Sense about Science?

| 18th January 2007
When a group calling itself Sense About Science launched its 'Science for celebrities' pamphlet in the national media last month, it was supposed to look like the long-overdue backlash of a normally passive science community to years of misinformation from ill-informed celebrities.

The pamphlet is full of what it regards to be false, but nevertheless anodyne assertions by celebrities about the benefits of homeopathy and so on, and ends with an offer by the organisation to act as a fact-checking service. However it is the pamphlet’s repeated objection to any hint that chemicals might not be good for our health that suggests an altogether less helpful agenda. 

One of its experts writes “… a whole host of unwanted chemicals find their way into our bodies all the time… Do they matter? No!” Another expert adds, “there is no evidence that controlled food additives cause cancer”. And if cancer is increasing, he says in response to a quote by Joanna Lumley “it’s because people are living longer.”  This is hard to substantiate for all kinds of reasons, not least the fact that according to the US National Cancer Institute, childhood cancers have been increasing by 1% every year since the fifties.
At the very least you’d expect a bit more caution from a group promoting ‘an evidence-based approach to science’ and dedicated to investigating the ‘social consequences of unfounded research claims’.  But on closer inspection, it’s hard to reconcile that goal with the track record and history of Sense About Science.
SAS is often described as an aggressively pro-GM lobby group. But it’s much, much more than that. It is born of a bizarre political network that began life as the ultra-left Revolutionary Communist Party and switched over to extreme corporate libertarianism when it launched Living Marxism magazine in the late eighties. LM advocated lifting restrictions on child pornography, it opposed banning tobacco advertising, supported human cloning and so on.  In as much as it has a central philosophy, it is a fierce opposition to the state attempting to protect citizens from the excesses of big business.  But its real goal, and the reason for its political zigzagging, may stem from a long-held hatred of any kind of positive reform that might risk prolonging the system they hate. They call it ‘revolutionary defeatism’. By helping to accelerate the contradictions of capitalism they believe they are hastening the move to the 'next stage' of human development.
During the nineties, Living Marxism was successful at influencing the British media coverage of science and environment issues, particularly relating to gm food. But in 2000, it was sued for claiming that ITN had falsified evidence of Serb atrocities against Bosnian Muslims, and was forced to close. It soon reinvented itself as the Institute of Ideas, and the on-line magazine Spiked.
At each step in its evolution, it has been largely the same people who have given life to this strange movement – and painstaking research by Jonathan Matthews of shows it is many of the same people who now put themselves forward as the faces of respectable and trustworthy science.
It’s a dizzying network. The director of Sense About Science, Tracey Brown, for instance has written for both Living Marxism and Spiked and has even published a book with the Institute of Ideas. Both she, and her Programme Director, Ellen Raphael studied under Frank Furedi at the University of Kent, before working for a PR firm that defends companies against consumer and environmental campaigners.


Raphael meanwhile was the contact person for Global Futures, a publishing house that until recently shared a phone number with SAS. One of Global Futures’ trustees is former Revolutionary Communist Party activist and LM contributor, Phil Mullan, and despite being a publishing house, Global Futures seems only to have published two papers – one of them by Frank Furedi, the long-term figurehead of the LM movement.
The links go on and on. Dr Michael Fitzpatrick, for instance, a Sense About Science trustee is the Health Editor for Spiked, and according to Matthews, the domain name for the Sense About Science was registered by Rob Lyons, who is also web master for Spiked.

It’s a worrying development. According to its own website, Sense About Science urges scientists to “engage actively with a wide range of groups,” and one of its flagship initiatives was to set up a Working Group on problems associated with peer review. But three of the Working Group members belong to the LM network. Tony Gilland for instance is a director at the Institute of Ideas, and a contributor to both LM and Spiked. And Fiona Fox wrote the notorious LM article denying the Rwandan genocide. When it was asked to support the process, the Wellcome Trust declined on the basis of its ‘narrow’ membership. ‘It runs the risk,’ it said, ‘of being seen to be fuelled by assumptions, and not “direct evidence”’.
Not all the people behind SAS are members of the former LM network. Its Chairman for instance is the Liberal Democrat peer, Lord Taverne. But Dick Taverne is a comfortable fit. He believes science should be freed from the constraints of democracy, and describes the Precautionary Principle as the “cowardice of a pampered society”. And while he routinely fires off about non-scientists debating scientific issues, calling at one point for Prince Charles to be forced to relinquish the throne if he made any further statements critical of GM food, he doesn’t have a background in science himself. What’s more his own understanding of science has come under question. According to James Wilsden, head of Science at the highly respected Demos Thinktank, “Dick frequently spouts nonsense. He’s about as useful to science as Robert Kilroy-Silk is to race relations.”
With its history, no one could reasonably expect SAS to be anything other than an unconventional set up.  And given its backers – a veritable Who’s Who of biotech, pharmaceutical and chemical firms — you wouldn’t expect genuine independence. But as George Monbiot wrote at its launch three years ago, “the scientific establishment appears unwittingly to have permitted its interests to be represented to the public by the members of a bizarre and cultish political network.”

If that’s what has happened, this wouldn’t be the first time ‘independent’ science has been hijacked. Only a few weeks ago one of Britain’s most celebrated cancer experts, Sir Richard Doll, was spectacularly exposed for being on the payroll of companies whose products he was supposed to be reviewing in the public interest.
The Ecologist ran a lengthy feature on Doll ten years ago in which we showed that no matter what area he reviewed, he invariably defended the interests of industry above all else. Now that his financial links have surfaced, his supporters still claim there was never any real conflict of interest. But when he wrote to a Royal Commission set up to establish the health effects of Agent Orange on Australian soldiers who’d fought in Vietnam… he must have known that his all-clear would have been less convincing had he bothered to mention that he was being paid by Monsanto - the makers of Agent Orange – at the time. 

When Sense About Science puts itself forward as a fact-checking service, we can only hope its offer is rejected. For whichever way you look at it, SAS appears no more independent than an infant, no more objective than an animal rights fanatic – and far from injecting sense into science – it is more likely to undermine what little remains of the public’s faith in science.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist December 2006

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