SGU Episode 492

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SGU Episode 492
December 13th 2014
SGU 491 SGU 493
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
GH: George Hrab
Quote of the Week
Isn’t this enough? Just this world? Just this beautiful, complex wonderfully unfathomable world? How does it so fail to hold our attention that we have to diminish it with the invention of cheap, man-made myths and monsters?
Tim Minchin
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Show Notes
Forum Topic


  • Live from Australia Skeptic's National Convention. It has a big audience.

You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, your escape to reality.

This Day in Skepticism (1:11)[edit]

News Items[edit]

Lunar Mission One (2:19)[edit]

Ginkgo Biloba (10:20)[edit]

Psychic Predicts Airline Crash (11:54)[edit]

Politics vs Science (17:58)[edit]

S: This is the former, now, unfortunately. Former EU Chief Science Advisor, Professor Ann Glover. This is a very interesting topic to talk about. The relationship between politics and science, and specifically how do politicians get science advice to inform their policies and their legislation?

So what happened in this case is that professor Glover, by all accounts, as the EU's Chief Science Advisor, was doing an excellent job. She was great at bringing in a variety of experts, and the full scientific community to exploit their expertise, and provide science advice to the President of the EU.

However, she was openly pro-GMO. And this was not a popular opinion in Europe. Even among skeptics, at least in the US, there is still, I think, there's a pretty significant subset of skeptics who have a problem with genetically modified organisms. Mainly, when I get down to it, this is my experience. I don't have any survey or anything. When you get down to it, it always comes down to, "I just don't like Monsanto, and the companies that are controlling our food infrastructure, and raping the poor farmers." That's basically what it comes down to.

J: Well, wait. I have a different opinion than that.

S: Go ahead.

J: I personally want there to be regulation to make sure that there's oversight.

S: Oh yeah, absolutely.

J: Right?

S: No question! So, I get that. Obviously, we don't want corporations to be unregulated, and to feel free to pursue profits and be mad scientists, and all that stuff. Sure. But that's a separate discussion, whether or not they are adequately regulated. And again, that's a country by country kind of discussion. But among the general population, if you ask them what their problem is, they say, "Because of health scares." They don't think it's safe or healthy, because that's what they're being told.

But of course, the scientific evidence shows there's absolutely no health concern about genetically modified organisms, at least all the ones that are currently on the market, or even in the pipeline. I mean, obviously, it's organism by organism. You can't make a lot of general statements about the technology itself.

In any case, that's a scientific question. That's exactly what we mean by scientists advising political discussion. You can have a political discussion about how to regulate the industry, but you should at least understand the science behind the safety, the science behind the technology, the environmental impacts, et cetera, et cetera. Because otherwise, it's all gonna be political spin and propaganda. And that's essentially what's been happening.

So, in this case, Professor Glover was giving her advice. "Well, the scientific community agrees that genetically modified technology is a safe technology, and doesn't present any particular problem for the environment. It all depends on how it's being employed, or how it's being used." And that was a very unpopular position for her.

France in particular really hated her. And Greenpeace, and other environmental organizations wrote an open letter to the EU president, recommending that her position be eliminated. What's interesting is that defenders of this decision, and Greenpeace and others saying that the reason for this was they thought that the Chief Advisor position had too much power. It was too much left on one person.

But I honestly doubt that Greenpeace would have been expressing their opinion on the infrastructure of science advice in the EU if it weren't for this GM issue. Clearly, they had a problem with her stance on GM, and they did mention that.

They were successful in pressuring the EU President (who also is anti-GMO, so I guess he didn't like the advice he was being given also), to not only overrule her, or ignore her advice, but in fact to eliminate the position itself. They didn't just fire her from the position, there is now no EU Science Advisor

E: Terrible

S: for the European Union.

R: That's incredible.

S: Yeah

E: It's beyond belief.

R: It's exactly that. It's not just fire her, but eliminate the position. I wonder if the reason why that was done is because they would have needed a reason to fire her.

S: That's often the case, yeah.

R: By eliminating the position, they can say, "Well, sorry."

S: Yeah, right.

J: That decision says, is "We don't need any educated information about science."

R: It said, "We don't need no education."

S: Yeah


B: Well, Steve, it's also, Jay, it's also saying we need our scientific experts, not a general expert for everyone. We want to pick who informs us on the science. I think that's important.

S: I agree. I think politicians want to pick the science. They don't want science to constrain their politics, right? I think that's ultimately what it's about.

J: That's a hundred and eighty degrees wrong.

S: I know! I know. Absolutely.

J: All right, wait. Before you move on though, what can we do about this? Collectively,

S: Yeah

J: as a skeptical community? We really do need to address this.

S: One thing you could do is express your political opinion. Write your representative, whoever that is, and let them know that you want strong science advice, objective, untainted science advice, informing political decision-making.

R: I mean, this advice mostly goes to people in the EU.

S: But every country is dealing with this.

R: Yeah

S: This is not just the EU.

R: But this specific instance.

S: Yeah, this specific instance, then yeah, absolutely.

R: We're gonna need people in the EU to

S: But, for example, in the United States recently, a very similar issue came up. The House, which is controlled currently by Republicans, passed HR1422: The EPA (that's the Environmental Protection Agency) Science Advisory Board Reform Act of 2014. So this is the Science Advisory Board. This is a board of expert scientists with relevant expertise, who advise policy on the Environmental Protection Agency, which is an agency that can't function - it's all about science. That's what it's doing.

There were two provisions in the bill that passed the House. And just to put it into perspective, it's not the law yet. The bill would have to pass the senate, and then would have to not get vetoed by Barrack Obama, which probably's not gonna happen.

There were two things that stuck out. One was this - I'll read a quote from the bill itself. That Advisory Board members will quote-unquote, "not be excluded from the board due to affiliation with or representation of entities they have a potential interest in whatever the board is reviewing." So in other words, you can work for a company being regulated by the EPA, and be an expert on the Advisory Council of the EPA.

Yeah, that's choosing your scientists, right? They want the ability to choose the scientists, even if they have a significant, like "They will not be excluded because of any affiliation or representation of the company."

J: Why would they do that?

E: No standards.

J: I mean, that's basically formalising lobbying in the governing body

S: Yeah. Yeah.

R: That's why they did that.


S: Yeah. Of course, they always have a justification for it. What they say is that, "Well, environmental groups like Greenpeace could work for them and be on the advisory committee, so it's not fair. We're excluding industry scientists, but not lobbying environmental scientists." And there's a kernel of truth there, in that you want to have a broad representation. And I wouldn't say that we shouldn't have any industry representation on the council. But this is specifically opening the door wide, without there being any limitation.

What I would prefer, is saying that trivial connections to industry does not exclude you. But a significant affiliation or a representation, like if you essentially work for the company, you shouldn't be on an advisory panel that's advising about issues that deal with your company. That's a clear conflict of interest. But for completeness, there is also a clause in the same bill that says, "If a member of the Advisory Board has a conflict of interest, they will be excluded from testimony on that particular item." So they do, then, mitigate it a little bit with that. But still, it's very, very problematic.

E: Perfectly reasonable. That's why it will never happen.

S: Like everything, it always comes down to how is this going to be employed? And if you're cynical, which I think is actually reasonable when it comes to politics, then it seems like they're just trying to give themselves leeway to cherry-pick their experts.

E: Right

S: You know. Here's the other component of this, which is very problematic: Board members may not participate in activities that directly or indirectly involve review or evaluation of their own work. Let that sink in for a second. That essentially means an expert cannot give testimony on the area of their expertise.

(Quiet laughter)

E: Oh, great.

S: I mean, that directly or indirectly. Think about it. "or indirectly." If it said that they can't give testimony about studies that they themselves have published, I could see, "Okay, maybe they're not, you want to talk about other scientists evaluating their work, not have them evaluate their own work," okay. But to say that you can't talk about anything that indirectly touches your area of research, that's ridiculous! That's just, I don't even know what they hell they're thinking with that.

J: I mean, how is that, in practice? Does that mean that they have an expert, or some elected research? And they want to know about the research? And then they have to have some other person come in and communicate about the research?

S: Well, I mean, so you have a dozen people on the Advisory Committee. If the topic comes up, dealing with climate change, and you're a climate change scientist, you can't give testimony about it! You can't participate in the discussion, because you've published studies that indirectly, or directly impact the topic of discussion. That clearly smacks of, "We want to put in there language that will give us an excuse to exclude anyone we want."

E: Right

B: Right

S: So there's the, "We can include anyone we want," and "we can exclude anyone we want." That's the two-punch here.

R: Yeah

S: I don't know of any other way to really interpret that.

R: Richard, didn't, wasn't there something with an Australian science advisor recently getting the boot? Didn't that happen?

J: So they eliminated the position?

RS: Yeah, we don't have a Minister for Science. We've sort of had to use

J: Clearly, what happened was, they were like, "Oh! That's a good idea!


J: The EU's got it right! Let's just get rid of all the scientists."

RS: Yeah, it's a very sad situation. I think a lot of people have issues with our current government. Of course, people will always have issues with any current government. But at the moment, I think that's a particular concern, yeah.

GH: Is there a state religious representative ...

S: A Minister of Ministry?

GH: A Minister of Ministry, yes. That's called a Prime Minister.


GH: Very good.

R: Good one. Good one.

GH: Very good. Five points.


J: So, guys, you know, putting it to you directly, I mean, if you recently had this position eliminated, like, the local skeptical community needs to do something about this.

S: Yeah

J: You guys have really figure out a way to get your voice heard.

S: I think this is a good issue for the overall skeptical movement internationally. It's a topic we could sink our teeth into. Proper science advice and positions to government. That can have a huge impact. And it's the kind of thing, it's also win-win for us in a way, because some issues are a hard sell. You know, it's like really hard to convince somebody who already isn't scientifically literate or a critical thinker.

There's no way you could argue against this, right? This is a position that we could take very strongly. We want good science to advise our politicians. Who would argue against that? They're now in the position of having to make some kind of nuanced argument about whatever. But this would be a really good issue for us to push, just internationally. And I think all these recent events is a good impetus for that. This is one we should keep pushing.


Nanosculpture (29:47)[edit]

(Commercial at 33:44)

Saving Christmas (35:38)[edit]

Teen Brains (41:36)[edit]

(Commercial at 50:21)

Special Report (51:44)[edit]

Interview with James Randi (54:33)[edit]

Wind Turbines Continued (1:05:16)[edit]

Announcements (1:06:30)[edit]

  • NECSS, Occ Teaser is up, End of year wrap up episode, Whose That Noisy draw, gift membership

Science or Fiction (1:09:32)[edit]

Item #1: In 1902 the Royal Australian Army declared the emu to be an enemy of the state, shooting them on sight and driving them near extinction until the order was lifted in 1911. Item #2: The first police force in Australia was called the Night Watch, the ranks of which were filled with the best-behaved convicts. Item #3: The Tasmanian crop circle mystery was solved when it was discovered that wallabies were eating poppy plants, getting high, and then hopping around in circles. Item #4: Security guards at Canberra's Parliament House were banned from using the word 'mate.' The measure was quickly criticized as 'un-Australian' and lasted only one day.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:22:45)[edit]

“Isn’t this enough? Just this world? Just this beautiful, complex wonderfully unfathomable world? How does it so fail to hold our attention that we have to diminish it with the invention of cheap, man-made myths and monsters?” - Tim Minchin

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by SGU Productions, dedicated to promoting science and critical thinking. For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at, where you will find the show notes as well as links to our blogs, videos, online forum, and other content. You can send us feedback or questions to Also, please consider supporting the SGU by visiting the store page on our website, where you will find merchandise, premium content, and subscription information. Our listeners are what make SGU possible.


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