Lord Winston lets rip - in various directions
A new report 'wrong-foots leading scientists such as the fertility expert Lord Winston... who accused the prince of raising "science scares" and of being "a classic woolly thinker".' (item 2)
"We have to accept we don't own the science. One of the most difficult problems is to hand back the science to society and allow the public to take some very uncomfortable decisions." - Lord Robert winston (item 3)
Human fertility expert and TV scientist, Lord Robert Winston seems to be a bit of a loose canon. He has been a repeated critic of the Prince of Wales over GM and nanotechnology and was a signatory to the Sense About Science letter to Blair calling for more government support for GM crops. But then he surprised everyone by saying he regretted having signed the letter and that there was a danger of science being used to deny uncertainties and of scientists following the money rather than engaging in a genuine dialogue over controversial scientific issues.
Here's part of what Winston said in the House of Lords:
"...we must recognise that science is not certain. The problem is that the Government and Ministers want black and white, another reason for our being wary of being too much in the government pocket. We must also avoid exaggeration and over-confidence. Ministers want that, and we are too ready to ascribe to it, because funds may chase that exaggeration, but we should be very wary. With all due respect to my friend the noble Lord, Lord Taverne [Chairman of Sense About Science], in some ways I regret signing the letter about genetically modified foods because, as scientists, we showed a degree of arrogance and a failure to recognise that we need to indulge in much greater dialogue. Another reason to be careful of government is that, above all, we must beware of commercial concerns, which increasingly drive science."
from Science and Politics - Debate in House of Lords 9 December 2003. Full debate:
But during a recent tour of New Zealand, the scientist who warned against over-confidence, exaggeration and a black and white denial of uncertainty has been telling his audience:
"we've been using nuclear power with *complete safety* for 50 years"
"There's *not the slightest evidence* that GM food is dangerous". (emphasis added)
Clearly not a man for half measures, the scientist who has called for the decisions about controversial technological developments to be handed back to the public (see item 3) has also argued that transgenic humans are absolutely "inevitable". ("Genetically Modified Babies Inevitable", East Cape News, February 3, 2000)
1.Lord Robert Winston should get his science right.
2.Scientists support Prince on nanotech
3.Critics lambast Winston's ideas
1.Lord Robert Winston should "get his science right"
Lord Robert Winston's talk to NZ politicians
Opinion: Dr Robert Anderson
SCOOP, 27 July 2004
Astonishment is the only comment one could make at the recent report of Dr Robert Winston's talk to New Zealand politicians parliamentary guests. Invited obviously as a "safe" bet by the Royal Society, reading his opinions and remarks regarding such topics as nuclear energy, genetically engineered foods, and trust in the scientific process, one wonders if they belong to the personable scientist that we have all come to enjoy in his The Human Body series.
Considered by many to be one of the world's finest science communicators, it is also reported that "Winston is scrupulous about getting his science right" and his comment that "there is a massive crisis in the Western world because of the way science and scientists are not trusted by the public,"[i] only serves to reinforce the astonishment.
First, take his unbelievably naive remark, "that we've been using nuclear power with complete safety for 50 years." Quite apart from the Chernobyl disaster which killed tens of thousands and crippled many more, or the narrowly averted melt-down at Three Mile Island, I have before me a calendar[ii] of - not yearly, nor even monthly but - daily accidents in the virtually world-wide nuclear power industry. One also wonders if he is familiar with the latest environmental pollution figures, from the vast nuclear waste storage containers, as leakage occurs into ground water and surrounding soils.
Dr Winston's other remark - equally flabbergasting - was, "There's not the slightest evidence that GM food is dangerous[iii]," and that moreover he thinks the New Zealand stance on the issue was "bizarre.[iv]" He may well have expertise in human fertility matters, but he is certainly not an expert in every field of genetics. How can he make the statement that, "There's not the slightest evidence that GM food is dangerous?" An enormous number of eminent scientists making up the Union of Concerned Scientists, PSRG[v], and the UK Independent Science Panel,[vi] among others, have all condemned it as untested and dangerous, quite apart from exposing fatal flaws in the regulatory process.
Only recently, the French newspaper[vii] La Monde, revealed secret documents showing health impacts of GM corn described as "very disturbing" by French scientists. These included kidney malformations, increases in white blood cells in male rats and high blood sugar and reduced immature red blood cells in female rats. Last year, up to 100 Philippine villagers suffered debilitating illnesses when nearby GE corn came into flower.[viii] Professor Terje Traavik [ix] found antibodies produced by the GM corn in the blood of 39 villagers.[x] Reports have come in of the same illnesses this year.[xi]
Dr Winston's statement that field trials "have been reassuring" is also questionable. The findings on Bt-toxins in GM corn have been completely ignored in a regulatory process that can only be described as a sham.[xii] Furthermore, while "we digest DNA every time we eat," that is not the concern; it is the bits of virus and bacteria cobbled together with the introduced DNA in order to get it there that worries so many scientists. From the first failures of GM food, the FlavrSavr tomato causing lesions in the stomach of rats which ate them,[xiii] GE crops have had a dismal history of failure. Dr Winston should also talk to the few survivors still crippled and dying from eating the genetically engineered food supplement, tryptophan, and who are still fighting for compensation.
Lord Robert Winston should "get his science right." It is incredibly sad that one whose image is, ostensibly, held in high regard by the listening public, defends such outrageous falsehoods. There is little wonder that trust in science has collapsed. It will take a great deal of work and dedication to bring it back.
[i] "Lord of the genes" The Listener July 31 2004
[iii] "Lord of the genes" The Listener July 31 2004
[iv] "Lord of the genes" The Listener July 31 2004
[vi] "Scientists Call for Enquiry into GM Food Safety" http://www.indsp.org/ISPenquiry.php
[vii] "French experts very disturbed by health effects of Monsanto GM corn" www.gmwatch.org 23 April 2004
[viii] "Filipino islanders blame GM crop for mystery sickness. Monsanto denies scientist's claim that maize may have caused 100 villagers to fall ill" John Aglionby in Kalyong, southern Philippines, The Guardian, Wednesday 3 March 3, 2004 http://www.guardian.co.uk/gmdebate/Story/0,2763,1 160789,00.html
[ix] Norwegian Institute of Gene Ecology in TromsÃ¸
[x] Traavik, T. Lecture to Special Biosafety Genok and TWN Seminar, 22 February, Kuala Lumpur.
[xi] "Despite ban, agriculturists can't stop farmers from planting Bt corn", Allen Estabillo, Minda News 23 April 2004 http://www.mindanews.com/2004/04/23nws- btcorn.html
[xii] Cummins J. Regulatory sham over Bt-crops. ISIS 1 December 2003; Science in Society 2004, 21, 30.
2.Scientists support Prince on nanotech
By Geoffrey Lean, Environment Editor
The Independent on Sunday, 25 July 2004
Tough new rules must be brought in to guard against dangers to health and the environment from nanotechnology, Britain's top scientific and engineering bodies will conclude this week.
A weighty new joint report by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering will also urge ministers and scientists to adopt a much more open approach to the public over the technology than it has over GM.
The report, to be published on Thursday, marks an abrupt change of attitude by the Royal Society, which has been one of the principal cheerleaders for genetically modified crops and foods, and demonstrates how severely the scientific establishment has been shaken by successful public resistance to them.
It also largely vindicates Prince Charles who, in an exclusive article for The Independent on Sunday two weeks ago, warned of the risks of the technology - which manipulates microscopic materials 80,000 times smaller than the thickness of a human hair - and called for "significantly greater social awareness, humility and openness" from its supporters than they had displayed over GM.
And it wrong-foots leading scientists such as the fertility expert Lord Winston and Professor Steve Jones of University College London, who accused the prince of raising "science scares" and of being "a classic woolly thinker".
Nanotechnology operates with particles so small that they behave in unpredictable ways and roam freely through the body. The report points out that they offer huge benefits - new medical treatments, ways of cleaning up the environment, clean energy and industrial products. But, as it also shows, they can also pose immense risks.
At that tiny size, even safe materials such as latex become toxic, and there are fears that they could overwhelm the immune system and penetrate the protective blood/brain barrier to disrupt the body's most crucial organ. The report lists recommendations to the Government and other bodies for regulations to govern the new technology. It insists that there is no exact parallel between nanotechnology and GM, but devotes much space to learning the lessons from the failure of scientists to win public trust during the debate over modified crops and foods.
Research for the report shows that only 29 per cent of Britons have heard of nanotechnology, and that only 19 per cent could give even an inaccurate definition of it.
3.Critics lambast Winston's ideas
Times Higher Education Supplement, 12 December 2003
Celebrity scientist Lord Winston has sparked an outcry among academics [read 'the usual suspects'] by calling for the public to dictate the direction of British science, arguing that mistrust of science has reached "crisis" proportions. Speaking exclusively to The THES, Lord Winston said that trying to communicate science to the public was no longer enough.
He claimed that a radical change of culture was needed to stem the groundswell of negative opinion about scientists.
He said: "We have to accept we don't own the science. One of the most difficult problems is to hand back the science to society and allow the public to take some very uncomfortable decisions."
In Lord Winston's view, scientists must recognise and then abide by public opinion on issues such as genetically modified crops, even if that opinion runs counter to scientific evidence.
"At the moment we engage the public in a very arrogant way. We pretend to listen by communicating but it is largely scientists lecturing to audiences," he said.
"Scientists are not good at dialogue, as we don't like listening, especially if people do not speak the same language."
Lord Winston also argued that scientists were tarnishing their reputation by associating with government.
He cited the controversy over the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine as proof that the public no longer trusted scientific facts presented to them by politicians.
He said: "We have to recognise that it is unwise to get too closely connected with government. Government has a different agenda."
But other influential scientists have greeted Lord Winston's comments with dismay.
Colin Blakemore, the new chief executive of the Medical Research Council and a leading figure in science communication, said that while people should be kept informed it would be dangerous to allow the public to dictate what scientists could and could not do.
He pointed out that public opinion was heavily influenced by lobby groups and often changed over time. He said: "Would (Lord Winston) be happy for embryo research to be regulated on the basis of a poll where only 30 per cent of people voted?"
Other academics reacted more strongly.
Lewis Wolpert, professor in the anatomy and developmental biology department at University College London, said Lord Winston's suggestion was "the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard".
He said: "Where there are technical issues, one should listen and be aware of public concerns but we shouldn't let them decide whether we can use stem cells for research."
Michael Wilkinson [should be Wilson], director of Horticulture Research International who has taken part in numerous debates about genetic modification, said that while public platforms could be "brutal", scientists should not give up on communication.
Ian Gibson, chair of the Commons' science and technology committee, warned that scientists must never walk away from politicians.
He said: "Keeping the two groups apart only preserves prejudice, arrogance and ultimately poor regulation."
Baroness Greenfield, scientist and director of the Royal Institution, strongly supported this opinion in a debate in the House of Lords on Tuesday. She warned that there was already a damaging gulf between scientists and politicians that needed to be addressed.
Lady Greenfield said: "The critical issue is that politicians and government should not be the followers of a public opinion that bases its knowledge of science on (reports by) journalists who, in many cases, cannot lay claim to any expertise in the area."