With thanks to the Guardian Journalist Zac Goldsmith 5 January 2010:

Every few months, an organisation called Sense About Science (SAS) issues a pamphlet that makes fun of celebrities getting their science wrong. It is full of what it regards to be false assertions by celebrities about the benefits of homeopathy and so on, and ends with an offer by the organisation to act as a fact-checking service.

Newspapers always lap it up. The problem is that they have fallen into a trap again. While they quote Sense About Science with the kind of deference usually reserved for the Royal Society, the organisation is at best suspect.

Sense About Science is much more than an innocent fact-checking service. It is a spin-off of a bizarre political network that began life as the ultra-left Revolutionary Communist Party and switched over to extreme corporate libertarianism when it launched Living Marxism magazine in the late eighties. LM, as it was latterly known, campaigned against, among other things, banning child pornography.

During the 90s, Living Marxism campaigned aggressively in favour of GM food. In 2000, it was sued for falsely claiming that ITN journalists had falsified evidence of Serb atrocities against Bosnian Muslims, and was forced to close. It soon reinvented itself as the Institute of ideas, and the online magazine Spiked.

The chairman of this movement’s latest incarnation, Sense About Science, is the Liberal Democrat peer, Lord Taverne. While he routinely fires off about non-scientists debating scientific issues, calling at one point for Prince Charles to be forced to relinquish the throne if he made any further statements critical of GM food, he doesn’t have a background in science himself.

Sense About Science’s director UK, Ellen Raphael, said “a little checking goes a long way”. This is the same organisation that claimed, in response to concerns raised by various celebrities: that if cancer is increasing, “it’s more common mostly because people are living longer”. This is hard to substantiate for all kinds of reasons, not least the fact that according to the US National Cancer Institute, childhood cancers have been increasing by 1% every year since the 50s.

Not everything the new pamphlet says is nonsense. It can’t be, or the newspapers would be embarrassed to run with it. Some examples of celebrities getting it wrong are spot on. They provide readers with the odd laugh, and more importantly, they give credence to the SAS critique of other, perfectly sensible celebrity observations.

Gwyneth Paltrow for instance is ridiculed for saying: “When I read about what pesticides can do to small animals, I thought, ‘Why would I want to expose my child to that?'” It’s a comment that resonates with many people. SAS, however, counters that “if studies produce doubt about the safety of a pesticide, it is not approved for use”.

Perhaps SAS is unaware of the story of Atrazine, a pesticide that causes male frogs to grow ovaries in their testes living in water containing levels 30 times lower than those set by the US Environmental Protection Agency for drinking water. Like countless other dangerous chemicals, it slipped through the safety net and was only banned in 2004 by the EU – after years of campaigning by environmentalists.

A little fact checking, indeed.

Read more astonishing facts about Sense About Science:

Your suspicions may start to be raised when you look at the list of donors to Sense About Science. These include the rather coyly abbreviated Association of British Pharmaceutical Industries (ABPI), GE Healthcare, and pharma companies GlaxoSmithKline, Oxford GlycoSciences plc, Pfizer plc, and Unilever plc. (and check out the people funding these attacks.)

Sense about Science is a “charitable trust, founded in 2002, to promote an evidence-based approach to scientific issues in the public domain. The trust works with organisations, experts and opinion formers to encourage this approach, particularly in areas of controversy”.

The trust describes its objectives as follows:

  1. To advance the education of the public in any branch of scientific research (including social science) and to disseminate useful information about such research.
  2. To promote (for the benefit of the community) the understanding of, and to stimulate interest in, the creation, presentation and use of scientific research.

It has a very close relationship with the Royal Society. For example, it has set up a Working party on peer review which meets at the RS, and is chaired by a member of the RS. The working party also includes members of the Institute of Ideas.

In October 2003, a series of largely unfavorable GM articles in the media followed the results of Farm Scale Evaluations of three GM crops. The group co-ordinated a letter to the Times written by Derek Burke of its Advisory Council and signed by 113 other scientists, complaining that the government had had remained silent instead of making the case for genetic engineering. “Genetic engineering of plants has been reduced to a matter of consumer preference; the public has been misinformed; and the efforts of scientists to communicate about genetic engineering have been misused,” they complained.

Tony Blair subsequently told the Commons that he had not ruled out the commercialisation of GM crops in Britain. The group has also planted a variety of pro-GM stories in the media, including the Broom’s Barn trials.

The trust shared the same phone number as Global Futures, and is related through this organisation and common personnel, to the libertarian Institute of Ideas and the LM group. The domain name senseaboutscience.org.uk was registered by Rob Lyons, the web master of right wing e-zine Spiked Online, edited by the prominent LM partisan Mick Hume.

Both are former employees of Regester Larkin, a Risk management PR company.

Sense about Science was registered as charity number 1101114 with the Charity Commission for England and Wales on 9 December 2003. The legal objects, which describe what the charity has been set up to achieve, are registered with the Commission as follows:

1: To advice the education of the public in any branch of scientific research (including social science) and in particular by the dissemination of such research and useful information about such research. 2: To promote (for the benefit of the community) the knowledge and understanding of the public of, and to stimulate the interest of the public in, the creation, presentation and use of scientific research.

Board of Trustees

Advisory council

Sense about Science publishes a donor llist online. Financial contributions, for both core and project-related costs, have been received from:

  • Association of the British Pharmaceutial Industry (ABPI)
  • Amersham plc
  • Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)
  • The Biochemical Society
  • Blackwells publishing
  • British Petroleum plc
  • Mr J. Browning
  • Mr D. Brydon
  • Prof A. Dixon
  • Dixons Group plc
  • The Society for Endocrinology
  • The Society for General Microbiology
  • GlaxoSmithKline
  • Halifax Bank of Scotland
  • Health and Science Communication Trust
  • International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA)
  • John Innes Centre
  • The John Innes Trust
  • Mr. J. Moynihan
  • Mr M. Livermore
  • Oxford GlycoSciences plc
  • Pfizer plc
  • Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain
  • Blackwells Publishing
  • Dr M. Ridley
  • Social Issues Research Centre
  • Unilever plc.

Help with equipment and facilities has been received from:

Has funded pro–GM research such as a survey on the cost of vandalism to sugar beet trials at Broom’s Barn GM research centre.

Contact details for Sense About Science:

60 Cambridge Street
London
SW1V 4QQ

Tel: +44 (0)1795 591975
Fax: +44 (0)20 7592 9684
Web: http://www.senseaboutscience.org.uk/
Email: enquiries AT senseaboutscience.org

The history of Sense About Science:

  • 1970s – Trotskyist faction ejected from International Socialists, further splinters into the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP)
  • 1980s – Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) establishes Living Marxism
  • 1990s – Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) begins infiltration of academic and media circles and Living Marxism title changed to LM
  • 2000 – LM forced to close after it loses libel case
  • 2000 – LM’s ex-editor launches Spiked website
  • 2000 – LM’s co-publisher, Claire Fox, launches Institute of Ideas
  • 2001 – Long-time LM contributor, and Claire Fox’s sister, becomes Director of the Science Media Centre
  • 2002 – LM/Spiked/Institute of Ideas contributor becomes Director of Sense About Science

http://www.lobbywatch.org/profile1.asp?PrId=78

The group which has worked hardest to portray the issue this way is the weird cult which arose from the Revolutionary Communist Party.

This Trotskyist splinter, whose chief theorist is the sociology professor Frank Furedi, has spent the past 30 years moving ever further to the right.

The magazine it founded in 1988, Living Marxism (later called LM), celebrated power and demanded total market freedom. It campaigned against bans on tobacco advertising, child pornography and the ownership of handguns.

It denied that genocide had taken place in Rwanda, or ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.

It provided a platform for writers from the hard-right Institute for Economic Affairs and Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise.

Frank Furedi started writing for the Centre for Policy Studies, which was founded by Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher. He and the LM writer Tony Gilland wrote to the supermarket chains, offering, for £7,500, to educate “consumers about complex scientific issues”.  http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2009/01/13/flying-over-the-cuckoos-nest/

Sense About Science are a lobby group set up to promote genetically modified foods and other vested interests in the plastics, chemical and biotec industries.

Some may wonder whether Sense About Science can be trusted to tell the truth about what it calls “difficult” issues, including “scares about plastic bottles, fluoride and the MMR vaccine to controversies about genetic modification, stem cell research and radiation” when it takes funding from companies that sell or promote these products:

In 2003 the GM Public Debate showed an overwhelming level of public opposition to GM crop commercialisation. In a double blow to GM proponents, the UK government’s farm scale evaluations (FSEs) had shown a generally discouraging environmental impact from the GM crops trialed.

Sense About Science launched a media campaign in an apparent attempt to limit the damage to GM caused by these two events.

On the eve of the 2003 publication of the first round of the FSE results, an article, based on the preliminary findings of a survey organised by Sense About Science, of institutes carrying out GM crop trials appeared in The Times under the headline, “GM vandals force science firms to reduce research”. Sense About Science’s director, Tracey Brown, was quoted in the article as saying, “The burden of trying to organise the research community to pre-empt and protect from vandalism is potentially disastrous.”

Articles in the Times Higher Education (THE) and elsewhere went still further, suggesting the GM Public Debate had been ‘hijacked’ by ‘activists’ and that GM plant researchers were being subjected to physical and mental abuse, leading some to take jobs abroad. One THE article, headlined, “Scientists quit UK amid GM attacks”, included claims of intimidation by Chris Leaver (a Sense About Science trustee) and the late Mike Wilson (then a Sense About Science advisory panelist)…..

Another article, “GM debate cut down by threats and abuse”, sounded an even more sinister note. It spoke of ‘ the increasingly violent anti-GM lobby’, ‘ growing levels of physical and mental intimidation’, ‘ hardcore tactics of protesters’, ‘ intimidation by anti-GM lobbyists… mirroring animal-rights activism’, ‘ increasingly vicious protests’, ‘” a baying mob” of anti-GM activists’, ‘a string of personal threats’, etc.. It also contained a call for ‘the government to intervene to protect researchers.’….

And Sense About Science are ‘deceitful’ when it comes to homeopathy:

David Tredinnick MP, in his evidence to the committee, criticised the choice of Tracey Brown as a witness, and detailed Sense About Science’s deceitful activities in the past with respect to homeopathy:

‘The Managing Director of Sense about Science, an organisation whose actions over a number of years has caused much harm to homeopathy in the UK, was invited to give evidence.

‘The result of this organisation’s actions has been the closure of courses, the closure of a very good hospital in Kent and withdrawal of NHS contracts following a letter sent to all PCT Chairmen on headed notepaper purporting to have come from the Department of Health instructing them not to commission homeopathic services’.

The Minister Gillian Merron said in her response to my adjournment debate on 14 October on Complementary and Alternative Medicine that:

‘The hon. Gentleman raised concerns about a document recommending disinvestment from homeopathy, which was circulated using the NHS logo.

‘I can confirm that our inquiries found no record of the Department having authorised the use of the NHS logo and that those who originated the document were asked not to circulate it any further.

‘They were advised about the use of the logo in future and chief executives of trusts were also informed that the document does not represent Government policy’.

Sense about Science is an organisation that does not have anyone on their list of advisors who has any expert knowledge in this field.

David Tredinnick also noted the bias in the choice of witnesses who were called to give oral evidence to the committee:

‘Only one doctor using homeopathy gave oral evidence… No doctors using homeopathy in a primary care setting have been asked. Dr. David Reilly from the Glasgow Homeopathic Hospital is regarded as a leading expert on this subject and should have been called.

In addition, the Society of Homeopaths, which was discussed both directly and indirectly as the principal organisation representing non-medical homeopaths, should have had the opportunity to put its views forward.

‘I believe that the Committee should have ensured that all the experts in this field were given the opportunity to give oral evidence’.