A recent column in Nature argues for evidence-based policy on the subject of neonicotinoid pesticides and their effects on bees and other pollinators. Huzzah! I agree. More evidence in policy! But just because we want politicians to make decisions based on evidence, that doesn’t mean public opinion and values — which are partially driven by their knowledge of the issues — doesn’t also matter. So I was dismayed to see the piece end with:
You can't switch off the lies and exaggeration. But don't worry about them. When I saw the exaggerated pollinator-decline claim attributed to me in The Guardian I did not seek to correct it, because the correct information, with references, will go into a forthcoming parliamentary-committee report. Unlike stories in the press, that report will definitely be read by officials who advise the politicians who, for the United Kingdom at least, make the final decision. And because of such reports, and a recent risk assessment from the European Food Safety Authority, we can be fairly sure that the decision on whether to restrict neonicotinoid use in Europe will not be made on the basis of avoiding 20% yield losses in crops, or saving the world's bees from extinction.
Let me reword this: “Don’t worry about the public being incredibly misinformed about the real risks of neonicotinoids and their effects on bees. The politicians will do the right thing because I’ve made sure our scientific reports are accurate.”
My reaction? Your ivory tower is showing.
Let’s assume the politicians listen to your science and not the public. Likely they won’t outright ban all neonicotinoids because there are clearly some reasonably safe uses of them. Let’s next assume a majority of citizens take the Guardian’s fear-mongering exaggerations at face value (and various activist groups continue to exploit those fears). To the public, it appears they have just been disenfranchised because they don’t understand why neonicotinoids aren’t banned. After all, the media is telling them that “the scientists” think neonics are causing huge bee declines! Why aren’t the politicians listening?
Let’s instead assume various politicians listen to different lobbying groups, including some scientists and their reports. Some lobbying groups are arguing that banning or restricting neonicotinoid pesticide use will cause huge crop yield declines. Others are arguing that neonics will starve us all by killing the pollinators. Some compromise will probably be reached, but it’s not going to use scientific evidence as much as you would want.
Public opinion and knowledge matter. Consider climate change. No one would say it doesn’t matter that the media (depending on outlet) either exaggerates or denies climate change. It does matter because it shapes public opinion which in turn shapes what is politically possible. If you want policy made based on scientific evidence, then you’d better step out of your ivory tower.