How Authentic Is Public Input on Science-Driven Public Policy?

Although we are healthier and live longer than our predecessors, and our food supply is more varied and inexpensive than ever, Americans are manifesting anxiety about all sorts of things—genetically engineered foods (derived from so-called “GMOs”), pharmaceuticals, chemicals, gluten, and even “chemtrails,” to name just a few. As Dr. Alex Berezow of the American Council on Science and Health recently observed,

Chemistry and biotechnology—instead of being hailed as the revolutionary sciences that they are—have been mocked by an organic industry that is now worth $47 billion. The PR from companies like Whole Foods and Panera Bread is consistent: Other stores’ food is toxic and dangerous, and only our food is safe… The insanity doesn’t end there. Alternative medicine practitioners teach people to be afraid of their doctors. Lawyers instill fear about pharmaceutical companies.

Part of the reason that such fake news thrives is that science literacy is generally poor and Americans do not know whom to trust when it comes to evaluating scientific information.

Moreover, in an age when so much of American life is politicized, polemicized and regulated, skepticism about “experts” is not entirely irrational. Who are the experts and who gets to decide that question? These are questions fraught with complexity and difficulty today.

In a 2017 poll, only about two-thirds of Americans admitted that they are exposed to any science news at all, while fewer than one in five are active consumers. That doesn’t discourage non-experts from eagerly offering opinions on a spectrum of arcane scientific issues, however, many of which are inextricably linked to public policy. Indeed, the more closely related a scientific issue is to public policy, the more likely there is to be an army of self-appointed activists and purported experts — many of whom are actually promoting their own interests — at the ready to march before the public and policymakers presenting their alleged “wisdom.”

President Dwight D. Eisenhower once famously said about opinionated know-nothings pontificating on agriculture, “Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles from the corn field.”

While it is certainly desirable for government to create laws and regulations that accurately reflect the common sense of the people who elected them to office, the death of expertise is not a trivial problem. It confounds policymakers and regulators who feel compelled to seek non-expert input on decisions, wasting time and taxpayers’ money. The 18th-century Irish statesman and writer Edmund Burke emphasized the government’s responsibility in a republic to make such determinations. He observed, “Your representative owes you, not only his industry, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine have repeatedly endorsed public engagement on public policy issues that are predominantly scientific and technological in nature, but such recommendations, while politically correct, are arguably misguided. Although non-experts should be educated so that they can understand the rationale for government policy, it is less useful for them to formulate said policy. This is particularly true when complex issues of science and technology are involved. Science is not democratic. The citizenry do not get to vote on whether a whale is a mammal or a fish, or on the temperature at which water boils; and legislatures cannot repeal the laws of nature, although they have tried.

A frequently cited model for direct citizen involvement in public policy is Denmark, where non-experts are invited to bring to citizens-consensus conferences “a basic ‘common sense’ derived from worries, visions, general view and actual everyday experience as their basis for asking a number of essential questions concerned with the given subject.”

But in America, this is why we have elections. We elect representatives to bring the “common sense” of the voters to matters of public policy. If they fail to do that, the remedy is to be found at the ballot box, not in presentations of “public sentiment” at public hearings. Who elected the people who show up to these meetings, anyway? How do we know they are an authentic representation of public opinion? Aren’t they more likely to be a collection of agitators, activists, and even professional lobbyists? Do ordinary citizens regularly make time in their busy lives to attend such gatherings? In fact, economists have a term—“rational ignorance”—for citizens’ lack of engagement on arcane issues whose outcome they feel they cannot affect.

Denmark’s approach has been applied there to a broad spectrum of scientific and technological issues, including food irradiation, molecular genetic engineering techniques applied to agriculture and animals, setting limits on chemicals in the environment, and human-genome mapping. Danish populism has led to the adoption of excessively precautionary, harmful regulation of many products and technologies.

Other nations’ experience is also far from positive. Consider, for example, the United Kingdom’s “GM Nation” exercise in 2003, intended to gain insight into the public’s views of genetic engineering (also known as “genetic modification,” or “GM”). At great expense and effort, the UK government sponsored a series of public discussions around the country, as well as using more conventional approaches, such as focus groups. Local authorities and various organizations held hundreds of additional public meetings on the subject.

The result? Mark Henderson, science correspondent for The Times (London) newspaper, offered this view of the half-million-pound initiative:

The exercise has been farce from start to finish. I’m not sure I want the man in the street to set Britain’s science, technology and agriculture policy. One of the six meetings…spent much of its time discussing whether the SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome] virus might come from GM cotton in China. It’s more likely to have come from outer space.

Mr. Henderson went on to say that the meetings were dominated by anti-technology zealots, the only faction that was organized and impassioned enough about the issue to attend. We see that as well in the highly orchestrated responses to U.S. government requests for public comment on proposed regulations: Special interests mobilize not only their base, but can also create an avalanche of fake comments via troll factories, as described by Sharyl Attkisson in her excellent book, The Smear: How Shady Political Operatives and Fake News Control What You See, What You Think, and How You Vote.

Another disappointment to those who advocate public engagement came courtesy of the National Science Foundation, whose primary mission is to support laboratory research across many disciplines. NSF funded a series of “citizens technology forums,” at which ordinary, previously uninformed Americans were brought together to solve a thorny question of technology policy.

One of these, which focused on genetic engineering applied to agriculture and conducted by investigators at North Carolina State University under a 2002 NSF grant, provided information to participants “from a range of content-area experts, experts on social implications of science and technology, and representatives of special interest groups.” This was supposed to enable them to reach consensus and make recommendations. The resulting recommendations were, however, at odds with the views of government, academic, and industry scientists, which were based on expertise, data, and experience. I count that as a failure.

The 2008 citizens’ forum on nanotechnology, also funded by NSF, is again instructive about the value of non-expert input on esoteric scientific issues. The organizers selected “from a broad pool of applicants a diverse and roughly representative group of seventy-four citizens to participate at six geographically distinct sites across the country.” Participants were informed by “a 61-page background document—vetted by experts—to read prior to deliberating.” They produced a hodgepodge of conclusions and recommendations, including “concern over the effectiveness of regulations” and “reduced certainty about the benefits of human enhancement technologies” but wanted “the government to guarantee access to them if they prove too expensive for the average American.”

That outcome was predictable: The participants lacked an understanding of the risks and benefits but wanted the government to provide them with entitlements so they could avail themselves of the beneficial products of nanotechnology, should they appear!

Politicians like to pay lip service to public engagement on regulatory issues, even if those issues require understanding of sophisticated and complex issues. President Clinton’s Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman once said that there must be public trust “in the regulatory process that ensures thorough review [of genetically engineered plants]—including complete and open public involvement.”

How does one secure that trust? How many years of excessive, worthless regulation and billions of dollars squandered—to say nothing of untold opportunity costs—are necessary to assuage unwarranted public anxieties? Should we allow “complete and open public involvement” via referendum to determine when farmers can cultivate a new variety of canola? By analogy, should we take a vote on the approval for marketing of a new Hepatitis-C vaccine or novel cancer drug?

The bottom line is that there is no evidence that decades of soliciting public engagement on topics like nuclear power, molecular techniques of genetic engineering or nanotechnologies has gained public trust or acceptance. Nor has the subordination of evidence-based policy-making to emotional or political calculations either increased public acceptance or encouraged innovation. So let’s stop doing it.

About Henry I. Miller

Henry Miller is a Senior Fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. He was the founding director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology.

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25 responses to “How Authentic Is Public Input on Science-Driven Public Policy?”

  1. I wonder how much of our food fright of GMOs, gluten, organic etc. etc. is a direct result of our grocery stores. Every product maker is anxious to proclaim on his label that his product contains none of the bad things that people might be frightened of, and all of the good — organic or gluten free. Stores have special sections for organic food, and it gets very silly. Organic hand lotion? I did buy some because it was lemon verbena, but I knew that the organic part was ridiculous. But sheets woven from organic cotton? They mean well, but don’t understand the definition of organic food, and that it could not possibly have any effect on your bedsheets. So who’s responsible and who’s going to stop it?

  2. N. N. Taleb’s latest installment to his Incerto, Skin In The Game: Asymmetry In Daily Life well addresses this. Though I disagres with his principle.

    In general, the demotic American is quite ignorant of science and credulous of #FakeNews #NonScience.

  3. Rational Ignorance; Ilya Somin defends rational ignorance in American democratic (small D) politics as necessary.

  4. The problem is that Science has been politicized for decades.

    There was no science showing a CAUSAL link between DDT and thin bird egg shells – it might have been an avian virus, but we will never know now, well we can try feeding microscopic amounts of DDT to birds and see if we can duplicate it (it may have been done).

    Then there’s the food pyramid/plate loaded with unhealthy starches – grains. See Gary Taubes “Good Calories, Bad Calories” and “Why we get Fat” exposing the politicization – do carbs make us fat, or do fats make us fat, or is it how we eat them?

    One adult died of Measles recently, the first in two decades. Over 100 children died from reactions to the Measles vaccine. We had a Mumps outbreak on college campuses among the vaccinated. But politicized science say they are safe and effective (but then why do we give Big Pharma legal immunity and have a taxpayer funded vaccine kangaroo court?). Now we want to mandate vaccinations for STDs for newborn babies.

    Speaking of STDs, it is a pandemic, 100 Million Americans infected. Some of these are not curable (herpes, HPV), others can make you sterile (the asymptomatic Chlamydia, Ghonorhea which is becoming drug resistant, and Syphilis which is also resistant and causes Alzheimer’s like destruction). Where’s the science? Where’s the panic? Where is the overreaction like when a few dozen come down with some old disease, and spend a few unpleasant days, they all get through it without dying or complications? Oh, it’s sex, so we can’t talk about it any more than in Victoria’s days. But, like the problem of drug resistance, it is real, a clear threat to personal and pubic health, and we are actively ignoring it to chase unicorns and tilt after windmills.

    I’ve saved the best for last. Science says men and women are different, including their brains (statistically – but individuals are individual). So are the different races. Ashkenazim have 115 IQ, Whites 100, Asians 105 (mainly math/spatial advantage), blacks 95. What happened to Charle’s Murray and James Damore? Were they refuted? Or shouted down and ostracized and removed from polite company for showing their results?

    The Tobacco companies bent science for a long time when the common wisdom was that cigarettes (in WW1: “coffin nails”) made you ill. Now it turns out that the sugary soft drink manufacturers are funding studies that HFCS isn’t the problem, calories and exercise is.

    Then there’s the whole Global Warming, excuse me, Climate Change debate that hasn’t been “science” since before 1970 when we were certain to be in a new ice age by now instead of Florida and Manhattan being below sea level. Solyndra and Tesla pushed banning fossil fuels, and it was alleged Exxon funded studies on the other side. And there ar no repeatable experiments here, only proxy data sets like tree rings (but rainfall can vary more than temperature) and Ice cores (how are they calibrated) and temperature stations that used to be in a meadow but are now surrounded by ashphalt. The 5% at best science is drowned out about how global government has to micromanage every aspect of our lives in order to save the planet – thousands use their private jets to go to conferences!

  5. Hall of Shame—-Henry Miller Dropped by Forbes for Monsanto Ghostwriting Scandal

    Henry I. Miller, MD, has a long history of arguing for deregulation of hazardous products and taking positions outside the scientific mainstream. He has claimed nicotine “is not particularly bad for you,” argued that low levels of radiation may be beneficial to health, and has repeatedly called for the re-introduction of the insecticide DDT. He is perhaps the most prolific and best-known promoter of genetically engineered foods, writing for the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Forbes and other outlets.

    In August 2017, Forbes deleted all columns authored or co-authored by Miller in the wake of revelations that Monsanto ghostwrote a column that Miller published under his own name in Forbes.

    Miller is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and was the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology. He does not disclose his funding.

    • And we have a dishonest guy making an ad Hom attack that is not relevant to the article’s facts presented. Complete with a citation from one of the most disgusting organizations in the GE arguments. The tobacco quote is out of context from a section of an article. Where Miller was making the point that many of the other chemicals in cigarettes are far worse than nicotine. DDT is very useful for malaria control.

      • Which dishonest guy are you referring to?? And what Ad Hom attack?? Does a persons character matter in considering a persons words as honest sincere and truthful?? Are you Jewish?? Is MIller Jewish?? Why hasn’t Miller reveled his funding sources?? Does the public have a right to know who Miller is working for when considering his opinions?? An honest person has nothing to hide, right or wrong??

      • You are the dishonest guy. Your entire comment was an ad hom attack. You dealt with none of the points raised in the article. Jewish??? O Yay , not only are you dishonest. You are an idiot. You have no right to know how Henry gets paid. Nor do you have any right to know how I support myself.

      • Truth to a Jew is different from Christian truth. Christian truth is based on facts. Jewish truth is based on what is best for the Jews. Is calling people idiot an Ad hom attack?? Did I call you patron an idiot or insult him in any way?? I questioned his character and the author himself brought his character into disrepute by his own misconduct. Shame on you.

      • Incorrect. the truth is exactly the same for everyone. I have no patron. Your original comment contained nothing but personal attacks. 2 of which I successfully refuted. The 3rd I have never bothered to check up on. you dealt with absolutely none of the content of the article. then you brought up being Jewish for no logical reason that I can see. Resorting to playing a race card of sorts mean the gloves are all off. you may be insulted and treated with derision as I please.

      • What personal attacks?? I referenced statements and positions the author has made. How is that a personal attack?? You are overly defensive. What is your relationship to the author? As far as the Jew stuff I was referencing the words of a Polish priest, —-

        Henryk Zielinski, editor-in-chief of the Catholic weekly Idziemy, said during an interview with Polish TV (TVP) that Jews have “a completely different system of values, a different concept of truth.” “For us,” Zielinski said. “the truth corresponds to facts. For the Jew, truth means something that conforms to his understanding of what’s beneficial. If a Jew is religious, then truth means something God wants.”

        I agree with the priest, but you can take it up with him if you like.

        Oh one other thing, your conduct, loss of temper and lack of self control reflects very poorly on your mother and father and the way they brought you up. Didn’t they teach you manners?? Were you a bastard?

      • Now you are lying. You quoted out of context. When that is done it is a personal attack meant to mislead. The views of Polish priests are not relevant. Neither is the word Jewish. As I said, the truth is the same for all of us. Those who disagree are simply wrong. My conduct has been truthful. I have not lost my temper. It only appears that way to you as you have been exposed as having no logical refutation to the author. Your closing simply points out your lack of logic.

      • What lie?? Please be specific. You did call me childish names, didn’t you?? Do you remember calling me an idiot?? Did you mother and father teach you to insult strangers?? Was that part of your up bringing?? Or did you learn that at church or at that snooty college that took all you money?? You did not like what I had to say so you attacked me, and the way you attack me was saying I attacked the author, which was not true. Which was a lie. Which by the way is a very Jewish debating tactic and reeks of mental and emotional instability.

      • “Jewish?” again. You are an idiot, a liar and , an individual who tried to mislead by quoting out of context and then lying by claiming you referenced Miller’s statements. You didn’t accurately reference miller’s quote regarding tobacco. I attacked you because you deserved it. I will do so every time I see you trying to mislead and avoid the basic topic of an article. Which you still haven’t commented upon.

      • Only an industry spokesperson and propagandist defends a corrupt, fraud who lies for corporate interests. Thanks for letting us all know you are just another tool of the agrochemical/ biotech industry.

      • Calling a spade a spade is no gambit. You’ve been trolling social media for articles on GMO for years now, and just to promote and defend transnational agrochemical corporations. (If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…)

      • Боб Яр, вы должны прекратить облизывать пенис Владимира, тогда, может быть, у вас будет время, чтобы получить образование и выяснить, что генетически модифицированные продукты питания и вакцины безопасны.

  6. Why is anyone willing to publish Henry I Miller’s blatant industry propaganda anymore? The guy’s been exposed for publishing ghost written articles by and for Monsanto for crying out loud? He’ll work for any corrupt industry and say anything they want — who has the time for this blatant corruption and antiscience propaganda?

    • In other words you, once again can’t refute anything in the article. thanks.