Monday, 21 October 2013

Jon Morgan begs a great question

Jon Morgan's opinion piece in this week's Straight Furrow is titled "Real science is money well spent". Amen to that.

He distinguishes real science from the fringe which he defines as
"psuedo-science - the dissemination of half-truths and wishful thinking, sometimes based on poor research and incomplete trials.
Some people prefer psuedo-science. They're the antis, the ones who refuse to let the scientific facts shake them from their entrenched bigotry. They scout around for science to back them up, and when they find it, cling to it desperately without questioning its veracity.
I put campaigners against fluoride and 1080 in this camp. You can probably think of others.
Then there's a third category. This is where the scientists can't agree, where there's still doubt. I'd put climate change in this group. Others could be genetic modification and biological farming, though mainstream science seems to be swinging towards the former and against the latter."
By opining like this on where "real" science is pointing, Jon is revealing the frequent absence of a bright line between real and psuedo science. This makes it a classic text for me.

Take the 1080 point for example. There is surely no blanket case for 1080 - it must depend on lots of things that vary by location. I doubt we'll see it in Cornwall Park or Hagley Park for example. So the "antis" are right in some places even according to "real" science. Constructive engagement with opponents is therefore appropriate, rather than assuming "entrenched bigotry" .

Jon's final sentence is the real gem though. I love how it elevates biological farming to a (the?) challenger in an epic battle against genetic modification, only to slur it with a withering inference from "mainstream science". How did he form that view? Was the volume of work influential at all?

It seems to me that far more resources are being invested in scientific work on genetic modification than biological farming. GE attracts investment because it can be monetised whereas biological farming is more like a general purpose technology, a public good in which the market will under-invest.

So I wonder whether Jon has perhaps been swayed by the volume of work on GE and the big-money hype about it, and forgotten or not noticed the absence of any serious comparative analysis of GE and biological farming as alternative future visions for New Zealand's primary sector.

Still, by getting the idea out there he has exposed a question that needs to be answered. Does biological farming have the potential to materially improve agricultural productivity in New Zealand? If our future really does involve a choice between GE and biological farming, then "real" scientific work is obviously needed on this question.

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