Debate the decisions but don't deny the science

15 December 2017

OPINION: Dr Allan Freeth, Chief Executive, Environmental Protection Authority.

I was disappointed to hear Steffan Browning claim on National Radio’s Morning Report that it was patronising and anti-science for the EPA to label people who question its decisions as science deniers. 

Nothing could be further from the truth. We welcome debate around our decisions and the basis for them. What we find difficult are objections and criticisms of decisions not based on scientific evidence, but rather on alternative truths or theories, often fuelled by the nature of social media.

In fairness, scientists have too long relied on a ‘trust me’ type approach supported by an authority status that was a product of its times. For example, as a child in the mid-1960s, I can remember being made to dress in my best clothes to visit the Doctor’s. No one questioned a Doctor’s diagnosis, let alone suggested an alternative view.

It is refreshing to live in times, where authority figures and institutions are challenged and have to explain and justify their decisions in terms of evidence, scientific frameworks or theories. But it is impossible to do so, if the challengers base their objections on unsubstantiated beliefs and views, or hearsay.

Our decisions are often complex. They involve us balancing environmental protection, economic development and the community’s preferences for the type of life they want to lead. There are huge tensions in any decisions calling for trade-offs between the interests of the environments, the interests of society and the interests of the economy. These are hard calls to make and, in reaching these decisions, the EPA has to be mindful of the views of the public of today and the interest of the public of tomorrow.

We expect our decisions will be intensely debated and we don’t expect people to always agree with our view of where the trade-offs fall. We respect their views and we don’t dismiss those who hold them as “science deniers”.

The people we would consider science deniers are those who dismiss or refuse to accept the evidence-based scientific data that drives our decision-making. In doing so, they are calling into question the fundamental scientific and evidential frameworks on which our societies are based.

In this world, to challenge a view or decision, one is expected to present evidence or science which supports an alternative conclusion on the facts and whose findings are able to be tested. Simply to say something is not right or not true, because we do not believe it to be so devalues science and the work of scientists.

I am told some surveys show an increasing trust in scientists and experts. I hope this is true and reminds those of us who are regulators, scientists, experts and institutions that we have a responsibility to engage with communities and explain ourselves. The EPA’s community based programmes around home and garden chemicals are one part of this approach.

However, as many commentators have noted, the threat of science denial is not confined to science. The new concept of “alternative facts” on any given topic disregards evidence and truth. At best, they are opinions. At worst, they are untruths.

I agree with the Prime Minister’s chief science advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman, when he says anti-science is a global problem and that there is no doubt that New Zealand society is vulnerable to the same pressures that have been well documented overseas.

How does all this affect the work of the EPA? Simply, it’s all about trust. If people can’t trust the credibility of the science and our scientific advisors, how can they have any confidence in the evidence-based science that drives our decisions, regardless of whether or not they agree with those decisions?

That’s why we have chosen to raise this issue, acknowledge our responsibility and speak out in defence of evidence-based science and against those who disregard it in favour of an “alternative” science. Debate the decisions, but don’t deny the science.