Science & Technology: Baffled by bad science

The recent row over genetically-modified food has exposed our ignorance.

IF THERE is one thing which has come out of the recent explosion of anxiety over genetically modified foods, it is that neither the British press nor the British public are well-informed about science and technology. The only other surprise is that anyone should be surprised by that. After all, it is only in the last 10 years that we have insisted that all children study science up to the age of 16 as part of the national curriculum. And, unlike many other countries, there is no obligation on young people to study even one scientific or technical subject beyond that age.

It is not as if the great and the good of the scientific world are unaware of the problem. There are professors of the public understanding of science at Oxford and Cambridge and Imperial College, and the big three science institutions - the Royal Society, the Royal Institution and the British Association for the Advancement of Science - sponsor COPUS (the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science).

COPUS was set up in the Eighties and draws its members from the media, museums, education, science and engineering, government, and public life. Its main focus is to pioneer ways of increasing understanding which could not easily be done by anyone else.

All these bodies beaver away at extending public understanding. The BA's annual conference is widely covered in the serious press. The Royal Society runs an annual exhibition entitled The Frontiers of Science, which aims to represent novel and important areas of basic research to the general public, and makes an annual award to the scientist or engineer who has done the most to promote public understanding. There are lectures, media briefings, websites and help-lines - all dedicated to helping the public get to grips with the latest advances and their implications for our lives. And museums dedicated to science have transformed themselves over the last 20 years into exciting and innovative resources for children and young people.

And yet, as no less than 19 fellows of the Royal Society pointed out in a letter to the press last week, although we have excellent scientists in this country, and decision-makers increasingly recognise when they are dealing with scientific issues, as a nation we seem to be incapable of judging whether we are dealing with good or bad science.

"It is a dangerous mistake, vividly illustrated by the events of the past week, to assume that all statements claiming to be scientific can be taken at face value," the fellows said.

There seem to be two issues here: that the public has very little understanding of risk assessment, or of the scientific method itself. Add to these two difficulties, which evidently afflict journalists as well as the wider public, a craving for absolute certainty which no one can supply, and you get the last few weeks' outbreak of Frankenstein potatoes and fish- faced tomatoes, which have annoyed so many scientists so much. Oxford University's professor of the public understanding of science, Richard Dawkins, is appalled by what has been going on.

"Obviously, not many journalists have a scientific education, but what we have seen is a sort of gleeful rejoicing in not understanding - a proclamation of ignorance. I wouldn't want to belittle the possible dangers of genetically modified food, but Frankenstein? This is descending into a kind of bogey- speak. It has echoes of medieval terrors and devils."

Professor Dawkins is clear that there are potential dangers in any scientific advance, but he is worried that this sort of hysterical reaction will create a backlash that persuades scientists and the companies they work for to hide any potential dangers there are in the processes they are introducing.

"It is not as if the art of hybridisation and selection is anything new. It has been going on for generations. A Pekinese is a genetically modified wolf, and a pretty bizarre one."

Dame Bridget Ogilvie, chair of COPUS, is equally forthright. The handling of the genetic-modification issue, she says, has verged on a national tragedy for this country. "I understand that the whole subject of food is highly emotive, especially after BSE, but there is a serious problem with the coverage of these issues. People need to be presented with the information, but in a responsible way. What people are forgetting is that BSE was induced by industry, and it was the scientists who quickly found out what was going wrong."

Dame Bridget is on the board of Zeneca, the British company responsible for the genetically modified tomatoes which have been in the supermarkets as puree for a number of years.

"What is not being said is that while we may be horrified by the way some agro-chemical companies have behaved, there are others which are completely ethical in their approach," she says. "I know that Zeneca has done everything by the book. The costs of scientific research are now so great that science has to work with industry. The problems lie in the regulation, and are more to do with government and industry than science itself."

Public understanding, Dame Bridget thinks, will only be built up over a long period of time, as people come to understand the science itself and the sort of risk assessment which new advances entail. What makes her angry are what she calls the "public frenzies" which are based, she thinks, on a wilful lack of understanding in some cases.

Part of the problem, Dame Bridget thinks, lies in the education system, in which so many young people still drop out of science completely at 16: "The A level system is called a gold standard, in spite of being so narrow. This is arrogant. It is actually taking a pride in people being bloody ignorant."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Sport
football
News
Tangerine Dream Edgar Froese
people
News
Rob Lowe
peopleRob Lowe hits out at Obama's snub of Benjamin Netanyahu
News
Davies (let) says: 'Everybody thought we were having an affair. It was never true!'
people'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
News
Staff assemble outside the old City Road offices in London
mediaThe stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century at Britain's youngest paper
Life and Style
The Oliver twins, Philip and Andrew, at work creating the 'Dizzy' arcade-adventure games in 1988
techDocumentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Arts and Entertainment
Krall says: 'My hero player-singer is Elton John I used to listen to him as a child, every single record
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
News
i100
Environment
Number so freshwater mussels in Cumbria have plummeted from up to three million in the 20th century to 500,000
environment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Old Royal Naval College: ORNC Visitor Experience Volunteer

Unpaid voluntary work: Old Royal Naval College: Join our team of friendly volu...

Recruitment Genius: Nursery Practitioner - Faringdon

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: We currently have an opportunity for you to jo...

Ashdown Group: Junior Developer - Cirencester - £29,000

£25000 - £29000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group have be...

Recruitment Genius: Primary School Sports Coach

£16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Calling all talented Level 2 qu...

Day In a Page

Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us