Beware The Ambassadors of Science / Sense About Science? (10/2/2007)

1.Beware The Ambassadors of Science - The Skeptic
2.Sense About Science? - The Ecologist

EXTRACT: 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. (item 1)

GM WATCH note: More on those behind Sense About Science


1.Beware The Ambassadors of Science
The Skeptic, 24 January 2006

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.

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 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.

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 and to George Monbiot's Guardian article 'Invasion of the entryists' 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

2.Sense About Science?

When a group calling itself Sense About Science launched its 'Science for celebrities' pamphlet in the national media last month, it was supposed to look like the long-overdue backlash of a normally passive science community to years of misinformation from ill-informed celebrities.

The Ecologist
[this article also appeared in the Mail on Sunday]
Date:18/01/2007 Author:Zac Goldsmith

When a group calling itself Sense About Science launched its 'science for celebrities' pamphlet in the national media last month, it was supposed to look like the long-overdue backlash of a normally passive science community to years of misinformation from ill-informed celebrities.

The pamphlet is full of what it regards to be false, but nevertheless anodyne assertions by celebrities about the benefits of homeopathy and so on, and ends with an offer by the organisation to act as a fact-checking service. However it is the pamphlet's repeated objection to any hint that chemicals might not be good for our health that suggests an altogether less helpful agenda.

One of its experts writes "… a whole host of unwanted chemicals find their way into our bodies all the time… Do they matter? No!" Another expert adds, "there is no evidence that controlled food additives cause cancer". And if cancer is increasing, he says in response to a quote by Joanna Lumley "it's because people are living longer." This is hard to substantiate for all kinds of reasons, not least the fact that according to the US National Cancer Institute, childhood cancers have been increasing by 1% every year since the fifties.

At the very least you'd expect a bit more caution from a group promoting 'an evidence-based approach to science' and dedicated to investigating the 'social consequences of unfounded research claims'. But on closer inspection, it's hard to reconcile that goal with the track record and history of Sense About Science.

SAS is often described as an aggressively pro-GM lobby group. But it's much, much more than that. It is born of a bizarre political network that began life as the ultra-left Revolutionary Communist Party and switched over to extreme corporate libertarianism when it launched Living Marxism magazine in the late eighties. LM advocated lifting restrictions on child pornography, it opposed banning tobacco advertising, supported human cloning and so on. In as much as it has a central philosophy, it is a fierce opposition to the state attempting to protect citizens from the excesses of big business. But its real goal, and the reason for its political zigzagging, may stem from a long-held hatred of any kind of positive reform that might risk prolonging the system they hate. They call it 'revolutionary defeatism'. By helping to accelerate the contradictions of capitalism they believe they are hastening the move to the 'next stage' of human development.

During the nineties, Living Marxism was successful at influencing the British media coverage of science and environment issues, particularly relating to gm food. But in 2000, it was sued for claiming that ITN had falsified evidence of Serb atrocities against Bosnian Muslims, and was forced to close. It soon reinvented itself as the Institute of ideas, and the on-line magazine Spiked.

At each step in its evolution, it has been largely the same people who have given life to this strange movement – and painstaking research by Jonathan Matthews of shows it is many of the same people who now put themselves forward as the faces of respectable, and trustworthy science.

It's a dizzying network. The director of Sense About Science, Tracey Brown, for instance has written for both Living Marxism and Spiked and has even published a book with the Institute of Ideas. Both she, and her Programme Director, Ellen Raphael studied under Frank Furedi at the University of Kent, before working for a PR firm that defends companies against consumer and environmental campaigners.

Raphael meanwhile was the contact person for Global Futures, a publishing house that until recently shared a phone number with SAS. One of Global Futures' trustees is former Revolutionary Communist Party activist and LM contributor, Phil Mullan, and despite being a publishing house, Global Futures seems only to have published two papers one of them by Frank Furedi, the long-term figurehead of the LM movement.

The links go on and on. Dr Michael Fitzpatrick, for instance, a Sense About Science trustee is the Health Editor for Spiked, and according to Matthews, the domain name for the Sense About Science was registered by Rob Lyons, who is also web master for Spiked.

It's a worrying development. According to its own website, Sense About Science urges scientists to "engage actively with a wide range of groups," and one of its flagship initiatives was to set up a Working Group on problems associated with peer review. But three of the Working Group members belong to the LM network. Tony Gilland for instance is a director at the Institute of Ideas, and a contributor to both LM and Spiked. And Fiona Fox wrote the notorious LM article denying the Rwandan genocide. When it was asked to support the process, the Wellcome Trust declined on the basis of its 'narrow' membership. "It runs the risk," it said, "of being seen to be fuelled by 'assumptions', and not 'direct evidence'."

Not all the people behind SAS are members of the former LM network. Its Chairman for instance is the Liberal Democrat peer, Lord Taverne. But Dick Taverne is a comfortable fit. He believes science should be freed from the constraints of democracy, and describes the Precautionary Principle as the "cowardice of a pampered society". And while he routinely fires off about non-scientists debating scientific issues, calling at one point for Prince Charles to be forced to relinquish the throne if he made any further statements critical of GM food, he doesn't have a background in science himself. What's more his own understanding of science has come under question. According to James Wilsden, head of Science at the highly respected Demos Thinktank, "Dick frequently spouts nonsense. He's about as useful to science as Robert Kilroy-Silk is to race relations."

With its history, no one could reasonably expect SAS to be anything other than an unconventional set up. And given its backers a veritable Who's Who of biotech, pharmaceutical and Chemical firms - you wouldn't expect genuine independence. But as George Monbiot wrote at its launch three years ago, "the scientific establishment appears unwittingly to have permitted its interests to be represented to the public by the members of a bizarre and cultish political network."

If that's what has happened, this wouldn't be the first time 'independent' science has been hijacked. Only a few weeks ago one of Britain's most celebrated cancer experts, Sir Richard Doll, was spectacularly exposed for being on the payroll of companies whose products he was supposed to be reviewing in the public interest.

The Ecologist ran a lengthy feature on Doll ten years ago in which we showed that no matter what area he reviewed, he invariably defended the interests of industry above all else. Now that his financial links have surfaced, his supporters still claim there was never any real conflict of interest. But when he wrote to a Royal Commission set up to establish the health effects of Agent Orange on Australian soldiers who'd fought in Vietnam… he must have known that his all-clear would have been less convincing had he bothered to mention that he was being paid by Monsanto - the makers of Agent Orange at the time.

When Sense About Science puts itself forward as a fact-checking service, we can only hope its offer is rejected. For whichever way you look at it, SAS appears no more independent than an infant, no more objective than an animal rights fanatic – and far from injecting sense into science – it is more likely to undermine what little remains of the public's faith in science.


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