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05 January 2010 by Zac Goldsmith, for The Guardian
Sense about Science?
Every few months, an organisation called Sense About Science issues a pamphlet
that makes fun of celebrities getting their science wrong. It is full of what it
regards to be false 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
Newspapers always lap it up. The problem is that they have
fallen into a trap? again. While they quote Sense About Science with the kind of
deference usually reserved for the Royal Society, the organisation is?at best
Sense About Science is much more than an innocent fact-checking
service. It is? a spin-off 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
campaigned against, among other things, banning child pornography.
the nineties, Living Marxism campaigned aggressively in favour of GM food. In
2000, it was sued for falsely claiming that ITN journalists 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
The Chairman of this movement¹s latest incarnation, Sense About
Science, is the Liberal Democrat peer, Lord Taverne. 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 doesn¹t have a background in science
Sense About Science Director, Ellen Raphael, said; “a little
checking goes a long way”. This is the same organization that claimed, in
response to concerns raised by various celebrities, that “most [chemicals] leave
quickly but some stay: asbestos and silica in our lungs, dioxins in our blood.
Do they matter? No!”
Another SAS expert declared that if cancer is
increasing, “it’s mostly 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
percent every year since the fifties.
Not everything the new pamphlet
says is nonsense. It can’t be, or the newspapers would be embarrassed to run
with it. Some examples of celebrities getting it wrong are spot on. They provide
readers with the odd laugh, and more importantly, they give credence to the SAS
critique of other, perfectly sensible celebrity observations.
Paltrow for instance is ridiculed for saying: When I read about what pesticides
can do to small animals, I thought, ‘why would I want to expose my child to
that?’? It’s a comment that resonates with many people.
SAS however counters
that; “If studies produce doubt about the safety of a pesticide, it is not
approved for use.”
Perhaps SAS is unaware of the story of Atrazine, a
pesticide that causes male frogs to grow ovaries in their testes living in water
containing levels thirty times lower than those set by the US Environmental
Protection Agency for drinking water. Like countless other dangerous chemicals,
it slipped through the safety net and was only banned in 2004 by the EU - after
years of campaigning by environmentalists.
A little fact checking,
This article appearedin The Guardian January 2010