Because I say so

18 Dec 2014

Our six week old grandson smiled at us last week. There is always a debate whether a facial expression that looks like a smile from one so young is real but his eyes were also smiling, so it was genuine. Perhaps he was enjoying a quiet time away from his siblings.

Communication with fellow humans starts literally at birth and it is at the core of our existence but it is not always easy to navigate. As Adam Smith warned in The Wealth of Nations, “people of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”

I was reminded of this quotation when I read that representatives of four green groups met up in 2010 to, according to The Times, “decide in advance to seek evidence supporting a ban on the neonicitinoids”. The notes of the meeting also show that they intended to select carefully authors for the planned four papers to “obtain the necessary policy change, to have these pesticides banned”.

Again to quote Adam Smith, “science is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition.” However, in this case it was possibly intended to misuse science.

Now, of course, the green groups involved say that the notes of the meeting have been misinterpreted and implied that they were already aware that the neonicitinoids were doing damage to bees and all they were doing was supporting science that could add to their existing knowledge. Somehow I am not comforted by that explanation.

I have written before about the misuse of science. Choosing treatments carefully can slant an argument one way or the other. In this case, as far as I am aware, the only papers that suggest that the neonicitinoids harm bees are based on laboratory studies or field studies when doses significantly above those recommended have been used. These have made the headlines but have not convinced some scientists.

There is also a human side to the issue. Did the authors of the planned papers knowingly go along with this strategy or were they unaware that their careers and reputation were being put at risk?

Sadly, I am only too aware that some scientists get so convinced of their own case that in order to impress they list papers that they say support their views despite the fact that some references are not relevant or some actually undermine their case. I have personally attended a couple of technical talks where this has occurred. Such an approach demonstrates either ignorance or distain for the audience and I now do not consider those who delivered these talks as reliable scientists.

A prime example of the selective and misuse of data was a paper in 2007 from the University of Michigan that claimed that organic farming could feed the world. The UK organic lobby was keen to quote this paper until it became clear that it was discredited. It even claimed a 37% increase in maize yields in Argentina being due to organic farming when the quoted farmers were actually adopting min till and using herbicide resistant GM crops!

I have just read a paper by a statistician on whether organic agriculture can feed the world ( He concludes that“we need to produce less meat – as much as 40% of global grain is used as livestock fodder when it could go directly and much more efficiently to humans. And about a third of the food we produce is never eaten. So if we drop the assumption that global food supply has to go wherever existing patterns of demand drive it, the possibilities of growing sufficient food with organic methods seem a lot less daunting.” This encapsulates the view of the green blob; we have to adapt our lifestyles to that which they dictate rather than that which we might wish. There has to be a sensible compromise and that is what governance is all about.

So where does this leave farmers and advisers? Not is a comfortable place but I return to the same old theme. Do not readily accept theories, rely on your experience, listen to different sources of information and look at as many actual field trial results as possible on which any advice is based. Are the treatments in the trials a fair test, what are the errors in the trials, are the results consistent and, if not, can the inconsistency be explained? It is not easy but it has to be recognised that scientists can be subject to pressure and have egos and frailties.

Perhaps not a cheerful Christmas message but do have a great Christmas and New Year.