Appendix 2 – Beware The Ambassadors Of Science


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 begin-ning 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 environ-mental
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 homoeopaths. 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 cooption
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” web sites 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 environ-mentalists
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 web sites 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 web site
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

Yours sincerely,

Damien Morris

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