The Green Party’s science policy

There’s a debate over at Liberal Conspiracy about the Green Party’s science policy:

Last week, Frank Swain and I wrote a piece for The Guardian in which we questioned the various parties on their science policies ahead of the elections. We heavily criticised the Green Party of England an Wales, in spite of their sparkling climate and environmental credentials, and in doing so kicked off a debate that ran for much of the week on blogs and in The Times. On one side, many people thanked us for exposing deeply troubling attitudes.

On the other, Greens angrily claimed we had misrepresented their views. So are the Green Party anti-science; and if so what should they be doing to correct this?

Frank and I set out to write our article by putting nine science-themed questions to the parties. We knew that our response from the Green Party was going to be interesting when we saw this quote:

“The Green Party, for example, is in favour of increased funding for research on methods of integrated conventional and holistic treatments for cancer. […] We would oppose attempts to regulate complementary medicine, except by licensing and review boards made up of representatives of their respective alternative health care fields.”

As Tim Minchin put it, alternative medicine by definition is medicine that has been proven not to work, or not been proven to work. Alternative medicine that works is called “medicine”. Under the Green Party, money that could be spent researching actual evidence-based treatments for cancer could instead be diverted to quack remedies like homeopathy.

So what is Green Party’s science policy really like? Let’s have a look at it to find out:

ST200 We believe that people are naturally curious about the world, and enjoy extending their knowledge by scientific study. This research is a worthwhile cultural activity in its own right. It can, and should be, life enhancing, not life endangering. The current rush to explore at all costs should be tempered by an awareness of what kinds of discovery might have the potential to lead to harm to people, the planet, or life thereon, and might be beyond the capability of today’s society to control.

The whole point of research is you don’t know what you will find. All research has the potential to lead to harm to people (for example if it’s used to make weapons, or if it leads to some industries become uncompetitive even if it improves overall welfare). If we take this caveat seriously, we’d have to ban all science.

ST210 […] A wide range of projects should be chosen and unconventional ideas given fair consideration.

I wonder if “unconventional ideas” is code for woo?

ST220 Ethical Boards will be set up at institutional, regional and national levels to evaluate scientific and technological research. All scientific research should be ethically justified. It will be up to researchers to justify their intended research on ethical grounds measured against an accepted list of criteria. The evaluation will apply to a full range of activities, including industrial, military, educational, scientific, medical and veterinary investigations.

ST221 The ethical criteria would be developed with full public debate and participation, and would include consideration of human and animal welfare, the protection of the environment, local and global public sensibility, and the empowerment of people and communities rather than the concentration of power into already powerful hands.

ST222 Membership of the ethical boards would be broadly based, and include non-scientists and non-technologists. The boards would be constituted so as to maintain a genuine independence and public accountability. They would publish all findings.

So all science will have to go through the bureaucratic obstacle of an ethics board. Ethics boards are reasonable in medical or animal research, but not in general. These ethics boards will of course include people who don’t understand the subject in question (“non-scientists and non-technologists”) because it would be elitist (“concentration of power into already powerful hands”) to expect people to have to understand particle physics before deciding whether to go ahead with the Large Hadron Collider.

So scientists will have to justify their research to Green Party placemen who understand nothing about science.

ST242 International collaboration in research will be increased and free movement of ideas, knowledge and researchers between countries will be maintained and facilitated.

If this means all research must be published in open-access journals, it’s a good policy.

ST250 Some people feel ignorant of science and technology, and overawed by it. People should feel in control of the technology that pervades their lives. Education should be sufficiently holistic to end the perceived division between the arts and sciences,

I’m not sure how this is supposed to be achieved or even if it means anything, beyond “holistic” being a hooray word for Greens. I don’t see how a school could integrate Shakepeare and classical physics in the same lesson, for example, although I suppose you could have Juliet in the balcony scene saying “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art eff equal to em ay?”.

and to integrate science teaching with everyday life. Science education itself should be less specialised and more interdisciplinary, and should foster a socially and environmentally responsible attitude in scientists.

Oh wonderful, political propaganda in science lessons. Just what we all need.

ST251 Non-standard career structures will be encouraged, including movement between disciplines and entry and re-entry into research from other activities, without artificial constraints on age.

Fair enough.

Professional bodies will be encouraged to avoid domination by male hierarchies

Any minute now I expect them to describe the principia as “Newton’s Rape Manual”.

and closed sub-cultures.

The problem with this is that science is a fundamentally meritocratic (as opposed to democratic) undertaking. To understand a sub-sub-field of science well enough that you can do research in it requires a good deal of intelligence and hard work.

ST252 A pledge will be introduced by which all scientists and technologists will promise to respect the Earth and life upon it.

Wonderful, a loyalty oath that scientists will have to swear to if they want to keep their jobs. I bet they did that in Stalin’s Russia, too.

ST303 Technology is seductive to western society. Institutional and cultural inertia tends to perpetuate technologies even when they are malign.

OMG, technology is seductive and evil!

Technology must not only be regulated but also continually reassessed from as long-sighted a perspective as possible. Both regulation and assessment will require the consistent application of the Green philosophy

So every business will have to beg to bureaucrats before they can introduce any new product with new technology in it. (Which essentially means all new products, since most advances in technology are small incremental improvements in existing technology). If this was introduced it would destroy UK manufacturing industry, when tends to concentrate on high-technology, high added-value products.

ST321 Technology Commissions will be set up to facilitate the shift in technology required for a sustainable, conserver, decentralised society. They will be particularly concerned with the problems of achieving appropriate scale, self-reliant local economies with full control over their technologies, and “technology with a human face”. They will encourage low-impact technology and discourage technology that could contribute to the subjugation of weaker members of world society.

This subjugation is mostly economic, i.e. rich countries get to prevail over poor countries. If the Greens are serious about this, they will ban all technologies that make Britain a rich country.

ST322 The Technology Commissions will assess technological innovations for safety and impact. Safety should be inherent in technical systems, rather than being dependent on active control by fallible operators.

In many cases this is inherently impossible. Would they ban all vehicles that aren’t steered by computer?

Impact assessment of new and existing technologies would consider social, economic and inter-regional effects as well as environmental impact.

Wonderful, another bureaucracy that high-tech businesses need to get approval from. Just what Britain needs to revive our manufacturing sector.

ST330 All industrial products should be well designed and well made to ensure longevity and optimum use of resources (see NR420s). Goods should be durable and designed with ease of repair or recycling as high priorities.

Longevity and optimum use of resources are conflicting goals; you can optimise for one but not the other. For many electronic products these days, it’s cheaper to throw them away when they stop working than to repair them, and if you make that illegal, you’ll be promoting a sub-optimal use of resources.

ST331 Standards Commissions will be set up to assess product designs (see NR425). Design requirements should reflect the need for environmental protection and the need for durable goods to be repairable or recyclable.

Another bureaucratic regulator. I guess all these bureaucracies will create jobs, if nothing else.

ST333 Taxation policy (see EC700s) will ensure that the prices of products will incorporate the real costs of the use of non-renewable resources, transport, any pollution caused and eventual safe disposal (e.g. recycling).

This is actually sensible. I guess even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

ST351 The perceived value of craft products is undermined by the low cost of mass-produced goods. Taxation policy (EC700s and EC900s) would provide some compensation for this effect.

Oh. My. Fucking. God. This. Is. Insane.

Look, it’s a feature, not a bug, that mass production makes things cheap. Right now I’m wearing jeans that cost £6, a hoodie that cost £8, and trainers that cost £50. On my desk is a computer (£500), a lamp (£10), and a printer (£60). There’s a clock on the wall (£10). All these product would cost about 10 to 20 times as much if they were individually handcrafted.

ST370 Technological aid to the third world should be appropriate and should avoid exploitation and the generation of dependency.

So poor countries shouldn’t use computers unless they can manufacture them themselves?

Summary: there’s some good stuff in the Greens’ science and technology policy, but it tends to be surrounded by a lot of nonsense that reads like it was written by people who are both ignorant and fearful of science and technology. The overwhelming impression is of people who wish the industrial revolution hadn’t happened and want to live in a mythical pre-technology golden age — my mental image is of the Shire from Lord of The Rings. (Of course life in real pre-industrial societies is nasty, brutal, and short). If the Greens want to be taken seriously, their policies need a good going-over by someone who understands science, such as Ben Goldacre.

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One Response to The Green Party’s science policy

  1. Pingback: How do we solve a problem like the modern environmental movement? « The Enlightenment Junkie

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