The Risk-Monger

The European Environment Agency (EEA: an official EU body!) released the second tomb of Late Lessons from Early Warnings last week (January 23, 12 years after the first edition and nine years after the release date they had promised during the Irish EU Presidency in 2004). It appears that the EU Agency is continuing its campaigning and activism for the precautionary principle as a means to attack European research and industry (something far beyond its original remit). What makes these relentless activists even more troubling is that, in Late Lessons II, they are pretending to be scientists.

As readers of this blog are well aware, the Risk-Monger is annoyed by the proliferation of precaution as a policy tool, the abuse that environmental activists are making of precaution to advance their world views and political campaigns by bullying policymakers, and the absolutely disastrous effects and lost lives precautionary false positives have caused (see links to previous blogs at the bottom of this page). He has proposed a better articulation of the ALARA policy tool to make environmental-health debates more reasonable and policy decisions less catastrophic. He also feels that the European Environment Agency is an agenda-driven organisation led by “former” environmental activists with a distinct inability to engage in dialogue with people who don’t share their ecological dreams. Disclaimer complete.

So it was with some nervous excitement that I opened this 750 page document (with, get this, an inset claim: “This publication is printed according to high environmental standards”). That is the first problem: communications experts know that 750 pages will not be read by anyone except the pundits at the EEA campaigning to change EU environmental decision-making, who will use snippets in their arguments at conferences that we shall never be able to find. Their summary document is too short and stretched out to give any meaning, and the main document and annexes might as well be in Chinese since only those with absolutely no work will take the time to read it. (Fortunately, the Risk-Monger has just finished a month of oral exams and has a light lecture load this coming semester so we can expect a series of blogs over the next three months.) As this opus is on an emotional issue (saving lives from evil, greedy industry), we all want to believe this work of kindness, so we really don’t even need to read it.

There is so much in this work that has already disturbed me, and my reading has just begun. For this first Late Lessons blog, I will only concentrate on the cover page.

The subtitle of the work: “Science, precaution, innovation” suggests that a new approach to science can be the solution. The work is arguing for a paradigm shift in how science is done (and thus, the types of ‘corrective’ innovations it will produce). The EEA argues there will need to be a rethinking to how risk assessments are done, a greater humility in how scientists think (I am not joking) and an urge to bring in other forms of knowledge (as the Risk-Monger has written much on the last point, this will be assessed in a later blog). So to deal with the widespread perception that the David Gee view of precaution is not only anti-industry, it is also anti-science, the communication masters at the EEA have pulled off a nice trick: base this work on the belief (desperate hope) that a precaution-based science will lead to great innovations. We have heard this before (Repeat the lie till it becomes the truth) and we are still waiting for precautionary scientists to find an alternative to DDT in the fight to eradicate malaria – a precautionary principle disaster that kills around 3000 people, mostly children, every day (I will do a special blog on DDT as Late Lessons II seems to be celebrating 50 years of infanticide).

But arguing that science needs to change (in order to be better appreciated within an anti-scientific policy narrative) does not make you a scientist. That PhD in Sociology is not enough to call yourself a white-coated scientist and does not give you the right to exclude scientists from your discussions on what they do. In reading one of the annexes, the Risk-Monger was quite alarmed at how many articles on scientific issues in Late Lessons II were not written by specialists in the field of toxicology, chemistry, biochemistry … but rather by science communications specialists, policy professors or sociologists. The Risk-Monger himself would never dare to write an article for a work like this knowing that there is a much wider available body of expert knowledge. Being a professor in public understanding of science or science communications does not give licence to assume the title “scientist” (no matter how much credibility is bestowed by being published by an official European Union agency). And that is the problem here: the EEA is pretending that these science observers (and critics) are themselves scientists, and that, emboldened with this new title, they are advising that we need to change the way science is done (I now understand why Late Lessons II is calling for scientists to show more humility).

As an amusing aside, in a rather strange email exchange, the Risk-Monger did offer David Gee (chief author and campaigner of Late Lessons I and II and “former” Friends of the Earth activist) to freely read and comment on the work in preproduction in order to ensure a “more objective” document. I knew full well that Mr Gee was not interested in hearing other views on precaution (compromise or dialogue are not among his best character traits) but I thought it noble to offer my services.

The second problem the Risk-Monger has with the first page is the cover image. It is a picture of a rather confused-looking bee, most likely unable to find its way back to its colony. Using an image symbolic of colony collapse disorder (CCD) speaks volumes on the EEA’s Repeat the lie till it becomes the truth technique. The authors have chosen a symbol of a precautionary principle catastrophe which they celebrate as exemplary of how precaution has succeeded. As a short reminder: for much of the last decade, environmentalists have been using the potential risk to nature and man of the extinction of honey bees through colony collapse to demand immediate implementation of the precautionary principle related to whatever campaigns these NGOs are running (to ban all pesticides, GMOs, agricultural monoculture practices, to act on climate change, EMFs … it didn’t matter which campaign as there was no science supporting these claims). The Risk-Monger wrote a blog to show this as an example of how irresponsible precaution campaigners have become, as they had upped the volume to distract policymakers from a scientific study that showed that CCD was caused by a virus. What would have happened if we had applied precaution and immediately stopped all use of pesticides in agriculture? How many people would have starved from an immediate, politically and religiously motivated man-made food security crisis? A further scientific study published in 2012 fully supported the claim that CCD was indeed due to this Varroa mite virus and, in a rational world, without campaigners using precaution, that would have been the end of the story (and policymakers would then be able to focus their attention and funding on addressing this virus).

When an organisation representing the European Union like the European Environment Agency, in 2013, puts a honey bee on the cover of its major work on the precautionary principle, one has to wonder if they had received the message that CCD was a serious precaution fail. Sure enough, there is a chapter on CCD (where the authors claim a victory for precaution in an event that happened several decades ago). Since the Risk-Monger has an irrational intolerance towards hypocrites, he will devote a blog to this chapter (especially given how the authors tried to bury critical science in an annex). But just as a teaser, we must ask which great bee specialists the EEA selected to author the chapter on the complex issue of colony collapse disorder. There are many researchers in this field, so the Risk-Monger was quite surprised when this chapter of precautionary excellence in Late Lessons II was written by Laura Maxim and Jeroen van der Sluijs. A simple Google search on these authors would reveal that their expertise and claim to fame in this domain is, well, zero. They are known as science communicators and experts in scientific uncertainty (with a specialisation on climate change). This is just one example of how the European Environment Agency has become a disgrace not only to the European Union which funds it, but to all branches of science who must suffer the consequences of their irresponsible environmental campaigning.

OK – that completes my assessment of the cover page. The Risk-Monger has at least 8-9 blogs on this miserable work in draft preparation that will be released throughout the spring – as the EEA had assumed no one would read this 750 page document, readers of this blog can expect a thorough assessment. In each of these blogs, I will use my analysis to conclude the obvious: The European Environmental Agency, through its campaigns and environmental activism, has not been taken to be a serious organisation, does not represent an engagement or dialogue process (as expected from the 2001 White Paper on Governance) and undermines the credibility of the European Union, in whose name, the activists campaign on a global level. To save its reputation from further embarrassment, the Commission Secretariat General should immediately dismiss the head of the EEA, Jacqueline McGlade, and the chief instigator of this campaign, David Gee. Although McGlade is leaving in May (after scandals raised in the European Parliament about her behaviour, including allowing an environmental NGO to set up office in the EEA’s headquarters), she should not be allowed to leave this office with dignity. And as for Mr Gee, well, he never really left Friends of the Earth so he can continue his work there.

Incoming EEA executive director, Hans Bruyninckx, must be made to realise that this house has some serious cleaning needing to be done.

For those new to this blog, here are some past discussions on the inherent weakness of precaution as a policy tool, and the Risk-Monger’s proposal for an alternative.

What is wrong with the Precautionary Principle?

ALARA : An alternative policy tool to the precautionary principle

E. coli and the failure of precaution

Addendum 31 January 2013

In response to this blog, actors within or associated with the European Environment Agency apparently put pressure on EurActiv to remove this blog because the Risk Monger was not saying nice things about them. While this type of behaviour does not surprise me (two years ago, David Gee tried to put pressure on an MEP who sponsored the Risk-Monger’s speech in the European Parliament), I do not feel comfortable about an EU agency putting pressure on a media group that may at some time wish to participate in EU-funded activities. So although it goes against everything the Risk-Monger believes about freedom of the press and the role of civil servants to be subject to public scrutiny, in respect for the difficult position EurActiv has been put in by my actions, I have edited certain parts of this blog.

There are two demands though where I feel I should not submit to the EEA’s bully tactics.

First is the claim made that my remarks about Ms McGlade were both untrue and defamatory. My remarks about her leaving the EEA in May due to her inappropriate behaviour is based on information released in the European Parliament by Romanian MEP Monica Macovei and published in EU Observer on 27 September 2012 or in the European Voice, where questions of the EEA hosting the NGO Worldwatch in their offices, rent-free, were raised, or by MEP Godfrey Bloom, which gets into the details of how, in 2010 and again in 2011, she flew EEA members to training sessions in the Caribbean on the EEA budgets hosted by the NGO Earthwatch (of which Ms McGlade sat on their board) – and paying the NGO 2000€ per EEA participant. How is the Risk-Monger lying and defamatory if these news organisations and MEPs were not forced to retract their claims? If they have been proven wrong, I will gladly apologise, otherwise, as a civil servant, Ms McGlade should have learnt by now to accept public scrutiny of her behaviour. Putting pressure on media organisations for allowing posts of independent bloggers who draw attention to publicly accessible facts is unacceptable.

The second claim I do not feel I should retract is that the EEA has an inability to engage in dialogue with those who disagree with them. I feel that using time and European taxpayer money to put pressure on a media organisation like EurActiv to remove a blog that contains information about them and their publications that they don’t agree with should be evidence enough about this inability to engage. Why didn’t they just reply to the issues raised about the cover page? Further blogs will show, for example, how outrageous the EEA, in Late Lessons II, has been in ignoring precautionary principle false positives (after more than a decade of criticisms). Ask anyone in the chemical industry how open Ms McGlade, Mr Gee or Mr Stanners have been in listening to other views … and watch how they react.

A few years back, I invited Mr Gee to come to my university in Brussels and have a debate with me on the role of precaution in EU policy … that would involve engaging with someone who disagreed with him. He declined. Maybe EurActiv can repeat the offer. The Risk-Monger is apparently a very bad debater.

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  1. Dear David,

    To put matters in context: EurActiv ‘as such’ was not put under any kind of pressure by ‘the EEA’. We received complaints through the normal communication channels, held them against the light, agreed with some of them and got in touch with you to correct the points that were personally insulting, untrue and/or felt to be defamatory. At no point did we threaten to remove this blog post, or your blog in general.

    We care as much for the freedom of the Press as you and we are happy to provide you with a (free) platform to share your opinions on European policy debates. As mentioned before, criticism on the EEA report, European officials, public figures, etc. are very welcome and have a place on, but personal insults and slander have not.

    This is the first time I’ve had to consider making an editorial change to a BlogActiv blog post, something – I admit – I would have found dreadful and done very reluctantly. I’ve just gone through your updated post and will not make any further changes. I look forward to reading your future posts on the above mentioned EEA report (and others), written in the sharp but factual style that you certainly master.

    Dominique Ostyn – Manager,

    1. Thanks Patrick – this one has been boiling under my skin all day. I am told I cannot use insulting language when referring to EU officials (see above), so all I can say is that I am speechless.
      I can either throw my hands up in the air about officials who use precaution as a substitute for thinking and reading (and stock up on canned goods), or get involved and try to embarrass as many people who have been “intellectually lazy” as I can.

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