Why do we mistrust science? It’s a vital question that affects our future. And the answer may be that there is less mistrust of science than of industry’s use of science. But the end result may be just as harmful.
When a scientific breakthrough occurs, excitement often follows as its inventors publicize the great benefits humankind can expect. Then, when industry begins to develop and commercialize enabling technologies and materials, not just the potential benefits but also the potential drawbacks of the innovation crash into public awareness.
A number of scientific controversies and innovations that are particularly relevant to Minnesota fit this pattern. Most newsworthy are genetically modified organisms (GMOs), fracking and the role it plays in the climate-change debate, and ethanol. The industries involved are Big Agriculture and Big Oil. In each case, mistrust between industry and the public continues to grow, leading to confrontation. Lost is the assurance that science and its resulting technologies are beneficial.
Skepticism flows in different directions, depending on the issue. In one of these controversies, it’s industry that wants the scientific consensus to be trusted; in another, industry wants the science to be denied. These, respectively, are GMOs and climate change.
Recent surveys by the Pew Research Center in Washington revealed wide disagreement between the opinion of the public and scientists on these two subjects. Scientific opinion was gathered from members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The members of the AAAS can be expected largely to base their opinions on such matters on findings produced by the scientific method. This basic process of experimentation and repeated testing of hypotheses is reliable precisely because it accepts uncertainty and consciously seeks what atronomer Edwin Hubble called “successive approximations” of the truth.
Yet on GMOs and climate change, scientists impressively agree. Asked whether GMO foods are safe to eat, 88 percent of AAAS members said yes — while just 37 percent of U.S. adults surveyed agreed. On climate change, 87 percent of AAAS scientists believe that climate change is occuring mostly due to human activity. Of the members of the general public surveyed, only 50 percent agreed.
How can so many people mistrust science to such an extent? I have interviewed dozens of experts on the subject, ranging from the business faculty at Michigan Tech University to GMO scientists working for agribusiness (Dow, Bayer, Monsanto, etc.). All agree that there is mistrust of science that does not bode well for our future. And all are at a loss to explain it.
Some guess that it comes from the deterioration of Americans’ high school educations. Today, our citizens don’t have the capability or desire to investigate the science in order to make a judgment. Others feel the situation results from our permissive, open culture. Anyone has the right to an opinion, even if that opinion has no factual basis. In this information age, we no longer can differentiate the voice of science from any uneducated voice being projected onto the web. Before the internet and social media, most of our information originated with self-policing institutions that required substantiation. Today the validation of science-based statements is left to the reader, viewer or listener, not the presenter, nor the medium bearing that information.
The open information age may help fuel mistrust, but it is not the reason for it. Mistrust of science primarily occurs when a giant industry is involved — it’s an extension of mistrust for the profit motive.
Profit is not bad; it encourages efficiency and production. But a balanced use of science involves more than that. In the case of GMOs, Big Agriculture profits from the adoption of GMO foods. Half the cost of a bag of seed covers what is called a technology fee, for access to the GMO technology that, say, makes the seed compatible with specific herbicides and/or pesticides. Vast sums are also spent on the chemicals that kill specific weeds and pests but not the plants. More than 80 percent of American agriculture, led by corn, soybeans and sugar beets, is locked into these types of “farming systems” to increase production.
That said, hundreds of government-funded and university-led research institutes have tested GMO foods for potential negative side effects, and no such effects have been substantiated. The use of pesticides in the U.S. has dropped by more than 50 million pounds a year from what was used before GMO seeds. GMO science can also optimize other attributes such as taste and appearance, often favoring appearance over taste. GMO apples do not brown as fast. GMO tomatoes keep their shape during transport.
It seems GMOs provide what is wanted. So why is there such mistrust of GMO science among the public? In part, GMO technology seems unbounded in its ability to increase the profits of the suppliers and as such has been introduced at an extremely rapid pace relative to natural cultivation and breeding. At the same time, the public has growing concerns about healthy foods and a healthy environment — aims that aren’t so readily transformed into returns for investors.
In the case of GMOs, industry would actually benefit from the decrease of mistrust in science. In the case of climate change, Big Oil benefits from maintaining mistrust, which results in slowing down progress on policies to minimize global warming. Here, it’s known that the industry has purposely encouraged the mistrust in science.
The science of climate change is very challenging. But an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has substantiated measurements of sea-level rise, global temperature rise, warming oceans, shrinking ice sheets, declining Arctic sea ice, glacial retreat, extreme weather events, ocean acidification and decreased snow cover. In the late 19th century, scientists concluded that carbon dioxide (CO2), labeled a greenhouse gas, was the main source of global warming. Other gases such as methane and nitrous oxide are more potent greenhouse gases, but don’t have the overall impact because of their lower concentration.
For the past 400,000 years the level of CO2 in the atmosphere has never exceeded 300 parts per million. Since 1850, CO2 level has been on a steep upward climb and in the 1950s it passed 300 parts per million. Today, the CO2 level is more than 400 ppm and is rising at an ever-increasing pace.
These levels of CO2 are directly correlated with the growth of the industrial revolution and the burning of fossil fuels. The profits of Big Oil are heavily dependent on the burning of fossil fuels.
All that said, science reveals truth, and as knowledge matures in a given field a general recognition of its truths will prevail. In the meantime, disagreements cause financial waste and a loss in the quality of life.
A Minnesota example of this playing out is the production of ethanol from corn. Minnesota was the first state to mandate the use of ethanol in its fuel supply, starting in the winter of 1992-93. By 2000, with state financial support totaling millions of dollars, there were 11 ethanol plants operating in rural Minnesota. After the 2004 federal government mandate, which led to the investment of more millions, Minnesota added another nine plants. This government-subsidized industrial growth continued despite a significant amount of additional science that disputed the positive claims for ethanol. The University of Minnesota alone has produced these findings:
1) Ethanol requires more energy than it produces (2002).
2) It does not make the U.S. less dependent on foreign oil (2004).
3 It affects the food supply (2006).
4) It has not stabilized the agriculture economy (2006).
5) It does not reduce the carbon footprint (2008).
6) It does not improve air quality over petrol fuels (2017).
Despite these scientific findings, industry (Big Agriculture in this case) continues to advocate for expanding ethanol mandates in our fuel. Here, the same industry that champions science on GMOs chooses to ignore science as it is now understood and continues to promote ethanol’s initial promises. (And Big Oil, no fan of alternative fuels, is on this issue more trusting of science than it is on climate.)
At all events, the future of ethanol is limited. Science eventually does prevail over profit.
An even older famous historic example is cigarette smoking. Health studies proved a link between smoking and lung cancer in 1964. The Surgeon General published a report that clearly documented the proven link. Big Tobacco worked hard to obscure the truth, but 13 years later Minnesota led the nation with its Clean Indoor Air Act that required separate smoking areas in public places. It then took another 20 years before most of the country had followed and taken more forceful steps to discourage smoking and protect nonsmokers.
Profits can be used to generate mistrust in the science, and the greater the profits, unfortunately, the longer the “smoke screen” may linger. On smoking, more trust in science could have prevented millions of people dying prematurely.
Long-term effects logically take longer to quantify. As a result, some sciences have established regulations that define development guidelines and an approval procedure before the exploitation of the science can begin. Two industries vital to Minnesota — medical devices and safety controls — are at this level of maturity in which industry has a successful partnership with regulatory organizations. In each industry, a new product or service is certified before it can be released for public use.
These industries have gained the public trust and are very successful, i.e., profitable. This is not to say that everything is known. There are still uncertainties, and these sometimes lead to public concerns. When this happens both sides, industry and the regulatory agencies, work in partnership to isolate the failures and eliminate them. The end result can be a further gain in trust from the public.
We cannot expect profit-motivated industries to regulate themselves. Publicly funded organizations must continue to study the science. However, this creates a terrain for conflict. Conflict seldom leads anywhere except to court, and our courts are not set up to deal with the scientific method. Science must be managed allowing both sides to reach a consensus on its best possible implementation.
The situations that create mistrust of GMO and climate change science are different but lead to the same consequences. Industry and the public are in conflict when they should be working together. We should be rightly cautious when science can impact the environment. As we know, we must share this one Earth. Recently, the physicist Stephen Hawking forecast that we may have as little as 100 years to find another planet, so until then we should make this one the best place to live in the universe.
The only path to that goal is found through trusted science.
James Lenz is a former adjunct professor of the University of Minnesota and is a visiting scholar with the University of Illinois Business School.