RDN in BBC Wildlife on trust and science

It was fun to be interviewed by Stuart Blackman for his piece, “You Can Trust Me, I’m a scientist…” in the Agenda/Analysis pages of the August edition of the BBC’s Wildlife magazine. Mr Blackman did good work dissecting a horribly intransigent issue, but I’d just add this…

As I spoke to Mr Blackman, I wanted to get across a few big points:

The “book” of ecology has left and right hand pages. The left sees evidence of a steady, stable, waste-free state of co-operation which one disturbs at one’s peril. The right sees an opportunistic individualism which surprisingly produces robustly dynamic habitats which can often survive and even require violent change. The scientists who work with this material may or may not see the political or ideological dimensions to their work, but it is there to be exploited by propagandists, and good luck to them.

Two points here. The first is weird: exploring or producing evidence about nearly anything in life can be enhanced by applying ideological prejudice to the process, like a knife to an oyster. Secondly, maybe it is inevitable that behind all human pronouncement there will be a mindset, a paradigm, a habit of thought, a comfort zone.

This helps explain why it is not likely that an argument can be resolved by one proponent, or understood by listening to one sort of voice. As J S Mill argued, insofar as a human can attain to the truth of a problem, it will be by understanding and appreciating the strengths and weaknesses of  the opposing views and evidence of competing proponents.

My big point here is that one must struggle to grasp the enemy’s point of view if one is to make sense of any row. So, if you like the Guardian, make sure you read the Wall Street Journal. (By the way: the environmental coverage of most British newspapers, including the FT and Economist is often quite “leftish”: that’s because the environmental specialists are often outposts of greenery within their own organ. You’ll need to watch out for individual writers: if you’re green, make sure you track Matt Ridley, and even the complexities of position taken by Messrs Monbiot and Lynas.)

Some of this thinking did emerge in the BBC piece, and I am grateful for that.

One line of argument of mine was totally lost. Here it is: I maintain that industry is held to a far higher standard of truthfulness than its enemies.

This is for a variety of important reasons. Firstly, industry habitually claims that such-and-such is safe: as events unfold, they will be proved right or wrong, definitively. (The greens and doomsters have only to say that something may be unsafe, and that’s a proposition which can never be disproved.)  Secondly, industry’s claims are almost of the kind which will land them in court or broke, if wrong; the greens tend to flourish on the back of alarmist claims, however wrong they turn out to be.

In short, for all sorts of reasons, the public affects to believe green claims, but actually invests in trust of industry.

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Publication date

11 August 2013