THE MARCH OF UNREASON: SCIENCE, DEMOCRACY, AND THE NEW FUNDAMENTALISM
By Dick Taverne
Oxford, $29.95, 318 pages
REVIEWED BY HENRY I. MILLER
“Drunk as a lord” hardly applies to Dick Taverne — or Lord Taverne, since 1996 when he was made a baron — the sober, polymathic and persuasive author of “The March of Unreason.” Although not himself a scientist, Mr. Taverne, a Queen’s Counsel (an especially learned barrister appointed to advise Her Britannic Majesty), former member of the British Parliament and currently member of the House of Lords, offers a spirited defense of science and its evidence-based approach to public policy.
He argues that “in the practice of medicine, popular approaches to farming and food, policies to reduce hunger and disease and many other practical issues, there is an undercurrent of irrationality that threatens the progress that depends on science and even [threatens] the civilized basis of our democracy” and that we ignore this trend at our peril. In making his case, Mr. Taverne demolishes many modern foibles and myths, as well as the radical “eco-fundamentalists” who promulgate them.
He notes the paradox that as people live longer and safer lives, they seem to be increasingly obsessed with societal risks of all sorts, and that as society devises better prevention and treatment of disease and produces more nutritious and varied food more efficiently, more people turn to alternative medicine such as homeopathy and quack remedies, and denounce the most precise and predictable methods for the genetic improvement of crop plants. Remorselessly and effectively, he skewers the mania for organic food, the popularity of astrology and other forms of mysticism, and the widespread but baseless bias that “nature knows best.”
Mr. Taverne is not averse to alternative medical treatments when there is evidence to support their use, but as Oxford University evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has pointed out, most often they “refuse to be tested, cannot be tested, or consistently fail tests.” This is certainly true, for example, of the vast majority of herbal dietary supplements, which enjoy huge popularity in the United States and Europe.
Many of these products, which are not very different from the infamous 19th century snake-oil preparations, are known to be toxic, carcinogenic or otherwise dangerous. Few have been shown to be effective for anything, and serious known side effects include blood-clotting abnormalities, high blood pressure, life-threatening allergic reactions, abnormal heart rhythms, exacerbation of autoimmune diseases, and interference with life-saving prescription drugs. The American Society of Anesthesiologists has warned patients to stop taking herbal supplements at least two weeks before any scheduled surgery in order to avoid dangerous interactions with the drugs used for anesthesia. And yet many people forego proven prescription drugs in favor of these preparations.
Mr. Taverne uses the saga of measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine to illustrate the social damage that can be wrought by the rejection of evidence-based medicine. In 1988, Dr. A.J. Wakefield and his colleagues described a case series of 12 patients at a referral clinic in England, all of whom presented with inflammatory bowel disease and autism. They hypothesized that in some children the MMR vaccine provokes inflammation of the intestine, which permits toxins to leak into the bloodstream, and thence into the brain, where they cause the damage that shows up as autism. Panic ensued, with the anti-vaccination lunatic fringe — helped by the sensation-seeking media — orchestrating a campaign against MMR. Assurances by governments that the triple vaccine was safe were ignored; and where vaccination rates have declined, there have been outbreaks.
Mr. Taverne characterizes as “a monument to irrationality” the trend toward consumers’ buying overpriced organic food, promoted by advocates whose “principles are founded on a scientific howler; it is governed by rules that have no rhyme or reason, and its propaganda could have an adverse effect on the health of poor people.”
In the United States, for example, the rules that define organic products are nonsensical, in that organic standards are process-based and have little to do with the actual characteristics of the product. Certifiers attest to the ability of organic operations to follow a set of production standards and practices that meet the requirements of the regulations.
Paradoxically, the presence of a detectable residue of a banned chemical alone does not constitute a violation of this regulation, as long as an organic operation has not used excluded methods. Thus, regulators seem to reward effort and intent, whether or not the “integrity” (for lack of a better word) of the product is compromised. That’s rather like saying that as long as your barber uses certain prescribed tools and lotions, your haircut is automatically of high quality.
Moreover, because organic farming is far less efficient than conventional farming, organic food costs more (to say nothing of requiring more land put into farming), and the hype from markets like Whole Foods puts pressure on the less affluent to buy more expensive fruit and vegetables that may actually be of lower quality. Higher prices mean lower consumption, and consequently fewer of the benefits conferred by a diet rich in fruits and vegetables. Finally, organic producers’ insistence on avoiding gene-spliced varieties will prevent consumers of these products from benefitting from nutritional and safety improvements down the row — er, road.
Mr. Taverne argues compellingly that the conflict over gene-spliced crops is the most important battle of all between the forces of reason and unreason, both because of the consequences should the forces of darkness prevail, and also because their arguments are so perverse and so consistently and completely wrong.
In fact, agricultural practices have been “unnatural” for 10,000 years, and with the exception of wild berries and wild mushrooms, virtually all the grains, fruits and vegetables in our diets are genetically modified. Many of our foods (including potatoes, tomatoes, oats, rice and corn) come from plants created by “wide cross” hybridizations that transcend “natural breeding boundaries.” Gene-splicing is no more than an extension, or refinement, of less precise, less predictable, older techniques, and gene-spliced plants, now grown in at least 18 countries, have for a decade been cultivated worldwide on more than 100 million acres annually.
They are ubiquitous in North American diets: More than 80 percent of processed foods on supermarket shelves — soft drinks, preserves, mayonnaise, salad dressings — contain ingredients from gene-spliced plants, and Americans have consumed more than a trillion servings of these foods. From the dirt to the dinner plate, not a single ecosystem has been disrupted, or a person injured, by any gene-spliced product — a record that is superior to that of conventional foods.
As Mr. Taverne observes, the objection to gene-spliced foods is purely ideological, bordering on the religious. During a House of Lords Select Committee hearing in 1999, Lord Melchett, then director of Greenpeace, was asked “Your opposition to the release of [gene-spliced plants], that is an absolute and definite opposition? It is not one that is dependent on further scientific research?” He replied: “It is a permanent and definite and complete opposition.”
Mr. Taverne deplores the “new kind of fundamentalism” that has infiltrated many environmentalist campaigns — an undiscriminating “Back-To-Nature” movement that views science and technology as the enemy and as a manifestation of a mechanistic, rapacious and reductionist attitude toward nature. He notes that eco-fundamentalists are also strongly represented in anti-globalization and anti-capitalism demonstrations around the world.
In this, Mr. Taverne echoes Michael Crichton, who argues in his latest novel, the much-acclaimed “State of Fear,” that eco-fundamentalists have reinterpreted traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths and made a religion of environmentalism, a religion with its own Eden and paradise where mankind lived in a state of grace and unity with nature until mankind’s fall, which came not from eating an apple, but after eating from the forbidden tree of knowledge (that is, science). This religion also has a judgment day to come for us all in this polluted world, except for true environmentalists, who will be saved by achieving sustainability.
These are ominous trends. Not only do they retard technologies which, applied responsibly, could dramatically improve and extend many lives and protect the environment, but they could eventually strangle scientific creativity and technological innovation. Even worse, irrational practices born of eco-fundamentalism undermine the health of civilized society and of democracy, by limiting citizens’ ability to engage in voluntary transactions. Defend science and reason, argues Mr. Taverne, and you defend democracy itself.
Henry I. Miller is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author of “The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution,” chosen by Barron’s as one of the 25 Best Books of 2004.