Sunday, September 07, 2003

Rebuttal from Greenpeace's scientific adviser

From: Doug Parr
Sent: Tue 9/2/2003 7:01 AM
To: Howard Lovy
Subject: Yr Small Times piece

Dear Howard Lovy,

I was a little surprised by your piece of 29 August because whilst the tone of your coverage of our report in your blog was sceptical it wasn't hostile (unlike some of the commentary in the Small Times article on the Greenpeace report! - still they said it). Indeed others have generally been quite positive about it - Glenn Reynolds, Tim Harper, Dick Smith at Alternative Futures (expressed privately but he's prepared to say so to others) and Chris Phoenix at CRN are the ones I know about. The reason New Scientist magazine was prepared to run a comment piece from me (don't know if you've seen that - let me know) was because they recognised that it was a balanced appraisal and survey of where things were at.

The specific issue around nanoparticles actually 'looks' very similar to other policy issues where we have some experience, and can act as models for the appropriate balance of innovation and safety. Specifically a new proposed law on chemicals places the onus much more on the manufacturer to provide evidence for (not proof because we know that's impossible) of absence of hazard. The importance of this is that it shifts where the onus lies for producing evidence lies in the face of scientific uncertainty. It explicitly recognises the precautionary principle - now a tenet of international law in a variety of fora.

Greenpeace has not called for a ban on nanoparticles but a moratorium until the hazards are characterised & understood. This is pretty much in line with proposed EU regulations and a host of international risk assessment processes with the proviso that hazard characterisation is properly achieved.

I'm not quite sure how this approach is "a masterful dumb show of alchemy and melodramatic cries", which seems to me to be exactly the sort of knee-jerk reaction you're railing against.

Dr. Douglas Parr
Chief Scientific Adviser
Greenpeace UK

From: Howard Lovy
Sent: Sat 9/6/2003 7:11 PM
To: Doug Parr
Subject: RE: Yr Small Times piece

Hello, Doug,

I'm glad you regard my previous commentaries on my Weblog as skeptical, rather than hostile. It's a line I am very careful not to cross. Part of my role as a journalist is to be skeptical (they taught me in journalism school years and years ago: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out.") But hostility is never productive. I'm afraid that perhaps my "dumb show" comment was misconstrued as hostile. After talking to some friends and colleagues, I wish I could go back and reword the "dumb show" sentence. It's a relic of a phrase, used by Shakespeare I think, to describe a melodramatic pantomime. The point I was trying to get across was that exaggeration, or illustration of extreme worst-case scenarios, was being used to get the public's attention. Of course, we can disagree about that, and it's all part of honorable discourse, but I think some might have misinterpreted the sentence -- with the outdated phrase -- as name-calling on my part. I hope you did not take it that way, and if you did, I do apologize for my poor choice of phrases.

I've read the other articles you mention -- by Glenn Reynolds, Tim Harper and the folks at CRN. In fact, I asked Chris Phoenix and Mark Treder to write a condensed version for Small Times and it's up on now. I do, however, still stand behind my statements on the key differences I see between nanotechnology and previous policy issues in which Greenpeace has been active. I also am a believer in use of the Precautionary Principle when it's appropriate, but still argue that it's not yet time to invoke it against the various industries that are delving into nanotechnology. I won't repeat my arguments here, but if you've been reading my blog (and I'm glad to read that you have!) you likely already know them.

I have also been careful -- unlike other members of the media -- not to state or imply that Greenpeace has gone the route of ETC Group in its call for a nanotechnology moratorium, and your organization should be commended for stopping short of taking that step. In fact, I probably need to make it clearer on my Weblog that I believe Greenpeace and ETC should be commended in general for doing more in the past few months to spark interest in nanotechnology among the general public and activist community than any previous group, publication or individual since Eric Drexler published "Engines of Creation." I'm certain that media coverage of the ongoing debate over the future of nanotechnology -- sparked by your report and others -- has inspired many to seek more information. That's why I look forward to covering this issue in depth in both my roles as Small Times news editor and independent commentator.

It's also long been my policy never to try to get the last word in. I'd welcome a rebuttal to my commentary and to run it in the next issue of Small Times magazine (where my column also appeared). It could be a letter to the editor or a longer column -- whichever you choose. If you don't have the time to do that, I could run your letter below in the next issue.

Thanks again for your note, and I look forward to speaking to you further about these important issues.

All the best,

Howard Lovy