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24 January 2006

Beware The Ambassadors of Science

Fellow sceptics,

Attending my first ‘Skeptics in the pub’ meeting last week, I was troubled to find Lord Taverne presenting the session about his organisation Sense About Science. While Lord Taverne, befitting his distinguished career, was an entertaining and persuasive speaker, he did not strike me as an appropriate figure to lead a sceptics meeting. It was more discouraging, then, to hear him introduced as an “old friend” of the society and to hear he’d presented before. I was beginning to wonder what I’d gotten myself into.

The cause of my disquiet was this: Taverne’s organisation is part of an increasingly infamous network of scientific disinformation groups which subscribe to a quasi-religious faith in unrestrained technological dominance of nature. They are hostile to the environmental movement and seek to discredit it through a recognizable rhetorical formula and selective use of scientific reports.

In his presentation, Taverne sought to tar anti-GM and pro-Organic campaigners and scientist with the same brush used to dismiss psychic claimants, astrologists, and homeopaths. To any reasonable audience it should be clear that the controversy of each does not sit on the same level.

He described the defenders of organic farming and critics of GM as “anti-science people” perpetuating an “anti-science mood” in the general public. Yet despite Lord Taverne’s claims, the environmental benefits of organic food are well documented scientifically and are recognized and recommended by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, hardly a quack organisation.[1]

Rather than encouraging productive discussion, Sense About Science consistently seeks to relegate legitimate positions within controversial scientific debates to the province of delusional fantasy, whether the issue is GMOs or nuclear power. The techniques used by the GM lobby, now familiar to the attendees of the December skeptics in the pub, have been neatly documented in the book Genetically Modified Language by Guy Cook, a Professor in Language and Education at the Open University. Essentially Cook demonstrates that the GM lobby consistently paints a picture of a hapless, ignorant and emotional public, prone to manipulation through a media hijacked by NGOs who are extremists, terrorists or even unscrupulous sensationalists trying to increase their funding and membership. The wise and benevolent proponents of GM can then “educate” the simpleton public, and the truth will set them free into the brave new scientific future. Attendees will recall how closely Taverne adhered to this core script.

Surely, by maintaining these biased attitudes and rhetorical techniques, Sense About Science should lose any of its credibility as an objective organization or impartial educative body.

In the discussion following the presentation I proposed that, as skeptics we are prone to becoming excessively incensed by the public’s comparatively harmless indulgence in commonplace superstitions, when what should make us truly indignant and afraid is the co-option of the language and authority of science itself by organisations with a dubious political agenda.

Creation science is an example now familiar to all of us, but more insidious still are the proliferating organisations seeking to discredit or trivialize the dangers of climate change and other environmental dangers by citing obsolete, selective or imaginary scientific data and posturing as scientific authorities. The Sound Science coalition and its “junk science” websites are perhaps the most notorious of these.

The arrival of these organisations presents a new sophisticated challenge to the skeptic. They force us to recognize the fetishistic aspects of science by their abuse of them. Most recently environmentalists have noted how they agree or even champion facts such as climate change which the public have finally come to accept, only to promulgate a series of micro-denial positions which serve to keep the public politically inert. We should remember how painstakingly won this public acceptance of climate change has been, and who by. Where was Sense About Science when the individuals and campaign groups he vilifies were educating the public?

Taverne made it clear that Sense About Science is preparing to officially join the ranks this new-look, climate-denial lobby: after saying many sensible things supporting the authenticity of the climate threat, he went on to make a series of outright silly claims about the moderating effects of thickening Antarctic ice on global ice-melt, the high energy costs of recycling[2] and, my personal favourite, extolling the global dimming benefits of now banned aerosols like CFCs (which apart from creating the Ozone hole have a warming effect 10,600 times stronger than CO2!). Ultimately this is not so surprising as Sense About Science is closely affiliated with the Scientific Alliance, Spiked, LM and the Institute of Ideas, whose websites are a cornucopia of daft and outrageous statements (polar bear numbers are on the rise, no need to curb greenhouse gas emissions). There was even an outright declaration by the Scientific Alliance of their willingness to reject the scientific consensus generally and that of the Royal Society and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in particular.[3]

Contrary to the way Sound About Science represent themselves, they are not the under-represented voice of reason against the irrational hordes, they are part of an enterprising network of anti-environmental campaigners and biotech PR people who over-represent their views in the media with support by a narrow but vocal band of scientists. I refer interested skeptics to the website www.gmwatch.org and to George Monbiot’s Guardian article ‘Invasion of the entryists’[4] for a detailed critical treatment of them.

While I was stimulated by the discussion which followed Lord Taverne’s presentation, and pleased with the critical reception he was given by many attendees, I must question the appropriateness of inviting him or Rob Lyons of Spiked to repeatedly preside at a Skeptics meeting. This cult/clique of climate-deniers does not deserve any more pulpits than it has already secured for itself, quite the contrary. Surely one chance to scorn their views is enough.

Having said that, Taverne’s presentation has inspired a valuable shift in my skeptical priorities for which I must thank him. It has also had the surprising consequence of reinvigorating my confidence in the general public, who I’m beginning to feel we skeptics, in common with Taverne, are too prone to dismiss in our readiness to put ourselves on a pedestal. We must embrace the idea that we are that general public and that – to whatever extent we distance ourselves from it – we underestimate our own all-too-human capacity for folly. If history has taught skeptics anything, it is that even the most eminent, intelligent and critical minds can subscribe to the most outrageous nonsense.

Yours sincerely,

Damien Morris

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4 January 2007

Reply to Damien Morris

It is hard to know where to begin my answer to Damien Morris, whose attack is a mixture of misrepresentation, smear and inaccuracies.

It relies for its information partly on GMWatch and on a Guardian article by George Monbiot, who both argue on the basis of guilt by association, a well-known McCarthyite technique.  Monbiot is obsessed by the wickedness of  capitalism.  Anyone who has ever had any connection with a big corporation is out of court.  Even the Royal Society stands condemned in his eyes because several FRSs have been know to do consultancy work for drug companies.

Personally I am somewhat ambivalent about the merits of scientific work done by large corporations.  Big companies have to make profits to exist and one should therefore be cautious about their findings – just as Greenpeace and some green NGOs have agenda,  one of which is to increase membership, which is helped by scare stories.  Both companies and NGOs are sometimes right and sometimes wrong.  Greenpeace is right, for example, about the harm done by industrial fishing, and wrong about GM crops. 

I believe it is a tragedy that public research on agriculture has declined and that we in Europe are more dependent on corporate research, in contrast with India and China.  But that does not necessarily invalidate the products of such research.  We don’t refuse life-saving antibiotics just because they are manufactured by drug companies.  Nevertheless, because of the controversial nature of genetic engineering, we at Sense About Science refused funding from agro-businesses, even before we got charitable status which enabled us to  apply to the big charitable foundations.  Now our funds come overwhelmingly from grant-making trusts and foundations and professional societies.

We have no connection with the Scientific Alliance.  I chaired one of their early meetings – a debate for and against GM crops - at which most speakers had no connection with the scientific alliance – and I made it clear that I was not part of the organisation.

Next, Sense About Science is not part of any climate denial lobby, nor am I.  I think that was clear to any one at the Skeptics meeting.  We work closely with The Hadley Centre, the most eminent metereological centre in the world.  The “silly claims about the moderating effect of thickening Antarctic ice” was a statement that actually comes from the Scientific section of the Third Assessment report of the International Panel on Climate Change (which I have read, but Damien Morris obviously hasn’t).  As I said, what impressed me about the IPCC and what made their conclusion about the serious effects of global warming all the more convincing was their objectivity and their readiness to admit that not all the evidence is one way. The Third Assessment report did not, incidentally, regard the melting of the ice caps as the biggest threat to the planet.  I don’t think those, like me, who are concerned about global warming will win public support for necessary measures if we go in for hype and make alarmist claims that are later shown to be wrong.   At Sense About Science we are concerned that reports should be based on evidence.

Again, Damien Morris misrepresents what I said about global dimming.  I did not “extol” it, or suggest that aerosols and their effect on the ozone layer were unimportant or beneficial.  It seems to be established that diminishing the emissions of aerosols, however important and desirable, increases global warming because they have a global dimming effect.  It makes coping with warming even more difficult.

Leaving aside his smears and misrepresentations, let me come to the serious issue: is the public mistaken about GM and is there “an infamous network of scientific misinformation groups” campaigning in its favour, inspired by a “semi-religious faith in the unrestrained technological dominance of nature”?

Who are these infamous groups?  One I suppose must be the Royal Society, which has published at least 4 carefully argued reports stating that the claims made about the harm or potential harm of GM crops are not based on evidence.  Similar reports have been issued by the Third World Academy of Sciences and the Indian, Chinese, Brazilian, Mexican and US Academies of Sciences.  These are bodies of experts who really know the subject and have no axe to grind.  Infamous groups?  Personally I accept their conclusions.  And when you examine what genetic modification actually means, which I do in chapters 4 and 5 of my book, there is no convincing argument why the technology itself should be dangerous.  On this issue, as sometimes happens, the public is simply wrong.

I agree a lot of quasi-religion emerges in discussions of GM crops and organic farming.  However, levelling this charge against proponents of GM and critics of organic farming reminds me very much of those who accuse Dawkins of being as fundamentalist as Christian evangelicals.  He accepts, as I do, that if evidence emerges that contradicts his present views, he will change his mind.  But because he is outspoken and his views disturb the religious community, he is described as dogmatic.

Contrast that with the attitude of the arch-opponent of GM crops in Britain, Peter Melchett.  In his evidence to a House of Lords Committee on GM crops when he was director of Greenpeace, he was asked if any evidence or new research could modify his opposition.  He answered: “It is a permanent and definite and  complete opposition”.  Hardly an undogmatic, tentative, scientific approach.

As for organic farming, both Melchett and Patrick Holden, the director of the Soil Association, have said that the virtues of organic farming are beyond the ability of science to detect.  Holden said, again to a House of Lords Committee:” Holistic science [that is the “science” on which organic farming is based] strays into territory where the current tools available to the scientific community are not sufficiently well developed to measure what is going on.” What is that but an appeal to mysticism, which is what I would call a quasi-religious approach? 

Damien Morris claims that the environmental benefits of organic food are well-documented scientifically and quotes support from the FAO.  (Holden’s and Melchett’s remarks that they cannot be detected by science rather contradicts this).  True the FAO, without being specific, suggests inter alia that organic farming “creates a market for environmental goods”.  But the FAO simply reflects the views of EU governments and under the influence of the greens there is no doubt that EU governments are pro-organic farming.

The fact is that every time an objective body, such as the Advertising Standards Authority or the Food Standards Agency, has examined the claims made for organic farming these have been rejected.  For anyone who wants to look at the scientific evidence in detail, this has been most thoroughly examined in a long, authoritative article by AJ Trewavas, FRS, in Crop Protection (2004) 23,757-781.

I hope my reply provides some reassurance that  the Skeptics were really quite safe and were not entertaining a dangerous visitor whose views were so extreme they  should be banned from their meetings in case innocent minds might be corrupted.

Dick Taverne.

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[2] The major review commissioned by WRAP demonstrated that even with Britain’s lukewarm recycling rate we make a net CO2 saving of 10-15 million tonnes annually, equivalent to taking 3.5 million cars off the road. See: http://www.wrap.org.uk/wrap_corporate/news/uk_recycling_1.html