on something.

Policymakers are being lazy when they demand that the scientists leave their research fields and pass judgement on the work of their colleagues and competitors. Since the BSE crisis, the intent was to separate risk assessments from the risk management process – in other words, science should provide the evidence, but policymakers, as the risk managers, should determine the actions to be taken (“Scientists should be on tap, but not on top” – Churchill). When the issue has serious societal concern and the views are clouded, policymakers seem now to be going back to the research community and asking for help in deciding. “Please tell us the scientific consensus” means, in effect, “Tell us how to act”. If policymakers had clear ideas on an issue, would they ask for a consensus view? But do scientists understand “consensus” in the same way as policymakers?

Scientists do not hold much value in having a consensus. In fact, science works better in a state of “desensus”. New research discoveries in the next week, or new methods brought about by emerging technologies could render views held today to be obsolete. Scientific paradigms can shift with new perspectives, tools and data, making today’s consensus tomorrow’s errors. Scientists have no problem with that (Popperian falsification is part of the scientific process and what makes research exciting).

Policymakers have a different understanding of consensus. They don’t like the idea of being wrong next week. In the policy world, consensus is the conclusion of a long process, designed to add legitimacy and public buy-in. Scientists don’t really give a toss about that (unless absence of public buy-in affects their funding – re: green biotech).

What is the point of having a scientific consensus? Some have argued that it is necessary to clear the fog of scientific debate. When thousands of contradictory studies are published, reports evaluating these studies are needed to draw clearer conclusions. These are meta-analyses and if the parameters and methodologies are clearly defined, there needn’t be any problems. Whatever happened to peer review doing this? Oh yes, “our scientists”.

I believe that the demand for a scientific consensus is intended to ease the policy process, and here is where the scientist begins to smell a rat. If policymakers are pushing for a scientific consensus, they are hoping the scientists will give them a clear answer that will simplify things – in other words, to say the things policymakers want to hear. Some scientists, especially those who dissent, object to playing this game.

This rat smell lacks formaldehyde when the scientific consensus is demanded in order to avoid tricky policy decisions around the precautionary principle. Some examples:

  • The demand for a scientific consensus around EMF research is a prayer EU policymakers make at their bedside every night so they don’t have to apply the precautionary principle and start taking away mobile phones or electricity transmission systems. Even scientists who see little health risks from EMFs don’t appreciate being used in such a manner.
  • In the field of climate policy, political action to battle global warming needs a strong perceived scientific consensus position to persuade leaders to make painful decisions. If the UN can sanction it, so much better the perception. The IPCC was formed as a scientific body, but has a non-scientist at its head, and feels that its chief role is to advise policymakers on the need to tackle climate change (not to advance the science). Climatologists and solar scientists who feel that certain IPCC statements and decisions are not scientifically valid (ie, that they are politically motivated) are quickly brandished as skeptics or climate deniers.
  • In the case of GMOs, decisions had been forced in the EU to move with precaution on approving GMOs, before the scientific community had a chance to seriously consider health and environmental safety issues. After the precautionary work was done, there was no need to demand a scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs. Pity, because in this case, the scientific consensus is clear (re: WTO ruling): GMOs are safe.

If you remove precaution from the policy game, you remove the foolish need for policymakers to extract a scientific consensus. You would then free up science from the business of legitimising policymakers, away from validation and hopefully back to the business of research and discovery.

Scientists who disagree have healthy debates – eventually facts win out or the debate transforms. Trying to force a majority of scientists to agree on a consensus (and thus cut short their debate) only infuriates free thinkers and creates bad blood in the scientific community (as seen in the climate and EMF debates).

Let scientists do research and have their open debates and leave consensus building to the policymakers.

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  1. Your bio section doesn’t seem to indicate that you’re a scientist. Neither am I. So, how do you try to determine whether or not there’s scientific consensus on a certain issue?

    What are your thoughts on lay-people dissenting from the scientific consensus on an issue?

    1. Good point. I have never been one of those to pretend that social scientists are scientists. For the last 15 years I have worked with scientists (training, communications, risk, science and policy and research ethics – during my doctoral studies, I minored in the philosophy of science), but indeed, I flunked physics in high school (which explains in part why I respect scientists!).
      I think that any scientific dissent indicates that there is no clear consensus – we must determine where it is due to one rogue scientist (who may have deficiencies – like the MMR debate), where there are many dissenting voices (EMF, climate), where there is manufactured dissent (political issues like GMOs) or where the mainstream may have made fatal misconceptions (where the rogue scientist is heroic). If there is no dissent, there is little scientific interest (Larry Laudan’s view that the purpose of science is to solve problems – there is no real value to a history of science).
      Lay people dissenting on scientific views is part of a democratic process – this is where consensus (engagement, participation and eventually, societal buy-in) is necessary and why it is a domain for policymakers and not scientists. Scientists need to realise that where there is no public buy-in, their research may be limited (I wrote a document for the Commission on this subject). The problem is when lay-people feel that they need to be in the scientific consensus process. This is referred to as a multi-disciplinary approach to scientific issues. The language is not the same between scientist and lay people and debates can become intense, foul and misguided. During the EMF consultation this week, a scientist who has long studied this issue at one point stated that she could not reply to a particular concern. Not because she did not have an opinion, but because the evidence was not conclusive enough for her to professionally postulate. There were jeers in the audience and questions about her funding and bias (I suspect she may decline future invitations to share her research). Debates like these need interpreters.
      Perhaps that is what I am: an interpreter.

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