Science and its associated technologies are increasingly affecting our lives. We live in a democracy and so we should all have the opportunity of influencing the decisions that are taken by the Government. Yet how are we to make the right decisions? Many if not most of these issues concern highly technical matters that are understood by very few people. There are two possible groups of people we could listen too: Tom Wakefield has called them GOBSATS and SIFSUPOMS.
These initials stand for "Good Old Boys Sitting Around a Table", and "Single Issue Fanatics Stirring Up Popular Misconceptions". The former group consists of experienced scientists and other experts who give the best advice they can. It is not infallible but it is the best that can be done at the time. As science progresses and we learn more, the errors will be corrected and the advice made increasingly reliable.
The latter group consists of many well-intentioned people whose idealism conceals a lack of knowledge of the scientific technicalities. They are very good at publicising their views and winning public support. They portray the GOBSATS as old fuddyduddies who are probably motivated by self-interest and greed, whereas they are fighters for the good of the community.
An example is the current controversy about geneticallymodified foods. On the one hand we have scientific reports that weigh the pros and cons of various types of genetic modification, and on the other we have assertions that "all GM food should be banned" by people who invade farms and tear up genetically-modified crops. The choice, as Ian Lloyd has said, is between the imperfect but responsible GOBSATS and the proliferating but generally irresponsible SIFSUPOMS.
It is often said that this problem can be solved by increasing the public understanding of science. If the science is explained clearly in books, articles, lectures and TV programmes people will understand what is at stake and will learn how to make the correct decisions. This is unfortunately a dangerous illusion. It is just not possible to learn about science so easily. Even with decades of study and experience scientists often have difficulty in reaching sound decisions.
With the increasing sophistication of science and technology this problem will become more acute. It is essential to ensure that judgements are made in a rational way by people who have the necessary knowledge.
One way of proceeding is to make use of what is called the precautionary principle. This has several meanings. At one extreme it can mean that if there is any conceivable danger in a new development then it should be banned until it is proved to be safe. This of course stifles all future development. Even if reasonable arguments are made for its safety, it can always be said that they fall short of absolute proof, so nothing ever gets done. At the other extreme, the principle can mean that we must just take reasonable precautions, but that is so vague as to be useless. especially in situations where large financial interests are at stake.
An example is provided by mobile phones. They generate electromagnetic fields, and are they harmful to health? The same can be said for TV sets, microwave ovens and indeed all electrical appliances. One way of tackling such problems is to measure the electromagnetic fields around such appliances and compare them to similar fields that are present naturally, or which we accept without any concern, and without apparent harm. If they are much smaller, then there is no reason to consider them to be unsafe.
Another area of vital importance is the use of new drugs, which must be carefully tested. Sometimes it is found that a drug cures most cases, but has a bad effect on a small fraction of cases. Should it be used or not?
Each case has to be judged on its merits when the scientific facts have been established as well as possible. This takes time, and meanwhile people are dying, so one is forced to make decisions on the basis of partial knowledge. These are some of the problems we all face today.