Article by Zac Goldsmith
on Sense About Science
Published in The Mail on Sunday, 7 January 2007
When a group calling itself Sense About
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
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 that suggests an altogether less
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 www.gmwatch.org 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
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
, 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
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