Monday 9 May 2005

How can we halt the 'march of unreason'?

Dick Taverne on why we need to defend the Enlightenment against dodgy science and ‘dogmatic environmentalists’.

In his new book The March of Unreason: Science, Democracy, and the New Fundamentalism, Dick Taverne - who has had careers in politics, law, economics and industry, and who now sits as a Liberal Democrat in the UK House of Lords - presents a formidable case against what he terms ‘dogmatic environmentalists’.

Yet he was not always critical of their ‘dodgy science’. He admits to being one of many who ‘fell under the spell of Rachel Carson’ when reading her book, The Silent Spring, in 1962. In the late Sixties, as a Labour treasury minister, he took time off from ‘contemplating the economic problems of the UK’ to attend a conference at which Paul Ehrlich - the widely read prophet of doom - was ‘the star attraction’.

Taverne later joined both Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, and in the mid-Seventies - to make his ‘small contribution to cleaner air’ - gave up owning a car in favour of a bicycle. ‘It is a most enjoyable way to travel about London’, he says. ‘You can be sure of arriving on time, and you suffer none of the frustrations of being stuck in traffic jams or not finding anywhere to park’ (unless you try to park your bike in the vicinity of the Houses of Parliament, that is, where there are numerous signs warning that the police may destroy unattended bikes).

Having also used a bicycle as my main form of urban transport for many years, I agree with Taverne about its merits. But it is also an indictment of our capital city’s transport system that almost every journey in London is faster by bike than it is by public transport.

Despite his longstanding concerns for the environment, Taverne doesn’t pull his punches when it comes to attacking ‘irrational and fundamentalist forces’ in the environmentalist movement. ‘I am a militant rationalist’, he tells me. ‘Not that I think all that matters in the world is reason, or that poetry and music do not matter. But where reason is applicable and things can be judged by evidence, then we cannot discard reason and evidence.’ Taverne set up the charity Sense About Science in 2002, and his March of Unreason contains a wealth of evidence against the benefits of alternative medicine and organic farming and for the benefits of genetically modified food.

Taverne is concerned that irrational practices - ‘eco-fundamentalism’ and fundamentalist religion - are flourishing, and undermining the health of civilised society. He is ‘a great admirer of the Enlightenment as a glorious period in the history of mankind’, and warns that we are in danger of turning back the clock. The ‘back to nature’ movement is ‘a deeply disturbing anti-Enlightenment reaction’, he argues.

In The March of Unreason, Taverne warns that ‘many people have become increasingly sceptical about the benefits of new technology and no longer trust experts. Possible risks from new developments loom larger in the public mind than possible benefits and we hear constantly about the need to apply “the Precautionary Principle”, as if it is some scientific law that needs no further explanation.’

Although Taverne is ‘an optimist by nature’, he does not believe we should view the world through rose-tinted glasses. But he does think it is ‘an extremely unfortunate feature of life if we are pessimistic’. His optimism allows him to view the ‘back to nature’ movement as ‘a passing fad’.

‘Homeopathy and alternative medicine: they all claim it works’, he says. ‘Of course it works. The placebo effect works. Witchcraft worked when people believed in it. Anything that makes people feel better is, in a sense, a good thing, but it is also a form of deceit.’ He thinks that alternative medicine will do a lot of damage, but that ‘in due course people will come to realise - perhaps through education - that modern medicine is much more important than going back to ancient superstitions’.

He also believes that the popularity of ‘organics’ will fade. ‘But at the moment’, he says, warning me that he feels very passionately about this issue, ‘organic farming is deeply damaging. The idea that we can save the world by going organic is not just an illusion and a throwback to pre-historic days; it is also positively damaging. Organic farming is a very inefficient use of land’.

Taverne’s critics are, it seems, as passionate about this issue as he is. ‘Writing for the Guardian, I get a certain amount of abuse if I write something in favour of genetically modified crops or if I question any other fads - but if I write something attacking organics I get a torrent of abuse.’

The first line of criticism is usually that he must be in the pay of big companies. It seems almost impossible to put the case for progress, science and development today without being accused of being in bed with big corporations. Taverne has no illusions about the motivations of such corporations, warning that they have to be watched, ‘like all organisations with an agenda’.  ‘But I don’t find that companies are necessarily more motivated to cause ill to mankind than the movements designed to save the planet’, he says.

Neither pressure groups nor companies are accountable or democratic, but at least companies face the discipline of the market. As Taverne points out, ‘If a company produces a dud product it may ruin the company. Look at what happened to Distillers (Biochemical Ltd) after the thalidomide scandal. It disappeared.’

Taverne does not believe that pressure groups face a similar kind of discipline. ‘Their only test of success is whether they increase their network of support. And the more scare stories they raise, the better they will be at raising money. They suffer a bit if scare stories are exposed, but not much, as we seem quickly to forget about that.’

He points out that the Brent Spar saga did not do much damage to Greenpeace. In the mid-Nineties, Greenpeace initiated a campaign to stop Shell from dumping a disused giant oil rig in the Atlantic ocean. Shell might be one of the most powerful companies in the world, but in the face of Greenpeace’s effective media campaign and a Europe-wide boycott of its petrol stations, it caved in and left Brent Spar in a Norwegian fjord instead. The Natural Environment Research Council later confirmed that disposal in the mid-Atlantic would have been a cheaper and environmentally more beneficial way of getting rid of the rig.

The ‘dogmatic environmentalists’ that Taverne persuasively criticises in The March of Unreason have a lot to answer for. But I wonder whether Taverne is endowing them with too much power? In his book, he traces ‘some of the reasons for this change from optimism to widespread suspicion and pessimism towards science that exists today, and identif[ies] the rise of the environment movement as probably the most significant’.

He warns that ‘there is a semi-religious streak in the green fundamentalists. When they say “I don’t give a damn about the evidence because I know I am trying to save the world”, then they are not a million miles away from the creationists who say “I don’t give a damn about the evidence because it is written in the Bible”’.

Green and religious fundamentalists are fairly easy targets, but they are ultimately not the main problem. The problem goes far deeper and is all-pervasive: it is today’s cultural climate of cynicism and pessimism that provides a fertile ground for ‘dogmatic environmentalists’ to feed on. A society that has lost faith in humanity - in our ability to face up to challenges and to improve our condition - will allow environmentalists to present themselves, much to Taverne’s disdain, as ‘a noble band of crusaders struggling against malign forces in society that will damage or destroy the planet’. They are pushing at an open door.

It seems that Taverne, the optimist, has perhaps underestimated the forces of conservatism that we are up against today. The march of unreason, which Taverne believes will ultimately retreat partly of its own accord, may actually be a lot harder to fight against. It is not the strength of the ideas put forward by the ‘back to nature’ brigade that makes the battle such a challenge, but the lack of forward-looking ideas at the heart of public life.

What we need is a robust defence of reason, science and democracy, because without these things society will stagnate. And although The March of Unreason risks, in parts, attaching too much importance to eco-fundamentalists, it provides an engaging defence of Enlightenment values.

The March of Unreason: Science, Democracy, and the New Fundamentalism, by Dick Taverne, is published by Oxford University Press. Buy this book from Amazon(UK) or Amazon(USA).

First published by spiked