Commencing September 2004, we have been treated by Joe Harvey to a stimulating series of articles on the hotly debated topic of pesticides. The saga is now to be completed in this final* and perhaps most provocative offering. *Unless our readers would like to comment. [We are hoping].
To Spray or Not to Spray VII
by M.J. Harvey November 2005
In the 1950s when I was an undergraduate at what was then called King’s College, Newcastle upon Tyne, the Student Union (a union of colleges not a trades union), organized a formal debate every Saturday evening. One Saturday, a group of monks (yes, they still exist) from a nearby monastery gave a demonstration debate using the mediaeval form of argument by syllogism.
In the remote chance that one or two readers are not familiar with the form, a syllogism is an argument in three parts: first, a general proposition, e.g. ‘All men are liars’; second a lesser but connected proposition, e.g. ‘Joe is a man’; and finally a conclusion, ‘Therefore Joe is a liar’. The first and second propositions have to have an element in common and these are joined in the conclusion.
The evening was fascinating if stilted and has stuck in my mind ever since but to a budding scientist it was profoundly unsatisfactory because the system is fallible and capable of reaching false conclusions. There are no checks and balances and by the Renaissance, syllogistic reasoning was discredited and abandoned.
Following the Renaissance, the development of philosophy and science was influenced by the writings of Sir Francis Bacon in England and Descartes in France. Bacon’s 1620 book ‘Novum Organum’ rejected a priori assumptions (such as ‘All men are evil’) and espoused inductive reasoning. This formed the philosophical framework by which science developed from alchemy, anatomy and herbalism.
Thus a scientist is expected to follow the Baconian rules: a) be an impartial observer of natural phenomena; b) think up a series of ideas (hypotheses) to explain these phenomena; c) perform tests that will show that one hypothesis is more promising than the others; from which, d) a conclusion is reached. This is the so-called experimental method and replaced other systems of studying natural phenomena. The process is often iterative in that one set of experiments leads to another, improved set of tests.
It is a tribute to Bacon that his system of reasoning gave us the sciences as we know them today (Freud excepted), and remained intact until halfway through my career when Thomas Kuhn modified it in his fascinating book on scientific paradigms (hypotheses can only be disproved, not proved).
Are All Scientists Nerds?
The problem with science is that over the past 450 years it has accumulated an enormous body of knowledge. There is such a huge collection of facts and theories that any one person can no longer know it all. So individual scientists specialize in some tiny subject field in order that they may become the expert in that field.
But it is not sufficient to become knowledgeable. One has to advance, to add to, that field of knowledge. Science makes for a cutthroat career. Not only does one have to advance knowledge in a particular field but also one has to do so on a regular basis – otherwise your research grant is cut off. Let me make an analogy: you are a 100 m sprinter and you win the Olympic gold medal with a world record time. You then have to repeat this (with improved times) every year or two until you reach 65 (or become Dean). That is, in effect, how scientists are expected to perform. If you don’t do that you are a professional failure and this was illustrated most dramatically by the suicide of Wallace Carothers in a Philadelphia hotel room in 1937 after he had failed to come up with an advance over Nylon, which he synthesized in 1935 thus establishing the new field of polymer chemistry. (DuPont regarded the invention of the polyamides as such an important event that, after numerous suggestions of names (ask me about some) they released the news simultaneously in New York and London, coining the name as an acronym of the two cities).
So are scientists nerds? That is, dull people, so involved in their subject that they have no time for relaxation and hobbies. I’ve never found any evidence for this. The scientists I have known have been a wide range of character types from very intense Type A personalities to relaxed jocular characters, but they have mainly had a wide range of interests. I am too old to have known computer nerds. Certainly the scientists I have known have had a wider interest in the Arts than Arts graduates have had in the sciences, so the ‘dull’ label seems unjustified.
When I was a kid, science was the big thing to compete in. However, in high schools for the past thirty or so years, mathematics and the sciences have been regarded as the really hard subjects and most children have covered the minimum amount they have to take. There is now a shortage of science teachers.
As regards careers, just look at the examples we set up on TV and other media for our young. What should they aspire to? Well if you want big money, sports and the entertainment industry are tops, but the academic students go for business school, accounting, management, law, political science or languages. Why not science? Well, Hollywood’s persistent typecasting of scientists as either tongue-tied social misfits or evil, scheming, sinister men, has had a long-term corrosive effect. And for the few students that do get fascinated by science – and it is fascinating – it’s not the money that drags them in. After the basic B.Sc. there is at least a further 6-8 years of low or no income before you might get a temporary job at the starting salary.
‘Science’ programmes on TV are at an all time low quality. When I was young, enthusiasts such as Fred Hoyle, Prof. Bronowski and Sir Solly Zuckerman were allowed by the BBC in the UK to spread their enthusiasm. Recently I was looking at a Discovery Channel programme and an interesting graph was shown (a rare event), but it vanished in three seconds. “Bring it back”, I yelled, but they didn’t hear me. The producer, probably an art graduate, was doing the job correctly and didn’t want to bore the audience – graphs and numbers must not appear. His or her job is not to show science but to sell high-fat food and low mpg vehicles, something that wasn’t the mandate of the old “elitist” BBC. But the UK has gone the same way as North America. Several universities have closed their chemistry departments – they couldn’t get students. ‘Science’ in the commercial media’s mind, is short clips of minor medical advances (we are all concerned with our health), or space/astronomical reports presumably because of the science fiction connection.
In many Third World countries the level of education is very low with many children, especially girls, either not receiving any education, or very little, or an education that consists of reading and memorizing religious texts. This situation is not accidental or caused by poverty. It is deliberate. Having an illiterate population is very profitable for a ruling kleptocracy or religious elite. In some agrarian societies a lack of education preserves the tribal traditions – the boys stay on the land and it keeps the girls submissive – they don’t get ideas of choosing their husband or limiting how many children they bear.
Here, in the Western World, we have a very high level of education with maybe 95% of the population able to read or write. But we have a hidden illiteracy – science. As in the Third World there are people eager to exploit this illiteracy for profit or ideological reasons. In the USA for instance a reported majority of citizens have doubts about the theory of evolution.
Sometimes there is such a misunderstanding of statistics and sampling errors that people jump to illogical conclusions and conduct campaigns based on these. Clusters of cancer cases in families living near overhead high-voltage overhead cables is an old example. Recently there was a tragic case in the UK where a very literate mother had her child immunized with MMR vaccine (mumps, measles and rubella). Shortly after, the child was diagnosed as autistic so the mother got on the Internet to find whether there were any other such cases. There were. So she conducted a very effective campaign to persuade other parents to refuse MMR vaccination for their children. The tragic result was that many children got these diseases including a few who suffered from the rare but long-term damaging effects which they can cause. Unfortunately there was no decline in the number of autism cases. The events, vaccination and autism diagnosis were shown not to be connected. Look at it this way: you vaccinate a few million young children – a few are bound to be diagnosed as autistic in the next few years.
I was amused at one recent drug report although I shouldn’t have been. I was laughing so much I forgot to write down the numbers but something like 23 men had dropped dead of heart attack/stroke after taking Viagra. This is out of something like 86 million prescriptions. This number of deaths is much higher than expected in a normal population and some of the bereaved wives are taking the manufacturers to court for big damages. What is ignored is that the very reason these men were taking the drug is because they had circulatory problems. They were not a random sample of the total population, they were a selected group. However, lawyers are not concerned with populations or statistics; they have a one-to-one relationship with their clients so I imagine these cases will go to trial. Similar statistical misunderstandings are at the root of many other health-related matters. On the other hand Y2K was a pure hoax – but hey, it sold a lot of computers.
So what is going on in our society? The woman with the autistic child thought: 1. My child received MMR; 2. He then developed autism; 3. Therefore the MMR caused the autism. But this is syllogistic reasoning with all the logical problems that this can cause. The mother is understandably not concerned with statistics – her child has autism, end of argument. But the media itself is scientifically illiterate (and irresponsible in the case of the British tabloids) and goes along with alarmist reports with no consideration of the overall picture.
The basic premise of the organic movement to my mind seems to stem from Christianity: What God made is good, what man makes is evil. In Christian theology there is the concept that the only perfect human was Christ and that although others may strive towards perfection, they can never quite reach it.
Thus it follows that natural fertilisers and sprays are inherently good and are safe to use, while man-made, synthetic chemicals are liable to cause problems and must be avoided. Am I right? People are of course inherently lazy. They want the simple life so “Natural good, synthetic bad” is easy to remember and you don’t need a science degree.
But modern life is inherently complicated. Life really isn’t black and white. There are natural products that are really nasty (have a fag) and there are synthetic products that are benign. You have to have a bit of knowledge. Einstein, who was a jocular fellow said on one of his more grumpy days, “Most people would rather die than think, and most do.” But, I hear you cry, what about the Precautionary Principle?
The PP states that a new product should not be released until it has been thoroughly examined and proven safe to use. Very sensible and I agree with the sentiment. But really, when you think about it, it is a load of tripe. Taken to its extreme, humans would still be shivering at the back of caves eating raw meat because the first invention – fire – which eventually led to the use of metals and the industrial revolution, is dangerous. Fire can cause burns and generates the deadly poisonous gas, carbon monoxide. So the strict application of the PP would have prevented the whole of human development. And that might have been a good thing. The reality is that it is impossible to eliminate all dangers; one cannot anticipate every eventuality.
When I was young I used to believe in ‘progress’ – the concept that things would get better. I’m giving up on the idea now, life seems to be circular – civilizations rise and fall. About a year before he died I happened to visit Alec McCarter and as old scientists we got to talking about where the world was going. I expressed the view that the rather disappointing new millennium had ushered in not a new enlightened age but a new mediaeval era. He thought for a few seconds and agreed. After all we have areas of the globe controlled by warlords; there are tribal massacres; many countries are controlled by religious or military elites. Even the USA has a degree of religious control of its population. When I was a university professor teaching first year biology we would be visited by book salesmen anxious for us to adopt their texts. My task was to examine the genetics and evolution chapters. Evolution was usually the last chapter and one salesman confided in me that they published special editions in the States with the evolution chapter omitted. He explained that any text that contained evolution could be guaranteed not to be adopted in certain States. I should add that Canada was not much better. In Nova Scotia evolution was in the high school textbooks but it could be guaranteed never to appear as a provincial exam question. So teachers, with a lot of material to cover, naturally did not want to disadvantage their students by covering a subject that would never be examined. There were also parental objections to mentioning the subject – it was against their religious beliefs.
And the organic movement? It has an enormous following of sincere believers and an industrial spin-off that is capitalizing on that belief. It is thus what Kuhn called a ‘paradigm’, a set of beliefs that unite a group of people. I suppose it is generally not a bad thing but the factual basis for the beliefs is just not there. When you examine it in detail there is nothing there other than the slogans that are presented. As I said in an earlier article, synthetic urea is the same as natural urea. True, there were some horrible substances synthesized early on that are withdrawn now, including DDT (still widely used in the Third world), but our food safety regulations are getting very tight and it is not true that supermarket food is “saturated with chemicals” which I gather is part of the belief system.
I try to encourage logical thinking and am sorry to see confused groups such as POOP marching to the legislature building. POOP stands for something like People Opposed to Oceanic Peeing. Some of the members think they are part of the organic movement but are in fact opposing the very organic and sensible sewage disposal that parts of Victoria and Esquimalt use. Instead they are demanding the latest in high-tech disposal which will be expensive and I suspect generate more problems than it solves. I am reminded of Lao Tse who wrote in 500 BC ‘Beware stupid people in large numbers’.
I have been called a contrarian – someone who reaches different conclusions from the majority. This is the result of my nature and upbringing and I am grateful to live in Canada where I can express such ideas.
This series could go on indefinitely but I am starting to diverge from the gardening theme and must end it here. I thank our tolerant editor James for allowing me a soapbox on which to air my views and for allowing me to start sentences with a conjunction.
For anyone interested in following up on these ideas there is a series of books on the chemistry of everyday life by Joe Schwarcz: The Genie in the Bottle; Praise for Radar, Hula Hoops and Playful Pigs; and That’s the Way the Cookie Crumbles. These make marvellous bedside books. Then there is the Massey Lecture series of Ronald Wright – A Short History of Progress, and Dark Age Ahead by Jane Jacobs. Read these and you too could become a contrarian.
[A splendid rant ! Ed.]