The Threat to Reason - GM Watch review (7/1/2008)

The Threat to Reason: How the Enlightenment Was Hijacked and How We Can Reclaim It
By Dan Hind
Verso, 2007
Hardback, 224 pages, RRP GBP14.99, available from www.amazon.com/co.uk

Review by Claire Robinson

Those who engage in environmental activism will be all too familiar with being dismissed as 'Luddites', 'anti-science', and 'irrational'. One of the shrillest promoters of such a view is the pro-GM British peer Lord Dick Taverne. In his book, The March of Unreason, he claims that 'the Enlightenment' is in danger of unravelling under the onslaught of 'eco-fundamentalism'. Taverne is backed by a powerful lobby of media commentators, politicians, and intellectuals all too ready to assert that Western science and rationality are under threat from forces of darkness as diverse as religious believers, postmodernists, organic farmers, New Agers and the practitioners of any and every kind of alternative medicine.

The gist of Dan Hind's book The Threat to Reason is that there's a problem with such attempts to defend the truth: they aren't true. Hind takes to task a group of prominent commentators who have exaggerated the threat posed by the so-called forces of unreason. These commentators, says Hind, distract us from much more serious threats to an open democratic society.

The chief threats to reason, according to Hind, are not foreign extremists or homeopaths: they reside in our state and corporate institutions. They manipulate information to promote neoliberal market values and to maintain a permanent War on Terror, which Hind terms a 'well-organized fraud' and a 'piece of enchantment'. Their practices have operated against the public interest and have provided security only to the richest people, who have benefited from a massive transfer of wealth. The rest of the public are fed a carefully prepared diet of lies that prevents them from making informed decisions about the direction society should take. Informed insiders who would prefer to tell the truth to the public, and who therefore have a genuine claim on Enlightenment values, are threatened into silence. Should that fail, they are ridiculed, vilified, or deprived of their livelihood.

Hind cites the example of the painkiller Vioxx, which caused tens of thousands of heart attacks before Merck voluntarily withdrew the drug in 2004. At a Senate hearing that year, it emerged that the US Food and Drug Administration approved the drug in the knowledge that it carried an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. David Graham, an FDA scientist, co-authored a 2004 report on Vioxx that estimated that between 88,000 and 139,000 Americans had heart attacks and strokes as a result of taking Vioxx and that between 26,000 and 55,000 of them died. As Hind points out, practitioners of alternative medicine, those supposed enemies of reason, have a somewhat better safety record.

Far from welcoming Graham's findings, as we would expect from true adherents of the Enlightenment, the FDA connived with industry to continue to keep the risks from public scrutiny. Graham told the Senate, 'I was pressured to change my conclusions and recommendations'. In the same month that Graham's report was completed, the FDA announced it had approved Vioxx for children with rheumatoid arthritis. A senior manager from the Office of Drug Safety labeled Graham's Vioxx study a 'scientific rumour'. Even after the drug was withdrawn, the FDA tried to discredit Graham in the eyes of the media and the Senate. Graham does not buy the conclusion that Vioxx was an unfortunate lapse in an otherwise adequate system. He said, 'I would argue that the FDA, as currently configured, is incapable of protecting America against another Vioxx. We are virtually defenceless.'

Readers of GM Watch's bulletins will recognize the secrecy, lies, and persecution of truth-tellers that characterize the institutions of those who would claim a monopoly on Enlightenment values. In the light of these commentators' regular assaults on 'irrational' religion and spirituality, it is interesting to note that Graham has credited his Catholic faith with playing a part in his decision to risk his career in going public with his findings.

And as Hind points out, Graham is far from being the only scientist who finds no contradiction between his scientific knowledge and his religious convictions. This reviewer would add that scientists with religious faith are probably as numerous as alternative practitioners and organic farmers who follow scientific method. Scientific method, after all, simply means collecting data through observation and experimentation, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses. It is an expected part of scientific method that results will be openly shared, so that other researchers can challenge and build on each other's findings.

If one accepts this definition of scientific method, then government agencies like the FDA and the corporations they protect are the opponents of science. Their actions, however, as Hind notes, are not irrational; they are utterly rational. They are calculated to maximize profits to shareholders. This is the sole purpose of a corporation and one that it is legally bound to pursue, by whatever means.

But then the real battle, Hind says, was never between the rational (good) and the irrational (bad). Attempts to portray it as such are merely 'a branch of the entertainment business, a kind of 'Folk Enlightenment'.' The real battle is between what he calls the Occult Enlightenment and the Open Enlightenment. The Occult Enlightenment is 'the state's [presumably also the corporations'] secret quest for total knowledge under conditions of perfect secrecy'. Its opponent, the Open Enlightenment, is 'a more faltering, but wholly human, attempt to achieve a more universal understanding and so to make another world possible'.

This brings us back to the role of science.  Polemicists of the 'Folk Enlightenment' - like Taverne - are, of course, not interested in science in the sense of an open-minded public endeavour to understand and explore diverse possibilities. They seek rather to employ it as a source of unquestionable authority that they can use to rubber stamp a pre-set agenda. This is why Hind writes, 'Science, not theology, has become the arena in which we must fight for the victory of Enlightenment, since it is through their claims to rationality and scientific understanding that our guardians bind us in obedience to the established order.'

Hind concludes that we, the public, have to reclaim the idea of the Enlightenment from those who have hijacked it for their own ends. This will not be easy, as for the most part, they pay our salaries. He proposes that we consciously make the distinction between our work on behalf of institutions that require us to lie and deceive, and what the eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant called 'the public use of one's reason ... as a scholar before the reading public'. We must become, for some part of our time, disinterested researchers into truth, perhaps in the field of our individual expertise. Doctors, for example, can research public health issues. A critical mass of such scholars, connected by the internet, may be the best hope we have of enabling us to distinguish truth from the fictions in which we have become enmeshed.

Claire Robinson is an editor at GM Watch,

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