T. V. Padma
South Asia regional coordinator, SciDev.Net
‘Don’t let ideology trump science’ was the message at a session that took upon itself the task of debunking some myths in science and showing three inconvenient truths backed by scientific evidence. That is, nuclear energy and genetically modified food are safe, and nicotine does not cause cancer.
Take the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdown, for instance. It was, said Roland Schenkel, former director general of European Commission’s Joint Research Council, “a catalogue of failure” but it did not mean the technology was faulty.
There was inadequate protection against tsunamis; the regulator and operator had inadequate authority to enforce important safety measures; there was lack of state-of-the-art technology upgrades. The most serious consequence for the population was not radiation, but the effects from evacuation and migration.
The Fukushima disaster showed that the International Atomic Energy Agency standards are not legally binding, and national regulators have varying degrees of independence, competence and monitoring, Schenkel said.
But countries are continuing to expand nuclear power programmes, and some like the United States are attempting to prolong the life of aging reactors, Schenkel said.
Nicotine too is safe, “it is the combustible delivery system that causes the problem,” said David O’Reilly, group scientific advisor at British American Tobacco. Some prevailing tobacco myths are that smoking will disappear, all tobacco products are equally harmful, and nicotine causes cancer, he said. He advises harm reduction prgrammes for smokers.
Similarly, there is no difference in assessment of risk in eating genetically modified food and conventionally farmed food, argued Anne Glover, former chief scientific advisor of Scotland and professor at the University of Aberdeen.
So why are the public, media and some policy makers still tad unconvinced?
The audience threw up some interesting observations. Scientists are ‘naïve’ and do not seem to understand that human understanding and perceptions of risk are complex, and should be factored in technology risk assessment.
But I especially like this one, from a fellow science journalist. Scientists, he said, presume the public and media are like children who should be told, “This is good for you. You should do this and you should not do that…..We refuse to be treated like children, being told what is good for us.”
This blog post is part of our ESOF 2012 blog which takes place 11-15 July, 2012. To read news and analysis on themes related to the conference please visit our website.