Beeing Uncertain

Lot’s of people are celebrating the EU’s decision to place a moratorium on certain chemicals for two years. I am too, but for somewhat different reasons.

If you look at that link, or most of the other things around from supporters of the ban, the connection between imidacloprid and clothianidin and thiamethoxam and colony collapse disorder is a settled thing.  I very much doubt this. I did an article on the issue a few years ago, and at that time the question of causes was wide open. There were at least half a dozen theories, and about all anyone could say was that it couldn’t be just one of them – at least two were involved and it looked like it might be three.

Presumably research has advanced since then, but to the best of my knowledge we don’t have a conclusive case for the neonectinoid involvement. Science is usually less certain than people think, so it wouldn’t be surprising if there was still a lot of doubt.

The uncertainty is a reason to celebrate the fact that this is a 2 year moratorium rather than a permanent ban. Most activists wanted something permanent, and see the two year period as an acceptable compromise, but in fact it’s the right decision – let’s stop using these things while we work out whether they really are a problem or not.

800px-Bee_3_by_andy205Opponents of the decision (including the UK government) argued that there was no proof that these chemicals were causing the problem. But why on Earth should we need proof. These insecticides are useful, and can prevent different environmental problems from some other insecticides, but not using them will hardly bring about disaster. On the other hand, the loss of bees could be catastrophic for more than just the honey industry (although as a fan of honey that would probably be enough for me). Many fruits and vegetables rely on bees for fertilisation. European ecosystems depend on them. Colony collapse disorder is a disaster of epic proportions. If there is even a small chance neonicotinoids are responsible we should get rid of them until we are confident they are safe. It would be truly staggering that anyone would wan to play with fire this way, were it not that we see people refusing to take action on even bigger problems where the certainty is much higher (albeit with a larger price for action).

I do see one problem however. Groups like Avaaz have run this campaign with such certainty that neonicotinoids are the problem that they’ve taken the focus off other possible causes. Given the likelihood of multiple forces at play this is problematic even if they are right. Moreover, if it turns out they are wrong it will be very embarrassing for the environment movement. The decision will still have been a good one – a perfect example of the precautionary principle in action, but the certainty expressed will be used against every other campaign.

We need to get much more used to talking in probabilities. “This may be a threat. It may not, but the danger is high enough to take action”. Feeding the public’s hunger for certainty is effective, but it creates expectations of certainty on everything else, and lays down dangers for the future.

Update: Guy Rundle doesn’t agree with me, but his take is interesting nevertheless

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About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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