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Sunday, 28 June 2015

Back in Time for Dinner – the beef turned out to be unsafe to eat!

“We should show a little trust!” said the former chief scientific advisor.

“Really,” responded Nemesis. “You seem to have fallen in love with yourself and your science, and can no longer see or understand the consequences of what you do and say.

“And this is the punishment that falls on you and all those who engage in hubris.”

I recently watched an excellent BBC social history programme where one family re-lived the experience of food in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. It was fascinating to see how food has changed over this period, from the bare rations and limited choices of 1950s post-war Britain, to the abundance and choice of food in the 1990s, along with the damaging consequences for health.

And in the 1990s programme we were reminded about the BSE crisis, or mad cow disease, and the assurances that the public were given that British beef was safe to eat, and that one could not become infected with the virus by eating beef. These assurances were – incorrect and indeed people did become ill with a terrible disease called new variant ‘Creutzfeldt–Jakob Disease’. People died because of the government’s refusal to act. Fortunately, British people voted with their wallets and stopped buying British beef. And eventually the government did admit that the disease could be transmitted to humans by eating beef, mostly offal, from infected cows.

And how was it that BSE appeared in cows? The answer is that it happened by feeding to cattle, who are herbivores, processed meat products from contaminated animals. This is what happens when scientists and industry mess with nature. Yet another case when the risks could not be managed, and where, there turned out to be consequences.

Now what was it that the former chief scientific advisor said? Oh yes, it was: “We trust industry where it suits us: in the toothpaste we use, the pizza we buy or the car we drive.” But people seem to have a problem in trusting industry when it comes to influencing policy making.”

Now why could that be?

So BSE and feeding herbivores with animal products and the resulting unforeseen consequences for people in the form new variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob Disease – this scandal we know about. But what else is going on in industry with the help of scientists that could be equally damaging, where the claim will be that the risks can be managed and that there will be no consequences?

“Now you know why you should not trust industry, scientists, governments and chief scientific advisors, former or otherwise,” Nemesis said.

“Now you know that fortune and glory are more important than human lives and health. Now you know what the rule of science and reason will result in and what scientific government will be like. Now you know why, possibly, the chief scientific advisor became the former chief scientific advisor. Now you know why, with all their faults, we need politicians who are the people we nominate to deal with these issues on our behalf, and why we need to de-power industry and scientists and many others. This is what democratic politics should be about.”

Nemesis paused for a few moments, allowing these words to percolate into the mind. Then he continued.

“The alternative is authoritarianism and totalitarianism, like for example, scientists having a seat in government and telling politicians what to do, which is what the former chief scientific advisor is seeking. And this is a road we have already walked – in Nazi Germany and in the Soviet Union. Remind me … how many people did these monsters kill?

“The more you say, the more you reveal your delusions and hubris, and the more you will be punished …”

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