UPDATE (March 5th): In response to this post, I was invited by editors at
the New Scientist to publish a comment on their website.
My comment appeared this morning.
When the New Scientist published an interview with the Italian comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo (“Beppe Grillo: Cronyism has hurt Italian science“), right after he won the Italian political elections with his “Five-Star movement”, in the Facebook group of Science Writers in Italy and elweshere on the web (Wired and the blog Divagatori scientifici, among others) there was a very strong reaction.
Grillo is a very skillful comunicator who refuses to talk to the Italian press – his attitude during the campaign even deserved a reprimand by the Association of foreign correspondents in Italy – and seems to cherry-pick the foreign media to talk to.
What especially was found hard to accept by many – including myself – was that the readers were given a very pro-science image of a man – and a movement – whose hurting anti-scientific positions are notorious.
For sure Italian politics is complex – many of its subtleties are difficult to convey to a foreign readership – and for sure nobody is immune to errors (I can say it since I was caught in a stupid mistake – about Italian politics – that deserved a correction by the BMJ). That said, a more balanced picture should have included one way or the other what Grillo said or wrote about many crucial scientific issues.
The Italian edition of Wired collected most of them last year in a piece on “Grillo’s scientific hoaxes“. Wired’s article listed, among others:
• Di Bella cured cancer, but was opposed by authority (and all vaccines are useless). A mixture of criticism of overmedicalisation, profanities and conspiracy theories in which he praised the “Di Bella anti-cancer therapy” was in a show from 1998. Grillo never corrected himself, and several of his supporters still comment on Youtube showing to believe what he said at the time, despite all the scientific evidence available.
• AIDS doesn’t exist. Grillo never corrected himself on this issue, despite an open letter by the Italian League Against AIDS . Meanwhile the videos of old shows with him saying – well, shouting in his style – that HIV does not exist and AIDS is caused by AZT are accessible online, with no caveat.
• Sixty boys died for anaphylaxis after eating a genetically modified tomato containing an “anti-freeze” gene from an Arctic fish. Once more, these statements – presented to the audience in a very dramatic tone – where the core of an ill-informed show full of anti-system, and anti-science rhetoric. Grillo never publicly corrected himself.
Finally, most readers would have probably been interested by a more recent episode involving the bottom-up initiative called “Dibattito Scienza”, inspired by the US Science Debates.
The more than 1.400 members of the Facebook group tried for several weeks to have Beppe Grillo’s answers to the 10 questions put together through a collective work, but there was no official response until after the deadline. Then a candidate for the Senate – who has a scientific background – sent the answers apologising for being late and affirming that the answers could not be considered official, but nevertheless were drafted by a list of members of the working groups of the 5-star movement (informal, since everything is informal in the movement).
Right after the website of Le Scienze (Italian edition of Scientific American) published the answers of Dibattito Scienza with the other answers already online – presenting them as “unofficial” with the exact wording requested – many supporters of the 5-star movement poured in to show their disagreement, specifically where it was said that animal testing always requires ethical consideration but cannot be banned, because there are no valid alternatives.
Many commentators – including the person who had sent the message – used a crescendo of very violent and threatening language that arrived to the point of accusing the journalists of Le Scienze of forging the answers. Then several posters repeatedly threatened to sue for libel, because according to the official position of the 5-star movevent animal testing is useless and must be banned.
In such a storm, the editor in chief of Le Scienze, Marco Cattaneo, decided to take everything offline, and later recollected the “surreal episode” in a long blog post entitled “Ten questions, five stars, a mess”, with a sad ending: “Maybe it’s bottom-up, but I don’t know if it deserves the name of democracy”. (“Sarà pure dal basso, ma non so se chiamarla democrazia”).
The post was published on February 11th. After that, neither Grillo nor anyone else contacted Dibattito Scienza nor Le Scienze to try and understand what went wrong. Nor to apologize.
I wonder whether the New Scientist plans to get back on the issue to complete the picture.
In the meantime, please take our online survey “Beppe Grillo’s Five-Star Movement: pro-science or anti-science?” and comment