Has scientific free speech become 'fee speak'?

Dr Doug Edmeades believes farmers are ill-served when scientific opinion is compromised.

dr doug edmeades scientific free speech primary magazine

Two menacing clouds are casting shadows of doubt on the importance of science; post-modern philosophy and the commodification of science – their effects pernicious. 

From my perspective, science is under threat.

I see manifestations of this every day. It greatly disturbs me. I fear for the future of this once noblest of professions.

Post-modern philosophy teaches that there is no absolute ‘Truth’, and that everyone’s opinion must be given equal weighting, irrespective of where the evidence lies. This is an anathema to science.

One example of this is that alternative medicines (which require no proof of efficacy except for someone’s opinion) sit on the chemist’s shelves alongside scientifically proven and tested medicines. Homeopathy is an extreme example. Currently precious agricultural research dollars are being wasted investigating ‘organic’ farming, which is demonstrably pseudo (false) science.  

Post-modern philosophy undermines science and confuses the process and purpose of science. Science proceeds by developing models of the reality it “sees” and modifies these models as further evidence comes to hand. These models represent our best understanding at the time – they are not ‘The Truth’ but are ‘the truth’ for the time.  This does no mean there is no  ‘truth’ or ‘Truth’ and hence that these goals should be abandoned to opinion, dogma or superstition.

Good examples of this evolution of truth are the models we have for the age of the universe, the arrangement of our solar system, and the composition of the atom. And each iterative step along the model-development-path adds more knowledge and benefit to society. Consider human longevity; a long life in the dark ages was about 30 years.

Today, thanks to our current working model of health and nutrition, we live on average to about 80 years. The longest running experiment in soil fertility started 1850 and wheat yields were about 1 tonne per hectare. Now thanks to the scientific method we can now grow 12 tonnes/ha. Indeed I encourage those who are unsure of the value of science to look backwards.

Two conditions are essential for this type of progress to occur; openness to new evidence, scrutiny, discussion and debate and the absence of dogma (formalised opinion).  The famous agricultural example is the Russian ‘scientist’ Lysenko who held back research progress in Russia, with political support, by dogmatically dismissing Mendel’s discovery of genetics and inheritance as bourgeois.

The analogy between science and society is informative. Karl Popper argued when discussing society, that the goal of perfection is not attainable – we will always be beset with problems. All we can do at any given time is make the best decisions for the majority of the population, based on all the available evidence. His qualification is vital – this can only be achieved if society is open.

Let us now apply this wisdom to modern day science. Science has been commercialised and politicised as never before and this inserts barriers, preventing openness.

Research contracts and Intellectual Property can limit scientific publication and hence openness to scrutiny. The Official Information Act is used on the grounds of commercial sensitivity to lock in information gathered with public funds.  Science conferences, once a bear-pit of interrogation and scrutiny, have become like power-point fashion parades. Presentations mostly conclude by thanking the sponsors and begging for more funding. It has been referred to as McScience. I like to call it ‘Oliver Twist Science’ - please sir can I have some more! Serious debate is not welcome because it may offend a current or future funding body.

Sounds too theoretical? Not at all. In the last days of MAF Research Division (late 1990s) I was formally silenced from speaking to farmers about research we had undertaken on a new type of phosphate fertiliser. Why? Because one importer had threatened legal action.  The then-Director General, rather than supporting his scientists and their science, caved in to commercial and legal pressure.

Some years back a New Zealand university conducted research on a liquid fertiliser. These results were widely used in promoting the product. Because the results were contradictory to much other research, local and international, I wanted to assess these trials and the results. Sorry, not available – commercially sensitive.

More recently, a new formulation of a nitrogen inhibitor has been promoted throughout New Zealand by a major fertiliser company. In this case a New Zealand university is the joint owner of the patent. Their research, they claim, shows that the product increases pasture production by up to 20 percent. This claim is not supported by other independent research, which shows that it has little effect on pasture production.  Why the difference? Does proprietary ownership affect research results?

I have personally been banned for life from speaking at a major South Island farmers conference.  My sin was to dare criticise one of the sponsor's products! Another science conference I attended recently was sponsored by a company that sells ground basal rock as a fertiliser. This gave the sponsor speaking rights! Should sponsors control the science message?

Science is under threat because we have turned it into a commodity - McScience. It seems the current purpose of science is not to seek the truth. And most certainly science must not interfere with the ‘market’ as an arbiter of sound/unsound, sensible/non-sensible, right/wrong, good/bad. 

Sadly there was a time when universities in particular were, on behalf of society, the bastions of openness and ‘free speech’. Are they being undermined by post-modern thinking into closed ‘fee-speak’ zones? I hope not, but the portends are not good.

Dr Doug Edmeades is managing director of independent science advisor agKnowledge and Federated Farmers Personality of the Year 2012

 This story originally appeared in Primary magazine. Click here to subscribe.

Idealog has been covering the most interesting people, businesses and issues from the fields of innovation, design, technology and urban development for over 12 years. And we're asking for your support so we can keep telling those stories, inspire more entrepreneurs to start their own businesses and keep pushing New Zealand forward. Give over $5 a month and you will not only be supporting New Zealand innovation, but you’ll also receive a print subscription and a copy of the new book by David Downs and Dr. Michelle Dickinson, No. 8 Recharged (while stocks last).