View from the fence

Social, environmental and economic issues surrounding GM foods, and the latest news

We’re all biased – now we need to admit it

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This week is Cereals – a huge arable farming event. Sadly I’m watching from the sidelines of Twitter, but at least things have quickly got interesting.

I couldn’t agree more, but the issue is that scientific evidence is complex and not clear cut. Most groups asking for decisions to be made on science have a clear idea about how the evidence should be interpreted. Everyone wants regulation to be based on ‘robust scientific evidence as interpreted by me’.

Take the neonic pesticide debate. The NFU has expressed concern over the ban, including some very sensible points about the need for more evidence. Yet Friends of the Earth point to many scientific studies in their call to uphold the ban.

The different starting points when interpreting scientific evidence are even clear at scientific institutions. Scientists at Rothamsted Research question the ban by arguing for ‘independent, unbiased research’. Even the language used reveals their position – by saying ‘alleged harmful impact on bees’ they are not defining the evidence of harm as being anything more than an allegation.

Their collaborators at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology take an approach which is far more focussed on bees rather than farmers (they did a really interesting study on this).

When the scientific evidence is sketchy (as it so often is) we bring our biases into how we interpret it. Just because someone is calling for people to use scientific evidence, it doesn’t mean that we should trust their assessment of it.

The Game and Wildlife Conservancy Trust, an organisation which strongly advocates scientific evidence, this week welcomed the appointment of Michael Gove as environment secretary at Defra. Given that history of interpretation of evidence included supporting the badger cull, I was not alone in having the opposite opinion.

The GM crop debate shows huge biases, but these examples demonstrate something much more subtle. To me, it is more concerning. Biases aren’t just present in hippies, politicians and people who disregard scientific evidence; they affect people like me.

My bias is to seek out the middle ground, so I am perhaps blind to some situations where one point of view isn’t valid. I’m also keen to disagree with both right-wing politicians and ‘hippy’ environmental activists.

Heaven forbid that someone who opposed gay marriage made a good environment secretary – no doubt I would look for way to dismiss their views on agriculture. And this morning I was torn by reading very sensible ideas about how to replace the Common Agricultural Policy in the wake of Brexit  accompanied by quotes from a campaigner who has, I believe, spoken unhelpfully against GM crops (yes, you can guess where I discuss her comments).

We need to make a decision about who to trust – we can’t spend our whole lives researching evidence on every issue which interests us. But we also need to be aware of our biases and keep an open mind, even if the alternative view is inconvenient. I’d be interested to know the biases people have identified in themselves, and any ways you deal with them.

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Author: Rebecca Nesbit

I am author of a popular science book 'Is that Fish in your Tomato?' exploring the fact and fiction of GM crops. In my work and leisure so far, I have trained bees to detect explosives, used a radar to study butterflies for my PhD, written a novel, taken the train from London to China, organised Biology Week, sold science jewellery on Etsy, and traveled to four continents with Nobel Laureates. Best off all, I've made lots of friends whose support I very much appreciate. Thank you! Please visit my website: http://rebeccanesbit.com/

7 thoughts on “We’re all biased – now we need to admit it

  1. As if on cue – of food related interest perhaps –
    Evidence of bias in assessment of fisheries management impacts
    http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2017/06/07/1706544114.extract.html?etoc

    Fisheries are different from land – well duh! – but should we be considering land management more closely? Let me re-phrase – should we be managing land more carefully & strictly, in a way closer to management of the sea? On the basis of ‘robust scientific evidence as interpreted by robust scientists’?? Or is that just daft?

  2. A good point. I think I’m in danger of trying so hard to keep an open mind that I don’t pass judgement even when I should. It can be an excuse for inaction.

  3. Pingback: Evidence-based agriculture: who decides which evidence to trust? | Plant Health Solutions

  4. Pingback: Evidence-based agriculture: who decides which evidence to trust? | Agribusiness Global

  5. Pingback: July news round-up | View from the fence

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