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A risk-free world without science

In a stunning statement, the president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science lashed out on Sunday against those fostering the general public’s “increasing anti-intellectualism” toward modern science. According to The Times of London, Sir Howard Newby complained in a public speech that irrational fears over mad cow disease and genetically improved food crops have “fuelled demands for a risk-free society that scientists would never be able to achieve.”

Asked whether any scientific endeavor can be considered risk-free, Newby said “[T]he answer must always be no. Nothing is ever certain: risk is attached to everything.” But succumbing to unreasonable fears that are out of proportion with reality, he said, could mean that “areas of scientific inquiry and technological applications will be denied us.”

Today’s environmental activists are proudly wielding their own anti-intellectual fears of biotech food. Washington Post columnist Sebastian Mallaby notes that their chief weapon, the dreaded “precautionary principle,” is being used by activists to present a grossly distorted picture of health risks to an uncertain public.

Whether the stakes are political (policies affecting U.S. food production), or life-and-death serious (southern Africa’s seemingly omnipresent famine), exploiting the public’s misapprehension of scientific risks is reprehensible. Tactics like these recently inspired the U.S. Agency for International Development to name “misinformation about U.S. food aid spread by biotech opponents” as a major obstacle to solving global famine.

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