by Claire Robinson of GM Watch

In recent months, as the biotech industry has reeled from one self-made catastrophe to another, including revelations by GM-sceptical scientists of the atmosphere of intimidation in which they operate and even of specific threats made against them, Sense About Science has been active in trying to shift the focus of the story.

They've been claiming to whatever media outlet will listen that hostility and even terror-tactics by the anti-GM lobby are driving GM scientists out of the country and that small groups of activists 'hijacked' the official GM public debate.

A letter to prime minister Tony Blair signed by 114 scientists calling for government action to defend the GM industry at first appeared to be coordinated by signatory Prof Derek Burke but turned out to be coordinated by Sense About Science. SAS even managed to get their story on the Today programme (BBC Radio 4) this morning, though naturally, none of the group's corporate and other questioinable affiliations were mentioned.

SAS's front man on Today, whose topic was 'how do we distinguish between science fact and science fiction?', was Prof Philip Stott.

Stott, a known contrarian on global warming who argues that there's insufficient evidence to justify restrictive action on fossil fuels, and that so-called "global warming" is just a way of hammering the use of the car, explained that society develops "grand narratives" or big stories to explain important things like climate change. Stott claimed that the grand narrative of global warming has been hijacked by the green left.

The BBC presenter helped bring out the assumptions behind the story by describing grand narratives as "storylines that pressure groups hope will attract people to their cause", citing the MMR-autism link as an example (presumably meaning that groups of parents who believe the MMR jab has made their children autistic are just peddling stories to enlist followers?!?).

Stott said that for years environmentalists have been developing a whole set of agendas and seeking a legitimising science for them, but that the real agenda was often anti-science and anti-American. He did not address the main problem with this argument – the fact that most environmental agendas, including concern over global warming and pesticides and opposition to GM foods, have arisen directly from scientific findings and indeed been set in motion by scientists, often long before green groups took them up.

Then the program cut to interviews with GM scientist Mark Tester, who is leaving the UK because "the anti-GM atmosphere in the UK is driving industry away", and Chris Leaver, who is finding difficulty in attracting good students to biotech. Leaver said, "If society decides that science and progress are bad for you, and capitalism is bad for you, what are the alternatives? It's like turning off the engine of an oil tanker. Your ability to steer and direct will persist for a while but eventually you're dead in the water."
[more on Leaver]

Prof Derek Burke's letter to Blair was mentioned (actually coordinated by SAS, of course), in which he complained that opinions are more important than evidence. [more on Burke]

Tracey Brown, SAS director and part ofthe LM network, said, "Time and time again now we see a pull-back from a willingness to judge evidence, from a willingness to put forward policy based on evidence, and a desire to try to push the discussion in different directions but without ever taking responsibility for the consequences in terms of progress. There's a vacuum." [more on Tracey]

A discussion between George Monbiot and geneticist Steve Jones followed. Monbiot was asked whether the green lobby had hijacked the grand narratives. "We wish!" was his reply. He pointed out that there had been no  programmes or series on British TV in the last 13 years from the environmentalist perspective but there had been several documentaries and series in that time making out that there was nothing to worry about regarding the environment.

Monbiot said that in fact the grand narrative that these programmes have constructed is that what environmentalists and scientists say are opposite. On climate change, he said, most scientists and environmentalists agree. Those who do not are the "corporate stooges trying to buy a way out of a commitment to do anything".

Jones said that he did not dispute climate change, that that we must test ideas, not assume that because it is your idea it must be right. Monbiot said he wants ideas to be rigorously tested. But it was obviously a myth that we can consume more and more without negative consequences. Jones said scientists are only interested in the facts. Monbiot said the questions that scientists ask are often limited in scope leading to prefabricated answers.

Read George Monbiot's article on Sense about Science and the forces manipulating the biotech debate: Invasion of the entryists,3604,1102753,00.html