Why scientific proof isn't always needed to justify concerns

People carry signs during a protest against chemical giant Monsanto in Los Angeles, California, May 25, 2013. Marches and rallies against Monsanto and genetically modified organisms (GMO) food and seeds were held across the U.S. and in other countries wit
© ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

Writing about a small study that found traces of glyphosate aka Monsanto's Roundup weedkiller in the urine of 182 volunteers living in urban areas across Europe, The Guardian's Kara Moses asks, "Do we need conclusive scientific proof to become concerned about an issue?" See, the study was conducted by Friends of the Earth and GM Freeze, the sample size was small and the findings were not peer-reviewed or published in a scientific journal, so other scientists were brushing the report aside.

Kara Moses still sees value in these snapshot studies:

Some might argue that groups like FoE are our eyes and ears, giving a voice to people, species and issues that could otherwise go unnoticed. They hold powerful companies such as Monsanto to account and stand up for justice in a world where the priority is usually profit. With no profit to be gained from studies such as testing for weedkillers and pesticides in human urine, who else would conduct them?

The role of such organisations is to point out the failings of the regulatory process, not to act as the regulatory process. This is the role of government.

This got me thinking about the ridiculous "debate" in the US over the realities of climate change. The situation is essentially an inverse of this Roundup case, because when it comes to climate change, there is overwhelming agreement among scientists that human activity has warmed the climate. And these findings are supported by thousands of peer-reviewed articles published in scientific journals. Yet, we can't get as much done politically as is needed to counter the crisis.

The purpose of the glyphosate aka Monsanto's Roundup weedkiller study, it seems, is to just get people thinking about the use of these toxic chemicals. It is important for science to maintain standards when it comes to experiment design and statistically significant sample size. But consumers, whether individuals or municipalities, shouldn't feel the need to wait till there is overwhelming scientific consensus to decide that spraying toxic chemicals all over their lawns or town or crops is not the best idea. Similarly, we didn't need to wait till there was overwhelming scientific proof to take action on climate change, yet here we are.

The point here is that scientific proof matters in science, but it shouldn't necessarily be what determines our actions. We can intuit that some things are unwise or dangerous or against our values without needing reams of scientific data to back up our concerns.

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