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Passive Drinking – and other lucrative alarms

It doesn't actually matter if the original story had any merit. The great GM Food scare was based on research for which Dr Arpad Pusztai was later suspended. His results couldn't be reproduced. The paper on which the MMR vaccine scare was based was eventually withdrawn, and the authors struck off. A perennial example is "alcohol research", which has spawned a significant junk science industry, which plays down the health benefits and exaggerates the dangers [example]. It's used as the basis for policies such as minimum alcohol pricing.

Politicians desire to "do something" offers health and environment researchers an almost unlimited field.

The process was details in John Brignell's explanation of junk science in Sorry, Wrong Number, which describes the corruption of epidemiology. Until 30 years ago, science journals would not publish results indicating a relative risk (RR) ration of under 3.00. An RR of below 3.00 did not indicate sufficient causation. It may be a coincidence. But that iron law was gradually lifted – and epidemiology expanded enormously. One of the examples of publication bias Brignall used to highlight on his Numberwatch blog was "passive drinking". But life overtakes satire: passive drinking is now a clear and present danger.

What took place in climate science falls into this pattern. While in private, the scientists despair of their lack of understanding of the chaotic physics of climate, and are scathing about the quality of temperature reconstructions (for example), they are faced with constant demands from the bureaucracy and the media to tell a convincing story. Groupthink takes over, and evidence to the contrary is shunned, and scientists who advance it ostracised or smeared.

"I can't overstate the HUGE amount of political interest in the project as a message that the Government can give on climate change to help them tell their story. They want the story to be a very strong one and don't want to be made to look foolish," pleads a DEFRA bureaucrat in an email to CRU.

For the system to work properly, each stage – the media, the political class (politicians and their bureaucrats) and the scientists – need to be doing their job properly. The scientists may say they are merely feeding a demand. The media say they're irresponsible if they don't cover every potential alarm – and anyway, who wants to hear good news stories? Politicians are looking for a quick issue to "deal with" (and be seen to be acting decisively). And bureaucrats do what bureaucrats do – find new empires. Perhaps the only difference with climate was the immense amount of funding that's been available.

Just yesterday, a press release dropped into my inbox. The subject line reads "Delivering Sustainable Theatres. The challenge of achieving the triple bottom line" and reports on exciting progress made at the sixth Delivering Sustainable Theatres Conference. I shall spare you the full details – a sample of the prose should suffice ...

What we clearly and urgently need to do now is establish how we take the three pillars of sustainable development – economic, social and environmental – and relate these to a theatre’s ability to sell a unique cultural experience and make sure our theatre buildings have the capacity to deliver what’s needed for today, and into the future.

A small note thanks the seven-year funding commitment from the ERDF, the European Regional Development Fund.

My point is that enormous resources are being devoted to dubious ends – and that this is a systemic failure. Scientists are human beings too, and so plainly capable of human foibles. Demonise the individual and the problem doesn't go away.

Over to you. ®

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