Have faith in reason

March 18, 2005

Environmental fundamentalism is threatening the very foundations of democracy, says Dick Taverne

Modern science and liberal democracy were linked at birth during the Enlightenment and have been interdependent ever since.

Science flourishes only in a democratic environment that allows the spirit of free inquiry. But while the importance of the evidence-based approach to democracy itself is less obvious, my thesis is that we ignore current challenges to it at our peril.

We are all, I hope, concerned to preserve the beauty of nature and protect the environment from pollution. But pragmatic environmentalists must act rationally and ensure that we weigh benefit against harm.

Instead, an almost religious faith has come to pervade the environmental movement, which sees science and technology as manifestations of a mechanistic and rapacious attitude to nature, and dismisses any evidence that contradicts such passionately held beliefs. This is especially the case with the campaign against genetic modification of plants.

This eco-fundamentalism, as the writer Michael Crichton has noted, has re-mapped traditional Judaeo-Christian beliefs and myths. It has its Eden - when man lived in a state of unity with nature - its Fall - the result of eating from the tree of knowledge (science) - and a Judgment Day that will come for us all in this polluted world, except for true believers, who will be saved by achieving sustainability.

Campaigners against transgenic crops oppose them on ideological grounds.

Leading academies of science have found no indication that GM food harms human health and 280 million Americans have been eating it safely for a decade. But the campaigners ignore evidence that contradicts their beliefs.

The organic movement also has religious overtones. It is based on the principle that synthetic chemicals are bad and natural ones good. This ignores the fact that a molecule is a molecule, that synthetic substances can be beneficial and that some of the deadliest chemicals known to man occur in nature.

Claims made by the Soil Association for organic food have been rejected by the Advertising Standards Authority and Food Standards Agency as unsubstantiated. But evidence conflicting with its mystical beliefs is simply ignored.

Another serious case of disregard for evidence is the campaign against the mumps, measles and rubella jab. Some parents still refuse to accept overwhelming evidence that it is safe, because they believe vaccines are a dangerous interference with nature. Meanwhile, users of alternative medicine argue that "nature knows best" although any benefit depends largely on the placebo effect.

In some cases, disregard of evidence may be directly harmful: if people who are seriously ill abandon scientific medicine for quackery, they may die.

Likewise, if low-income families are persuaded by celebrity chefs and life-style magazines to pay premium prices for organic food, they may ultimately eat less fruit and vegetables and lose the protection against cancer that a healthy diet provides.

More insidiously, the spread of unreason threatens the tolerance on which democracy depends. It may seem a harmless eccentricity to swallow voodoo science, to allow eating habits to be dictated by propaganda based on phoney chemistry or to believe stories about "Frankenfoods". But if we abandon concern for evidence, we open the door to more dangerous charlatans; the peddlers of chauvinism and racial hatred.

Beliefs based on intuition, religion or blind prejudice cannot be countered by rational argument. Who can argue with creationists who answer evidence about evolution by quoting Genesis?

Religious fundamentalists cannot adapt beliefs based on divine revelation, which is why they do not tolerate dissent. Eco-fundamentalists similarly ignore evidence and embrace dogmatism.

By contrast, democracy depends upon discussion, tolerance and a willingness to compromise and adjust policies in the light of experience. Each time we turn our backs on evidence and reason, we take a step in the wrong direction.

Dick Taverne is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords and founder and chairman of the campaigning organisation Sense About Science. His book The March of Unreason: Science, Democracy, and the New Fundamentalism was published on Monday by Oxford University Press, £18.99.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments