a genuine scientist demolishes Taverne's tosh. worth reading in full.
In search of reason
Dick Taverne inveighs against the doomsayers in The March of Unreason. A little knowledge and a lot of bombast are dangerous things, says Margaret Cook
Saturday April 2, 2005
The March of Unreason: Science, Democracy and the New Fundamentalism
by Dick Taverne
320pp, OUP, £18.99
Most people don't know much about science, don't want to know, and what is most disturbing, "seem proud of not knowing", writes Dick Taverne. He confesses that in his youth he too was among the unenlightened leftie doomsters and joined Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. Mea culpa. As if this was a disclosure too painful to dwell on, he then makes the first of several disorientating deviations to tell of his devotion to cycling in London. It is a bit like a meandering after-dinner conversation - not the best technique for convincing your reader, as he clearly wants to do, that you are a polymath.
The cycling story does establish a trace amount of environmental credentials, which is needed because antipathy to environmental activists is a recurrent theme. Taverne envisions them as threatening green crusaders driving out the pure-minded, inspired scientist and crippling the future of techno-innovation. In spite of his stated commitment to evidence-based science, much of his discussion is rant rather than reason.
There are regrettably a number of howlers. He attributes our health and longevity to modern medicine, whereas it owes much more to public health measures, sanitation, clean water, housing, diet. He states, "Food has never been safer or more carefully tested," when we have just had the most troubling food scare involving contamination of many different food products by the dye Sudan 1. He demolishes in scathing terms the fears linking radiation from mobile phones and masts to brain damage. Yet only two months ago, top scientists warned that children under nine should not use mobile phones as their brains absorb more radiation than adults' and the dangers are unclear.
He draws a rigid line between mainstream and alternative medicine, reluctantly admitting that an extract of St John's Wort might help depression, then countering this with a discussion of dire side effects. In fact, in a recent issue the BMJ, hypericum extract from this plant has been shown to be at least as effective as paroxetine for depression and better tolerated. The timing of these reports has not been kind to him, but they underline the hectoring dogma of his writing, which becomes increasingly irksome.
He also confusingly mingles myth with fact: "Ever since Prometheus, the patron of discovery, gave mankind the gift of fire, we have played with fire." Is he being serious or merely whimsical? The most risible absurdity is the reverential way in which he speaks of "the critical analysis to which political party manifestos are subjected at election time", as if they were the gold standard of detached, unbiased truth to which all scientific treatises should aspire.
At every turn, Taverne betrays himself as an authoritarian, declaiming with patronising contempt to his audience while observing naÃ¯ve uncritical deference to the establishment. His method of discussion involves reductio ad absurdam of any argument he does not like or understand. It is uncomfortably reminiscent of party political arguments, whose object is to prevail, not to establish the truth. There is minimal understanding of the philanthropic drives that underpin organic farming and ethical consumerism, or the genuine public mistrust that gave rise to complementary medicine, or the confusion and contradictions that arise in these areas when entrepreneurs spot a market opportunity to exploit. There is no exploration of the massive influence of the profit motive in multinationals, which effectively undermines the benefit that might accrue from pharmaceuticals and GM foods, owing to visceral public mistrust. He espouses a controversial process called "hormesis" which suggests a little chemical or radiation toxicity is good for you. Has he not heard of the multi-step aetiology of cancers? Or of the cumulative toxicity of radiation? He regrets the "Precautionary Principle" that limits scientific progress, with scant attention to the risk and cost of litigation that drives it.
With foolhardy optimism about the future wealth of poor nations, and a tendency to dismiss the ravages that humans have inflicted on the Earth, he demolishes his own claim to be taken seriously. A little knowledge and a lot of bombast are dangerous things. They might put still more people off science.
* Margaret Cook is a retired consultant haematologist