Natalie Bennett and the Green Party: still not on particularly good terms with science

Natalie Bennett, the new leader of the Green Party
Natalie Bennett, the new leader of the Green Party

A few months ago, I wrote a couple of pieces attacking the Green Party over their stance on GM foods and nuclear power; specifically, their London mayoral candidate Jenny Jones supported the vandalism of a GM experiment by a group called Take The Flour Back; and a statement on the Green website that they were “fundamentally opposed” to nuclear power, in part because it is “elitist and undemocratic”, whatever that may mean.

Shortly after that I met Caroline Lucas, the Greens’ only MP and then leader of the party, and she, pleasingly, admitted that the language on nuclear power was silly, and would try to get it replaced. That doesn’t seem to have happened yet, presumably because a significant percentage of the Green Party believes that “elitist and undemocratic” is just a longer way of saying “bad”, but it was reassuring to hear that high up in the party it was recognised that their nuclear policy was literally incomprehensible. We had a more difficult conversation on GM, but I think Caroline agreed that vandalism wasn’t a useful contribution to a scientific debate.

This week, The Pod Delusion, an excellent science-nerdy podcast run by a guy called James O’Malley, interviewed Natalie Bennett, the new leader of the party. Here are a few of the main points.

Natalie Bennett on nuclear: My personal belief is that it’s an utter distraction from focus on renewables, the wind, the solar, that are already there as a mature technology and are proven. With nuclear, we’re talking about a very expensive, very uncertain form of energy – people have been trying to build nuclear plants around the world, and they’re always behind schedule, there are huge planning problems, it’s simply not the answer for the current situation. And of course there are the safety issues as well.

…the fact is it takes a minimum five years to build a nuclear power plant. It takes a lot less time to put up a wind turbine, and you’re going to have lots of resistance from local people wherever you try to build that nuclear power plant, and nuclear power plants go offline for a long time – there’s a lot of uncertainty.

You could, almost, switch every instance of the word “nuclear” for the word “wind” and you’d have a blog post by my colleague James Delingpole. Local opposition, uncertain supply, unproven technology. It’s almost not worth arguing the toss about nuclear itself, and point out instead what Daniel Kahneman says about our attitudes to risks and benefit: if we believe that something is risky, we instinctively assume it has no real benefits; if we think it is beneficial, we always assume it has no real risks. To our minds, there are rarely trade-offs, grey areas, nuances. But, of course, both nuclear and wind have pluses and minuses. It’s simply wrong to say that wind and solar are more certain sources of energy than nuclear: they spend time offline when, for example, the wind isn’t blowing, or the sun isn’t shining.

Also, re “safety issues”: there really aren’t any. A vast, devastating earthquake ripped through Japan early last year. Nearly 20,000 people died. A 40-year-old nuclear reactor was badly damaged. But, as Michael Hanlon wrote in these pages, despite the sudden obsession with the Fukushima plant, not one person died from radiation sickness. Worldwide, tens of thousands of people have died in energy-production-related accidents. Most of them have been coal miners, but thousands have been in hydroelectric dam disasters. The number of deaths attributable to nuclear power? Forty-seven, all of them from Chernobyl, and that includes the cancer deaths in the years afterwards. Nuclear, on the available evidence, is pretty safe; yes, the storage is a serious issue, but not an insurmountable one.

Natalie Bennett on GM: My first degree is agricultural science. I think that GM crops and the release of GM crops into the environment is the wrong way to go. The fact is that GM crops, as currently instituted, represent another stage of industrial agriculture, enormous-scale corporate agriculture that’s completely the wrong direction to be going in in terms of the farming that we need… huge industrial-scale agriculture that’s simply ploughing across huge fields, that relies on a few very small handful of seed companies and don’t allow farmers to save their own seeds, it’s completely the wrong model of agriculture. And there are safety concerns in releasing these new organisms without really knowing what you’re doing.

[Asked whether she would align herself with Take the Flour Back:] Yes.

I know we all like local produce and small, family-run farms growing organic food in hand-tilled fields. It may taste nicer and it may be better for the environment. But, and this is quite a key point, “industrial agriculture” is what is keeping the world alive; we would have suffered a Malthusian collapse twice by now if it weren’t for a) the Agricultural Revolution and b) the Green Revolution. The first applied industrial and scientific techniques to farming; the second applied more scientific knowledge, about genetics and chemistry. Fertiliser, economies of scale, selective breeding: thanks to these, the amount of agricultural land needed to feed one person has gone from 20,000 square metres in Thomas Malthus’s time to 2,000 metres in 2002. “Enormous-scale corporate agriculture” is why food is cheap; why despite the world’s population doubling in the last 50 years, there’s 25 per cent more food per head than there was then. With the world’s population still growing, GM seems to give us our best shot at a third revolution. And I can’t stress this enough: vandalising publicly funded research is simply not OK.

Of course, Ms Bennett is right to worry about things like patenting of genes and cross-contamination. But unless she has a suggestion for how to feed another few billion mouths without GM (“asking people not to have so many babies” doesn’t seem to be working at this stage), then I fear she may have to suck it up.

And, for free, Natalie Bennett on homeopathy: I absolutely do not believe that homeopathy works as they describe it. However, what I do believe in is the placebo effect… The way I think homeopathy ‘works’ is as a placebo. And I think there is a very small and limited place on the NHS for homeopathy… if you did a double-blind trial of homeopathy, because of the placebo effect you might get a 30 or 40 per cent cure or substantial improvement in condition.

All of this is true or sort of true. But it fails to say some important things. One, are we really comfortable with doctors lying to patients, telling them that a treatment is medically effective when we know that it’s not? It’s a complex ethical question, although it’s a bit unfair to Ms Bennett to ask her to address it in full in a 10-minute interview.

Two, you’re absolutely right: in a double-blind trial, homeopathy patients would show some improvement. But, and here is the important thing, the patients in the control group would show the exact same improvement. Because the patients in the control group, being given the “placebo placebo”, are getting exactly the same sugar pills as the ones in the “active” group. It’s just that theirs weren’t once introduced to a molecule of duck liver and tapped repeatedly against a Bible or horsehair cushion by a quack in a lab coat. The “placebo placebo” sugar pills will not, therefore, cost £5 for a bottle. Homeopathy is an extraordinarily expensive way of getting placebo.

As an aside, she says “these trials never get done”. Au contraire: there is a rich body of research into homeopathy. Interestingly, the fact that comes out of them is that the better-quality the study is, the more likely it is that it will show that homeopathy is precisely as good as placebo. That’s exactly what Ms Bennett is saying, of course, but it’s not some grand conspiracy by Big Pharma to suppress homeopathy research.

In short, on the basis of this interview, the Green Party’s relationship with science is still not a happy one. They seem like a nice bunch, though.


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