Peace Prize puzzles

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The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded this year to Liu Xiaobo, a prominent Chinese dissident who has spent more than 20 years advocating for a freer society marked by greater civil liberties and an independent judiciary. Unfortunately, the government of the Peoples Republic of China not only prevented him or his representative from attending the ceremony today but pressured other nations to boycott it.

In selecting Liu Xiaobo, the Norwegian selectors seem to have confused potential with actual world-class achievement. Potential should get you a football scholarship to Notre Dame, but not a Nobel Prize. However, it was a far stronger selection than some other recent recipients: Two of the Peace Prize awards in recent years were dubious, if not downright absurd. Last year’s, for example, went to Barack Obama, although the nominations for the prize closed on January 31, a mere eleven days into his presidency!

The 2001 joint recipients, the United Nations and its Secretary General, Kofi Annan, were another inexplicable choice. Many of the UN’s programs and policies are economically, socially and environmentally regressive and exert profoundly negative effects on public health. In two important forays into the oversight of biotechnology, for example, the UN’s insistence upon unscientific, debilitating regulation will slow agricultural research and development, promote environmental damage, and perpetuate famine and malnutrition for millions in developing countries.

In Montreal in 2000, delegates to the UN-sponsored Convention on Biological Diversity negotiated a “biosafety protocol” for the regulation of international movement of gene-spliced, or “genetically engineered,” organisms. It was based on the bogus “precautionary principle,” which dictates that every new technology — including, in the case of gene-splicing, a refinement, or improvement, of less precise technologies — must be proven safe before it can be used. An ounce of prevention is certainly desirable, but because nothing can be proved totally safe — at least, not to the standard demanded by anti-technology extremists — the precautionary principle creates prodigious obstacles to the development of new products. Precaution, in this sense, shifts the burden of proof from the regulator, who once had to demonstrate that a new technology was likely to cause some harm, to the innovator, who now must demonstrate that the technology will not. Under this new standard of evidence, regulatory bodies are free to arbitrarily require any amount and kind of testing they can dream up.

Thus, rather than creating a uniform, predictable, and scientifically sound framework for effectively managing genuine risks, the biosafety protocol establishes an ill-defined global regulatory process that permits overly risk-averse, incompetent, or corrupt regulators to hide behind the precautionary principle in delaying or deferring approvals.

Another example of the UN’s malevolent influence is a task force of the 165-member Codex Alimentarius Commission, the joint food standards program of the UN’s World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization, which has subjected food products to regulatory requirements more appropriate to potentially dangerous prescription drugs or pesticides than to genetically improved tomatoes, potatoes and strawberries.

As a seemingly endless collection of UN organizations, programs and treaties have become the regulator-wannabes for a vast spectrum of activities and projects, the functionaries never tire of rhapsodizing over the emperor’s new clothes. Trying to rationalize the irrational, they rely on the bureaucrat’s maxim that something said three times becomes a fact, but scientific consensus has repeatedly condemned their policies.

Another example of the politicization and utter cluelessness of the Peace Prize selection committee was the choice of Al Gore in 2007. Glib, narcissistic, confrontational, mendacious and a potent foe of technology — in spite of his self-aggrandizing claims to the contrary — he has long been the consummate hypocrite.

Gore’s patronizing, apocalyptic, and overwrought “Earth in the Balance” offers disturbing insights into its disturbed author. In it, Gore trashes the empirical nature of science for disconnecting man from nature. If not for the separation of science and religion, we would still be burdened with the notion that the sun and the planets revolve around the Earth, and that eclipses are expressions of warnings from the gods. It is with good reason that historians call the last epoch when religion dominated science the Dark Ages.

Only last month, Gore conceded an inconvenient truth — that his support for grain-based ethanol production was ill-advised and had more to do with politics than the best interests of the environment and the nation. “It is not a good policy to have these massive subsidies for first-generation ethanol. The benefits of ethanol are ‘trivial,’ but it’s hard once such a program is put in place to deal with the lobbies that keep it going. One of the reasons I made that mistake is that I paid particular attention to the farmers in my home state and I had a certain fondness for the farmers in the state of Iowa because I was about to run for president.” With his political ambitions ever guiding him, for decades he has been a one-man calamity for agricultural innovations that could reduce greenhouse gas emissions and for an agricultural commodity supply-demand balance that would keep food prices low.

The Gore, Annan/UN and Obama prizes were clearly intended as a rebuff to George W. Bush and to U.S. foreign policy. Such obviously political selections tarnish the aura of the Nobel Prizes and cheapen their value to deserving recipients. The Peace Prizes should go to those who have actually accomplished something monumental.

Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He was the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology.

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