Tea Party UK will be built on anti-science

August 2, 2011 at 5:04 pm (BBC, capitalist crisis, climate change, Cuts, Green Party, Guardian, Jim D, Obama, populism, Republican Party, science, United States)

“The founding fathers built a constitution of checks and balances believing reasonable men would agree.; how could they have foreseen Sarah Palin, Michele Bachman or Glenn Beck?”Polly Toynbee in today’s Graun

Following Obama’s humiliating capitulation to the right-wing loons of the Tea Party, the Graun‘s Polly Toynbee (not one of our usual favourites here at Shiraz) speculates on the likelihood of such a movement arising in the UK and is generally fairly optimistic with regard to mainstream politics:

“Whatever you think of the Tory party, it is not shot through with US craziness,
not on stem cell research and gay marriage, or even really on abortion – though
they will toughen its conditions. Steve
Hilton’s cunning plan
to abolish all consumer, employment and maternity

rights got a dusty answer, while his green passions are at least tolerated. Most
Tories are driven by Thatcherism, with its shrink-the-state, on-your-bike thirst
for deregulation. But although Oliver Letwin‘s
parents were Ayn Rand disciples, the American right’s call of the wild is no
closer to Tory core sentiment than is Labour’s ritualistic singing of the Red
Flag once a year. Britain is more rightwing than mainstream Europe, our media
more strident, but we haven’t crossed the Atlantic – yet.”

I think Toynbee’s right about British politics – UKIP and the Tax Payers’ Alliance remain thankfully marginal forces with little popular support and well-deserved reputations for wackiness. That could change, of couirse, but for now I agree with Toynbee that the main arena for irrational, paranoid and reactionary populism in Britain at the moment is science – or, to be precise, anti-science.

Professor Steve Jones’ recent report on BBC coverage of scientific matters showed how even the good ol’ Beeb’s much-vaunted “impartiality” in practice has played into the hands of irrational nutters, flat-earthers and fanatics, by giving their nonsense equal coverage to the overwhelming consensus of scientific opinion.

Jones cites the examples of climate-change, the MMR/autism row and GM crops, as exaqmples of the BBC giving “false balance” between fringe fanatics (or, in the case of climate-change deniers, paid lobbyists) and the overwhelming weight of international scientific opinion. I would add the Green Party’s and CND’s irrational objection to nuclear power to that list.

But the recent story about threats to scientists working on Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is, perhaps the most dramatic recent example of at least some people’s paranoid consumerist hostility to rationalism and objectivity in science:

British researchers looking at the causes of chronic fatigue syndrome have received death threats from protesters angry at their focus on possible mental triggers, a report said Friday.

Several scientists researching the condition, which is also known as myalgic (ME), say they are being subjected to a campaign of harassment and abuse, the BBC reported.

Professor Simon Wessely, a scientist based at King’s College London, told BBC Radio that he now scans his mail for suspect devices after receiving “maliciously unfair” threats of violence.

“It’s direct intimidation in the sense of letters, emails, occasional phone calls and threats,” Wessely said, adding that those behind the abuse were also making official complaints to British medical bodies.

“I think sadly some of the motivation here comes from people who really do believe that any connection with psychiatry is tantamout to saying there is nothing wrong with you, you are making this up… That is profoundly misguided.”

The causes of are currently unknown but symptoms include severe and debilitating tiredness, muscle and joint pains, and .

A doctor representing sufferers in Britain said there was anger about the way the condition was being probed.

Charles Shepherd, medical adviser to the ME Association, said threats to scientists were “completely unacceptable” but called on the British government to support more research into the possible biological causes.

“I think you need to put this into the context of the fact that we have about 250,000 people with this illness (in Britain). A very, very tiny minority of these people are involved in this sort of behaviour,” he said.

A major US study in 2009 claimed that a mouse virus was the cause but researchers later said its findings were wrong and likely based on contaminated lab samples.

Toynbee closes her piece with a quote from Chief scientist John Beddington, arguing that  society must become “Grossly intolerant of pseudo-science, the cherry-picking of the facts and the failure to use scientific evidence and scientific method”. That’s the best – in fact, the only – defence we have against Tea Party thinking, whether from UKIP, the Greens or climate-change deniers.


  1. SteveH said,

    Irrational objection to Nuclear power – you are having a laugh surely.

    We may say that on balance and given the alternative Nuclear power is an evil we have to live with but to say opposition to it is irrational is frankly embarrassing.

  2. SteveH said,

    One further point (call me Columbo), we cannot treat science as some objective force standing outside society. Science itself needs to be challenged. This is what Marx did in his contribution to the critique of Political economy, in fact all Marx’s works were a challenge to official science. There is a struggle over what the scientific method is you know. How Marxists do not recognise this god only knows.

    Though I have no problem with the general sentiment of this post.

  3. Bruce Robinson said,

    I agree with both the above comments with the proviso that science can only be challenged in the name of science rather than of another non-rational form of belief system (which was what Marx did).

    I think that Jim is totally wrong to describe the CFS controversy as ” some people’s paranoid consumerist hostility to rationalism and objectivity in science”. It is rather (a) a dispute between two points of view both being pursued through science; (b) a reaction to people with the illness being told for years that there was nothing wrong with them, they were shirking or that it was psychosomatic. The medical profession is often prone to dismissing what it can’t immediately explain.

    The discussion on the Today programme also raised the question of why resources were being directed disproportionately t0 research looking at psychological causes.

    I have no problem with the general sentiment of this post either.;}

  4. Jim Denham said,

    More reactionary irrationalism: John Harris in the ‘Graun’ argues for a return to rural idiocy:


  5. Bruce said,

    Jim, don’t be silly. Whatever you think of Harris’ article, it is neither irrational nor about a return to rural idiocy – 40 years ago there were lots more small shops and no fewer big towns. More about class war between the petit bourgeoisie and the big monopolies.

    We had a daft campaign where I live claiming Tesco opening an express store in a garage would lead to all the independent shops (which have huge following among the sort of people protesting) closing. They haven’t of course and the all-purpose Asian greengrocer opposite, who greeted the news with words to the effect of ‘Bring it on’, is still thriving.

    There is a real issue however both about the power of large corporate chains and about the homogenisation of the high street. Tesco are not the only culprits – high rents are another factor rarely spoken about. My area has been overrun by estate agents and bars and stupid shops selling tat that close after six months. If we had powerful planning laws (which first Labour and now the Tories are watering down), it would be possible to achieve a decent balance and a better urban environment.

  6. Clive said,

    Where I live, apparently, with some exceptions, the opening of local Tescos and Sainsburys has had a bad effect on the (mainly Asian and Turkish) shops which were there before. There’s a planned new big Sainsburys (the other one is one of those little ones), and it would seem – from chatting to neighbours and hearing conversations on the bus – that it’s pretty unpopular.

    It’s reasonable, isn’t it, to support non-monopoly local retailers? (I mean by buying stuff in their shops).

    I agree with Bruce that one issue here is ‘homogenisation’. Last year I visited several small towns in other parts of the country, and their town centres were pretty much identical. It was actually rather shocking – literally the same chains, from Starbucks and Costa to Accessorise and what not.

    My neighbourhood in London is much more distinctive, partly because there has been some resistance to the chain stores.

    (I don’t know what ‘resistance’ means exactly. And in the one case of a campaign I know about, I thought it was pretty dodgy: that is, it was a campaign against Nando’s – which lost. It did strike me that there was a subtext which was that Nando’s would attract too much (black) riff raff into the area).

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