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Next handcart to hell

The March of Unreason: Science Democracy and the New fundamentalism

(Dick Taverne)

Reviewed in: The skeptic Vol 18 no 4 Winter 2005

The title is a sexy one for the sceptically-inclined: a brazen invitation to shake our heads at growing cultural insanity and enjoy some pleasurable indignation. Yes, Taverne has seen the enemy and the enemy is oh dear, it seems to be me. This book turns out to be outside the usual remit of the skeptic as it is actually a political polemic claiming that we are all going to hell in a handcart because 'anti-science eco-fundamentalists' are claiming that we are all going to hell in a handcart.

With an unusually high rhetoric-to-meat ratio this book reads like a debating speech (unsurprisingly, as the author was once a well-known politician and lawyer). I used to go in for debating societies myself so I know the tricks: the throwaway phrase gesturing at a hinterland of understanding that one doesn't quite have, the self-deprecating 'I'm no expert' making one sound like an honest broker, the apparently fair-minded concession of minor points.

Taverne shoots himself in the foot by writing this way because the overall effect created is of glib untrustworthiness. Political debate about environmental issues (which he unfairly bundles up with homeopathy and what-have-you)can get extremely nasty and people on both sides make things up, exaggerate, and devote much energy to constructing and demolishing straw men which they insist are true representations of their opponents. How do I know he isn't doing the same?

Two fifths of this book is taken up with a rant about agriculture, in particular GM, doubts about which he caricatures as ninnyish 'anti-science'. Colin Tudge, a respected science writer with a biology background and specialist experience of the area, wrote the recent So Shall We Reap which expresses some very measured criticisms of conventional agriculture and the proposed spread of GM. I really don't know if Tudge is right but his views are intellectually respectable; he is not a ninny and not 'anti-science'. So why should I believe a mere politician (particularly one who foams at the mouth and skates over complicated points) in preference to him?

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