11:58 am - June 9th 2009
Last week, Frank Swain and I wrote a piece for The Guardian in which we questioned the various parties on their science policies ahead of the elections. We heavily criticised the Green Party of England an Wales, in spite of their sparkling climate and environmental credentials, and in doing so kicked off a debate that ran for much of the week on blogs and in The Times. On one side, many people thanked us for exposing deeply troubling attitudes.
On the other, Greens angrily claimed we had misrepresented their views. So are the Green Party anti-science; and if so what should they be doing to correct this?
Frank and I set out to write our article by putting nine science-themed questions to the parties. We knew that our response from the Green Party was going to be interesting when we saw this quote:
“The Green Party, for example, is in favour of increased funding for research on methods of integrated conventional and holistic treatments for cancer. […] We would oppose attempts to regulate complementary medicine, except by licensing and review boards made up of representatives of their respective alternative health care fields.”
As Tim Minchin put it, alternative medicine by definition is medicine that has been proven not to work, or not been proven to work. Alternative medicine that works is called “medicine”. Under the Green Party, money that could be spent researching actual evidence-based treatments for cancer could instead be diverted to quack remedies like homeopathy. Genius. And to say that the $60bn dollar alternative medicine industry needs no external regulation is just moronic. Either their quack remedies have a clinical effect or they don’t; and if they do they should be treated like any other drug.
Their policies on GM and stem cell research were equally confused, and would devastate large areas of biological research in Britain. I’m neither a fanatical supporter nor opponent of GM food; but clearly any new development in GM technology has both risks and benefits. You would think, therefore, that a sensible policy would involving assessing those, and acting based on that information with appropriate regulation, along the lines of the precautionary principle. Apparently not:
“Genetically modified food presents significant and un-quantified risks to human health and the environment. These outweigh any benefits.”
If you don’t know the risks, then how the hell can you claim that they outweight any potential benefits? Surely more research would be the answer in this case? But under Green Party policy, the import of genetically modified organisms would be banned outright, making research all but impossible. It is an incredibly irrational approach, but we we see the same stunt pulled in their policy on stem cell research:
“The Green Party believes that experiments on human embryos could have unforeseen outcomes harmful both to individuals and to society. We would work for an immediate international ban on all cloning and genetic manipulation of embryos, whether for research, therapeutic or reproductive purposes.”
Again, how can you ban all research into something on the basis of unknown consequences? Particularly when research into embryonic stem cells is so vital for progress in treating numerous conditions and diseases? Again, I’m all in favour of using the precautionary principle, but to ban something with known benefits on the basis of unstated “consequences” is just plain ignorant. They would allow the continued use of adult stem cells, but in doing so they appear to have swallowed the myth that these can always act as a substitute for the use of embryonic cells.
In short, while The Greens mean well, we found that their science policies in many areas were a disaster, and so we went ahead and published out results with suitably critical commentary. The response we got back via e-mail from the party press office was frankly unimpressive, and included the following memorable quote:
“Well, what can you say? We have an election platform that is talking about creating 1 million jobs through local food, renewable energy, and energy efficiency … and our lead candidate in the North West is up against Nick Griffin, the BNP’s leader, for the final seat in that region. But the most important thing for you to do is critique our support for alternative medicine?”
No. I’m not having that. I’m not being told that we’re not allowed to criticise Green Party policy in case the BNP get in. It is a miserable gambit designed to evade criticism. As much as I despise and hate the BNP, the idea of giving the Greens a free pass goes against every basic principle of democracy and free speech.
The backlash continued on various blogs, with HolfordWatch taking flak for “misrepresenting” the party. Some of the most intense criticism came in response to an article that Mark Henderson of The Times wrote about our work to leave comments like:
“…the Green Party is not anti-science, as this misleading and extremely biased article is trying to suggest.”
“Please don’t be misled by misrepresentations of our policies.”
“Instead of reading second-hand accounts of what our political opponents say that we say, how about looking about what we actually do say?”
None of these people hurling accusations of bias and misrepresentation at us appeared to appreciate the fact that we had posted their own statements unedited on our blogs, standing next to our commentary for everyone to see. As much as they ranted, few dared to point out specific instances where these terrible misrepresentations had occurred, and when they did they were simply referred back to their own statements.
I am deeply frustrated that, rather than attempting to defend their policies or engage with criticism from scientists, party supporters resorted to mud-slinging.
The fundamental problem is that in the Green Party, anyone can propose a policy, call a vote, and get it accepted in the manifesto. It’s one of those ideas that’s cute in theory, but the fact is that since most members of most parties aren’t likely to have much of a clue about things like modern genetics or cancer research, their policies are based on a popularity contest rather than considered appraisal of the evidence. The truth isn’t democratic, and the whole structure of the party works against the idea of evidence-based policy.
So to be fair to our critics, I don’t think they were being dishonest; they probably did feel that we misrepresented them because it’s unlikely that many party members support the whole manifesto. You probably couldn’t find a Green Party member that their manifesto fully and accurately represented.
I don’t want to give the impression that I dislike the Greens. I’m a fan of a number of their members, and they’ve done vital work pushing climate change up the national agenda. I have huge respect for figures like Patrick Harvie from the Scottish party. My hope is that by ramming home this message I can encourage them to properly consider their policies.
The first and most important thing for the party to do is to acknowledge that their policies are far out of step with the scientific community. They genuinely don’t seem to realise this, and I suspect this comes from a lack of engagement with actual scientists.
The second thing they need to do then is to engage with the scientific community, and bring evidence back into the policy-making process.
The third, is to build a more coherent set of policies so that their members are all singing from the same hymn sheet, rather than noisily squawking across each other. If they do, then we can begin to take them more seriously. If they don’t they will continue to fall victim to the lunatic fringe.
This is a guest post. Martin Robbins works in R&D, solving scientific problems for a small software company while finishing off his Ph.D., which covers immune system simulation and complexity. He blogs at Lay Science
· Other posts by Martin Robbins
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