Stupidity in the new age of anti-science
SOME 3.7 million people claim to have been abducted by aliens. Only 11 per cent of Americans believe in evolution. Type "Flat Earth Society" into the Google search engine on the internet and you will have a choice of 466,000 sites. How did we get this stupid?
One explanation is that the aliens doing all that abducting have been removing people’s brains. Perhaps there is a UFO pathology laboratory hovering somewhere over Bonnybridge with the sum of our collective senses pickled in jars.
How else are we to explain the phenomenon of what the philosopher Roger Scruton describes as "reason on the retreat, both as an ideal and a reality"? It’s not just that we have become a nation of gullible, emotionally incontinent, deeply irrational sentimentalists. Nor that, where once we would have hidden our credulousness, we now proudly wear it on our distressed linen sleeves. It is the fact that this stupidity is officially sanctioned, pandered to and incorporated into our laws.
The latest example of this is the Human Tissues Bill currently going through Parliament. This bill is the government’s response to the organ retention outcry at Royal Liverpool Children’s Hospital in Alder Hey five years ago. If it becomes law, the use for research purposes of tissue samples, blood and even urine specimens, without specific patient consent, will be illegal. The penalty for a doctor flouting that law will be up to three years in jail.
According to Cancer Research UK and the Wellcome Trust, two of the biggest and best respected medical research organisations in the world, this bill could stifle advances in childhood leukaemia, cancer, SARS and AIDS. Already ten research projects on rare tumours in children have either folded or failed to start because of the difficulties in carrying out this kind of scientific research in the current hysterical climate. Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust, believes that if this bill were effective now, the work that led to the discovery of genes responsible for the most common inherited form of breast cancer might not be possible. It could even be a criminal offence to try. The Royal College of Pathologists is extremely concerned about the situation and even the Medical Research Council, the government-funded organisation, has serious doubts about the bill.
So the government is rethinking this shoddily drafted piece of legislation which is likely to clog the system with yet more bureaucracy, restrict vital research and unwittingly criminalise doctors? Wrong. The government is pressing ahead. It is doing so because it is more worried about determined pressure groups which will resort to emotional blackmail than it is about stifling vital medical research.
There is no question that the guidelines surrounding organ retention needed to be overhauled after it became clear that the practice was widespread. Nor is there any doubt that a group of people who had already suffered the appalling tragedy of losing a child, were further upset when they discovered that some of their loved one’s organs had been retained without their knowledge. But the emotive language which has been used in relation to these cases is a scandal in itself. "We will never know how many were butchered for their organs," ran one tabloid headline. The children were referred to as "torn souls". An alien, reading the Daily Record while waiting for a passing human to abduct, could have been forgiven for believing Burke and Hare were on the loose.
The dangerous and insulting premise of the new legislation is that doctors, if not legislated against, will do unspeakable things to the rest of us. But even the one rogue pathologist who caused so much upset at Alder Hey was not killing people. He was saving lives.
Some of the bereaved have now formed themselves into the Nationwide Organ Retention Group. They have received apologies, explanations, a change in clinical practice, an ex-gratia offer of damages and will soon have a new law. But this is not enough. They now want compensation, despite the fact that this will haemorrhage vital funds from an already indebted NHS.
Their lawyer, the deliciously named Mervyn Fudge, says some of his clients have been unable to work because of the trauma they have suffered in discovering that body parts had been taken from relatives without permission. They will need compensation for loss of earnings as well as compensation for suffering.
Why is nobody prepared to stand up to these chancers? The reason is that the ultimate crime in these touchy-feely times is not ignorance or irrationality but lack of empathy. Politicians lack the courage to condemn this madness even when it means the potential for real harm to be done to those dependent on medical research for their health.
This cowardliness on the part of the authorities is being exploited by extreme groups opposed to all kinds of scientific progress, be it genetic modification, therapeutic cloning or animal testing. In the last few months they have scored several victories. Cambridge University has dropped its plans for a 32 million primate-research centre for the study of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s because of security fears. Colin Blakemore, head of the Medical Research Council was dropped as a potential candidate for an honour because of New Labour’s squeamishness about animal testing. Hunting and fur-farming have been banned by New Labour. The ease with which these lobby groups are able to infiltrate and influence government is alarming.
The rest of us may not be firebombing the homes of scientists, but we happily swallow all manner of genetically modified bunkum, be it "molecularly restructured" designer water at 3 a bottle, or the latest scare story.
Previous generations had their superstitions, but they had a fundamental belief in the ability of science to improve their quality of life. They were proved right. Within three generations, life expectancy in Britain rose by 30 years. In the half century after the Second World War, infant mortality fell from 50 deaths per 1,000 births to fewer than six. For good measure, science threw in the internet, talking pictures and the self-cleaning oven.
Science equalled progress and was seen as an almost universally good thing. Our grandparents may have balked at seating 13 at the dinner table, but they would never have argued that teaching children about feng shui was as important as teaching them the second law of thermodynamics.
Now, in our age of unreason and anti-science, life expectancy is set to fall for the first time, the fate of tissue samples and diseased organs has become more important than the welfare of the living, and the government has announced that alternative treatments such as Indian ayurvedic medicine could be granted the same status as conventional medicine on the NHS. According to Francis Wheen’s brilliant new book, How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered The World, the 36,000 general practitioners in this country are now outnumbered by the 50,000 purveyors of complementary and alternative medicine.
If that’s what you want, fine. Just remember, while you are sitting under your pyramid reordering your charkas and rebalancing your energy flow, not to get cancer. And be careful not to venture too close to the edge of the world. You wouldn’t want to fall off now, would you?
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Friday 24 May 2013
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