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37 of 40 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A useful antidote to unreason
Dick Taverne has worked in industry, law and government and is now a Liberal-Democrat member of the House of Lords. In this useful book, he looks at the connections between science and democracy and at fundamentalism's threats to them both.

His theme is, "If you abandon any concern for evidence or pretence at reason, you open the door wide to more dangerous...
Published on 7 Mar 2007 by William Podmore

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3 of 12 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Read with Caution
If you intend to buy this book then do so with extreme caution. Margaret Cook in her review in The Guardian observed that much of Taverne's `discussion is rather rant than reason' and pointed to his tendency to declare as absurd any argument he doesn't understand. But more worrying are his gross distortions of history and his total misrepresentation of those individuals...
Published on 31 Oct 2008 by K. Gibson


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37 of 40 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A useful antidote to unreason, 7 Mar 2007
By 
William Podmore (London United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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Dick Taverne has worked in industry, law and government and is now a Liberal-Democrat member of the House of Lords. In this useful book, he looks at the connections between science and democracy and at fundamentalism's threats to them both.

His theme is, "If you abandon any concern for evidence or pretence at reason, you open the door wide to more dangerous charlatans, the peddlers of racial hatred, or those other devotees of the irrational, the religious fundamentalists who seek a return to the days when religious dogmatism ruled and freedom of thought was suppressed."

In his chapter on medicine, he praises osteopathy for being properly regulated in Britain, unlike most other kinds of alternative medicine. He notes that some alternative practices, like aromatherapy and Indian head massage, are pleasant and harmless.

But Taverne condemns Ayurvedic medicine and homoeopathy for diverting patients away from good medical practice. He points out that anyone with cataracts who chose the Ayurvedic remedy - `brush your teeth and scrape your tongue, spit into a cup of water and wash your eyes with this mixture' - would not get better. Similarly, homoeopathy, based on the `law of infinitesimals' - the more a medicine is diluted, the more effective it will be, i.e. less is more - would not help anyone with a serious illness.

He notes that herbal products are unregulated (unlike pharmaceutical drugs), so users risk adverse effects. Tests on the most popular herbal products, arnica and echinacea, proved that they don't work and are no better than placebos.

Taverne then looks at the scare about the MMR vaccine, started by Dr Andrew Wakefield's speculations that autism might be due to bowel disease, which might in turn be due to the vaccine. Wakefield produced no evidence, instead calling a press conference to denounce the vaccine. The media danced to Wakefield's dramatic tune and ignored all the proof that the vaccine did not cause autism.

In a section on genetic modification, Taverne makes a good case for the safety and utility of GM foods. Even America's finest lawyers cannot find evidence of damage to health, and absence of evidence of harm is evidence of absence of harm.

On global warming, he again warns against media hype. He points out that all the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's global warming predictions depend on its unbelievably high forecasts of economic growth in the Third World.

In Taverne's last chapter he writes, "politicians do in fact compromise, listen to the other side, and are willing to modify their own position in the light of public discussion and public reaction." We know that members of the House of Lords can be a little divorced from reality, but did Lord Taverne not notice Thatcher or Blair?

As he notes, "Authoritarian institutions ... press on with mistakes long after they have begun to produce unintended and harmful consequences." Mistakes like privatising our National Health Service, devolution, EU membership, occupying Iraq, deindustrialisation, destroying the apprenticeship system? Perhaps he should check his own assumptions against the evidence.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Eulogy to science, 7 Dec 2007
By 
Nicholas J. R. Dougan "Nick Dougan" (Kent, UK) - See all my reviews
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Dick, Lord Taverne, Liberal-Democrat peer but former barrister and Labour minister, makes a case that the scientific method be accorded qualitatively greater respect than various "pseudo-sciences". He documents how people in the UK in particular, and in the West in general, have come to regard science with suspicion and distrust whereas until just fifty years ago it was seen positively (but perhaps rather too uncritically) as a source of further developments that would make the world a better place.

He deals initially with three specific examples: alternative medicines (mostly snake oil, at best placebos), organic farming (not as good for the world as you might think) and GM crops (a development that could already have made a massive positive impact in the third world in particular, with no negative side effects that any respectable scientists have been able to demonstrate).

He then moves on to look at some themes of anti-science. Eco-fundamentalism is a catch-all for those who oppose scientific developments but do not use the scientific method. He characterises them as having closed minds: Lord Melchett, Director of Greenpeace, he quotes as an example, having said that he would oppose GM crops "permanently, definitely and completely" irrespective of any new evidence about them. He points out the similarity of this approach and fundamental religious beliefs. He exposes the "Precautionary Principle" espoused by many eco-fundamentalists (and several others) as a precept that might be used to justify our stopping scientific progress altogether.

Like Taverne, I am not a scientist, but also like him I understand and admire the scientific principle. A scientist posits a theory (often based on experimental work); his peers seek to disprove that theory. No scientific theory can be proven, "proof" in this context really amounting only to not having been dis-proven for quite a time. "Peer review" is of course a feature of non-scientific academia as well, but in science theories can be very conclusively disproven in a way that is often not possible in social sciences and the humanities. It is in theory, at least, more rigorous. Taverne points out that the "facts" used by eco-fundamentalists have often been used without any peer review, and continue to be bandied about even after then have been conclusively disproved by the scientific community. He cites the case of Dr Arpad Pusztai whose allegation that GM potatoes were demonstrably unhealthy led to talk of "Frankenfoods" and was significant in bringing about an effective end to GM development in Europe. Having been used indiscriminately by journalists in pursuit of a good story, the same journalists were (un)surprisingly silent when the good doctor was rejected by the scientific community. Would that journalists would make the effort to understand the difference between peer reviewed and other papers, and would reflect that in their writing. The problem, of course, is this would in many cases make for less arresting headlines!

Taverne's style is one of gentle polemic - gentler certainly than Dawkins, similar perhaps to Lomborg, both of whom he clearly admires. My own approach was, I admit, already very much in tune with Taverne's in the first place, but he has succeeded in shaking me out of complacency in having accepted some of these untruths. Whereas, for example, I would have taken the view that while GM foods might have certain advantages, it was indeed fair to ban them according to a precautionary principle. I realise now that the consequence of that ban is that many people in the third world, who might already be benefiting from GM crops, are still living more impoverished, less healthy lives than they would if certain GM crops had been developed, and we in Europe had not closed our minds to buying them.

If I have a criticism, it is this. He overdoes the extent to which scientists are always genuinely neutral in the pursuit of greater understanding. All too often, sadly, scientists become victims of their own preconceptions and prejudices, and their science a crusade to prove their old argument right in the face of mounting evidence that they are wrong. Equally, all too human social networks and obligations undermine peer review and honest criticism. Group think sets in: see Booker & North (2007) "Scared to Death". While Taverne reminds us that the scientific method is a powerful tool in the quest for knowledge, he does rather give the impression that scientists are, per se, above ordinary human failings, and sadly that is not also the case.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Please read the negative reviews - they say it all, 3 Jan 2009
Finally someone has taken the time to offer a widely available and robust rebuttal to the nonsense on offer from the organic movement, homeopaths, anti-GM NGOs etc. Traverne does a wonderful job of explaining the role of science in society and how without a clear and consistent framework, reliant upon repeatability and peer review, then we would have no way of determining truth from 'whatever the snake-oil salesman says'. Previously, I had never considered how fundamental the concept of truth and the process for determining fact from 'intuition' was to supporting freedom and democracy - the author labours this point a touch, but it is well made.

This is a superb book.
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27 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Possibly only four and a half stars., 9 Feb 2007
By 
This is one of a number of books recently to explore what many consider to be a very worrying growth in unreason. Taverne is obviously a sincere man, even to those, like me, who have not always shared his political convictions. His views certainly deserve attention. In my mind `unreason' is associated with the words prejudice, superstition and ignorance. I look forward to a time when the various consequences of unreason are viewed in a similar light to the unreason of racism. They are intellectually and morally the same.

I have experienced unreason myself when, recently, in a British university, a postgraduate student expressed the view that she would rather see a good proportion of the world's population die unnecessarily (through want of vaccines) than countenance any use of GM technology; this, despite having no understanding of the processes, applications or risks involved. She was, sadly, not an exception. Taverne has addressed the issues of GM well, I think, but as an example of a general malaise. I particularly like his treatment of organisations like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Soil Association. They seem to have abandoned objectivity and are likely to do considerable harm as a result. I think his remarks on organic food, which has been the subject of some very unflattering research, are also sound and need saying.

This is an excellent book, easily read, sufficient to make people think and perhaps encourage them to look more deeply into some of the issues raised. I think they will find much evidence to support most of what Taverne says and certainly I am convinced by his general thesis. Unreason has pushed mankind into dark ages before and will do so again unless we can counteract it. However, I have some sympathy with the reservations of an earlier reviewer (Is this book leading the march? 16 Jan 2007).

Hormesis is a fairly well known phenomenon, but it is probably the exception rather than the rule, i.e. it is characteristic of certain chemicals but not others. My reading is that Taverne qualifies his remarks so that they are correct although they may overstate the case. I am not sure of the beneficial effects of Arsenic (p73) but I do note that, for example, copper, molybdenum, and nickel are essential in small doses but toxic in larger doses. I, also, would like to see more about the studies of the effects of low doses of radioactivity. One of his references is available on the web [...] and makes interesting reading but I need to dig deeper to be convinced.

Contrary to the reviewer's comments on GM, there is a natural way to transfer genes from the genome of one species to another. The transfer of genes from bacteria to figs has almost certainly happened, as has the transfer from bacteria to humans. In fact one of the main objections to GM has been just this issue. Those transfers to us that have survived are generally very beneficial, though rare. It is very probably that many more harmful transfers have taken place, but they have not survived or become non-functional by mutation. The essential difference between GM and natural gene transfer is that we have control over the former but not over the latter.

Overall, I enjoyed the book and believe its central message needs saying loudly and often. Perhaps some arguments are overstated in an effort to avoid the necessity of a more technical and detailed treatment. That is a relatively minor quibble and a price worth paying. It doesn't, for me, detract significantly from the strength of evidence.
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35 of 42 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A splendid, rational and long overdue book, 21 Jun 2005
By 
Caroline Richmond (London, England.) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The March of Unreason: Science, Democracy, and the New Fundamentalism (Hardcover)
It is accepted among educated, liberal-minded people that alternative medicine, organic farming, and the precautionary principle are good, and that GM crops, eco-fundamentalism globalisation and so forth are bad. None of these assumptions stands up to close scrutiny. This book subjects these topics to such scrutiny.
Taverne is not against environmentalism - indeed, he says that he took up bicycling for ecological reasons and still prefers it for its speed, exercise and convenience. But he is well-informed, and writes well, about the way that many credos are accepted without question.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Importance of scientific evidence, 14 Mar 2009
By 
M. Hillmann "miles" (leicester, england) - See all my reviews
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The neglect and distortion of evidence is dangerous to the health of society.
Dick Taverne is clearly a politician, a philosopher and an historian. He puts the current rejection of scientific evidence in favour of pressure group type belief in an historical context comparing it unfavourably to the Enlightenment and the flourishing of science led by Francis Bacon and John Locke.
He tackles medicine and the growth of alternative medicine - osteopathy, chiropractice, acupuncture and homeopathy - becoming a major part of medicine in the US, Germany and the UK without any rigorous testing or scientific evidence. He describes the tragic consequences of the lack of scientific scrutiny from AIDS in Africa to the rejection of the MMR vaccine in the UK.
He discusses organic farming and makes a powerful case for GM farming. He demolishes the case against Golden Rice (vitamin A enhanced rice) and puts forward the reasons why we need GM.
He widens the argument in favour of globalisation, free trade and multinational companies. He believes that the very foundations of democracy require evidence and scientific scrutiny.
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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What a well written and researched book, 17 Jan 2007
By 
S. N. Gbert "Scott G" (England) - See all my reviews
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Probably one of the best balanced books I have read. It sets out arguments for and against each topic in a balanced way and cuts through some of the hype and propaganda spread by the press and the papers. I would add that having read it it completely changed my view about GM crops. Well worth reading.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Not so much a defence of democracy, but a defence of evidence, 6 Oct 2011
By 
F Henwood "The bookworm that turned" (London) - See all my reviews
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This is a political book about the contempt for scientific evidence held in various quarters, not just those good old villains such as creationists but groups like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Soil Association. The purpose of the book is not to attack environmentalism generally. Pragmatic environmental advocacy plays a legitimate role in an open society and science can and has informed this. But Taverne detects an ideological brand of environmentalism that is more rooted in fashionable anti-capitalist politics than in sound science. The assumption on the part of the media that such groups must be on the side of the angels battling wicked corporate interests is not warranted. If they are, then the angels are seriously misinformed. It is this strand of environmentalism with which Taverne takes issue.

The book begins with a somewhat idealised representation of the Enlightenment, fashionable to disparage nowadays among the chattering class, before proceeding to attack alternative medicine. There is no compelling evidence for its efficacy, apart from the well known if poorly understood placebo effect. The supposed benefits of organic farming and food wither when tested experimentally. There is some evidence that biodiversity is better on organic farms but this is a question of management. The same positive results can be produced on non-organic farms. The amount of land required for organic farming would reduce efficiency and leave less space for the cultivation of wilderness.

The most controversial chapters are his attack on the opponents of genetic modification in crops. He argues positively for the benefits of GM crops: on the threats to human health and biodiversity, the lack of evidence to support the critics' claims finds their alarmist claims wanting, whereas the benefits, such as obviating the need to spray crops with toxic pesticides, are well attested in scientific trials undertaken so far.

There are I think two sources of apprehension regarding GM crops. One is the financing of GM from multinationals, which gives rise to a suspicion that the entire enterprise is designed to further their interests. The second is the alleged harm of the technology. The technology involves genes crossing the species barrier, giving rise to allegations of `Frankenstein Science.' But this is already an established practice in medical technology: human genes are inserted into bacteria to produce insulin, for instance. As Taverne says: `it makes no sense to argue that the technology that makes plants resistant to harmful insects, fungi or viruses should be rejected, but when it is used to make better drugs to protect us from life-threatening diseases it is to be welcomed.' (p. 108). Therefore the apprehension of the nature of the technology is based on misunderstanding and misinformation.

Regarding the financing of GM crops by multinationals, this in itself proves nothing. The financing of the research is a separate issue from questions as to the intrinsic harms or benefits of the technology. Lobby groups conflate the two issues. It is a fallacy to assert that because multinationals are financing the research, the technology must therefore be considered pernicious for this very reason. In any case, much research is being publicly financed, especially in growing economies like China and Brazil. But besides this, any research, regardless of its provenance, is assessed and tested by peer-review.

This is not to say that the issue is beyond debate. The point is that groups like Greenpeace want to suppress debate altogether. Lord Melcher, former Director of Greenpeace, speaking in 1999, stated that its opposition to GM crops was based `on a permanent and definite and complete opposition based on the view that there will always be major uncertainties. It is the nature of the technology, indeed it is the nature of the science that there will not be any absolute proof [that there will be no harm]' (quoted p. 146)

Whatever this objection is based on, it isn't based on science. But what about the risks? The objection is fatuous. As risk is intrinsic to any activity, an extreme adaptation of the precautionary principle would not allow us to get out of bed in the morning. Applied to science and society more broadly, nothing would get done and scientific advance would grind to a halt.

Since this book was published in 2005, the Royal Society in 2009 has come out strongly in support of research to develop GM crops to support the growing demand for food that an expanding world population will produce in the coming decades. Taverne now has even more support than he did six years ago for his argument that the objections to GM food are not well founded in science.

Therefore the opposition of Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace to genetically modified plant technology has as much scientific foundation as the Catholic Church's objection to the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.

For the author, this is a threat to democracy itself, which depends on the free exchange of ideas, in which science plays a vital role. This conclusion is not necessarily supported by some of the evidence he adduces - opposition to GM technology has widespread public support, which has not arisen as a result of a rational debate, but as a result of the misrepresentation of both the media and lobby groups of the evidence.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Revealing ..., 3 Jan 2010
By 
J. McGhee "JackM" (UK) - See all my reviews
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A great book, with a good scope of issues. The GM crop issue, religious/fundamentalist intrusion into science etc.

If you're someone that is often dubious of newspaper headlines on scientific issues and doubtful of some of the claims of 'greens' but have never had a firm foundation as to the thought process of the people making these claims you're not sure about, this book can shed light on that, giving you an enlightening look on the ideology of pushing an agenda without wanting to present facts.

To be truthful, this book should only really get four stars, but due to the clearly ridiculous one star reviews, I feel I need to give it five stars to counter-act the campaign to tarnish this book.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Informative, 10 April 2010
By 
"March of Unreason" is a timely and much-needed book, which hopefully will be read by journalists, politicians and policy-makers of all parties. Lord Taverne highlights, in a way that is accessible to those without scientific expertise, how the corrosion of standards of evidence in our public life with regards to GM crops, "alternative" medicine, and the anti-vaccine movement directly threatens the integrity of Western liberal democracy.

Particularly edifying was the section in which Lord Melchett (former head of Greenpeace, not the general in Blackadder) was asked whether Greenpeace's opposition to GMOs was "dependent on further scientific research or improved procedures being developed or any satisfaction you might get with regard to the safety or otherwise in future", he responded that their opposition was "permanent and definite and complete". It should be public knowledge that when Greenpeace, FoE etc call for more tests they are engaged in a dishonest delaying tactic, as they will never be convinced of the safety of GMOs, and seek only to spread fear in society at large. This is not to say that new products should not have to meet rigorous standards of safety (they should), but that these standards should not be set by those partisan, irresponsible groups who are cynically abusing the system for political gain.

The book received only 4 stars because I would have liked to have known his views as a politician on what is to be done about this problem. Unlike Dawkins et al, he is not just an academic but sits in Parliament and is therefore entrusted with the welfare of the British public; diagnosing the illness in the body politic, while admirable, is only half the job!
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