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The March of Unreason: Science, Democracy, and the New Fundamentalism Paperback – 18 Jan 2007
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A provocative book. (Church Review)
Taverne's case is, essentially, indisputable. (The Independent (Review))
About the Author
Dick Taverne was the Labour MP for Lincoln from 1962 to 1972, when he resigned to fight the famous Lincoln by-election as an independent social democrat in 1973, and won. In 1974 he wrote The Future of the Left, Lincoln and After (Jonathan Cape) which predicted the split in the Labour party that happened seven years later. He is now a Liberal-Democrat peer. Becoming gradually more and more concerned about the increasing mood of hostility and suspicion towards science, in 2002 he founded the association 'Sense About Science' to promote an evidence-based approach to scientific issues.
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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.
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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Dick Taverne is clearly a politician, a philosopher and an historian.Read more
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