Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Zac Goldsmith, the ex-Marxists and the nature of science

Science and environmentalism don't always mix. Just look at Prince Charles. He is applauded for warning us of coming ecological catastrophe - for which we are supposed to take him seriously - yet this is a man who has repeatedly endorsed dubious alternative remedies, attacked science for its alleged "arrogance" and contrasted "cynical secularism" with "the timelessness of traditional religion". As Simon Singh has written, he's happy to adopt the language of science when it suits his prejudices. But the science behind climate change, however well-established, doesn't gain extra credibility by being vocally supported by Prince Charles; quite the reverse.

I don't want to dwell on His Royal Loopiness, however. Rather this piece is prompted by the vapid outpourings of someone else who combines vast inherited wealth with a desire to save the planet. Zac Goldsmith is a more serious proposition than Charles in many ways, not least because in a few weeks time he's almost certain to be a Conservative MP and is known to be close to David Cameron - and, indeed, to have influenced Tory policy on the environment. So it's rather worrying to see that he embodies the same pick-and-mix approach to scientific evidence as the heir to the throne.

Zac yesterday took to the Guardian to attack the charity Sense About Science for its leaflet "Science for Celebrities", an annual run down of some of the quasi-scientific utterances made by actors, musicians and sports stars and reported in the media. As an example: one-time Celebrity Big Brother winner Shilpa Shetty is quoted as saying "I avoid carbonated drinks - they sap all the oxygen from your body". This is followed by a refutation from a scientist who points out that carbonated drinks do no such thing. The aim of the campaign is to counteract in a small way the misinformation that can be put into the public domain by celebrities, who may mean well but usually have little idea what they're talking about. Or, as Goldsmith less charitably puts it, the leaflet "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 service."

Newspapers "lap it up", complains Goldsmith. They "have fallen into a trap"; they treat Sense about Science "with the kind of deference usually reserved for the Royal Society". This might just be because, as SourceWatch notes, SaS "has a very close relationship with the Royal Society." Several fellows of the Royal Society sit on its board of trustees or advisory council (which includes big names such as Professor Colin Blakemore). This doesn't stop Zac from claiming that the organisation is "at best suspect" - partly, it seems, because it doesn't endorse his doctrinaire resistance to GM crops. He contends that SaS's tactic is to conflate clear examples of celebrity ignorance with other, "perfectly sensible" observations - for example, Gwynneth Paltrow's reluctance to expose her child to pesticides even where there is no evidence that they are harmful.

According to Goldsmith, SaS is not what it appears to be. He claims that it is "the latest incarnation" 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." He further insinuates that the leaflet's scientific assertions - all made by named scientists expert in the fields concerned - are undermined by the fact that some former RCP activists have been associated with controversial positions on everything from climate change to child pornography laws. Even, it seems, when those individuals have no direct connection with Sense about Science.

This is not the first such article written by Zac Goldsmith. An almost identical piece (much of it verbatim) appeared in the Mail on Sunday three years ago (though it seems to have disappeared from the Mail's own website, it is widely available elsewhere) under the title "What Joanna Lumley should know about these so-called science experts". (There's one interesting edit, though: in the Mail piece he described celebrity endorsements of homeopathy as "anodyne"; perhaps he now recognises that reliance on quack remedies can be anything but.) That, in its turn, was heavily dependent on a Guardian article from 2003 by environmental campaigner George Monbiot. Monbiot claimed that a group of former RCP activists, led by the sociologist Frank Furedi, "have colonised a crucial section of the British establishment."

After LM folded after a libel case in the mid 1990s, the theory goes, Furedi sent out his acolytes (who include the Moral Maze panellists Claire Fox and Kenan Malik, and journalist Brendan O'Neill) to insert themselves into the media, a network of think-tanks and, eventually, politics. Some see great significance in the appointment of Munira Mirza, who has some tangential association with the group, as Boris Johnson's cultural adviser after his election in 2008. David Toube, for example, claimed that "entryism into Tory/centre Right groups seems to be the next stage of the project."

There are actually two variations on the conspiracy theory. One states that Furedi and Co have gone over to the right or are simply professional contrarians. Back in 2002 Nick Cohen (who is now a vocal supporter of Sense About Science's campaign for libel reform) attributed the success of former RCP activists to the media's need for "strident voices" advocating controversial positions (of the sort no politician would dare voice) and to their own understanding of "the need for shallowness". But another view claims that RCPers have maintained their revolutionary agenda. They hope that pointing out the contradictions in the current consensus will help shove a moribund capitalism out the window and prepare the way for their eventual takeover. Either way, we are assured that, whichever instrument it operates through (the Institute of Ideas, the Manifesto Club, the online magazine Spiked) the RCP core remains cohesive and conspiratorial. As Furedi complained to Chris Bunting in the Times Higher Education Supplement:

It is so fascistic. It is McCarthyism: writing to people trying to get you fired from your job because of some plot you are supposed to be involved in... What they are saying is that if you have had any connection with the RCP and you have since got on with your life, then whoever you work for now is a front organisation for the RCP, which doesn't even exist. Certainly, there is a network of like-minded people.

Some people do come from an RCP background, because we have a long intellectual history together, and we do work together sometimes, but it is just wrong to imagine that there is some revolutionary cell.

But then I suppose he would say that, wouldn't he?

Does the idea that Sense about Science is a front for the Revolutionary Communist Party have any validity? The evidence is rather tenuous. Here's Monbiot's case:

The phone number for Sense About Science is shared by the "publishing house" Global Futures. One of its two trustees is Phil Mullan, a former RCP activist and LM contributor who is listed as the registrant of Spiked magazine's website. The only publication on the Global Futures site is a paper by Frank Furedi, the godfather of the cult. The assistant director of Sense About Science, Ellen Raphael, is the contact person for Global Futures. The director of SAS, Tracey Brown, has written for both LM and Spiked and has published a book with the Institute of Ideas: all of them RCP spin-offs. Both Brown and Raphael studied under Frank Furedi at the University of Kent, before working for the PR firm Regester Larkin, which defends companies such as the biotech giants Aventis CropScience, Bayer and Pfizer against consumer and environmental campaigners. Brown's address is shared by Adam Burgess, also a contributor to LM. LM's health writer, Dr Michael Fitzpatrick, is a trustee of both Global Futures and Sense About Science....

(It goes on.)

Even if all this were true, it wouldn't mean that SaS is not an independent organisation or that it is putting inaccurate information into the public domain. It certainly isn't the mouthpiece of Spiked. To take one example, SaS would appear to be a strong defender of the consensus view of climate change (see, for example, this refutation of a sceptical article that appeared in the Express) whereas dissenting opinions are frequently to be encountered on Spiked. Writers on Spiked often take the view that policies canvassed to tackle climate change are "anti-human" and based more on a romantic dislike of scientific progress than on evidence. One can see why such a view would rile Zac Goldsmith. But in any case it isn't the view of Sense About Science.

There is, perhaps, a charge to be made (though interestingly Goldsmith doesn't make it) concerning SaS's funding. The group has received donations from, among others, the Association of the British Pharmaceutial Industry, BP, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, none of which are likely to be sympathetic to Zac Goldsmith's anti-GM agenda. On the other hand, SaS states on its website that "external funding will not divert Sense About Science from its agreed aims and values". And it should be remembered that GM opponents like Goldsmith have produced no actual evidence that it is dangerous.

As it happens, I rather like the various people and publications that can be traced back to the former RCP, who have done more than most to stand up against both pseudo-scientific hogwash and New Labour's stifling brand of safety-obsessed authoritarianism. I enjoy Spiked, which can be a wonderful corrective to the intellectual suffocation of politics and the media; even when it is wrong, it is wrong in interesting ways that make you think. I'm also fully behind the Manifesto Club campaign against the bureaucratisation of normal life, so marked a feature of the New Labour years. (Many senior members of the present government are also former Marxist, and have proved far more dangerous than anyone associated with the RCP.) So the news that SaS was founded by the some of these excellent people is quite reassuring to me. But it's also entirely irrelevant, except in what it reveals about their support for science.

Goldsmith's own grasp of the science is rather thin. He mentions the EU banning of Atrazine, which he describes (inaccurately) as "a pesticide that causes male frogs to grow ovaries in their testes", without acknowledging that it was scientific research that identified risks associated with the substance. That's how science works. He denies that the increase incidence of cancer over recent decades could be linked to greater longevity. But then why should he be concerned with the facts? Like Prince Charles, he regards science as being either in agreement with him, or else wrong-headed and arrogant.

Fortunately for the Conservatives, Zac's anti-science rant has been overshadowed today by the latest installment in the collapse of Gordon Brown's government. It could come back to haunt them, however. At the very least, it shows they have a potential loose cannon.