Confusing Uncertainty with Risk – Is Technology Losing Out?

It is with alarming concern that I have been following some of the recent debates in India regarding science and technology, the opinions of scientists, activists, the general public and the government.

It is true that science is not a discipline where everyone’s idea can be given equal weight. It is a process in which ideas are accepted and discarded based on a rigorous set of rules of tests. The socio-political fall outs of science have always been immense though often not felt acutely.

History is replete with examples of where inventions and discoveries based on science and technology have proven to be a boon for the betterment of human life when they were initially put into use but later the impacts have become a nightmare. Such experiences include the wonder chemical, DDT.

Though the negative impacts of science and technology are felt long after deployment, the remedial actions to correct the wrongs are time-consuming, expensive and sometimes difficult.

Research and development are not only guided by the opportunities they provide but also by enabling policies at global and national levels. The need to connect science and policy has long been felt and has been the core of focus in several countries when creating an enabling environment for experimentation and the use of such science and technology.

Considering the fact that science and experimentation are always evolving, both scientists and policymakers have started to use approaches that are precautionary in nature when dealing with emerging issues. The Rio Principles, adopted at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED, Rio de Janeiro, 1992) called for the use of both precautionary principles and precautionary approaches to achieve sustainable development.

Science and technology began to balance between absence of evidence and evidence of absence to deal with new experimentation.

Where the Precautionary Principle went into a spin?

If there is one thing that is certain about the current science and technology developments and their use globally, it is the changing public perception of science and technology.

Considering that the United States has grown genetically modified (GM) crops for decades where the general perception is that the public are embracing the technology, a recent report published by Pew Research Centre indicates that there are largest differences between the public and the American Association of Advancement of Science scientists in beliefs about the safety of eating genetically modified (GM) foods.

Nearly nine-in-ten (88%) scientists say it is generally safe to eat GM foods compared with 37% of the general public, a difference of 51 percentage points. One possible reason for the gap when it comes to GM crops is that two-thirds of the public (67%) say scientists do not have a clear understanding about the health effects.

Whether it is the use of GM food, the use of nuclear fuel, developments in synthetic biology or techniques used to alter genomes such as the gene editing technology, one thing is very clear. The public, scientists and policymakers are all confusing risk and uncertainty.

Not only are the concepts used and interpreted incorrectly, but they are also bundled with a precautionary principle. This is perhaps the biggest problem we are all facing while dealing with science and technology today.

The concept of risk is used more and uncertainty is ignored, which can lead to errors of judgment. Risk can be understood as the potential of loss. It is not exactly the same as uncertainty, which implies the absence of certainty of the outcome in a particular situation.

It is evident that perfect knowledge of the combinations and their probabilities only occurs in artificial situations, such as in games of chance. In practice, we work with an imperfect knowledge of the results we expect. This is uncertainty.

Scientists work with models. Models do not eliminate uncertainty but present the results based on a certain hypothesis. Uncertainty can only be reduced with experience. One needs to keep working on uncertainty to reduce possible risks.

Let us now use this argument and approach in the way we deal with perceptions on risk and uncertainty in developing and using GM organisms and foods.

Scientists developed a number of protocols to test and assess the efficacy and impacts of GM entities. These protocols are constantly being researched, reviewed and rehashed with data, information, and experience that are accumulated over a period of time. This means there is a constant focus on reducing uncertainty of these modifications but the results are presented as reducing risks!

Because of this, public perception of how scientists reduce uncertainty is seen as ways to manage risks posed by these experimentations and results. This results in a tug-of-war between the scientists who argue that the science and technology that they develop is being tested constantly and therefore deals with reducing risks whereas, in fact, they are reducing uncertainty. On the contrary, the public feels that the risks are being experimented upon when the products are in use.

The way forward

Scientists need to build a narrative and ensure that the hypothesis of safety, uncertainty, and re-working need to be an ongoing process. One has to be cautious to confirm that technology and related science are absolutely safe. Even the scientifically accepted ‘substantial equivalence’ of GM crops was questioned weeks ago in soybeans.

Scientists constantly work on uncertainty but profess that they know the risks and are absolutely sure of managing them. This is a bit problematic. Scientists should choose a scenario and concentrate on it, but do so with the full intention of setting up alarm signals to mitigate consequences.

While the public is more concerned about the risks, their confusion regarding the uncertainty in science and technology prevents them from accepting the same. The public needs to be educated that uncertainty exists but with appropriate ‘baselines’ on which science works. The precautionary approach is not merely about risk but the way situations need to be managed in times of uncertainty.

Until we resolve this confusion, science and scientists will need to struggle to get their points to public and the policymakers are more at a loss and use the handle ‘inaction is the best action’ as we see happening in India on a number of science and technology deployment options, including the genetic modification technology.