In Part 1 of this blockchain series, the idea of “blockchain trust” was introduced. We no longer trust our experts, institutions and authorities but will happily get into a car with a stranger or rent out our sofa-bed to people we have never met based on widely shared reviews, believed to be transparent and objective. This is the world of blockchain trust – where everyone is watching and reviewing everyone else forming an anonymous, decentralised consensus (chain) of affirmation. Authority is determined by all parts of the chain who participate (and are allowed) on the chain.
The Risk-Monger has long ago been voted off the island.
As most scientists have also been voted off (or given merely one voice among the chain), we need to focus on how this blockchain trust tool functions for environmental health policy decisions that should be evidence-driven. This is the purpose of Part 2 of this series: How does blockchain science work and should it be trusted?
Democracy or Demagoguery?
The blockchain “all of us together” mentality has been behind this recent push for policy to encompass the will of the people rather than follow the advice of the expert. That is democracy after all. But when the people get pushed by manipulative operators to demand something (usually as a reaction to a well-stoked fear), then democracy is merely a convenient misspelling of demagoguery.
I strongly disagree with the popularisation of expertise, vulgarisation of knowledge and reversion to the mean, base elements of humanity. Scientific facts are not democratic. You cannot have a vote on whether to accept the theory of gravity.
Most technologies and research fields are not skills that can be self-taught on the Internet (although my doctor still smiles when I come in and tell him how to treat my illness). Call me elitist, but when I get on an airplane, I would prefer that the pilot not be chosen by popular vote from the passenger list; when I go in for surgery, I would prefer that the doctor did not merely do six months at some on-line naturopathy degree mill; and when I get my news, I would like to find sources that publish information according to responsible codes of media conduct and not simply a group of activists covering up some dogma presented as news “campaigns”.
Some recent cases of citizen-led decisions that would make open democracy advocates blush:
- In December, an Australian retail chain removed a type of neonicotinoid pesticide from its shelves, not on the basis of any scientific data, but because the company “received several calls from concerned customers requesting the product be removed”.
- Last year a man was removed from a Delta plane before takeoff allegedly because his speaking Arabic made other passengers feel uncomfortable.
- Boy scout impersonator, Christopher Portier, feted by Martin Pigeon at CEO as an objective “citizen” scientist, did not disclose that for his research in the public interest, he was paid $160,000 by law firms suing Monsanto to try to undermine EFSA’s advice on glyphosate.
- Over the last five years, as social media emerged as the main news source in developed countries, it is very difficult to find a democratic election result that did not have some sort of extremist or reactionary gains.
We have to stop calling “reversion to mob rule based on fear campaigns” the “will of the people”. In the present state of the blockchain world of trust, manipulation and incitement have become the key elements of power. By rejecting expertise and conditioning the public (via fear campaigns) to want what you want, a small number of opportunistic gurus with a clear political agenda are usurping power. These are the ones calling for more citizen science (so long as it is led by “their citizens”) while raising distrust in our present scientific risk assessment process.
While I understand that the guru or the app salesman is an aberration or transitional stage in our shift to a blockchain world, given the profitability, opportunity and power that is gained from these influencers and startups, I am not sure the shift to an organisation-free trust validation structure will be seamless. The dumping of expertise and authority leaves communities vulnerable to exploitation.
The Great 2017 EU Glyphosate Debacle illustrates how a very small number of activist zealots were able, in a relatively short period of time and with paltry resources, to fabricate a perception of industry-led regulatory scientists working secretly for Monsanto and not the people. These “heroic” anti- chemicals campaigners were standing up to the special interests and big industry bullying. Government agencies from EFSA to the EPA were portrayed as captured by chemical giants, and due to this perception, NGOs automatically invalidated all of the agencies’ regulatory advice. Into the void come the brave citizen scientists (the Seneffs, Portiers and Séralinis) presenting the “truth” at great personal cost and reputational risk. Many policymakers, particularly in the European Parliament, bought their conclusion that modern agriculture had to change – and that we needed to immediately forsake all agritech.
If only this were true!
The alternative the anti-glyphosate lobby presented is to rely on research and data that is not industry-funded. Somehow these activist scientists sincerely believe that being paid by NGOs or law firms profiting from public fear does not imply a conflict of interest. But, do these organisations and gurus really represent the people?
A science of citizens or a science for citizens
What is citizen science?
That is not an easy definition as blockchain science has changed this definition. Ten years ago, citizen science was more about Science Shops, mostly on university campuses, providing research, data and expertise to citizens who felt they were not getting sufficient information or support from the bureaucratic system. It was science (and scientists) made available to address citizen concerns. One of the objectives was to improve scientific literacy and The Risk-Monger indeed lent his support to this objective.
Then Google took over and citizens decided to inform themselves. Today, it seems citizen science is about citizens doing research, deciding on the acceptable methodologies and dictating the direction of (even private) research. When I read through the collection of papers in the recent book, Citizen Science, I see more vocabulary like “ownership” and “empowerment” rather than “understanding” or “involvement” .
Take for example a passage by Eric B. Kennedy from Citizen Science:
The efforts of citizen scientists to participate are no longer restricted to data collection. They call for a chance to participate in designing research, determining which questions get asked (and where, and how), and influencing how these data shape decisions and actions far into the future. (p 47)
This is not science, this is activism! I think most credible scientists would not be so bold as to demand to take such a lobbyist role.
There is indeed some useful roles for citizen research or crowd-sourced data collection, including:
- patient research (as a chronic pain sufferer, I suspect I have experiential data that could be useful to researchers into non-medicinal pain management),
- soil management (there is a group of pioneering farmers experimenting with no-till, complex cover cropping that will help develop new farming practices),
- help in replicating data-monitoring results that contribute to the continuous assessment of government, academic or industry research.
However, to even consider the ad hoc, volunteer corps of non-professional, often anecdotal and very often politically biased participants as a justifiable alternative to the proper evidence-based risk assessment process is irresponsible, self-interested and, well, stupid.
That certain activist groups put forward this alternative therefore does not surprise me.
Church Volunteers in White Coats
We seem to address the validity of citizen science research with the same scrutiny as we would consider the work of church volunteers (with kid gloves because we assume it is just so nice to have them around). This is wrong. All science needs to follow best practices, proper methodology and be free of conflict of interest and built-in bias. Activists have built successful campaigns on questionable data produced by activist (citizen) scientists which had inappropriate motives, funding and methodology. Rather than building trust, such antics by these “church volunteers in white coats” are destroying the public faith in expertise.
This form of “second rate science designed for juries and activists” is, quite frankly, no science at all. This should be called civil society science as it is too often low budget data gathering and correlation studies intentionally prepared for fear campaigns and press releases. For NGOs, citizen science has become their answer to the now silenced industry science. Should we be surprised that one of the main promoters for citizen science is the disgraced former European Environment Agency director, Jacqueline McGlade?
Until proper scrutiny and procedures are in place, The Risk-Monger will no longer lend his support to promoting more citizen science.
How not to do science
There are also several ethical shortcomings that citizen science is failing to address.
Relying on information produced by citizen science as a reaction to fear campaigns (as we saw with glyphosate) should not be a justification for decisions based on uncertain or poor quality data. Because activists have influenced us to no longer trust expert data, this should not mean that we have to then trust unreliable data produced by amateurs. Blockchain trust focuses on the individual (how many thumbs up does this scientist get) and not the quality or significance of the work. The relentless ad hominem attacks on certain outspoken scientists by anti-industry activists had a clear logic – destroy the man and you can ignore the data. Only then can your weak or questionable data start to smell better.
Blockchain science allows manipulative tribal influencers to operate by far lower academic standards. It is no longer a question of best available data, lab technologies or methodologies, but rather, the best available scientists. The scientific process then becomes a process of eliminating all of the scientists who may distract the activists from guiding the decision process – industry scientists, academics and outspoken regulatory scientists get voted off the island – until weak data and poor politically-driven evidence is all that can be considered. Even worse, the post-modern science activists feel that a sociologist’s contribution is as valuable to most scientific debates as that of the toxicologist, biologist or chemist. Such egos!
The drive to make science appealing to a targeted audience (campaign, media, jury …) removes the academic element. Citizen science is more about padding the body of a press release than increasing the body of knowledge. And here we see some scientific malpractice. For example, Christopher Portier recently wrote a document to dispel the recently published AHS study that provided clear evidence contradicting his campaign against glyphosate. Rather than voicing his concerns within the scientific establishment, where his arguments would be considered and debated by other scientists, Portier submitted his views to the law firms lining his pockets, to be presented to a non-scientific judge and jury seeking to sue a corporation for hundreds of millions of dollars.
Science used to be about discovery, debate and integrity.
Silence the Science
Blockchain trust is certainly not flawless. Until critical mass is attained (definition needed) perceptions can be manipulated by unscrupulous actors, gurus and organisations. Hotel staff can write glowing reviews of armpit accommodations, ethically-challenged authors can delete critical book reviews, bots can create a sense of populist concern, paid trolls can influence elections… but can you just delete scientific facts? Isn’t the point of science that the methodology auto-corrects? By removing the scientists, though, you lose the surveillance. Here are some examples of the NGO “silence the science” strategy.
Neonicotinoids: The activist’s successful “ban neonicotinoids” campaign followed this expert censorship strategy. Three anti-neonic activist scientists working for NGOs took position on an EFSA bee working group to establish a guidance document to determine risk assessment standards for pollinator field tests. During the duration of the working group, several qualified scientists were removed from the working group for having worked on projects that partially involved industry. They were not industry shills but the NGO lobby kicked up enough dust to force EFSA to remove them. With a majority on this working group then coming from anti-pesticide NGOs, guess what happened next? This external working group designed a bee guidance document with parameters that were impossible to comply with, meaning that no field tests could provide acceptable data for a favourable risk assessment for neonics (or for any pesticide, include those approved for organic farming). With no opposition in the Working Group and anti-industry actors in the then DG Sanco and the Pesticides Unit at EFSA, this flawed guidance document was applied to throw out all existing field test data. With no data, the European Commission then abusively applied the precautionary principle and quickly removed three important crop protection products from the farmers’ toolbox.
What happened next was a travesty of regulatory integrity.
- The flawed Bee Guidance Document has still not been approved by the Member States – the European Commission failed to act.
- An internal Joint Research Centre study concluded the precautionary ban of neonics has failed – the European Commission failed to act.
- EFSA acknowledged that one of the activist scientists on the bee working group lied to hide his conflict of interest – the European Commission failed to act.
- The European Commission is moving to ban all applications of neonicotinoids without conducting any impact assessment on how this will affect European farming and food manufacturing. European potato and sugar beet crops will be severely affected. This is more than a failure to act – it is pure failure.
The science was silenced and policy was left to a crowd of anti-industry activist scientists loosely organised by the IUCN and funded by the organic food industry while claiming to be the voice of the people – a manipulated blockchain. Even worse, as the research field has been flushed of credible science, some poor quality citizen science filled the void in the activist drive to generate data to justify the neonic ban ex-post. Two examples:
The Centre for Ecology and Hydrology conducted a study that relied on volunteer hobby bee enthusiasts to provide data on wild bee populations. The Centre used citizen science to justify their hypothesis that neonics were responsible for this bee decline in a very weak correlation study. The data was so spotty (in some years, in several locations, they had no counts recorded at all … I suppose it was raining on that day). See my review of the CEH’s poor methodology and worse activist science.
Anti-pesticides campaigner, Dave Goulson tries to present himself as a scientist of the people (and bees), accepting crowd-funding (actually money from an NGO that tacitly asked its members) to look for neonic exposure from anywhere it may exist (including kitty litter boxes). He has rejected research simply on the basis that it had industry funding, but somehow feels NGO funding he has received, even by groups like Greenpeace, is citizen-driven. This is as absurd as some of Goulson’s conclusions.
Chief Scientific Adviser: When CEO’s Martin Pigeon built a coalition of activists campaigning to eliminate the post of Chief Scientific Adviser to the President of the European Commission, it was not just because Dr Anne Glover articulately presented the science and safety of GMOs. Martin was strategically working to snuff out the voice of science in EU debates. He knew exactly what he was doing (so did The Risk-Monger, but he did not have the budget or tribe of influencers to wake people up). Pigeon’s lamentable achievement allowed scientific illiteracy to flourish in Brussels to the point that the EU policy process has become overrun by American carpetbaggers who could smell ignorance across an ocean. If top-level policymakers in Brussels had a trusted scientific voice, the Great 2017 EU Glyphosate Debacle, for example, could have been avoided. Pigeon’s strategy was clear and well-executed … it was just morally inexcusable at so many levels.
So once activists manage to get the experts and academics out of the picture, they are then free to shape the public perception and regulatory policies with B-grade activist scientists and PR campaigns that pretend to be legitimate. Sometimes their policy-driven conclusions are published in predatory pay-to-play journals, but often the NGO press release is enough to legitimise the process (after all, who would bother to click to read any sciency-looking article?).
The Facebook Age of (Citizen) Science
How would a non-toxicologist citizen be able to determine the carcinogenicity of an herbicide like glyphosate? You would have to stretch your definition of a citizen or lower your standards for science (or most likely, both). Many activist organisations (from Corporate Europe Observatory to HEAL to IARC) commissioned the statistician, Christopher Portier, to be their “citizen in the trenches” to battle that evil industry science. That Portier had not worked on glyphosate before going to IARC to act as the expert adviser only added to his ‘citizen mystique’.
Was Portier doing science … or lobbying? Portier wrote a letter to EU Commissioner Andriukaitis with 96 signatures of random PhDs (many of whom he didn’t know) trying to present a blockchain-style consensus to say “boo!” to glyphosate. The head of EFSA, Bernhard Url’s reaction to Portier’s letter shows how ridiculous such a situation has become. He referred to it as the Facebook Age of Science.
Url saw through his little stunt and poignantly pointed out that science is not determined by the number of likes you can generate of people who were not involved in the research but “feel” uncomfortable with the results. Url rightly drew attention to the fact that many signatories had no expertise in the field (they were, gulp, citizen scientists posse-ed up with the help of organic industry lobbyists, non-disclosed cash from law firms and special interests). I agree with Url that this cannot be taken seriously and is no way for responsible scientists to behave. But within the activist blockchain, they love this nonsense.
For this blockchain science to work, we would have to imagine hundreds of little Portiers running around saying the same thing in blockchain consensus. I suspect the high-paid tort law firms at the trough suing Monsanto do have deep enough pockets to buy off multiple scientists.
Url’s “Facebook Age of Science” speech marks the position of expertise towards this citizen-science activist thinking. The only people who supported this “democratisiation” approach were the NGOs, pro-organic tribes and the law firms suing Monsanto. While watching the video, I could not help but laugh at the poker-faced expression of citizen-science agitator, IARC’s Kate Guyton, trying to look innocent as Url was pasting the miscreant for trying to clandestinely push citizen groups to ban glyphosate.
In the recent book on Citizen Science from the somewhat slanted “Rightful Place of Science” series, the authors did not mince words. From the very second sentence of the book’s introduction, the real motivation of what this public, “democratic”, crowd-sourced science was driving at can be seen:
… to enable ordinary citizens to use the tools of science to shape policy, increase government accountability, and uncover corporate malfeasance …
Who would these ordinary citizens be? I suspect not the 99% of people just trying to pay the rent. Citizen science, as defined in this recent collection of papers, is not about the citizens! I somehow suspect that those citizen scientists are the same activists pretending to represent large populations they forget to consult. For these activists, citizen science is another useful tool to buy them a place at the risk assessment policy table while discrediting and ostracising all professional research and data collection. Sweet!
I really doubt that these possibilists scheming to undermine trust in the risk management policy process really care if their half-baked blockchain manipulation would ever seriously provide sufficient citizen-led evidence for effective governance. Will citizen science produce viable citizen-driven alternatives? If you told the citizens that their “science” on pesticides would make their food prices go up dramatically and burden developing countries, would they stand up and support this?
Blockchain citizen science and the minority mob rule of self-interested tribes are hardly a reasonable basis for trust today, and definitely inadequate for policy decisions.
So put your trust in me?
Call me sentimental, but I believe that our old system of placing our trust in science and facts was not such a bad idea. Just because social media tribes have created the means for the ignorant to find each other and embolden themselves (the hoods came off in Charlottesville) does not mean our process is flawed. The rise of the anti-vaxxer (four out of ten citizens from the land of Pasteur and Curie do not believe vaccines are safe) is a challenge to our leaders to show courage and character.
Instead, reasonable policymakers either cut and run or embrace the zealots.
Sadly, the tribes are electing leaders who bow to their ignorance and self-appointed arrogance. When the president of France, Emmanuel Macron, deferred to the “democratic will” of the loud-mouthed, elitist Le Monde mob claiming that we cannot ignore the will of the people and must therefore develop another way of farming without agri-tech, it became clear he was speaking as an inexperienced opportunist and not a leader fortified with moral fibre. After killing French farming, will we then need to endure measles outbreaks to preserve this perverted tribal reaffirmation?
Just as in 1933, when relatively new communications tools like radio and cinema were able to motivate the mobs to incite cultist extremism, this present Age of Stupid shall also pass. As social media matures, people will be able to recognise the limits of tribalism, the threats of the Green Terror and the lack of moral courage in leadership. The gurus will be exposed. I just hope that we will not have to witness bodies piling up, books being burnt and scientists rounded up before humanity comes back into the picture.
Trust, if anything, is fickle. So long as the flame of science and reasonableness flickers, we have a chance.
What is behind this attack on expertise? Our blockchain consensus communication tools are enabling little revolutionaries to rise up and start little revolutions within their tribal communities. This is a form of blockchain empowerment – a belief that in order to be empowered, the expert must be “dis-empowered”. The third part of the Blockchain series will look at this strange phenomenon.
Cover image (from Woody Allen’s Zelig)