An Article on Anti-Science in Germany

Here’s an article on German environmental politics & education from 3 Quarks Daily that I found really interesting today.

What was interesting was how I tend to regard anti-science movements: as right wingers (most famously as the American right wing and the Wildrose party in Alberta). Here is an interesting case where anti-science has actually sprung from the left of the political spectrum in Germany: various anti-GMO activist groups campaigned against special science labs introduced in several high schools. The purpose of these labs was to give students a more hands-on experience in their molecular biology studies that would normally only be available to university students.

The scientific community was shaken up by the decision of the new Social Democrat-Green government in Niedersachsen. This was an attack on the academic freedom of schools under the guise of accusing them of promoting special interests while ignoring that the anti-GMO activists themselves were representing special interests, including the lucrative organic food industry. Scientists and science writers such as Martin Ballaschk or Lars Fischer wrote excellent critical articles in which they asked how squashing high-quality, hand-on science programs could ever lead to better decision-making. How could ignorant students have a better grasp of GMO risks and benefits than those who receive formal education and could make truly informed decisions? Sadly, this outcry did not make much of a difference and it did not seem that the media felt this was much of a cause to fight for. I wonder if the media response would have been just as lackluster if the government had de-funded a hands-on science lab to study the effects of climate change.

I recommend reading the entire article if you have the time (the link is in the first sentence of this post).

There are three critical issues that the article raises. The first is that anti-science movements in the political sphere are not exclusively climate change-denying political significants from the conservative right-wing. Interest groups organizing against scientific study can come from the left too–which is not too hard to understand when we consider that there are those who benefit financially or politically from anti-GMO campaigns.

Which brings me to the second issue. Often the success of anti-science activists such as those in the HannoverGEN case rely on media coverage and, most importantly, widespread scientific illiteracy. The whole anti-vaccination debacle is another such example of people falling prey to sensationalist articles that have garnered success in part because of scientific illiteracy and a natural fear of what we as individuals do not understand. The anti-vaccination movement exploded after the mistake of the respected scientific journal The Lancet, who published a fraudulent paper on vaccinations (the man who wrote the paper has long since been stripped of his medical license). Numerous scientific efforts have disproved the  validity of his lies, quite successfully, and yet the prevalence of the anti-Vaccination movement remains stronger than it should be.

The scientific community is not perfect. Replication and verification of experiments are pillars of scientific ethical standards and when sufficient efforts have not been made to verify publishable papers, not only the scientific community but science itself loses the respect of good chunks of the public.

My response to this problem, for myself and others outside the field of science, is to promote scientific literacy and interest in the scientific community; with a better understanding of the methodology and processes involved, we can be better prepared to hold interest groups (including scientists and politicians) accountable–for sound reasons. In the case of HannoverGEN in Germany, public scientific literacy would have greatly benefited the HannoverGEN project. Anti-GMO groups claimed that the high school students using the HannoverGEN labs would be taught to believe GMOs were exclusively good, among other things (which was chiefly untrue). Again, I highly recommend your read the actual article; it describes the debate much more thoroughly and and intelligently than I could. It will also reveal the poor argumentation made by the anti-GMO groups and the Green party of Germany.

Argumentation brings me to the third issue. Scientific literacy should not be our only goal. It’s also so, so important to question the information you are presented with. Who benefits from each side of an argument? Do the arguments make logical sense, or do they just play on your sentiments and sensibilities? Are the sources from which groups drawing their information actually legitimate?

Ultimately, does endeavouring to give high school students a more hands-on approach to microbiology studies prevent them from forming well-grounded opinions about genetically modified organisms, particularly when the course curriculum includes educating students about the dangerous possibilities of GMOs?

NO.

Anyway, I do not study science. I am also not an expert in argumentation or debate. This post ended up becoming a poorly constructed rant, I know. But if you take anything away from it, I hope it’s that critical thinking and scientific literacy are important for every person, including yourself.

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