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Science, Ethics and Action in the Public Interest
Science & Environmental Health Network - Precautionary Principle: Essays
Good Science vs. the Common Good
By Janet Jacobson
Op-ed in Cavalier County Republican, January 19, 2004

Since last May when a single mad cow was discovered in Canada and increasingly since we have discovered another one in Washington, there has been a cry on both sides of the border to “use science” to decide whether or not we should allow beef to cross the border in either direction.

In other debates, as well, we are admonished to use “good science.”

When we consider whether or not we should allow the construction of confined animal feeding operations (CAFO's) we are told we need to use science to determine our position.

As we debate whether or not we should allow the growing of fields of genetically modified wheat, we are admonished to use “good science” as our guide.

I have been chastised with this dictum by university researchers, politicians, biotechnology industry representatives, other farmers, and the news media as well as others who wouldn't know a test tube from a Bunsen burner.

My question is, “What exactly is 'good science' and why is that the only criterion we can use to make a decision?”

Who decided that science was the only basis on which we should make choices in our society? Did we have a vote that ruled out justice or morality as factors in decision making? Was there a measure on some ballot somewhere that said that the common good should be ignored when we develop policies that control business and industry?

What exactly is “good science” anyway?

“Good science” has been defined for me as scientific research that is independently conducted and subjected to peer review. However, in the real world, good science usually means research that substantiates whatever position one is trying to validate.

If you are a advocate of using transgenic organisms in agriculture, the only “good science” is the research findings which show that gmo's are without proven harm, substantially equivalent to other foods, decrease the use of pesticides and improve crop profits.

If you are an opponent of gmo's the only science that is meaningful is the work that proves that plants with altered genetics will not be able to be contained, cause allergies, will increase the use of pesticides, contribute to antibiotic resistance and cause economic disaster.

Science is not totally objective. Researchers are influenced by the interests of their funding source. If Greenpeace funds a study on the plight of killer whales in the Arctic, the questions asked can predetermine the answers found. If a pharmaceutical company pays for research to determine the safety of one of their products, it would be difficult for a scientist to overwhelmingly prove that drug to be harmful if they wished to get their research published and to have future research funded.

I was in a meeting not long ago with a representative of a large corporation who started the session by warning, “We will not discuss this issue on moral grounds. We will only talk using verifiable, scientific facts.” Even I was intimidated and did not challenge him.

He was wrong, and I was wrong not to ask him why that was so.

A community must make rules by taking into account the economic, social, health and safety, moral, and ethical, as well as scientific implications of the issue at hand. Laws and regulations must be written to preserve the common good in balance with the rights of individuals.

Next time someone tells you that you need to use “good science,” ask what exactly that means and if that is really the only thing that should be considered.

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