I was shocked out of my morning dwalm by Today’s (BBC Radio4) crass handling of a report that US scientists were warning of the end of the age of enlightenment and the arrival of a new age of darkness, in which the forces of big business, political expediency and extreme right-wing conservatism (and one assumes religious fundamentalism) were driving rationalism and reason from public discourse. I was not disturbed by the topic of this report in itself (which came as no surprise) but by the supposed illustrations of the issue that followed…
The introduction mentioned the fact that fewer and fewer people in the USA were believing in man-made global warming and that many still believed that vaccination caused autism. So far, so good. (I have a veterinary degree, a master’s in ecology and a Ph.D. in ecotoxicology, consider myself a supporter of an evidence-based approach to issues, and have long campaigned against the influence of large financial interests, such as the Big Oil anti-climate change lobby.) I did think that they should have mentioned the sacking of government drug adviser, Professor David Nutt, as a particularly egregious example of anti-science (read my review of Bruce K. Alexander’s book for my views on drug addiction), but, be that as it may, the opening of the report did not un-dwalm me.
No, what did supercharge my adrenals was, firstly, the example of “scientists” protesting about anti-science and demonstrating against homeopathy by swallowing “large quantities of herbal medicines” to show “that there was no effect”. I won’t talk about homeopathy here, but what this does is confuse two different traditions of healing. Much of modern medicine can trace its roots (ha!) to herbalism, which depends on the active ingredients of plants. While these often complex mixtures of ingredients (even from a single plant) are safe when prescribed by a trained, professional herbalist, they could certainly be dangerous when swallowed willy-nilly. The main things that homeopathy and herbalism have in common, of course, is that they are perceived as competitors by Big Pharma (which generally works with patentable single ingredients or relatively simple combinations) and that they involve practitioners spending time with patients and considering their entire life circumstances. I contend that Big Pharma was the force behind the anti-herbalism legislation recently adopted by the EU, and I also contend that Big Pharma would have been delighted at the BBC’s crass reportage. The ridiculous attack on herbalism was, in my opinion, a good example of anti-rationalism. (And if you trace its origins you may well find a pharmaceuticals spin-doctor rubbing his hands in glee in a cosy tax haven somewhere, as he simultaneously encourages psychiatrists to invent more fictional drug-requiring conditions for the DSM so that they can jointly defraud health insurance companies of ever-more money. Look no further if you want to find the forces undermining US healthcare reform!)
The next “example” of anti-science was presented by a scientist working with GM. He whinged about the attacks on this line of work, effectively claiming that they were all by ignorant anti-scientists. Well, there is plenty of peer-reviewed science showing that GM has undesirable effects on the quality and properties of the food produced by it. There is also abundant evidence suggesting that GM will never live up to the claims made for it with regard to producing more productive, hardy and disease-and pest-resistant crops. More sinister, by far, is the way it is used by the likes of Monsanto to build a vast economic monopoly, displacing huge numbers of genetically diverse crop varieties, encouraging dependence on herbicides and pushing thousands of farmers into debt and suicide. Looking at all the evidence in the broadest perspective, I find it hard to believe that any intelligent and rational human being – scientist or not – could support its use in crop production. It is morally and intellectually wrong to consider the narrow and immediate effects of modifying a gene or two without examining the whole economic, social and environmental context. For further information on GM look at point 2 in the Notes to Editors section at the bottom of this former MSP’s press release.
More generally, any scientist guilty of looking only at short-term and immediate consequences of his work is, in my opinion, abrogating his responsibility and guilty of bringing science into disrepute. I would suspect that most such scientists have been suborned by commercial interests – exactly the sort of anti-science that the BBC programme was supposedly highlighting!
I shall be sending the BBC a link to this article, but given my recent experience with regard to complaining to them (see my correspondence re them failing to challenge an apologist for Pinochet – and I finally wrote to the Director-General and failed to receive a reply!) I doubt they will be apologetic.