We asked Craig Sams to review Lord Taverne's recently published book, "The March of Unreason".
EXCERPT: "Science is alive and well - what's changing is how it is harnessed, with the interests of sustainability and justice demanding an equal seat at the table with power and profitability. The most dangerous effect of Taverne's book is that it will put people off science when in fact it is blinkered authoritarianism that is his real passion." - Craig Sams
Taverne's March of Unreason
If you are partial to blind faith then buy "The March of Unreason" by Dick Taverne. The chairman of the pro-GM lobby group, the Association of Sense about Science, exhibits the most touching belief in a God called Science.
Curiously, there is no reference in the book to the Scientific Method (observe and describe, form a hypothesis, use it to predict outcomes, experiment to see if you're right and get independent people to check your findings). If he had applied this to his own work, the book would never have been written. The most common mistake in applying the Scientific Method is the experimenter's own bias and Dick has that by the bucketful.
One of the most prestigious journals of the world's scientific community is called Nature. That's because the simplest definition of science is 'the study of nature.' Yet the way Taverne separates nature from science undermines all his arguments. There is a distinction between the idea that life can be defined by science and Taverne's view that scientists should determine life. His book argues that people who are sceptical about corporate-funded science are guilty of 'Unreason' while those who blindly accept them are the rational ones. I read the New Scientist where, week after week, new discoveries or theories either extend or discredit earlier scientific theories. If there's one thing you learn about science is that there is always more to learn. To call this questioning 'Unreason' reveals a central flaw in Taverne's proposition.
Taverne is reluctantly persuaded by the science that predicts global warming, despite his distaste for environmentalism. But he's relaxed: "In a decade, technology will be more advanced to cope with the problems we face." Whew! What a relief. That's all right then. He quotes Lomborg on how things are getting better - cleaner air, better education, cleaner water, unleaded petrol - yet fails to note that these improvements were gained by progressives and environmentalists using sound science to push for reform because nobody (apart from Taverne's fantasy opponents) disputes that science can improve our lives.
He concentrates his attack on organic farmers, alternative medicine, environmentalists and what he calls 'anti-capitalists' and ignores any arguments that upset his belief system. So the fact that organic farmers study nature so as to be able to farm sustainably passes him by. Ditto the fact that the market success of organic farming is taking place firmly within the capitalist system. To Taverne the GBP15 billion organic food industry is a mass delusion, while the GBP2.5 billion genetic engineering seed industry is the only thing that stands between us and mass starvation.
Taverne fails to mention that genomics enables plant breeders to produce non-engineered plants that are reliable and effective for organic farmers. No profits there for Monsanto, but plenty of sound science.
When you look at the lies that the GM cheerleaders unashamedly have been propagating for the past 10 years - doubled yields, farmers laughing all the way to the bank, plants that will grow in the Sahara desert and rice that contains more nutrients (ever heard of brown rice?), you want to cry. The reality has been lower yields, more herbicides and a 500% increase in the subsidies paid to American farmers since they adopted GM (they had no choice, poor suckers). If we had applied the scientific method honestly, we'd have stopped GM years ago.
Remember that opposition to GM consistently came from molecular biologists who, recognising the risks, operated in sealed labs to ensure that no dangerous escapes could happen. They were horrified when Monsanto started spreading stuff around with no concern for the consequences. Where's the unreason in that?
Scientists themselves freely admit that money influences research outcomes. You can prove anything if your funders pay you enough and you choose your reviewers carefully. That's how drugs that don't work get approval and are pumped into people who have blind faith in the priests in white coats.
Science is alive and well - what's changing is how it is harnessed, with the interests of sustainability and justice demanding an equal seat at the table with power and profitability. The most dangerous effect of Taverne's book is that it will put people off science when in fact it is blinkered authoritarianism that is his real passion.
To order a copy of The March of Unreason
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