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Dick Taverne


Science, Democracy, and the New Fundamentalism

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

This book tackles much the same territory as Francis Wheen's How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World, but considerably less entertainingly. Perhaps that is why, although I agreed with quite a lot of what Taverne says, especially his enthusiasm for the bicycle as a means of transport, I found reading his book an effort of will. This was no doubt due to his literary style, which is faultlessly correct but also somewhat lifeless. The book reads a bit like a Civil Service memorandum.

Taverne's general approach is to look critically at certain ideas that are fashionable in "progressive" circles, including alternative medicine, organic farming, hostility to genetically modified crops, and "eco-fundamentalism", by which he means environmentalism of the kind that refuses to listen to counter-arguments of any kind. All these things he sees as a betrayal of rationalism and the ideals of the Enlightenment.

I was particularly interested to read his chapter on alternative medicine, since this is a subject I have first-hand experience of. However, the chapter is quite short and I found his comments to be somewhat superficial. He discusses just two forms of unconventional medicine, homeopathy and herbal medicine, and then branches off on the reaction against the MMR triple vaccine. He also deals with protests against the removal of tissues and organs from dead children, which has little if anything to do with alternative medicine.

Like it or not, the evidence for homeopathy from randomized controlled trials is rather stronger than is acknowledged here. And although Taverne says that the "like cures like" idea is without foundation, elsewhere in the book he refers several times to the hormesis effect to support other arguments.In some cases, very small doses of certain toxins can be beneficial to health. This is known as hormesis. Taverne is aware that homeopaths have frequently pointed to hormesis as evidence for the effectiveness of the highly dilute medicines they use. He acknowledges this in an end note but claims that hormesis is quite different from homeopathy, though I think that the distinction is less clear-cut than he tries to make out.

In any case, alternative medicine is not Taverne's main interest and I think he might have done better to omit it altogether, since it requires a fuller treatment than it receives here.

He devotes a good deal of space to farming. He thinks that organic farming is a waste of time or possibly even harmful, tracing its origins to the ideas of Rudolf Steiner, the early twentieth century mystic philosopher and founder of Anthroposophy. He may well be right in this but I should have liked to see some references to back up the claim, Whatever one thinks of organic farming, it's difficult to feel much enthusiasm for the factory-style farming that has converted much of the English countryside into something like the American mid-West.

There are two chapters on GM crops, one putting the case in their favour, the other the case against. (Taverne has been a barrister, which no doubt explains this adversarial way of approaching the subject.) The verdict is strongly in the crops' favour. I'm prepared to believe that, as Taverne says, the dangers of these crops have been exaggerated, though this still remains to be seen. I am not however convinced that they will do as much for world poverty and hunger as he hopes they will. I tend to agree with Steven Mithen, who says (in After the Ice) that in the future we shall see the new varieties being used as just a source of wealth for those who control their distribution.

Here, as elsewhere, Taverne seems to be more optimistic about our prospects than I feel able to be. For example, he thinks that the case for immediate drastic action to counter global warming has hardly been made out and we should wait and see. "In a decade the picture may be much clearer, when in any event technology will be more advanced to cope with the problems we face." (p.154) The picture may indeed be clearer in ten years' time but it may also be too late by then to do anything about it, even if it isn't already.

Taverne is good on the absurdities of postmodernism and on the denigration of science "because [science] represents reason and reason has gone out of fashion in parts of academia". This is true and it needs constant repetition. And he is obviously right to point out the dangers as well as the absurdity of fundamentalisms of all kinds— Christian, Islamic, ecological or whatever. Whether one fully agrees with him or not, Taverne raises some important issues here. But the case for reason has been made better by others.

%T The March of Unreason
%S Science, Democracy,and the New Fundamentalism
%A Dick Taverne
%I Oxford University Press
%C Oxford
%D 2005
%G ISBN 0-19-280485-5
%P 310 pp
%K sociology

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