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J. R. Bruning
J. R. Bruninghttps://www.talkingrisk.nz/
J.R. Bruning is a sociologist (B.Bus.Agribusiness; MA Sociology(Res)) based in the Bay of Plenty, New Zealand. Bruning’s primary research focus is on the relationship between governance, policy, and the production of scientific and technical knowledge for public good. Other writing can be found on JRBruning.Substack.com and at TalkingRisk.NZ

You can make science say whatever you want it to say

Science opinion

Technical and scientific information is like any resource.

It can be used for special purposes, it can be shaped and moulded to ensure an outcome favours a particular interest. Technical and scientific information is expensive to produce. If there’s no funding it will not happen. Thus, this information is eminently vulnerable to capture by vested interests.

Science and technology can be a tool for advancement, the question may be, in whose interest?

Because the problem, as a previous prime minister of New Zealand reportedly said to a friend of mine ‘You can make science say whatever you want it to say’.

The presence of pathways to provide independent technical and scientific information are core – foundational – to effective democratic governance. But we don’t have them.

Scientific funding and resourcing for scientists and researchers that might review the literature more widely than a government agency with a policy agenda, an industry sponsor, an industry organisation, or a public institution with massive public/private entanglements, has evaporated over the last two decades.

Somewhat contradictorily, science funding is controlled by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE). MBIE is dedicated to encouraging innovation. Fair enough. Innovations are new technologies and process that very often are patented. Agreements to release those innovations into the environment and into human bodies occur. Yet the chemical formulations, emissions, and even algorithms or programming that make up value systems remain secret. You see, it is up to industry to disclose what it wants to disclose.

It’s oxymoronic to believe that MBIE would prioritise science funding that essentially might critique innovations. Especially when the science Minister has overlapping portfolios that are eyebrow raising.

It’s inevitable that democracies are ending up in bifurcated polarities where government agencies and regulators insist a product or technology is safe (including digital), based on reasoning that reflects industry cultures and perspectives, rather than new knowledge on risk.

For decades, scientists, doctors and researchers have watched how governments all too often, have relied on the corporate industries to co-develop guidelines used in regulation and to provide the data to support the safety of technologies that they want to release into the market, ultimately shaping regulation which favours industry interests. Over the past twenty years, research arrangements across New Zealand’s public universities with the private sector, has shaped how big research money is spent.

MBIE should not control scientific research funding in New Zealand.

Stewardship or kaitiakitanga can and should underpin regulation of new technologies. If governments introduce new technologies, from chemicals, to drugs for children, to 5G, to gene therapies, to central bank digital currencies; they have a commensurate obligation to ensure that information that might contradict claims of safety can be safely and impartially produced and disseminated.

Otherwise there is no stewardship, there is only imposition.

How technologies and science are stewarded into the future, may be key to whether democracies survive.

As Sir Geoffrey Palmer and constitutional lawyer Andrew Butler have noted:

‘Too often in New Zealand our legislation has unexpected and unfortunate consequences. We do not examine the practical effects of much of our law and whether it has achieved the purposed to which it was directed. Too much of it is cooked up in secret with inadequate public participation in its making. Often the public is kept at a distance.’[1]

In an MBIE-controlled climate, it makes sense that research to understand the drivers of diet-driven chronic disease in children, or to identify chemical pollutants in wastewater, to recognise the problem of multimorbidity and polypharmacy, or to review the risks of 5G, problems with gene therapies, or to identify patterns of occupational disease in horticultural industries is rocky and non-existent.

FAIRNESS & IMPARTIALITY

In the impasse, inevitably public trust will decline. Governments and regulatory agencies assert a regulation is correct, while the public are left alarmed or concerned about new policies and laws.

But it’s bigger than that.

If governments consistently act in a way that is arbitrary or where there are perceived inconsistencies and contradictions remain unaddressed, – the foundations of democracy also erode. If governments are closer to ‘regulated’ industries, the big, globally owned corporates, the global agencies, and listen to them more often than they do the public; if their stakeholder arrangements and agreements which squeeze unaligned groups out, if decisions are increasingly made swiftly and in secret – democracy is undermined.

In this chasm, subtle but important nuances around risk that threatens big-business can be (and often are) excluded. Government agencies do not want to talk about complexity, uncertainty or ambiguity – such as the risk to a child or young person if they are chronically exposed to a technology from conception.

As science and technology advances exponentially in the private sector, the advances aren’t translated into advances in regulatory risk assessment and increased funding for monitoring. It’s an uneven playing field.

When contradictions occur repeatedly, when decisions are secret and black-boxed, trust breaks down. Trust is a function of transparency, accountability. Trust can only exist when governments respond to societal concerns in a meaningful way.

Yet fairness and impartiality are central to good governance. Important work can be undertaken to highlight inconsistent decision-making, to highlight the gaps, and to support good governance. Professor Philip Joseph provides insight here:

‘Fairness is the guiding principle of our public law.’ Public decision-makers are bound by procedural requirements known as the rules of natural justice. The rules are designed to promote decisions that are informed and accurate, and which instil a sense of fairness. [2]

How do we talk about fairness when we think about policy and process relating to science and technology? Perhaps Joseph can help:

‘Natural justice is but fairness writ large and juridically’. The duty to act fairly (or simply ‘fairness) may substitute as a reference for natural justice. They are alternative descriptions for a single but flexible concept whose content is ‘always contextual’. The requirements vary according to the power that is exercised and the circumstances of its use, including the effect of the decision on personal rights and interests.’

If researchers and scientists had funding to look at technologies and their risks, what might impartial reasoning look like? It might include methodological reviews of the scientific literature. Open reviews of new knowledge on unintended or off-target risk. Reviews of global court cases.

Impartial reasoning does not include pre-developing policy with selected stakeholders who hold a predetermined view, and secret decisions on technology that industry applicants very clearly know about. It includes updating risk as the knowledge of how a harm occurs solidifies in the literature. Creating working groups of public experts who do not have financial conflicts of interest (rather than contracting external consultants to uphold a policy position).

But what happens when rights, such as the right to health, erode over the longer term, because a breach is not recognised as substantial?

‘A decision may be allowed to stand where a breach of natural justice has little or no effect on the applicants substantial rights. The requirements of natural justice are ‘flexible’. ‘adaptable’, and ‘context specific’, and cannot be neatly tabulated: ‘This is an area of broad principle, not precise rules’.

This is why the free flow of information, and how we arrive at knowledge, even controversial, is central to knowledge. When the courts consider whether a decision was fair:

‘The courts will look at the matter ‘in the round’ to determine whether the process was fair’.

But how can they do this when the resourced players are the big agencies and big companies and everyone else is out of the game? How can the courts look ‘in the round’ when public good science is bankrupt?

THE EROSION OF ETHICS

Here, in 21st century New Zealand we face a conundrum – with so much science and data industry funded, with cultures in governance that push inconvenient (often ethics-based) nuances aside, and a paucity of scientists who might have the courage to step away from peer-mentality when it comes to taken for granted positions on the safety of science and technology – how are judges able to step outside a normative position?

How are they able to precautionarily step outside and address crescive changes which erode the capacity of government agencies to, for example, recognise risks to children and young people from technologies presented as safe by the industries in control of the data?

It might be expected that children and young people are prescribed anti-depressants and other medications before their nutrition status is addressed.

It might be expected in a pandemic emergency that a judge would take a precautionary decision that everyone should be injected with a new medication; but might not take a precautionary decision that healthy people should not be injected with a novel gene therapy that has not yet finished trials. Judges weren’t to know that neither genotoxicity nor carcinogenicity studies were required as part of the regulatory process. That individual batches weren’t tested for contamination, an issue that has always plagued biologic drug development. You see, New Zealand didn’t fund scientists to look for problems, over COVID-19.

Science funding scopes have not only defunded the scientists, but they’ve also defunded the ethicists, social scientists and human rights scholars who might shed light on risk, vulnerability and rights. In a global pandemic, New Zealand didn’t have a bioethics committee to look at ethics and mandates. Just like years earlier, the government got rid of the Bioethics Council on genetic modification.

In the gap the public are faced with a double-bind. Because the public lack the ‘scientific and technical authority’ of scientists, the government (from elected members to officials) will defer to the regulators, who defer by proxy to the industry scientists, who rely on the (often undisclosed) industry data.

Even if public reasoning includes reasoning directly drawn from the published scientific literature this reasoning is dismissed. It’s non-guideline. It’s out of scope. It’s outside the programme. The absence of cohorts of public (independent) scientists that might deepen public discussions make it even more difficult.

Elected members and officials will then deflect to the established (authoritative) position, no matter the contradictions in the scientific literature.

Agency lock-ins corrupt decision-making. I remain mystified as to why the Natural and Built Environments Act talks about noise emissions, greenhouse gas emissions, odour emissions – but totally ignores pollutant chemical emissions from industry, urban and other sources. I’m perplexed as to why the new Zealand Environmental Protection Authorities’ risk assessment methodology bases risk assessment around information supplied by an industry applicant, but fails to require the agency to review the literature. Why modelling seems so outdated, while epidemiological studies are ignored.

As I’ve discussed – when industry are simply providing data to support regulation, and no-one is available to challenge or contradict it, industry claims appear remarkably, to resemble propaganda.

I stress that we should not blame private industry.

It is a failure of governments to recognise the potential for abuse of power by highly predatory commercial interests and put in place governance architecture and resourcing which might counter-balance this power. It is the failure to lock in principles, and educate officials on how to make decisions in ambiguous, complex and uncertain environments, in the public interest.’[3]

IN THE GOVERNANCE GAP – IT’S UP TO THE PUBLIC

Democracy necessarily depends on an informed and active citizenry who are free to ask questions. The sharing of information, and the muddling over the importance of a piece of information, is central to this.

But there are barriers to being heard in mainstream media. Believe me, I have tried.

In the knowledge gap, people are viewed or represented as ‘anti’s – simply because they respond unfavourably to a government decision around a technology or its emission. Increasingly, we see the weaponisation of ‘disinformation’ tropes, which implicitly or explicitly defend policies that have been developed amid substantial secrecy with industry partners.

If legacy media exclusively self-selects the issues it wants to raise, while excluding issues it doesn’t want to raise, it’s up to the public to support media that is less likely to censor.

The absence of investigative journalism produces opportunities for the public to fill the gap. Key to taking action to rectify the current democratic ‘hiccup’ – or more accurately, crisis, is in understanding government policy and processes – and drawing attention to veracity claims made by government actors and agencies.

It’s up to the public to step in and reasonably and logically draw attention to problems, gaps, captured guidelines and policies and contradictions. To, question, in a measured manner; to take steps to understand how a controversial technology is risk assessed, and to identify the information and data that supports that assessment in New Zealand today. To assess the government processes involved in policy-making, including the scientific information that is used to support the policy or regulatory decision.

Because right now New Zealand has a problem making a space for, and resourcing, public good ‘complexity’ and inter-disciplinary science that can draw attention to risk (unless it’s climate change, where the path is smoothed). Across health, science, technology, agriculture and education.

Supporting good governance, and asking questions about why public-sector decisions are taken, can involve long, complicated trajectories. Asking one question about one technology, may involve reviewing the actions of several government agencies over time. It may involve asking questions about what the senior Minsters or bureaucrats were thinking when the law was made. It can involve asking questions about why an issue has not been considered, to understand the gaps.

This takes lots of people, working together, over time, to step in when governments fail to. It involves critical thinking so as to evaluate the public reasoning that has informed and guided policy and law, which then enables a technology to be released and/or regulated. Further critical thinking is necessary to draw attention to what has not been considered, and what has been excluded, that perhaps, shouldn’t have been excluded.

It can involve sharing information that might be seen as controversial with other people who might criticise or critique the information that you have brought to light.

In order to communicate, it is important to be logical and lay out reasoning in a clear way, and always link to, or cite references. This can be difficult, as often, when groups/society are dealing with a human health or environmental injustice, status quo science (a failure to consider new information), and institutional barriers, the urgency to communicate the injustice can lead to reasoning around the issue, being overwhelmed by emotion.

So often, this reasoning appears long-winded. Because it is easy to claim black and white safety. Drawing attention to grey, which involves raising issues of ethics, vulnerability and conflicts of interest, is much more difficult. It doesn’t fit our media snapshots of polarised right and wrong.

Democracy is a ‘long-game’ – and an informed citizenry and a transparent government is central to the prevention of injustice – and the prevention of abuse of power. Professor Philip Joseph provides excellent insight:

Democracies … can strike at any action directed against the State, but they must permit the expression of opinion in a lawful framework, however unpopular or objectionable these opinions may be. Revolutionary movements prosper in the conspiratorial atmosphere of official suppression. The free flow of information to inform political debate operates as a ‘safety valve’, releasing pressures which build during times of social tension.[4]

Scientific and technical information, if it contradicts the principles and priorities of powerful institutions, can be just as ‘unpopular and objectional’.

Let’s keep that safety valve working. Let’s encourage the free flow of information.

REFERENCES

[1] Palmer G & Butler A. (2018) Towards Democratic Renewal. Victoria University Press.

[2] Joseph, P. (2021). Joseph on Constitutional and Administrative Law, 5th Ed. Thomson Reuters 8.7.1 p.233

[3] PSGR (2023) When does science become propaganda? What does this suggest for democracy? Bruning, J.R., Physicians & Scientists for Global Responsibility New Zealand. ISBN 978-0-473-68632-1 https://psgr.org.nz/component/jdownloads/send/1-root/106-23-propaganda

[4] Joseph, P. (2021). Joseph on Constitutional and Administrative Law, 5th Ed. Thomson Reuters 8.7.1 p.233

Image credit: Unsplash+

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Them: it’s safe, trust us

    Me: why?

    Them: because we know it’s safe.

    Me: how?

    Them: Because the people who made it said it is. The people we’re paying billions of dollars to wouldn’t lie, would they? Have a look on our health department website if you don’t believe us.

    Me: that just says it’s safe because you say so, it doesn’t give me any actual evidence

    Them: what if we offer you free KFC? McDonalds?

    Me: No thanks

    Them: what if we implement electronic surveillance, digital passports and ban you and your family from everything!

    Me: Now definitely no thanks.

    Them: OMG why are you threatening us?!

  2. Thanks Jodie for this insightful summary of the crisis we all face, not just here in NZ, but globally. Anyone who has listened to or read the work of experts investigating the Censorship Industrial Complex will know this will takes years, if not decades to dismantle, alongside the symptoms of their propagandised victims. But thank God for independent media platforms like this one, where the Truth can drip, drip out.

  3. Science alone provided the reasons I chose not to accept any jabs. The scientific reasoning is a simple application of Darwin’s Natural Selection theory published in the 1850s / 1860s. Science also proved that the jabs were not vaccines.

    Excessively subjective views of science – which in my view – are not science at all.

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