10 Mar 2007

Scientists or Living Marxists?

Until today, I had a button in my sidebar that linked to a guide on peer review written by a group called Sense About Science. The Scientist ran a story on this guide in 2005. Why have I removed that link? Because I've realised that Sense About Science is a front organisation.

I came across Living Marxism or LM magazine as a student. LM was the latest incarnation of the once Trotskyite Revolutionary Communist Party. I naively received a free copy of LM in my first term at university after one of those pavement "muggings" so popular with charities, and quickly made sure I cancelled my direct debit after reading its ramblings. LM/RCP had a strange strategy for a supposedly left-wing organisation, which consisted of adopting contrarian and right-wing positions. They denied the Rwandan genocide, denied climate change, belittled concerns about child pornography as 'censorship' as part of their Campaign for Internet Freedom and were rather equivocal on racism and sexism, attacking the Anti-Nazi League and feminism. In 2000 LM folded after losing a libel trial - it had wrongly claimed that ITN had deliberately misrepresented pictures from the Bosnian War. Good riddance, you might think.

Sadly, the end of LM was not the end of the "LM group". Their "entryist" approach has continued with Sp!ked Online, but also with various other front organisations.

Among these front organisations is Sense About Science. Fiona Fox, a member of one of their working parties, used to be known as Fiona Foster. Fiona Foster wrote the article denying the Rwanda genocide. She is the director of another LM front organisation, the Science Media Centre. Many of the other individuals behind Sense About Science are similarly part of the LM group, including the director Tracey Brown, who wrote that article for The Scientist.

Not everyone has fallen for the entry of the LM group into the arena of science policy. Writing in 2004 in the magazine of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (page 29), Tom Wakeford warns that we should "Embrace democracy, not the People's Front":

Something odd is happening at science policy meetings these days.

Every time a reasonable old soul turns up to suggest that everyday people are actually quite sensible in their attitudes towards science and technology, out comes a response from a stranger at the head of the table.

‘No,’ they say,‘the public don’t know enough. Listening to their ignorance and prejudice will lead to the end of civilisation.’

‘Who is that?’you nudge the person next to you.‘Oh, that’s the Institute of Ideas/Sense about Science/Spiked person,’comes the reply. ‘Can’t remember their name – they’re new here.’

You’ll remember that sketch from Monty Python’s Life of Brian:

Brian: Are you the Judean People’s Front?

Reg: F* Off!

Brian: What?

Reg: Judean People’s Front?? We’re the People’s Front of Judea! Judean People’s Front, pah!!

The sketch was inspired by student politics and might as well have been written about science’s newest Front.They began as the Revolutionary Communist Party groupings that appeared at the fringe of campus life in the late 1970s under Frank Furedi, who now teaches sociology at the University of Kent.

Sense About Science and the Science Media Centre are very seductive for scientists, as they counter some of the current anti-science trends in the media. However much their messages may seem to gel with those of scientists, they have their own agendas. Don't fall for it - the LM group are cynical and deceptive.

This post is my opinion, and not that of BioMed Central.


pj said...

Do you have any evidence that the association of these organisations with the LM groupuscle has lead to any biases in their work - or is it simply concern with an as yet unrealised hidden agenda that worries you?

pj said...

You might be interested in the connections between the LM crew and The Great Global Warming Swindle director Martin Durkin.

Matt Hodgkinson said...

pj rightly asks whether I have anything in particular against the work of these LM group fronts. I didn't go into this to avoid going on for too long, but yes, I do.

Their unquestioning support of corporate-sponsored science and the "scientific establishment" is of concern, as is their easy dismissal of health concerns in the "Science for Celebrities" leaflet (http://www.senseaboutscience.org.uk/pdf/ScienceForCelebrities.pdf).

I know that celebrities can come out with astonishing nonsense (witness Gillian McKeith), but this leaflet uses soundbites to broadly dismiss organic food, alternative medicine, concerns about chemical toxicity, and worries about use of hormones in agricultural animals. This is not engaging in a mature debate, this is sensationalist and about as bad as the celebrities they criticise.

To quote from the leaflet, "asbestos and silica in our lungs, dioxins in our blood. Do they matter? No!". Really, asbestosis, silicosis and dioxins don't matter? Ahem. "At least 3500 people in Great Britain die each year from mesothelioma and asbestos related lung cancer as a result of past exposure to asbestos" - NHS Direct; "People with silicosis are at high risk for developing tuberculosis" - MedlinePlus; "Each year, more than 250 American workers die with silicosis" - CDC; "Even very small dioxin concentrations can cause negative effects on the environment and on human health, in particular on the most vulnerable groups like children. Human health effects include impairment of the immune system, the nervous system, the hormonal system and the reproductive functions. Dioxins are also suspected of causing cancer" - European Commission report.

This leaflet contains the kind of patronising paternalism that science and medicine do not need.

The assumption of Sense About Science and the Science Media Centre that technologies like "golden rice" are the answer to the world's problems is lazy. The kneejerk opposition of "science" to those questioning GM foods, pesticides, chemicals in food and other household goods, animal experiments etc. is itself anti-scientific. The anti-GM and animal rights campaigns aren't remotely scientific themselves, but while the assertion of these LM fronts that "science" must be in favour of GM foods makes them very cozy with those with certain vested interests, it doesn't make them scientific. To spell out my point, supporting new technologies, pharmaceutical companies and animal research is not one and the same as supporting the scientific method.

pj raises an interesting point by mentioning the Great Global Warming Swindle. There are a lot of people and groups who would love global warming to go away, and the LM group have set themselves up to sell that message. Carl Wunsch, a participant in the TV show, has told the Guardian that "his comments in the film were taken out of context and that he would not have agreed to take part if he had known it would argue that man-made global warming was not a serious threat. 'I thought they were trying to educate the public about the complexities of climate change,' he said. 'This seems like a deliberate attempt to exploit someone who is on the other side of the issue.'".

This is typical of the LM group. They did exactly the same a decade ago with documentary called "Against Nature". The Independent Television Commission judged that "Comparison of the unedited and edited interview transcripts confirmed that the editing of the interviews with these four contributors had indeed distorted or misrepresented their known views. It was also found that the production company had misled them, when it originally sought their involvement, as to the format, subject matter and purpose of the programmes. No mention had been made of the critical position the programmes intended to adopt, for example in correspondence".

More here: http://www.badscience.net/?p=383#more-383

For a damning (and admittedly somewhat sweeping) summary of the beliefs of another of their fronts, the Institute of Ideas, see http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,3604,341053,00.html

The Pro-Test campaign also seems to have involvement from the LM group:
They really do get everywhere!

On the one hand they want to be seen as supporters of science, and on the other they are willing to be totally unscientific when it comes to global warming.

Once you realise that the LM group have a right-wing libertarian agenda that aims to counter all liberal politics, their behaviour begins to make sense. Politically, they are anathema to me (I am a member of the Green Party), but their tactics of using a plethora of front organisations should trouble anyone.