BRIANWAVE COLUMN No 29: August 1996

Have Fun, not Fear

Brian J Ford

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We have been petrified by the pill. Scared stiff by salmonella. That’s before we were being bullied over beef. Britain is lurching from one scientific scare to the next. Neither the public nor the scientists have any power to intervene. In this, the most scientific era in human history, the facts of science are officially censored.

Nobody knows less about science than politicians. A politician is someone who thinks ‘Brownian Motion’ is a kind of diarrhoea. Politicians see science as a way of making money. Otherwise they ignore it - until it presents us with problems. Everything changes when human lives are at stake. Then, a blanket of secrecy comes down.

One recent controversy was over the contamination of baby formula milk with phthalates, components of plastic which have been linked to a fall in fertility. How dangerous are the chemicals? How much is present, and in which brands? Where are the scientific data on which the Ministry decisions are reached? The public are not allowed to know, and nor are the doctors. The results of the research are secret, and all you get is the bland reassurance: ‘There is no risk, there is nothing to fear.’

The public are being patronised by politicians. Once we were told that there was no harm from Windscale, after a major nuclear disaster. The name was switched to Sellafield in the belief that everyone would forget. They are now telling us that contaminated baby milk is perfectly safe. Then why make an announcement?

If there is no risk there’s nothing to tell. If there is something to tell, we need to be told. This latest blunder has worried every young family in the land. Science is our key to security, for it reveals the truths we need to understand. In this present atmosphere, fear is all we can feel; there is no scientific fact to reassure us.

We need academic research in any such scare. Government moves to privatize research must be resisted. Knowledge is the aim, and adequate funds must be made available to find out the facts. All scientific findings must be published openly and made available to the public. The protection of vested interests by powerful officials must end. Independent bodies must be set up to present the facts, fairly, to the people.

The government manages to hold the public at bay because of the appalling public understanding of science. At present the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science, like National Science Week, are subsidised by the government and are used to project misleading propaganda about the state of British science.

Scientists are being hide-bound by the paymasters. The official attitude is simple: they fund the project, so they own the research. But it is our money, not theirs, which pays for research. They do not own the results. We all do. Science should take a firm stance. Scientists have traditionally been on a quest for truth, and the open publication of results. The tyrants who are censoring the facts must be exposed, and we must give science back to the people.

This misuse of science, and the culture of fear and secrecy, must be banished. Science is the most fun you can have with your socks on. It is nothing people should fear.

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