Sometimes science can’t see the wood for the bees

Bees are dying, but scientists and beekeepers are at loggerheads over what to do about it. Nick Ansell/PA

The EU banned the use of neonicotinoid pesticides for two years in April, after a sustained campaign by beekeepers, green groups and environmental organisations across Europe.

These groups are convinced that the neonicotinoid class of insecticides are the main cause of the collapse of honeybee numbers seen across much of the world, dating back to at least the 1990s, but accelerating since 2006.

The UK government was among the minority of states that voted against the ban, having issued briefs against it throughout the debate. While the ban was a significant victory for the beekeepers and their allies, it’s only for two years and the scientific evidence on both sides is fiercely contested. This is by no means the end of the story.

Among those researching the field of science, technology and society, it is argued that scientific knowledge is never just about facts, but also about power. Facts are not simply discovered by science as absolute truths, but are instead constructed in social contexts that are riddled with power relations. As the old adage suggests, knowledge and power are always intertwined.

What becomes a fact and what does not is a social and political issue that is concerned with what kind of knowledge - and importantly whose knowledge - acquires legitimacy and therefore authority.

Thinking about the debate over neonicotinoids in these terms is revealing: many French beekeepers became convinced more than a decade ago that the worsening trend of honeybee losses was linked to the introduction of Gaucho, a brand of products from the German agro-chemical company Bayer that contains Imidacloprid, a widely used neonicotinoid.

Their campaign against these products went international in 2007 after researchers at Pennsylvania State University looking into the causes of particularly dramatic bee losses in the US the previous autumn, produced a report in which they named the condition Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

This new term was picked up and quickly became ubiquitous in media reports worldwide. Its apocalyptic overtones caught the public imagination, so that CCD came to be perceived as an unprecedented and urgent crisis not only of honeybees but of pollination, threatening agriculture and food production.

This helped to create the conditions in which the anti-neonicotinoid campaign was able to enlist many more allies, until it was strong enough to achieve the considerable coup of out-lobbying the big pesticide companies within the EU legislative process, if not within all member states.

The relationship between the politics and science of CCD is complex. Despite ongoing research, neonicotinoids have not yet been shown to be a convincing, sole cause of CCD. Instead the emerging scientific view is that the problem is a complex, multi-causal phenomenon. The interaction of various pesticides with each other and other factors serve to ratchet up the existing threats posed to honeybees from parasites and viruses.

In the absence of a smoking gun, two political approaches have emerged. One is to insist that more research is needed, as a toxin must be shown to be specifically responsible before it can be withdrawn. This is the UK and US government stance.

The other is to adopt the precautionary principle, which argues that if there is good reason to suspect a toxin then it should be withdrawn while further research is carried out. This is the position that underpins the EU’s recent decision.

Some science studies scholars have argued that the first of these positions ignores and de-legitimises the practical expertise and knowledge of beekeepers in favour of a narrow conception of scientific authority. Whereas the precautionary principle acknowledges that in complex cases those practitioners working “on the ground” may sometimes have the edge over laboratory scientists.

Ruling out other forms of knowledge as “unscientific” is typical of what James Scott has called “seeing like a state”, whereby techno-bureaucracies impose top-down schemes rooted in “expert” ways of knowing and doing that are divorced from the real intricacies of practical experience. This can often lead to huge waste and inefficiency, abject failure, and sometimes even disaster.

Yet the UK government is not averse to dismissing scientific expertise in favour of practical wisdom when it suits, as illustrated by its recent insistence on culling badgers to appease disgruntled farmers in spite of expert advice that this will do very little to reduce bovine TB.

So there is more to this than a preference for science over other forms of knowledge, and sociologist Ulrich Beck’s theory of risk society provides a further way to understand what may be going on.

Beck argues that in contemporary societies the social mechanisms for managing the risks of industrial technologies have broken down. Once risks were managed by the institutions of insurance, precautionary after-care and the polluter-pays principle. But in the nuclear, chemical and biotechnological age, risks have become so pervasive and so great in magnitude that they are effectively incalculable, individual polluters often unidentifiable, and precautionary after-care rendered meaningless. Society is essentially uninsured.

The vacuum is filled by the dogma of technological infallibility, and by the denial or normalisation of risk. Consequently every accident corrodes public confidence in scientific authority and political integrity.

It becomes much easier then to see why the anti-pesticide campaign has grown much faster than the specific evidence against neonicotinoids, and it is not just an anthropomorphic response to lovable, stripey little bees. It draws upon a much deeper public anxiety concerning the risks to human, animal and ecological health associated with techno-scientific progress, and the willingness of politicians and regulatory institutions to manage such risks in the interests of the public, rather than those of powerful corporations and lobbyists.

As honeybee losses continue at an unsustainable rate, the US and UK governments’ rejection of the precautionary principle suggests such anxiety is by no means unwarranted.

First published on Policy@Manchester’s Manchester Policy Blogs

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