Sunday, October 08, 2006

Science, politics and risk perception

Science and politics are indisputably linked, from funding decisions to ethical concerns through to the implementation and adoption of new technologies. Three recent areas where the interaction of science and politics has been “problematic” are climate change, genetic modification and stem cell research. The politics of our society are still largely defined by Left and Right, though each encompasses a large range of personal ideologies. However, I’m often amazed how easy it is to pick a position on the three scientific controversies mentioned above and the political persuasion of the people who believe that particular position.

Now, good science involves testing hypotheses using well designed experiments which can be reproduced by others. Whilst not perfect, publishing results in peer-reviewed journals is a good way to put good science into the public sphere. Politics plays virtually no role in whether science is good or not. There’s plenty of good science to support the theory of global warming. There’s plenty of good science to support the introduction and adoption of genetically modified foods. There’s plenty of good science to support the potential for embryonic stem cells to be a cure for a range of diseases.

Why is it then that almost all global warming skeptics are Right wing types? Why are GMO skeptics likely to be Left wingers? People skeptical of the potential benefits of stem cell research are more likely than not Right wing; however, almost always the skeptics are religious.

Fundamentally, I believe that the problem lies in people’s inability to accurately assess risk. It would appear that when looking at a problem that involves solutions that don’t fit in with a preconceived political viewpoint, people tend to much more risk-averse. When it does the opposite behavior is prevalent. Political operatives know this and play on it by emphasizing risk. To the Right the risk of taking action on climate change is too great. To the left the risk of introducing GMOs is too great. Where science, and particularly its communication to the general public, needs to be at its best is in the accurate portrayal of the risks associated with taking a particular course of action and the risks of keeping the status quo. Then again, maybe political indoctrination is just too hard to overcome in many cases.