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Science and the campaigners

This is the text of a paper published (in slightly edited form) in 'Economic Affairs, the journal of the Institute of Economic Affairs", Vol 20, No3, September 2000. (Blackwell) See
This paper is an account of why campaigners usually deal with evidence rather badly.

Campaigners, The Enlightenment, the Post Modern, the spiritual and science

The campaigners use of science

The public importance of the campaigners' views of science

The First Case: Getting the facts wrong

The Second Case: Environmentalism 'better than conventional science

The Third Case: campaigners and uncertainty



'And if the noblest exercise of freedom is the pursuit of truth, the best equipment for the search is to be truthful. The inculcation of the practice of truthfulness, no less than the acquisition of knowledge, is the motive force of our educational system. The student is here [at the University of Edinburgh] to learn habits of accuracy in measurement, precision in statement, honesty in handling evidence, fairness in presenting a cause – in a word, to be true in word and deed.' Stanley Baldwin [1]

'Ignorance, static and inert, is bad, but ignorance in motion, as Goethe once observed, is the most terrible force in nature, for it may destroy in its passage the accumulated mental and material capital of generations.' Stanley Baldwin

'There is a great gulf between what science says is OK and what the consumers say is OK: that's what we have to address' – Co-op spokeswoman on an animal welfare report, and proclaiming consumer power, on BBC News, 22 May, 2000

Campaigners, The Enlightenment, the Post Modern, the spiritual and science

In many areas, but especially in what might be called 'Green thinking, campaigning rhetoric has been very successful in winning apparent public acceptance and some legislative recognition [2] . It often uses scientific language. There is a valuable context within which we can place the campaigners' view of science. The Enlightenment and its legacy is the set of ideas by which modern scientists and mainstream policy-makers guide their activities. The mainstream Western view has had many obvious triumphs, but one of the greatest is to have balanced the many risks progress must take against the many benefits it has delivered and will probably continue to deliver.

When the Baby Boomer generation sought to distance themselves from the generation which had produced Vietnam and Minimata Bay, Three Mile Island and the 'Silent Spring of Rachel Carson's prediction, they naturally reached for a Romantic, anti-Enlightenment view as a frame for their new, radical thinking. [3] [4]

They do not always say so, since not all of them are vigorously honest. Besides, many do not know that this is what they are doing, because they are not always well-read. But when we look at the campaigners' activities and their statements, it is over and over again fascinating to see that the Enlightenment is their greatest enemy. If we get the Enlightenment view of science and of Nature clear in our minds, we will also have clear in our minds why the campaigners' case is so often flawed.

As the 1960s gave way to the 70s, 80s and 90s, it became fashionable to figure a radicalism of a less systematic and certainly a less leftist sort than had satisfied previous generations of rebel. This new absence of inherited belief, this self-conscious attempt to think thoughts which had not been turned into cliches by the right or the left, was labelled as being Post Modern. The campaigners' case fits a 'post-modern view of the world [5] . This is that 'facts have lost their normal, Enlightenment, status. The 'post-modern view also flies in the face of what philosophers of the logical positivism school call the 'common sense view of the world, which is shared by the scientific view. We will suggest that the campaigners are wrong to share this habit. Finally, campaigners sometimes identify with a spiritual point of view, which is juxtaposed by them and others to the scientific point of view. As Prince Charles has argued, the Green campaigners feel that rationalist science has over taken the 'inner heartfelt wisdom of the ancients and the indigenous. [6]

This thinking ignores the triumph of that unique understanding of the blend of reason and sentiment that characterises the mature Enlightenment. [7] It is also special pleading: it is calling for an appeal to a court which requires no reasons or evidence. This court attends only to a certain sort of prejudice, one which fits the assumption by the campaigners that they have a higher vision, a finer purpose, than the rest of us, and therefore need not obey ordinary rules of debate. In general terms, they feel a need to motivate and energise people, rather than inform them. In Greenpeace's words, they exist to 'force solutions, and they adhere to the 'optimism of the action against the pessimism of the thought. [8] [9]

Unless they are to be resolutely anti-intellectual, and to follow campaigners in their cavalier relations with the intellectual, modern people are boxed in. The Enlightenment and its successive forms, even including a nuanced version of logical positivism, have established for us a way of thinking which is so coherent, mature and challenging that we can say that any radical alternative to it is likely to be dangerous both to man and Nature.

The campaigners use of science
Science is important to campaigners in three main ways.

The First Case: The campaigners often use conventional, reductionist science to support the apparently factual element of their case. We will note that they often abuse these claims.

The Second Case: The campaigners claim that their view is richer, more holistic, than the normal scientific view. We shall show that campaigners' own values are a much less sound guide – even in environmental terms – than those of their opponents.

The Third Case: Campaigners claim that the philosophy of science supports their demand for caution. In particular, they claim their own version of the 'Precautionary Principle to be more valid than views of 'conventional science. We shall show that that is a false view.

Right away, we can see an important contradiction in the campaigners' different views of science. The campaigners' views under the first of our headings above are at odds with those under the second heading. The campaigners like 'reductionist, empirical, research-based science when they think it supports their case (say, the Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change and its work on Global Warming [10] ) and they castigate it as failing in holism when it does not support their case, or seems to support risk-taking of a kind the campaigners don't like. [11]

The public importance of the campaigners' views of science

The campaigners' view of science matters to the public because the majority of us feel insecure about scientific insight and prefer therefore to let someone else do our thinking for us. Campaigners often repeat two mantras. One is that the public trusts them on scientific matters. This is true, up to a point. [12] The other is that the campaigners' view of science has seldom been challenged and must therefore be true. [13] They are right about the absence of challenge, but not that this validates their case.

The campaigners' relationship to science matters because the public to a surprising degree feels that it can rely on campaigners, not necessarily for a balanced view of the subjects in question, but for a view which catches values that scientists do not necessarily capture. [14] The campaigners may not be right in some boring academic way, but they are 'true, or useful, in a way which transcends ordinary scientificity. [15]

However, the campaigners never admit to the likelihood that the public's trust of them may be much more like an insurance policy than an endorsement. In other words: the public does not trust conventional science to be right always and therefore it may be 'investing in support for those who professionally oppose the conventional view. In this way, they support what they take to be the valuable dialectic between conventional science and its opponents, without endorsing the latter as much as the campaigners may suppose. This interpretation may account for the way industry's scientists are sometimes reported to be more highly regarded than the campaigners. [16]

To a surprising degree, firms and scientists do not challenge the campaigners' false claims (they know the debate is so badly framed that they will soon be bogged down in apparent nit-picking). Very few of the campaigners' claims are tested in court (claimants and victims usually present so potent a PR threat that defendant firms and institutions settle out of court without evidence being tested). The media seldom exposes them (the media perceive their dissident role to be anti-state and anti-capitalist, not anti-campaigner, and have in any cse used the campaigners as trusted sources of investigative material an d virtuous insights.)

The First Case: Getting the facts wrong

There are few environmental causes which have not been characterised by misleading information. To state something like the scientific and counter-intuitive 'truth about a few, picked more or less at random:

1) Dumping sewage at sea from ships was banned in the 1980s but it had never been shown to be likely to be dangerous in the UK coastal situation and, like the dumping of oil rigs in the sea, was just as likely to be beneficial to the oceans concerned; [17]

2) Recycling of domestic waste by municipalities is seldom environmentally sound; [18]

3) Low level radiation is probably not a cause of ill health in the general population; [19]

4) Vegetables are marginally more likely to be 'carcinogenic if produced organically than 'conventionally (the carcinogenicity of either is trivial); [20]

5) Municipal waste incineration is probably the most benign of all currently available waste disposal options; [21]

6) Most rainforests can easily survive profitable logging operations and many are more likely to survive if logging is allowed; [22]

7) Asthma is a condition which mostly correlates with affluence and cleanliness, and pollution enters the picture most often as a 'trigger to over-sensitised respiratory tracts;

8) Most tap water is at least as healthy as most bottled water, and passes more severe tests [23] ;

9) Heavy barbecue use is a bigger source of dioxins for most of us than are incinerators, though militant Greens living in 'benders probably suffer the most because of indoor stoves; [24]

10) Nuclear waste should be dumped in deep oceans: that way its disposal would pose least threat to the environment and contribute to the technology's benign ecological profile. [25]

None of these is an open-and-shut case. Honest argument can be had about any of them. The point is that no sense can be talked about them until that honest argument has been had. It is rare.

One of the few ways of charting the falseness of campaigners' claims is to note the several cases in which the Advertising Standards Authority has judged against ads which state clearly the heartland of the campaigners' cases. [26] In adjudications during 1999 until May 2000, these ranged from tropical forestry to medical research involving animals, and from Genetically Modified Foods to PVC. Interestingly, firms advertising in the environmental area have been most likely to attract ASA criticism when, as in the case of the Co-op and Iceland, their material mirrored and perhaps even depended on those of campaigners. When, as in the case of the Timber Trade Federation, firms criticised campaigners and their stances, the best efforts of campaigners to complain about their treatment mostly failed. What is more, these reprimands have been very near to the heart of the campaigners' cases in question. By contrast, when firms such as Monsanto have been reprimanded by the ASA, it has tended to be on mistakes which were marginal to their case. Certainly, there was an element of inadvertancy, of mild over-statement, to those few of Monsanto's statements which did not survive challenge by campaigners. The campaigners' mistakes, by contrast, seem much more often to involve what can fairly be thought the deliberate misuse of the evidence they pray in aid.

The falseness of environmentalist claims is not occasional. Almost all the cases they make depend on unfairness and inaccuracy and worse, all the time. Some continue for years in spite of well-worn and unassailable evidence to the contrary. For many years it has been clear that modern municipal incineration was at most a very a small contributor to dioxins in the environment and that in any case dioxins was probably not much of a problem at the levels most of us come across it. Dioxins are associated with chloracne at very high rates of exposure. Some very recent research suggests that at high levels, well above the norm, exposure to dioxins may increase the likelihood by a few percent of a couple producing female offspring. [27] But this evidence is of uncertain relevance, since it applies to people exposed in the past, and exceptionally exposed at that. Besides, long-lasting as they are, and potentially damaging as they are, dioxins have become perhaps the most heavily regulated substances on the planet: present levels and present risks, whatever they are, will not confront future generations. Yet campaigners have worked against municipal incineration on the grounds that it is a major source of a major pollutant.

Similarly, low level radiation from nuclear reactors in normal operation has never been seriously implicated as a serious source of harm to the general public. Such harm as they cause would be likely to be dwarfed by the 'natural radiation challenges they face and by the voluntary exposure to radiation to medical profession successfully invites us to undergo. What is more, modern nuclear industry emission levels are much lower than historically was permitted. Yet campaigners routinely claim that the industry does, or may quite likely do, serious damage quite generally, and on a scale they have not been frightened to compare with the public perception of the damage done by Chernobyl, which they also exaggerate. [28]

These mistakes are not easily made; they are not the result of slips. As can be seen from ASA judgements, campaigners often quote scientific papers. Only those who knew the science well would understand the degree to which the campaigners' case did not represent the evidence presented there. Characteristically, a scientific uncertainty, especially an expression of a potential risk (whether or not one which is seriously likely, or likely to be serious) becomes promoted to a horrifying, strong possibility.

The point here is that there is a set of rules in the use of evidence, and the discussion of evidence, which is understood by nearly everyone using the English language fairly, let alone those doing science professionally, and using its more specialist terms. When campaigners use this material it is encumbent upon them to obey the rules of fair play, let alone of scientific rigour. They should read Baldwin (see introductory quotations).

The Second Case: Environmentalism 'better than conventional science

It is sometimes said that environmentalism was the product of a particular scientific view which was at odds with the mainstream. [29] This case suggests that the science of ecology produced a desire for a more 'holistic view, perhaps especially in biology. This is to say that ecology is, by one definition, the study of the flow of energy through natural systems. As such, it is about whole communities, about relationships. Naturally, also, ecology came across its insights through a face to face encounter between researchers and Nature. Ecology is therefore assumed to have entered into the essence, the spirit, of naturalness in a way which conventional, lab-based, sceptical, science cannot. This point of view believes ecological insights to be at odds with the technological, often commercial, sorts of science which universities are supposed increasingly to be interested in.

Actually, ecology's insights do not much tend to reinforce the messages which 'ecologism has derived from them. They don't even reinforce the messages of some of its own practitioners. Ecologism has always been inclined to stress the fragility, co-operativeness and stability of ecological systems, whilst from the earliest work, ecological research shows them at least as often to be robust, competitive and dynamic. The largely left-leaning pioneers of ecologism had preferred to see Nature as like a Utopian and socialist republic. It would be much more accurate to see it is a free-market. It is not the self-conscious and deliberate co-operativeness of communities which makes Nature's' systems strong, it is the unthinking opportunism of individuals. It is true that many communities of species seem to behave in a very organised way, and seem to be behaving co-operatively, at least with their own members. But even when they do look as though they are co-operating, it is important to see that there is only self-interest and instinct at work, not altruism. What is more, the robustness of an entire ecosystem usually depends on a larger piece of competition. Seen holistically, ecosystems survive 'disaster, say fire, because there are opportunistic species which thrive in the aftermath of such disruption, just as there are species which can only thrive after system has 'enjoyed a long period of stability.

All in all, classical economic theories would probably better describe ecosystems with their uninhibited selfishness than they do most human individuals and organisations with their moral imperatives.

There are some shibboleths which it is politically incorrect to question. For instance, the science of ecology is thought to endorse the idea that there is a quality called biodiversity and the more of it there is an ecosystem or the whole world, the better. Its greatest scientific fans do not seem to make a very good case for biodiversity. For instance, Sir Robert May, the government's chief science advisor and a mathematical ecologist, bemoans the loss of biodiversity and yet has published work which suggests that an ecosystem can lose a good deal of the diversity of species with which it set out, and yet remain robust. [30] This seems to be partly because the underlying genetic diversity in the system may remain high even if several or many of its species are removed. What is more, in spite of the prevailing cliche of a 'balance in Nature, and an underlying 'web of life, actually many of the species in, say, a tropical system seem not to be necessary to it at all, and certainly not in the quantity each it may more or less fortuitously boast

Modern ecology is actually the discussion of whether it is simplicity or complexity, variety or homogeneity, which contributes most to the dynamism of ecological systems. A growing body of the literature discusses the surprising robustness and responsiveness of natural systems. This, paradoxically, is best seen by looking at James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis which re-emphasises both a highly Green and a highly pragmatic argument: man can do his puny best to use, or abuse, Nature, but he will be brushed off with ease if he oversteps the mark. At a much less extreme level, writers such as Daniel Bodkin [31] and Stephen Budiansky [32] discuss the ecological science which endorses and disciplines a rational, respectful but large scale use of a natural resources by man.

It is important to emphasise that man cannot for long, or in an extreme way, be cavalier in his handling of Nature. Nature presumably has laws and non-negotiable limits. We need the tools of science and intuition to discover what and where they are and to live within them. But as man works within Nature and establishes what works and what does not, the greens are often overly gloomy about what man can achieve and what damage he may do. The campaigners are often operating well outside the boundaries of what their own favourite science, ecology, can recommend. They operate, in short, on prejudice which may or may not be a good guide but is not scientific one.

In several areas the Green prejudice leads to what may seem a useful caution, but which is actually damaging to wildlife. Rainforest, for instance, has been demonstrated to be capable of sustaining a logging industry which can 'cut and cut again: much depends on the type of rainforest, the intensity and carefulness of the logging and the amount of time allowed between logging events. In an ideal world, in which there were very few people, or no people in need of timber or income, or limitless economic opportunities beyond rainforest exploitation, one might argue that rainforest could be left virgin everywhere. As it is, it may be expedient, even from a Green point of view, to establish sound, profitable means by which countries which have rainforest can find economic value in them. Not to do so will, perversely it may seem, leave them much freer to regard the forests as being of no value and hence leave them more prone to crude, once and for all development for other, non-timber uses. [33]

In the case of almost all African wild animals, innumerable fur-bearing animals [34] , and Arctic seals, a sustainable harvest is plainly possible, and legitimising its sustainability in ecological terms would free us to address, and perhaps conquer, or squeamishness which alone stands between poor people and a worthwhile harvest. In the case of whales, a largely phony argument as to the sustainability of harvesting minke whale off the coasts of Norway, Iceland and Japan has for years bolstered a 'welfarist argument against allowing local fishermen to improve their livings by hunting the animals. [35]

Perhaps curiously, one of the scientific techniques which mostly obviously has a debt to ecology is 'life cycle analysis. This applies holistic, systematic principles to measuring the impacts of man's activities and products. It is fraught with difficulties. And yet it allows this or that practice to be compared with another. It also allows a clearer sense of where non-comparable issues and concerns must nonetheless be set against each other. [36]

In the case of municipal incineration, it is clear from extensive studies that organised recycling of household waste has never, anywhere made much sense on ecological, and certainly not on economic, grounds. That is to say: no municipality has ever been able ecologically or economically to justify the known and calculated fossil fuel consumption in collecting and recycling household waste as compared with handling the waste with incineration as part of the solution (especially if that is accompanied by intelligent separation of some materials, and energy recovery). It is hard to compare the ecological deficit in collecting and dumping household waste in landfills with either recycling or incineration, since the 'downsides of landfill are not of the same kind as those attached to reworking the material, or burning. But it is possible to compare recycling with incineration, since in both cases the calculus hinges on combustion. In recycling, there is usually a large energy cost in collecting waste, and treating it, whilst in incineration there is a small net energy production. Granted the ready availability of pollution controls for incineration, the ecological contest between recycling and incineration is easily won by incineration. That is what the 'holistic evidence shows, but the Greens will probably never accept it.

Nor will the public, at least whilst the media does the campaigners' work for them. The mainstream media almost always stress that there is a carbon dioxide and Global Warming risk associated with incineration, but without mentioning that those risks are greater with recycling. [37]

The core difficulty here is that the campaigners have an ethical dislike of the consumer society, which they associate, rightly in part, with waste. Seeing paper and plastic in our dustbins, they cannot enjoy solutions which turn such things into fuel which has a secondary pre-combustion use as packaging. They need these problems to be insoluble, except by processes such as recycling which fit their preconception of what Nature would do if she was out shopping for her family.

The Third Case: Campaigners and uncertainty

Probably the greatest triumph of the Green campaigners has been to espouse and colonise a 'strict or 'strong version of the 'Precautionary Principle to the extent that it is now enshrined in policy. [38] The Precautionary Principle was conceived in Germany and supposed that where there was evidence that harm was likely, even if it could not finally be proved scientifically, a precautionary, pre-emptive approach should be adopted. But, and this is almost always forgotten, in official and legislative language and operation, this principle was one of three principles which, when held in tension together, could usefully guide policy. It held that decisions about regulating processes and products should be made, even in advance of final prove of harm, which erred on the side of caution. But such decisions were also to be 'proportionate: that is, sledgehammers should not be taken to smash nuts. And they should be pragmatic, that is to say they should be alert to economic and practical consequences: they should not impose unnecessary costs. Thus, in German theory and practice, the Precautionary Principle was hardly more restrictive or liberal than the parallel British regulatory language and practice, as developed in the 1980s, which enjoined the application of BATNEEC, that is, Best Available Technology Not Entailing Excessive Cost.

The version of the Precautionary Principle now in place in various national and international treaties and protocols seldom reiterates the useful tensions of the triumvirate of principles, and what is worse, on paper at least it tips the balance in favour of caution and against adventure. This is achieved in two different ways.

The Precautionary Principle is rightly always assumed to be a means of putting technology and its proponents on trial, and what is more of presuming their guilt until they can prove themselves innocent. But actually, the campaigners' case as much deserves to be on trial. Can they prove or usefully demonstrate that society should attend to their caution about progress? What level of proof and probability would we accept from them?

Even if we accept that technology ought to be on trial, and that the burden of proof ought to be shifted somewhat toward industry and the official regulators, we can wonder if we are wise to accept the campaigners' conduct of the trial. That is to say: the language legislators have been persuaded to use often seems to allow that it is the 'possibility of harm which should trigger precaution, rather than the tougher standard of probability. The legislators clearly hope that they have left themselves room for manoevre. They need the restrictive language because they are hoping to satisfy the calls by campaigners for caution. It remains to be seen if the room for manoevre will be sufficient to allow sensible progress.

The difficulty here is very clear. It is always possible that a product or process will do unpredictable harm. Indeed, it is almost predictable that some unpredicted harm will result from any human activity. The issue is: where is the balance of probabilities of harm and benefit? Obviously, a strict and unfettered version of the Precautionary Principle will always and everywhere allow a crushing objection to be made to any technology, and especially a new one such genetically modified organisms.

The Greens have used an argument which supposes that the scientific tradition will support the strict Precautionary Principle. They stress, for instance, the fact that no scientists will ever say that a product or process is safe. [39] The Greens then go on to say that this is an endorsement of caution. It is true that no scientist will ever say that anything is safe, since to do is a) to fly in the face of empirical experience ('shit happens) and b) to betray the empirical understanding that until an experiment has run its course, its results cannot be known. Besides, c) there is the philosophical principle that hardly any statements are definitely verifiable and those more common ones that are falsifiable often aren't of practical use. A strict sceptic can disprove almost anything to his satisfaction. This is especially true of the useful, large generalisations which it would be helpful to be able to make, such as 'This product or process is safe, and so on.

Modern philosophers of science such as A J Ayer, Isaiah Berlin and Karl Popper, have found that falsification is a more workable standard than verification. [40] Put crudely, that is to say, a statement is likely to have real meaning if it is there is some sort of evidence or circumstance that would prove it false, once and for all. Finding falsifiable statements is a lot easier than finding verifiable ones. A statement such as 'this product or process is safe is impossible to verify. To do so will take for ever, and many experiences of apparent safety will not be proof of safety everywhere and forever. But it is in principle easily falsifiable, since any indication of any danger, however, trivial or rare or improbable will falsify it.

It is safest to assume that all things are logically possible, and even physically possible, and may happen, except those things which have been proved impossible. So propositions stand more chance of making sense and being useful if they are of the sort which are knocked out of court by a single example. This militates against generalisations and large theories, which move from limited present knowledge and attempt to describe the future. It also fits the reductionist habit of making modest (or vaunting) hypotheses and then subjecting them to the winnowing process of an assault by attempted falsification. A likelihood is suggested, and practical experimental and theoretical, intellectual attempts are made both to reinforce (verify) it and to shoot it down (falsify it). These are pursued systematically and energetically. The hypothesis may stand, not as proven but as acceptable for cautious, conditional and circumscribed acceptance. This approach systematises humility: everything is open to challenge, permanently. Knowledge is perceived as conditional.

Oddly, this reductionist thinking is taken by campaigners to be the height of arrogance, when actually it is implementation of the technologies which have bountifully flowed from the process which may or may not deserve the epithet.

The campaigners affect not to understand that all statements about risk – including theirs - are, like any scientific statement, only useful if they are capable of verification or falsification. Otherwise we are prone to make portentous statements which are in fact empty. Of course, no scientist should ever say a product or process is safe. But campaigners themselves routinely make claims of danger which are more routinely fatuous than the remarks of any half-way cautious scientist. Thus, campaigners' seldom say that some harm definitely will happen, at or by a certain time. That would be both a falsifiable and a verifiable statement of a type which is very easily proved true or false. (Unlike the useless statement that something or other is safe, which cannot.) Campaigners merely and routinely say that harm may happen, which is not at all useful because though it is in principle verifiable, it is so vague it isn't in practice falsifiable. It will never be proved false. The campaigners' indefinite warnings are hardly ever definite predictions, since to make a positive prediction is – like a soothsayer – to risk being firmly falsified.

When the Greens say, 'no scientist of repute can ever say a thing is safe, and that 'such and such may be dangerous they have the difficulty, which they do not acknowledge, that the only interesting additions to these debates are not negative attacks on spurious and illusory claims of safety but positive assessments of risk put as precisely as circumstances allow.

After all, most of these points please logicians and nit-pickers. In the real world, life has to be lived as a matter, not of final proof but of likelihoods, and balancing hazard with benefit.

The philosophical thinking which surrounds certainty and uncertainty, probability and risk, is very attractive and complex, but it has always foundered on the problem that scepticism is always possible and usually useless. Philosophers from Hume to Ayer return time and time again to a commonsense approach. They find the extremes of their own professional speculations and searches for the incontrovertible are no more use than ordinary sensible usage of words and the ordinary practices of people living with uncertainty.

When campaigners say, such and such 'may happen, or is 'potentially dangerous, we can remind ourselves that are saying very little that helps us in the gambles we must take and want to take. They are not saying enough to be useful tipsters. There is good ordinary language and method with which they can be challenged. This has to do with inviting them to give us the empirical evidence from the past and present (the 'form) and to give us a decent call as to their reading of the odds about the future. Then we can bounce these prognostications against those of others.

When someone says that something 'may happen, we know that what matters is their response to the challenge: 'Yes, but are you saying whether it is likely, probable, or inevitable? Or is it merely possible, as so much is? What price would you pay to avoid this risk? What is the mathematical expression of your belief about this likelihood, in terms of odds? These are gambling questions because gambling is what we all have to do everyday.


We can apply strict reductionist scientific thinking to campaigners' statements. We can apply their own 'holistic scientific thinking. We can resort to the philosophical underpinning of scientific statement, especially about certainty and uncertainty, which the campaigners say endorses their version of the 'Precautionary Principle. And everywhere we find their claims wanting and useless.

[1] Stanley Baldwin, Truth and Politics, On Inauguration as Lord Rector of the University of Edinburgh, 6th November, 1925, collected in Stanley Baldwin, On England, Philip Allan, 1927 (and Penguin later).

[2] When I say 'campaigners I am thinking of the views of organisations as diverse as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Christian Aid, the informal food writers' coalition against GMOs, and the Green Party. I am also thinking of their cheer-leaders amongst writers, people such as Geoffrey Lean, George Monbiot and John Vidal, and many others. I think of these groups' and individuals' views as I have read them, heard them broadcast, and often challenged them directly 'on air. I have come to the reluctant conclusion that there is a matter of 'sides, and almost of 'teams, now. There are those prepared to go along with anti-Enlightenment, anti-corporate, populist 'verities and those determined broadly to stand by the Enlightenment ideal of progress, including capitalism and formal representative democracy. I am afraid I must enter a weasel caution here: I am not attributing any particular attitude or remark or view to any particular organisation or individual, unless I directly say so. But I believe that almost all the remarks are true of almost all of them, and that almost all of them do not stand by the best rules of fair argument.

[3] For an account of the role of the 'neurotic Romanticism (as I call it) in the birth of the Post Modern, see Hartley, Keith (et al, editors), The Romantic Spirit in German Art 1790-1990, Hayward Gallery, 1994.

[4] For a clear and moderate account of the campaigners' dislike of The Enlightenment, try 'Citizenship, Democracy and Environmentalism, Module 2 of the AECD (Adult Education for Citizenship and Democracy) course, written and published by the UK-based Centre for Citizenship Learning and Action, as part of the Popular Education for Democracy and European Citizenship programme, supported by the EU, at

[5] A brilliant discursive account of this issue is in Tallis, Raymond, Enemies of Hope: A critique of contemporary pessimism, Macmillan, 1997 London and St Martin's Press, New York.

[6] At , in the Enlightenment Project section, may be found a short essay on this subject

[7] Porter, Roy, The Enlightenment, MacMillan, 1990, and especially Dunthorne, Hugh, The Enlightenment, The Historical Association, 1991 and 1994 cover this aspect within a general account of 'The Birth of the Modern, as the brilliantly useful book by Paul Johnson is titled (Weidenefld and Nicolson, 1991). Hill, Christopher, The Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution (OUP, 1965) and Strong, Roy The Spirit of Britain (Hutchinson, 1999) show clearly the blend of passion and reason in the birth of The Enlightenment.

[8] "Greenpeace is an independent campaigning organisation which uses non-violent creative confrontation to expose global environmental problems and to force solutions which are essential to a green and peaceful future. Greenpeace's campaigns arise out of a few simple global imperatives to save our ancient forests, to protect our oceans' eco-systems, to end nuclear threats, to stop global warming, to end toxic pollution, and to eliminate the threat posed by genetic engineering". Greenpeace International ad for an executive director for Greenpeace USA, The Economist, April 22 2000

[9] See references to a paper by Greenpeace's Chris Rose in my 'Life On a Modern Planet: A manifesto for prgress, Manchester University Press

[10] The Friends of the Earth website uses UN official material as its information source on Global Warming.

[11] ‘"It's about time that science catches up to common-sense - pumping nuclear waste into the sea is a public health and environmental catastrophe," said Moglen'. Damon Moglen, quoted opining against the French nuclear programme, Greenpeace 1997 press release, from

[12] See Life On a Modern Planet, above

[13] I can testify to both these sorts of statements from frequent appearances on radio panels with campaigners.

[14] Public trust of campaigners, which is not as great as commonly supposed, is discussed in my Risk: The human experiment, ESEF, June 2000

[15] The CCLA site is the clearest example of this thinking, but look also at Institute of Scientific

[16] See my Risk: The human experiment, above

[17] My Radio 4 documentary, Greenpeace and the Zero Option, 1989, looked at this in detail

[18] This case is documented in Life On a Modern Planet, see above. These and many other cases are well-documented in

[19] See Life On a Modern Planet, above, also the updated account of nuclear risks in the 'Modern risks section of my website,

[20] See Life On a Modern Planet, above and also the updated account of chemical risks in the 'Modern risks section of

[21] See Life On a Modern Planet, above

[22] See Life On a Modern Planet, above and also the account of tropical forestry in the Third World issues section of

[23] Some water risks are discussed usefully in Mooney, R and Bate, R (eds), Environmental Health: Third world problems – first world preoccupations, Butterworth-Heinemann, 1999 and Morris, J and Bate, R, Fearing Food: Risk, health and environment, Butterworth-Heinemann, 1999. Bate and Morris are both associated with the IEA.

[24] See Life On a Modern Planet

[25] This view has been expressed to me privately by several of the marine biologists who have researched this and allied subjects in the past three decades: it is a policy nonstarter since Greenpeace anti-dumping campaigns of the 70s and 80s

[26] See – the adjudication section covers all the issues mentioned here

[27] Lancet, May 25, 2000

[28] See the nuclear risk section in for a very mild but convincing example of the genre.

'The risk of exposure to radiation from nuclear accidents carries the possibility of major health impacts. The Chernobyl disaster has resulted in increased cancer incidence in children, massive psychosocial damage and disruption, and a cost to Belarus alone of US$235 billion to 2015. Many of the old reactors in operation in Eastern Europe are disasters waiting to happen, according to many scientists. Even in France the Inspector for General Nuclear Safety has indicated there is as much as a one-in-twenty chance of a serious reactor accident before 2010. Similarly, PWR reactors, similar to the Sizewell B reactor in Suffolk, run the risk of a Chernobyl-type accident. Other reactors in the UK built in the 1950s and 60s have operated well past their intended lives. Even under normal working conditions there is the danger of radiation exposure at every stage of the nuclear fuel chain.

[29] See 'The Nineteenth Century Roots of Ecology, in Bramwell, Anna , The Fading of the Greens, Yale University Press, 1994

[30] This case is looked at in my Risk: the human experiment, see above

[31] Botkin, Daniel, Discordant Harmonies: A new ecology for the twenty-first century, Oxford University Press, New York, 1990

[32] Budiansky, Stephen, Nature's Keepers: The new science of nature management, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1995

[33] The Timber Trade Federation submissions to the ASA, to be found at refer to many sources

[34] See my 'Fur and Freedom: A defence of the fur trade, IEA, March 2000 and at

[35] Press coverage of the meetings of the International Whaling Commission's annual meetings refer to the case made by the whaling countries

[36] See Life On a Modern Planet, above

[37] As a single incidence of a routine habit: Margaret Gilmour, BBC Radio's environment reporter, Today Programme, May 25, 6.35 am.

[38] See Risk: The human adventure, above, and see Risk Management: Science and the Precautionary Principle, Kenneth R. Foster, Paolo Vecchia, Michael H. Repacholi in Science May 12 2000: 979-981 which also appears at the invaluable site maintained from Bern by Klaus Ammann (e-mail to join the list).

[39] Greenpeace's philosophy can be seen in the following exchange at the recent House of Lords inquiry into GMOs:

"Chairman: Your opposition to the release of GMOs, that is an absolute and definite opposition? Lord Melchett: It is a permanent and definite and complete opposition based on a view that there will always be major uncertainties. It is the nature of the technology, indeed it is the nature of science, that there will not be any absolute proof. No scientist would sit before your Lordships and claim that if they were a scientist at all." quoted in the House of Lords, EU Regulation of Genetic Modification in Agriculture, European Communities Committee, 2nd Report 1998-99

[40] Besides the philosophically informed views of Stanley Baldwin, I recommend Ayer, A J, The Central Questions of Philosophy, Penguin, 1973 (and subsequent editions) as a comprehensible guide to the logical philosophy discussed here. It might be useful to compare a remark such as 'God exists with a remark (quoted by Ayer, presciently one might think) such as 'The sea will never encroach on this land. We certainly can't verify the proposition that God exists and we can't think of what would falsify it either. It's a useful remark, but it is a metaphysical, not a scientific, one. The proposition 'the sea will never encroach on this land is scientific. It is also extremely rash. It will be very hard and probably impossible to verify, now or ever, as a statement about the future, but is logically and practically easily falsified by a single inundation at any time in the future. 'The sea may encroach on the land, on the other hand, is a very safe and even mealy-mouthed statement. It is a verifiable proposition in the sense that it will be proved right if the sea does encroach, but it isn't a very useful proposition because it makes no prediction and states no likelihood. It is not a falsifiable remark because (whilst it can be proved true) nothing would disprove it.

Similarly: 'This is a safe product is a bold but silly statement, leaving many hostages to fortune. It is often used to reassure, but verges on the foolhardy. But: 'This may be an unsafe product is an easy and cheap remark, holding its cards close to its chest. It is often used to frighten, and verges on the cowardly.

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