BCA vs. Simon Singh: a letter to an MP, and the responses

BCA vs. Simon Singh: a letter to an MP, and the responses

Back in June, I wrote the following letter to my MP, and received a reply, also printed below.

I encourage anyone who is concerned about the chilling effect and consequences of the BCA’s libel case against Simon Singh to contact their Member of Parliament. MPs that are aware of this case, and are made aware that it is of concern to their constituents, will be much more likely to do something about it.

Representative democracy is responsive democracy, but MPs first need something to which they can respond. So, write!

Dear [M.P.],

I write to express my deep concern regarding the recent libel case brought by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) against Simon Singh, and the implications for English libel law.

In 2008, Simon Singh wrote a comment piece in The Guardian newspaper on the evidence for and against chiropractic. The BCA took offense at one line in particular, on the lack of evidence for the use of chiropractic in treating babies. Simon Singh had recently written in depth about the evidence for chiropractic in his book ‘Trick or Treatment?’ and so knew well of which he spoke in the comment piece. He is, as am I, a scientist, and therefore is used to the scientific method: in the face of scrutiny or disbelief from our peers, we endeavour to defend our work on its merits and on the evidence. This is how science progresses, and it is how advances in medicine are made. It is how the public good is protected. Yet the BCA, rather than provide a robust defence of their practices and claims, chose instead to sue. What was an earnest comment, written in the public interest and for the public good, was pulled by The Guardian as soon as the writ was served.

The implications are profound. You are surely aware of the concerns that many have regarding English libel law, but with this case, English libel law has taken a turn down sinister new paths. For anyone considering writing about the evidence, or lack thereof, for a treatment, the threat of a libel action will have a chilling effect on that intention. The public good is poorly served when scientists or health professionals cannot write freely about evidence and fraud in medicine, for fear of damages and costs that can run into well over 100,000 pounds just for a preliminary hearing.

In the field of public health, it should not be open for any provider or promoter of treatment to sue for defamation in respect of their provision or promotion of those treatments*. There must be a balance between the rights of the individual to protection of reputation, and the rights of the public to hear discussion of the merits of treatments provided by said individual. Defendants should be protected by qualified privilege in such cases, as are journalists under the so-called “Reynolds Defence”, or we may see further erosion of the rights to free speech and comment in England.

I note that the Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport has been considering libel law. I hope that by bringing this particular case to your attention you will be more aware of the serious and chilling directions that libel law has been taking, and will be able to offer whatever appropriate support you can toward moderating these tendencies. Additionally, the charity Sense About Science has been campaigning for a change in the law, and your colleagues Dennis MacShane, Michael Gove and Dr Evan Harris have put their names to a statement of support that you will find attached to this letter**.

Yours, [name here]

*{h/t to JoK}

** see here and here.

A few weeks later, I received the following reply.

Dear [me],

Thank you for your letter regarding the recent libel case brought by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) against the journalist Simon Singh, and the implications for English libel law. I apologise for the short delay in responding. Your concerns about journalistic freedom of speech and the UK’s current libel law are duly noted.

Freedom of speech is essential in a functioning democracy and indeed is recognised in international and human rights law. The right to freedom of speech is particularly important to the media, which plays a special role as the bearer of the general right to freedom of expression for all.

I have therefore written to the Rt. Hon. Ben Bradshaw, Secretary of State at the Department of Culture, Media & Sport about this issue and have asked him to comment. I will let you know as soon as I receive a response.

In order to get the reply to you as quickly as possible, I may forward it to you directly. However, if there are any issues arising from the response which you wish to pursue further, please do not hesitate to let me know.

Thank you again for bringing this issue to my attention.

Best wishes,

[M.P.]

In August 2009, I received the following letter from Bridget Prentice, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, to my Member of Parliament. He was good enough to forward it on.

From: Bridget Prentice MP. Parliamentary Under Secretary of State.

Thank you for your letter of 26 June to Ben Bradshaw at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, about a recent libel case brought against Mr Simon Singh. Your letter has been passed to this department and I am responding as the Minister responsible for civil justice issues.

As a Government Minister I am unable to comment on individual cases which are or have been before the courts. In that context, I understand that this case may be subject to appeal. However, it may be helpful if I begin by explaining the law in this area in general terms.

It is important that people have an effective right to redress through the law of libel where their reputation as been damaged as the result of the publication of defamatory material. Whether material is defamatory is a matter for the courts to determine based on all the relevant circumstances. The main tests established by the courts in determining whether material is defamatory are whether the words used “tend to lower the plaintiff in the estimation of right-thinking members of society generally”, “without justification or lawful excuse [are] calculated to injure the reputation of another, by exposing him to hatred, contempt, or ridicule”, or tend to make the claimant “be shunned and avoided and that without any moral discredit on [the claimant’s] part.”

Your constituent is concerned about the effects of the libel laws on freedom of speech. The Government firmly supports the right to freedom of expression, which is protected by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). In addition, section 12 of the Human Rights Act 1998 requires courts to have particular regard to the importance of the right to freedom of expression, particularly in relation to freedom of the press. Of course, the exercise of this right carries with it duties and responsibilities that are expressly recognised in the law. It is not an absolute right, and can be restricted for a number of reasons set down by law, such as public safety, the prevention of crime, or respect for the rights or reputations of others. Often, the right to freedom of expression may need to be balanced against other rights, like the right to respect for private and family life, home and correspondence, which is protected by Article 8 of the ECHR.

As you may be aware, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into Press Standards, Privacy and Libel and is considering a wide range of issues in this area of law. The Justice Secretary gave evidence before the committee on 19 May and the Government will consider carefully any recommendations that the Committee may wish to make in its forthcoming report.

I hope you find this information helpful, and I enclose a copy of this letter for you to forward to your constituent, should you wish to do so.

Bridget Prentice.

Giving politicians political cover

Giving politicians political cover

It’s easier to complain about politicians being bought off by lobbyists and campaign donors than it is to do anything about it. In fact, doing something about the pernicious influences in politics comes down to just a few cost-free actions.

In representative government, politicians represent the people that contact them with their views. If only lobbyists and campaign donors contact them, don’t be surprised if that is who will be represented. However, politicians do have dedicated resources in place to help them represent their voters.

Take the House of Representatives in the U.S. These people represent very large numbers of voters. They have large numbers of staff, in local offices and in the capitol, and they will take steps to ensure that every time a constituent contacts them, the representative knows about it. Constituent management software (e.g.) is used to track and categorise the contacts that are made with the office. At the end of each day, the representative can get a breakdown of phone calls and emails urging a yes vote on a bill or a no vote on a bill, and whether the calls are from their own constituents or out of state. It isn’t quite direct democracy, but the idea that representative democracy is not responsive democracy is just obviously wrong.

So what sort of numbers are we talking about? Apparently the climate bill, now moving through the U.S. Senate, is generating a lot of constituent contact. Joe Romm at ClimateProgress has heard that call loads of 100-200 a day are coming in that oppose a climate and clean energy bill.  Opponents to the bill in Congress matched the number of calls from supporters of the bill, although most of the opponent’s calls came from out of state.

Phone calls, emails, and letters help politicians gauge public support and provide political cover. Senator Cardin’s chief energy policy advisor had this to say:

“If you want a stronger climate bill, we need to hear from you. Send us your input.”

There’s no shortage of lobbyists waiting to speak to politicians. But politicians also want to hear from their constituents, and they will give a high priority to what their constituents have to say.

Does money get votes? The cash for climate story

Does money get votes? The cash for climate story

As mentioned previously on this site, Ottawa city councillors get a fair whack of money from developers for their campaigns.

Here is yet more evidence that donations do affect voting intentions. This comes from the US, where both houses are wrangling with climate change legislation.

On June 26, the House narrowly passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (HR 2454) by a vote of 219 to 212. The final version of the bill that passed the House Floor differed substantially from the version that was originally introduced by Reps. Waxman and Markey.

As the bill heads to the Senate for further markups and compromises, MAPLight.org examined some of the House actions that illustrate the influence of special interests on the legislative process.

House members’ positions on changes to the bill tended to correlate with financial support from the interest groups that would benefit from these changes.

Money matters. Legislators respond to campaign contributions, and if their voters do not approve, yet say nothing, it’s the money that will talk.

I’ve heard from lobbyists that they only wish they had the influence over a legislator that constituents had. I only wish constituents knew it as well, and would take the time to contact their representatives. Even a phone call can make a difference.

Does money get votes? A city of Ottawa example, part II

Does money get votes? A city of Ottawa example, part II

In a previous post, I looked at the plausible influence of campaign donations on council member’s voting records.

Ottawa city council members have been the recipients of a lot of cash from developers. To see if there is a link between cash received and their voting records, one can look at how they vote and see if it matches with the amount of money received. It’s a crude kind of analysis, but then, companies giving cash to a candidate’s electoral campaign isn’t exactly sophisticated or subtle.

In the vote on expansion of the urban boundary, the council voted not to expand by 2,000 hectares (which is what the developers wanted), nor by the 800 hectares (as recommended by city staff), but only to allow a single expansion of 220 hectares, to complete an area that was already largely developed.

Here’s how councillor’s votes lined up with cash received.

220
hectares

Amount
taken

% Total
contributions

Gord Hunter

n

$14,600

49.15

Rob Jellet

y

$13,450

39.05

Diane Deans

y

$12,150

35.55

Larry O’Brien

absent

$11,150

2.57

Maria McRae

n

$11,000

33.48

Jan Harder

n

$10,900

39.92

Michel Bellemare

y

$7,850

25.01

Rainer Bloess

n

$7,400

29.35

Bob Monette

n

$7,350

31.79

Rick Chiarelli

n

$5,600

21.12

Georges Bedard

y

$4,600

17.52

Eli El-Chantiry

n

$3,850

11.15

Doug Thompson

n

$3,650

39.09

Marianne Wilkinson

n

$2,850

16.72

Christine Leadman

y

$2,300

9.87

Steve Desroches

n

$1,500

8.29

Jacques Legendre

y

$950

4.59

Shad Qadri

n

$150

1.72

Glenn Brooks

y

$0

0

Alex Cullen

y

$0

0

Clive Doucet

y

$0

0

Peggy Feltmate

y

$0

0

Diane Holmes

y

$0

0

Peter Hume

y

$0

0

The vote to allow a limited expansion of 220 hectares was acceptable to all the councillors that had received no money from developers. As this motion was passed, the previous committee recommendation for 842 hectares expansion was not voted upon. The councillors that had received most money from developers, and voted against the motion to allow only 220 hectares, may have done so as they felt 220 hectares was not sufficient.

Ecology Ottawa were right to highlight the amount of campaign contributions from developers. There are plenty of examples of the subtle and not so subtle influences played by lobbying, contributions and freebies. A University of Kansas study found that a one-time tax break allowed several multinational corporations to receive a 22,000 % return on lobbying expenditures. Even though the amounts of money spent on campaign contributions to Ottawa councilors is tiny in comparison, even small gifts can change the recipient’s perception of the donor. Clipboards and notepads from drug companies given to medical students, though trivial gifts, were sufficient to improve the student’s perception of that company’s products.

So does money buy votes on Ottawa City Council?  It’s plausible, insofar as any donation can influence the perception of the recipient, although clearly votes do not line up exactly with campaign contributions. It could be that councillors that vote for expansion represent wards outside of the core, and they may perceive a need for growth in their wards quite differently to councillors from inside the city.

Ultimately, both voters and the councillors themselves need to be aware of the influence campaign donations can have on decision making. If the electorate remains silent on an issue, then a vote in favour of developers is not even controversial. In our representative democracy, developers and voters alike have the right to participate, to lobby and to donate.

Canada to fund research into alternatives to physics, chemistry

Canada to fund research into alternatives to physics, chemistry

The Chalk River nuclear facility was a major producer of isotopes for nuclear medicine. Unfortunately, it broke down.

No worries though. Specialists in nuclear medicine called for more research into alternatives to Tc-99m, and Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq heard their call for help:

“…we hope to research into alternative, non-nuclear isotopes that could supplement or replace Tc-99m in certain medical imaging procedures.”

Minister? I know the Harper Conservatives are not the Party of Science, but do you not have someone that you can call?

Ottawa City Council debates urban sprawl

Ottawa City Council debates urban sprawl

Every five years, the city’s official plan comes up for review. Developers have been pushing for a huge increase in expansion of the urban boundary of some 2,000 hectares. This despite the city’s stated vision of intensification and densification and the existence of a greenbelt around Ottawa. The city has also been dealing with the consequences of amalgamation, which increased the city size and incorporated outlying communities. As a result of that process, council members represent some very different wards with very different interests, and it is unsurprising that council debates are often split on the big issues.

This debate was no different.

While developers had been pushing for 2,000 hectares, city staff had recommended just over 800 hectares, a recommendation that had been approved previously in committee.  However, full council, by a vote of 12 to 11, approved only 222 hectares connecting Kanata and Stittsville for new construction.

Councillor Peter Hume put forward this motion, after an attempt by Councillor Diane Holmes to halt all expansion failed by a vote of 10 to 13.

Here are some of the highlights:

Following the clear cutting of a wooded parcel of land on the urban boundary –  clear cut so that it would be more likely to win approval for development if the boundary were expanded – Councillor Jellet proposed that specific area be eliminated from the proposed urban expansion area. As Councillor Hume put it, to include the site of the ‘Orleans tree massacre’ would “just be rewarding that kind of behaviour”. Gratifying to see council pushing back.

Councillor Harder was put out that council did not want to respect the committee’s recommendation or the work of city staff. Legal counsel told her that ‘Council reigns supreme’ and any motions passed would overrule the committee recommendations.

Councillor Monette took umbrage at a previous suggestion that we could be more like Europe. The very idea. “We are not like Europe. In Canada we have ample land.” Well, that told this European. He argued that families dream of a home with a garden, and we should keep that dream alive. New Canadians [the sprawl-loving trouble makers], are in Orleans because they are able to purchase single  family homes there. If we don’t expand the boundary, we could run out of single homes, and we want our grandchildren to have the chance to buy a single home. Yes, the ‘think of the grandchildren!’ argument.

Councillor Jellet was succinct and emphatic. I paraphrase slightly: “We don’t need any more land. We meet all the regulations, we have plenty of land within (the boundary).” As laconic as Leonidas.

Back to the real engine of urban sprawl, the New Canadians. We were all apparently raised on the American Dream and reruns of Blame it on Beaver. Councillor Wilkinson, speaking on our behalf, told council that ‘New Canadians want to have their own place’. We need starter homes, apparently, and for New Canadians, the ability to own our own place is very important. Her ward has lots of New Canadians moving in, all in pursuit of the white picket fence. Oh yes, and “to say ‘never expand’ is to say that people can’t have their own place.” She paints an unusual vision for the city, one where the core is filled with indigenous Ottawans, practicing their native and entirely unappealing to outsiders culture, while New Canadians all head for the suburbs to, one supposes, take commuter jobs as advertising executives. Did she miss the part of the plan that talks about intensification and densification?

Enter Diane Holmes, with the one, truly passionate speech of the afternoon. She got straight to it, calling the official plan ‘timid’ and saying with just a small adjustment, by changing the proportions of different housing types, we would not have to expand at all. I have to paraphrase again: “We are subsidising people to buy single family homes in outside areas to enable people to live in the 1950s American Dream. But we can’t afford to live that 1950s dream. What is the most efficient use of the land? That is holding the line. That is going from single homes to doubles. We need to be living in smaller places. Using transit. What I am hearing is the same old 1950s thinking.” You know what Councillor? Me too! I felt that we just shared a moment. But she wasn’t done. There was a segue into climate change, and a dig at some council members for their denialism: “Some people think there is no green problem. But that is not facing reality.” So what is the future, what is the vision? “Smaller houses, smaller lots, fewer single family homes.” And she’s right. Densification and intensification necessarily means just that, and she’s also right that it is the most efficient use of the land. Sprawl doesn’t benefit the city. Studies have shown that urban expansion has cost 1,000 dollars per unit in the city core, amounting to a subsidy paid by the inner city denizens so the suburbs can live the American Dream.

Councillor Hunter doesn’t believe those studies. Council’s role, he told us, is “meeting the demand of what our citizens want and not social engineering into what we want it to be.”  No word on when the city’s planners will be having their job titles changed to ‘social engineers’, and no word on whether Councillor Hunter has ever played Sim City. I have and if I learned anything it is that social engineering is, like, hard, so I’m totally with him on that. But oh yes, back to the study, the one about the core subsidising the suburbs. I wonder if he read it?  Apparently,he told us, if Ottawa doesn’t grow, other communities will, and they will use our park and rides, our amenities and our hospitals, and we won’t get the tax revenue. The thing is, councillor, if Ottawa isn’t getting net tax revenue anyway from our suburban sprawl, surely not expanding is a net plus on the balance sheets?

Councillor El Chantiry invoked the Canadian Dream, which was uncannily similar to the aforementioned American variety, expressed some vague disatisfaction with the greenbelt and deployed a new acronym: BANANA. Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone! Cute, but it doesn’t quite square with the intensification and densification plan, which would mean, by definition, ABSNS, Always Building Something Near Someone. He also pointed out that if council doesn’t support the committee recommendation and the recommendations of city staff, it was a waste of taxpayer money to have made the recommendations at all.

Councillor Feltmate, like Diane Holmes, also has the vision thing. Not the 1950’s dream, but the sustainable living vision, one based around the city’s light rail and transit plan. Densification and intensification used to make a lot of coherent sense when the transit plan was in place,  but it got ditched by the new mayor in between the old official plan and the new official plan. So keep the urban boundary as tight as possible, people, and remember, 1,000 dollars in the hole if you live downtown and we expand the boundary.

Finally, GM got a shout out from Councillor Deans. “I’m not sure that it is 1950s planning… but I will say that 20 years ago, I would not have imagined we would see big car companies collapsing, and they are collapsing because they didn’t get the importance of change. And city council has to get the importance of change.”

I’ll end on that note. And one final comment: council has been listening to its constituents, and the community has been making its opinions known. This from the Ottawa Citizen:

Councillors against expansion were bolstered by a growing community push to limit suburban sprawl, which studies show drain the municipal finances and can harm the environment.

So there you have it. Writing to your councillor really does make a difference. So keep it up, and hopefully Ottawa will become more like Futurama, the world of tomorrow, and less like a subsidized, sprawling and inefficient version of ‘I Love Lucy’.

Helping politicians get science

Helping politicians get science

The disconnection between what scientists know and what politicians do can be very frustrating. How do we bridge that gap?

In the US, Congress had the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, but chose to disband it in 2005. Its role was to provide “unbiased information concerning the physical, biological, economic, social, and political effects” of technological applications. An authoritative body like OTA is one approach to bridging the science gap, and one that I hope the Congress will restart soon.

In Canada, the Partnership Group for Science and Engineering (PAGSE) has been making a very useful contribution to bridging the gap. They provide regular lectures for parliamentarians on subjects of scientific interest, in an informal, unofficial but well attended series called “Bacon and Eggheads”.

This flagship series brings together Parliamentarians with experts across science and engineering, showcasing outstanding Canadian research accomplishments. Its purpose is to provide unbiased insight into topical scientific issues, within a non-partisan forum in which lobbying is not permitted. This prestigious forum represents a unique opportunity for scientists to communicate important findings to a distinguished and influential audience, which includes key decision-makers.

The series is organized by PAGSE, an umbrella group of 25 + science and engineering organizations operating under the auspices of the Royal Society, and is cosponsored by NSERC. Breakfasts are held once-monthly in Room 200 of the West Block while Parliament is in session.

Recent lecture topics include: Hot prospects in the cold: the new Geological Map of the Arctic; Life, Climate and Vanishing Ice at the Top of Canada; and Are Batteries and Fuel Cells ready for All-Electric Vehicles?

Read more: Ottawa Citizen

The Green Party has a problem

The Green Party has a problem

Specifically, the Green Party of England and Wales has a credibility problem.

The European elections are underway in the UK. Seats for the European Parliament are awarded using a system of proportional representation, rather than the first past the post system that elects members to the House of Commons. As a result, small parties, like the Greens, have a better than usual chance of getting elected.

George Monbiot wrote in the Guardian that voting Green is the only choice if one would like to send a message to the three main parties on climate change.  I suppose there’s a certain amount of merit to that suggestion, although the message sent will be subject to interpretation. Certainly it will be this year, where, in the wake of the expenses scandal, votes will be cast all over the place in protest at the incumbent parties. The ballot box is a poor, blunt instrument for sending political messages. After all, one doesn’t have to complete a questionaire explaining one’s voting intention in order to be able to vote.

Back to the question of credibility. Martin at the Lay Scientist has some useful information. He sent requests to the main parties for their positions on a number of different scientific issues, and the results were, for me – in the case of the Greens – surprising.

Here they are on alternative medicine:

Do you believe that complementary and alternative medicine has a role in public health care, and do you believe it should be subjected to the same regulations as conventional medicine?

Green: Yes, we believe that complementary and alternative medicine has a role in public health care. The Green Party, for example, is in favour of increased funding for research on methods of integrated conventional and holistic treatments for cancer. We want the gradual inclusion of complementary therapies within NHS provision so that patients have access to all available and appropriate treatments. Complementary therapies can often prevent the situation worsening and thus save resources. 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.

The NHS provides free health care for UK residents, and, more and more, takes an evidence-based approach to its provision; for example, NICE, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, look at various treatments and consider their costs and benefits. The Green Party want more complementary therapies on the NHS,  but framing it as a matter of patient choice rather misses the point. If something doesn’t work, if there is bugger all evidence for a treatment, the NHS shouldn’t be providing it and NICE shouldn’t be approving it. It’s hard to see how the provision of more alternative medicine is anything other than a step back from the laudable progress being made toward evidence based medicine by the NHS. As for holistic cancer treatments, they ask for more research funding. But again, this misses the point. A lot of holistic / alternative / complementary treatments have been shown over and over again to just be bogus, and don’t need more research. The request for more research monies is yet another attempt to have scientists do the same old studies, over and over again, until they get their sums ‘right’. The NHS doesn’t need to integrate homeopathy, chiropractic, aromatherapy, traditional Chinese medicine, flower remedies or whatever into its conventional treatment algorithms. These treatments have not been shown to work. It isn’t worth it.

They also oppose regulation of complementary medicine, except when said regulation is done by proponents of complementary medicine. But why? Is there any good reason that complementary treatments should be exempted from the same kinds of controls to which conventional  treatments are subject? The only reason that comes to mind is simply that in many cases, complementary treatments don’t need regulating because they don’t do any harm, and they don’t do any harm because they don’t do anything at all. Take homeopathy. A sugar pill that claims to be Oscillococcinum will be chemically indistinguishable from any other homeopathic sugar pill, even one that claims to be something else. All are equally worthless as they do not contain any active ingredient. In fact, in terms of regulation of homeopathy, this is all that is needed: a manufacturer can make no claims for treatment, efficacy or application if their product has not gone through the same regulatory process as any other medication. That would be fair, evidence based and scientifically reasonable. Sadly, this is not currently the case, as homeopathic treatments can make such claims, based on ‘traditional useage’.

In other cases, complementary medicine does cause direct harm. Chiropractic, the invented pseudo-medicine of stressing the spine in the hope of treating back problems or illnesses, can lead to stroke and death, but the profession is not interested in monitoring itself. If there is another treatment modality more in need of regulation, I don’t know it.

The idea, then, that the only regulation complementary medicine should undergo is by members of the self-same health care field is nonsensical. These fields have a vested interest in preserving and expanding their scope of practice, and a demonstrable unwillingness to engage with the evidence, or lack thereof, for what they do. Complementary medicine should be subject to the same scrutiny and regulation as is conventional medicine. To want otherwise, as the Green Party of England and Wales do, is not scientifically credible.

On Genetic modification:

The field of genetics has the potential to improve human health and nutrition, but many people are concerned about the effects of genetic modification both in humans and in agriculture. What is the right policy balance between the benefits of genetic advances and their potential risks?

Green: Genetically modified food presents significant and un-quantified risks to human health and the environment. These outweigh any benefits. We would ban the production or import of any genetically modified food. GM is any food that is genetically modified or includes genetically modified ingredients; from genetically modified animals; or from animals that have been given genetically modified feed. People in Britain need to know what they are eating. As such, any GM food available in this country needs to be clearly labelled as containing genetically modified ingredients or coming from genetically modified sources.

It is politically safe to oppose genetically modified foods in Europe, as public opinion is on side. But opposition – from a political party – should at least make some kind of sense. My question to the Green Party of England and Wales on this is simply: if the risk is significant and unquantified, how the heck do you know it outweighs the benefits? As the amount of land growing GM crops has increased every year, and after more than a decade of growing these things, I think the risk would be at least a little quantified by now.

An explanation:

In comments on Gimpy’s blog,  Aram tells us that “any member [of the Green Party] can propose policy, get a number of seconders and get policy passed democratically at conference. It’s not a party that makes policy top-down, with only a few people having “authority” over potential changes.” That could go a long way to explaining why the Green Party of England and Wales comes across as so flaky on these issues. Sure, its democratic, but as in many things, the mob don’t know jack. Ignoring expertise in favour of popular opinion may not be the best way to formulate policy.

What the Green Party of England and Wales get right:

I have to say, I’m impressed with the willingness of their members to engage with their critics, and they are open to reexamining their policies. See Gimpy’s blog for examples. And it is plausible that if enough critical thinkers joined them, the Green Party’s policies could take a decidedly more rational turn.  Whether it is worthwhile to try and improve a brand that is so much associated with sandal eating, Guardian-wearing, granola haired hippies, rather than joining, say, the Liberal Democrats and improving that, is for the individual to decide.

The final thing I will highlight is their stance on climate change, which is on solid scientific grounds.

On climate change:

How will you use a seat in the European Parliament to tackle climate change and its impact on the UK?

Green: The top priority, and the cheapest, is to reduce demand though cutting waste and improving efficiency, The Green New Deal includes massive investment in insulation. Renewables then have maximum value against a backdrop of reduced demand, rather than as currently only filling the gap in increased demand, which allows fossil fuel use to remain high. Carbon trading can work, but needs to be better co-ordinated with meaningful systems and actions. Exempting major polluters is clearly a nonsense. EU and UK carbon reduction targets need to be deeper and managed more actively.

I agree with all their points here. This proposal should get results fast, and I wish there were another party in the UK with a similar level of committment to combating climate change. Then again, I wish that the Green Party had the level of credibility of one of the other major parties; then policies like this could have a chance of implementation.

Summary

As with most parties, their platform represents the particular ideology or world view of their participating members. Many of the issues that the environmental movement has taken on are well supported by good scientific evidence: acid rain, ozone depletion, climate change, ocean acidification, to name a few. The problem is that the philosophy of the Green movement is only sometimes coincident with the scientific evidence. It is a worldview that looks on conventional farming as bad, disregarding centuries of research and innovation, but sees organic farming, the principles of which were spun from whole cloth by a German mystic, as good. It is a short intellectual step to believing in homeopathy or chiropractic and their principles of sympathetic magic and vitalism. There is a willingness to disregard or ignore the entire discipline of risk assessment in favour of the precautionary principle. It is best to do nothing at all, in case the very worst scenario that they can possibly imagine comes true.

The sad part is that scientists could find a home in a party like the Green Party of England and Wales, as so many ‘Green’ issues first came to public awareness because of the gathered scientific evidence. Indeed, in other countries, Green parties are more reasonable.

George Monbiot suggested that a vote for the Greens would send a message on climate change to the main parties. I would suggest that a vote for the other parties just as clearly sends a message to the Green Party of England and Wales. That message? You are not credible. Getting it right on climate is not good enough.

How do you violate an Albertan’s human rights? Teach them

How do you violate an Albertan’s human rights? Teach them

Thanks to Bill 44, the HUMAN RIGHTS, CITIZENSHIP AND
MULTICULTURALISM AMENDMENT ACT, 2009

Here’s the relevant portion:

9 The following is added after section 11:
Notice to parent or guardian
11.1(1) A board as defined in the School Act shall provide
notice to a parent or guardian of a student where courses of
study, educational programs or instructional materials, or
instruction or exercises, prescribed under that Act include
subject-matter that deals explicitly with religion, sexuality or
sexual orientation.
(2) Where a teacher or other person providing instruction,
teaching a course of study or educational program or using the
instructional materials referred to in subsection (1) receives a
written request signed by a parent or guardian of a student that
the student be excluded from the instruction, course of study,
educational program or use of instructional materials, the
teacher or other person shall in accordance with the request of
the parent or guardian and without academic penalty permit the
student
(a) to leave the classroom or place where the instruction,
course of study or educational program is taking place or
the instructional materials are being used for the duration
of the part of the instruction, course of study or
educational program, or the use of the instructional
materials, that includes the subject-matter referred to in
subsection (1), or
(b) to remain in the classroom or place without taking part
in the instruction, course of study or educational
program or using the instructional materials

Parents now get the right to opt their children out of classes, if the topic is on something they don’t want them to hear.

Here’s how it all went down, legislature style:

On the motion that the following Bill be now read a Third time:
Bill 44 Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Amendment Act, 2009 —
Hon. Mr. Blackett

A debate followed.

Mr. Chase, Hon. Member for Calgary-Varsity, moved the Bill be amended by deleting
all the words after “that” and substituting the following:
Bill 44, Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Amendment Act, 2009,
be not now read a Third time because the proposed notice provisions contained
in the Bill will cause a chill in expression that will adversely affect Alberta’s
education system.

A debate followed on the amendment.

The question being put, the amendment was defeated. With Mr. Cao in the Chair, the
names being called for were taken as follows:
For the amendment:
Blakeman
Chase
Hehr
Mason
Notley
Swann
Taylor

A brave stand, but futile. 35 other members voted against, and Bill 44 passed. So to the few legislative members that stood up for reason and free expression, this Big Rock is for you,  Laurie Blakeman (LIB), Harry Chase (LIB), Kent Hehr (LIB), Brian Mason (ND), Rachel Notley (ND), David Swann (LIB), and Dave Taylor (LIB).

And here is why it matters.