Well well. This was not news I was expecting. Via Beck Smith of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, I’ve just learned that David Tredinnick has been chosen by his fellow Conservative MPs to fill a vacant place on the Commons Science and Technology Committee (see point 69 in the link).
Tredinnick is one of the stars of the Geek Manifesto — and not in a good way. I’ve thus posted the section about him here.
What is sad about this is not so much Tredinnick’s views — there are always likely to be eccentric MPs like this. It is that he has been elected by his Tory colleagues to represent them on the main parliamentary scrutiny committee for science. I’m sure few of his MPs agree with him on astrology and alternative medicine. Yet they’ve betrayed a worrying indifference to science in supporting his candidacy.
It’s this indifference to science, not Tredinnick’s (rare) hostility to science, that is the chief cause of disconnects between science and public policy. The Geek Manifesto has plenty of ideas about how we might attempt to change it.
Anyway, here’s the extract:
On the evening of 14 October 2009, David Tredinnick got to his feet in the House of Commons to open a debate. The Conservative MP for Bosworth, in Leicestershire, was desperately worried that the Health Minister, Gillian Merron, had overlooked a grave threat to the wellbeing of the public. The object of his concern wasn’t pandemic flu, or air pollution, or childhood obesity. It was the moon.
‘At certain phases of the moon there are more accidents,’ he gravely informed the House. ‘Surgeons will not operate because blood clotting is not effective, and the police have to put more people on the streets.’ It wasn’t the first time he had raised the subject in Parliament. Back in 2001, Tredinnick told the Commons that ‘science has worked out that pregnancy, hangovers and visits to one’s GP may be affected by the awesome power of the moon,’ and quoted a newspaper report suggesting that arson attacks double when the moon is full.
He stopped short of mentioning werewolves, but you probably don’t need to be told that their existence is about as well supported by science as his other claims.
So convinced is Tredinnick of the political significance of the movements of the heavens that he charged the taxpayer £755.33 for astrology software and consultancy services (which he later repaid when his expense claim became public). His commitment to the lunatic fringe of science does not end there: he is an assiduous promoter of just about every alternative medicine on the market, and recently asked the Health Secretary to congratulate homeopathic chemists on their contribution to containing swine flu.
It’s tempting to think of Tredinnick as little more than a harmless eccentric, with opinions so far outside the mainstream that they carry very little influence. Would that this were so. In the summer of 2010, his fellow Conservative MPs elected him to a seat on the House of Commons Health Select Committee. Yes, a man who genuinely appears to believe that surgeons prefer not to operate when the moon is full, and who has called on the Department of Health to be ‘very open to the idea of energy transfers and the people who work in that sphere’, is now among the eleven politicians tasked with holding that department to account.
He isn’t alone. Serving alongside Tredinnick on the health committee we find Nadine Dorries, a Tory MP who likes to promote an urban myth about a twenty-one-week foetus grasping a surgeon’s finger – repeatedly denied by the surgeon – to support her demand for restricting abortion.
Neither is a fondness for pseudoscience confined to the backbenches. Peter Hain, a long-serving minister in the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, convinced himself that homeopathy cured his son’s eczema, and promoted alternative medicine from a position of power. Anne Milton, a current Conservative Health Minister, cites her grandmother’s experience as a homeopathic nurse in support of NHS funding of alternative medicine.
In the United States, weird views about the findings and importance of science straddle party boundaries in similar fashion. At a House of Representatives hearing in 2007 on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent report, Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican congressman from California, took issue with conventional explanations for sharp global warming in prehistoric times. ‘We don’t know what these other cycles were caused by in the past,’ he said. ‘Could be dinosaur flatulence, you know, or who knows?’ When Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma senator and medical doctor, asserted that ‘condoms do not prevent most STDs’, his reward was to be appointed by President Bush to the chairmanship of an HIV advisory group.
Tom Harkin, the influential Democratic senator for Iowa, convinced that his allergies were cured by a supplement known as bee pollen, secured the creation of the US National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, which wastes about $130million a year on studies of what you might call bogus therapies. Gary Goodyear, Canada’s Science Minister, is a chiropractor who in 2009 refused to say whether he believed in evolution, telling a journalist from Toronto’s Globe and Mail: ‘I’m not going to answer that question. I am a Christian, and I don’t think anybody asking a question about my religion is appropriate.’
We’ll meet many of these characters again later, in Chapters 8 and 9. But, thankfully, they’re not all that typical of politicians. The level of scientific misunderstanding they show, which sometimes borders on outright hostility to science and its methods, lies at the extreme end of the spectrum. Yet the very fact that they have been able to succeed in politics despite such views, and to rise to positions of considerable power and influence, is indicative of the value that politics places on science. Too few politicians even recognize the absurdity of their views. Tredinnick and Dorries aren’t figures of fun who lack the respect of their colleagues: they were elected to the select committee where their unscientific views have the potential to do most damage.
If mercifully few politicians are actively anti-science, many are indifferent to it.
They often lack an understanding and appreciation both of basic scientific concepts and language and, more importantly, of its robust approach to developing reliable knowledge. Many are simply uninterested. In the last House of Commons the Conservatives regularly failed to fill all their allocated seats on the Science and Technology Committee and at the time of writing two of Labour’s seats stand vacant. One has remained unfilled for more than a year.