Do We Always Need Scientific Proof?

Last week, advocacy groups Friends of the Earth and GM Freeze released a study that claims to have detected traces of weedkillers in the urine of volunteers throughout Europe. Kara Moses considers the role that such “non-scientific” studies should play in the policy process:

The study was basic, the sample size was small, the report was unpublished. But could it point to an important issue for further investigation? Academics denounced the findings as “not scientific”, saying the results could not be taken seriously and that campaign groups should submit their work to peer-reviewed journals to provide a “genuine contribution to the debate”. Other scientists refused to comment on the study, saying that without it having gone through the review process there was simply no way of commenting on the findings. …

But charities and NGOs often don’t have the resources or expertise to undertake full scientific studies and publish them in journals. Is it even their role to do so? By producing snapshot studies that simply point to an issue, as long they don’t make any grand claims based on their findings, aren’t they simply doing their job of raising awareness of issues that affect society and the environment?

Chris Tackett agrees, distinguishing between the scientific and commercial realms:

It is important for science to maintain standards when it comes to experiment design and statistically significant sample size. But consumers, whether individuals or municipalities, shouldn’t feel the need to wait till there is overwhelming scientific consensus to decide that spraying toxic chemicals all over their lawns or town or crops is not the best idea. Similarly, we didn’t need to wait till there was overwhelming scientific proof to take action on climate change, yet here we are.

The point here is that scientific proof matters in science, but it shouldn’t necessarily be what determines our actions. We can intuit that some things are unwise or dangerous or against our values without needing reams of scientific data to back up our concerns.

Mark Hoofnagle, discussing a study that claimed a link between GMOs and cancer, worries that such thinking leaves environmental groups open to comparisons to climate skeptics:

In his promotion of the underwhelming evidence presented recently against GMO [genetically modified organism] corn and soy, Tom Laskawy wrote against the “GMO-lovers” (uggh it’s just like Warmist) “freaking out” over these results. Umm, no. Freaking out would suggest that a study had been performed that created enough evidence that the extensive literature on safety has in any way been put in doubt. This is not the case. … The study in no way suggests that GM might be harmful to us, because the study doesn’t suggest anything at all. The study authors might make that suggestion, but the results of the study are just as likely to be due to chance as from any effect of GM food. …

That won’t stop us all from being called a “shill” in every comment thread in which we express skepticism of the often outrageous, science-fiction claims of anti-GM advocates like Jeffrey Smith. So what’s this ideology that binds us all together on the ludicrous nature arguments made against GMO, other than a hatred of bullshit? So Laskaway is partially correct, on one side we have groups with a specific and obvious bias with a high probability of ideology clouding their reason on science. On the other side we have the AAASthe European Commissionthe Royal Society, the National Academy of Science Institute of Medicine, and a diverse group of skeptic and science writers from Richard Dawkins to PZ Myers to Dave Gorski and Steve Novella. Feel free any time to take these two weak papers that show nothing, wave them under our nose and call us the ideologues.