How to win without science: argumentum ad hominem

See the French translation

The “argumentum ad hominem” is a method to address an argument by attacking one’s adversary’s character. It used to be a fallacy – now it seems to be how anti-industry environmental activists score points when their science, evidence and data is worth very little, or as is often the case, when the activists do not understand the science (but understand the consequences).

Over the last few days, environmental NGOs and anti-industry anarchists on both sides of the Atlantic have been busily refuting scientific findings by showing how some researchers involved have, or many years ago, had ties to industry. Somehow these intellectual neophytes feel that when the evil wand of industry touches a scientist, he or she becomes incapable of a clear scientific observation. The antis surround themselves with others who think the same, retweet them, join in their character assassinations, but as far as I can see, have never actually met any industry scientists.

We don’t want your facts or evidence!

This week there have been several cases of ad hominem attacks that show how low the quality of the environmental activist position has fallen in relation to the results of mainstream science, regulatory bodies and expert panels. There is no longer any attempt at a clear scientific alternative – just pathetic, personal attacks.

Today (17 May 2016), when the American National Academy of Sciences published a consensus report that concluded that GMOs were safe,  several NGOs went on the offensive to show that a few scientists on this panel had, at some point, received industry funding. Therefore, we don’t have to even look at the findings, try to understand all of the tricky science stuff or change our worldview to address clear evidence.

This NAS report was quite remarkable – it concluded that GMOs do not pose any risks compared to conventional seed breeding techniques, that the benefits to farmers are significant and there is no evidence of human health risk, but activist groups like Food and Water Watch panned the report for industry influence the day before it was released. So they attacked it before they had even read it. This is the worst type of zealous behaviour (“We don’t want your science if it disrupts our beliefs!”), but apparently the media loves it.

Yesterday (16 May 2016), the WHO and the FAO released a summary report that concluded that glyphosate was probably not carcinogenic, bringing the WHO back in line with the mainstream scientific consensus on the benign nature of this important herbicide. The WHO even went so far as to explain the difference of a hazard-based assessment (IARC) and a risk-based one that they had just published. But the NGOs and the organic food industry lobby, who had built up a significant amount of momentum, funding and market opportunity in demonising glyphosate and creating mass public panic on infinitesimal traces of the chemical in the food chain, were not going to stand for such a decision. They searched for someone they could discredit in order to deflect attention from their discredited data.

“She’s a witch!” 

58741092They seem to have focused on Professor Alan Boobis, a highly esteemed toxicologist from Imperial College in the UK. The activists (and their media propagandists in Le Monde and the Guardian) discovered that he serves as a vice-president of the Board of Directors at the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) – a research association with industry funding (including Monsanto). Professor Boobis was very transparent about this. Now this might sound shocking until you understand that the role of the ILSI Board of Directors is:

Approving the scientific content of the programme, following advice of the Scientific Advisory Committee, ensuring its execution, and reporting back on the progress and status of the programme to the General Assembly;

In other words, Professor Boobis is doing just what a professor does: oversees research done by others, corrects them and advises them. Now if you were a science-based organisation, wouldn’t you want to get the best scientists to look over your shoulder, advise you and ensure that you are following proper scientific procedures? Who does not want to learn from the best?

Apparently Greenpeace and Corporate Europe Observatory don’t. Can’t they see how organisations should benefit from advice from the best scientists? They turned on the eminent toxicologist like they were hunting some near extinct prey. They made it seem like Professor Boobis was leaving the Monsanto head office with a wheelbarrow full of cash. This is deceptive, pathetic and unapologetically offensive.

Greenpeace and CEO somehow feel that the only scientists of any value are those hermits in the labs on top of the cliffs. Any scientist who engages in dialogue or private-public partnerships is considered as a contamination that should be automatically disqualified from having an expertise. I suppose it is because neither Greenpeace nor CEO actually know too many scientists (and definitely not one with the experience and capacity of Professor Boobis).

So rather than allowing the WHO or the EU to benefit from the best available  toxicologists to deal with important, pressing decisions like pesticide exposure or endocrine disruption, the activists only want their scientists, who are quite often not even toxicologists (Christopher Portier and Andreas Kortenkamp are statisticians!). They work hard to exclude anyone with industry funding  but then poo-poo any other conflicts of interest from people who support their dogma. This is a pathetic manipulation of the process.

Where is the science in any of this? That is the point – there is none. Argumentum ad hominem is the tool you use when you have no science on your side.

Burn them at the stake

How do you deal with ignorant mobs who respond to facts and evidence with deception, personal smear campaigns and factless insinuations? Having endured a quite disagreeable twitter swarm attack myself last week by a group of activists who use no other approach except argumentum ad hominem, I can feel for the bullshit that Professor Boobis might be suffering through. He needs people to support him – to stand up to these provocateurs – like those in the Guardian who think that 15 retweets constitutes being “embroiled in a bitter row“.

I learned a lot about how these malcontents attack the person with their pitchforks, taunts and bile. It is meant to be so disagreeable that the victim will turn and hide, disassociate oneself with any organisations and cower to the dominance of the bully. … Bullies piss me off so last week I fought back, and may continue to fight them in the courts. I encourage and will support Professor Boobis to stand up to these anarchist malcontents who exhibit no scientific knowledge, no credibility and no self-respect.

If we all run and hide, where will the science be?

Image source

16 Comments Add yours

  1. lolexplosm says:

    Great article but it will unfortunately fall on deaf ears. A recent guardian article by the director of Sense About Science discussed the same thing but at least suggested a way for tackling the issue. However the comments section soon descended into the wonderfully ironic tone of “Look how she is funded!”.

    Dr Kevin Folta also received a malicious campaign because his department at a university, not even himself personally, received a donation from Monsanto.

    Greenpeace was quite proactive in getting the Chief Science Advisor to resign because she dare to state the consensus on GMO’s.

    Whilst I think none of us are naive enough to think that some bias and whatnot doesn’t creep in with some industry studies, it’s not enough to simply dismiss what could be excellent science on those grounds alone.


    1. riskmonger says:

      I was considering whether to bring in the Folta-USRTK madness. For me, the Ruskin strategy is cynical – toss these FOIA requests around like Mentos in order to waste researchers’time releasing emails. Once again – it is not about the science – they don’t have any!


  2. Tim Hammond says:

    The Guardian, the Green NGOs and others will never change. They hide behind claims that they want science-based policies, but only if the science supports the policies they want.

    The problem lies more with governments. I simply cannot understand why both national and supranational (e.g. the EU) governments pay so much heed to the screeching mob? Why is the Tory government so afraid of Greenpeace and its ilk? Why do they fear the wrath of the organic farmer?

    There seems to bee a collective loss of balls in many governments, who perpetually run scared of the ignorant and bigoted on Twitter.


    1. riskmonger says:

      Thanks Tim – In Brussels there is this lack of political virtue in the Juncker administration. I call it an office defined by expediency – the art of making things go away. Most civil servants merely act to make problems go into a box, go somewhere else or find a shelf to gather dust. In three to four years, they will have been promoted and it will be someone else’s problem! If someone screams and yells outside a civil servant’s window, the task is to find a way to make them go away … giving them what they want is an easy solution. In a policy world driven by expediency, the precautionary principle is an easy tool to use.


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