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Europe and the US: Separated By a Common Science

By Philip Stott - December 6, 2001 12:00 AM

It was George Bernard Shaw who perceptively observed that the US and the UK are "two nations divided by a common language." We might further comment that they are now divided by a 'common science,' and that this division extends to Europe as a whole.

Thus, when Christine Todd Whitman, President Bush's head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), announced last March that the US had "no interest in implementing that treaty" -- meaning the climate change protocol signed in 1997 at Kyoto, Japan -- Europe went hysterical. It was far worse than not having had sex "with that woman." The German newspaper, Die Woche, attacked Mr. Bush as the "Climate Killer."

To grasp fully the bitter depths of this division, it is vital to understand what has happened to the popular view of "science" in Europe over the last twenty or so years. First, there was the terrible thalidomide scandal; then followed the BSE debacle in cattle; and, more recently, we have witnessed the burning pyres of animal carcasses following the dreadful outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.

These events have been coupled with the rise of a radical environmentalist movement, which has virtually turned itself into a New Age religion. Its adherents eschew economic growth, trade, globalization, and change, but above all America itself. They hanker after the false refuge of a "lost," mythical "Golden Age" when the world was in balance, all food was "organic" and humans were in harmony with Nature. Thus, Mr. Bush's rejection of the Kyoto Protocol, to European eyes, was much more than the rejection of a treaty. Fundamentally, he blasphemed against a new religion, against all bien pensant European thought.

Social Bondage

For in Europe, science -- but especially soft environmental science -- is no longer legitimised by the normal, cautious processes of science itself. " Science" has become legitimised by what the great French philosopher, Jean-Fran├žois Lyotard, has called the "social bond."

Let me give you two examples of how this works. It is 8.15 a.m. and you are listening to a flagship radio, or television, news program, the quintessential voice of the right-thinking chattering classes. A white-coated scientist is brought on to say that his recent work seems to indicate that humans may have some influence on climate change. 'You mean that we are definitely causing serious global warming and destroying the ozone layer', the renowned interviewer gleefully declares, warming quickly to the subject. A similar white-coated scientist is then brought on the next day to report that her research has demonstrated the safety of a certain genetically modified crop. The questioning on this occasion is markedly different. Now the voice is disbelieving and aggressive: 'How do you know? Surely it will affect nearby 'organic' farms and the pollen of local beekeepers - have they been informed of your work? And how was your work funded - by one of the big companies, I bet?'

Put very simply, you are witnessing the legitimization and deligitimization of science by the prevailing social bond, in which an existing social myth selects the "science" that is acceptable and that which is not. Often, the media will exclude the demonized science completely.

Impossible? Let me give you a second example, this time a real one. About a year ago, seven national academies of science spoke out in favour of genetic modification in agriculture. In Europe, the academies were vilified by the media and by Green organizations. Then, last May, a similar grouping came out endorsing the view that man-made global warming is occurring. But they, in stark contrast, were warmly embraced.

What does this all mean for climate change, for biotechnology, and for America, where careful scientific argument is still powerful as an arbiter of progress? Americans, in the main, rightly listen to their National Academy of Sciences. In the U.K., its equivalent, the Royal Society, is either roundly vilified (when in favour of biotechnology) or praised (when it cautiously supports global warming), precisely according to what is said in terms of the reigning social myth.

This makes any sensible popular scientific dialogue between America and Europe increasingly fraught. In Europe, the burgeoning scientific evidence raising severe doubts about the significance of global warming or the potential dangers of genetically modified crops is both sub-consciously and consciously excluded from public debate -- by the media, by politicians, and by extreme environmentalist groups who drown it out with exaggerations and distortions.

In the past year alone, the relationship between carbon dioxide and temperature, the accuracy of surface temperature measurements, the little understood (but crucial) role of water vapor, the many missing variables in the simplistic climate models, and our understanding of climate history have all been scientifically challenged. But little of this has penetrated the carapace of the European social bond. Many Europeans simply do not wish to hear any counter arguments, for challenging their legitimizing "science" would also undermine their deeper attitudes to the car, to economic growth, to trade, to development, to globalisation, to change, and, as already said, to America itself.

This is why America must not be cowed by European rhetoric on global warming and on biotechnology. This why America must remain open to real science and to progress. For at the heart of the Kyoto Protocol is the "scientific" lie that controlling human-induced emissions of greenhouse gases will halt complex climate change. And biotechnology is vital for an ever-changing world. But America must also be ready for the fact that, in Europe, science itself will not necessarily win the arguments.

Philip Stott is Emeritus Professor of Biogeography in the University of London. His latest book, with Dr. Sian Sullivan, is Political Ecology: Science, Myth and Power (Arnold and OUP, 2000).
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