Evidence-based voting

Twitter is full of the claim that the Green Party is “anti-science”. Some of the people making that claim are on my own feed; they’re people I like and respect. So I’m disappointed that so many of these self-appointed champions of science seem to be basing their claim on the same Times article, while others don’t bother to give any source at all.

Mark Henderson, the author of the Times article, starts by admitting that “The Greens’ robust policies on climate change [...] will make them appear an attractive option to many science-minded voters.” But then he goes on to warn: “Be careful who you vote for.” You see, despite having the strongest policies on the biggest problem ever to face humanity, the Greens could be “disastrous for science”.

How? Well, they’re “implacably opposed to nuclear power and GM crops - though each might have an important part to play in containing global warming”. Notice that weasel-word “might”? Henderson gives no references, no explanation, as to how he thinks either nuclear or GM “might” prevent climate change. His “might” is as weak as an advertiser’s “may help”.

Yes, Green policy does oppose nuclear power, although journalistic distortion might have caused some members of the public to believe otherwise. A few months ago Chris Goodall, a prospective Green Party candidate for Oxford West and Abingdon, wrote a cautiously pro-nuclear article for the Independent. The bulk of the article was about promoting renewables and increasing efficiency savings, but the Independent’s subeditors helpfully slapped an incendiary headline on it: “Chris Goodall: The green movement must learn to love nuclear power”. The result? Party leader Caroline Lucas had words with him for expressing a view at odds with stated policy, but the damage was done and many people now seem to believe that official Green Party policy on nuclear energy is unclear.

But I’m talking about the Times’s lazy journalism, not the Independent’s cheap shots. Back to the article that so many tweeters are linking to. Henderson asks, “Did you know that its manifesto pledges [...] the abolition of all zoos?” No, I didn’t, because it doesn’t. It pledges to abolish all zoos that aren’t there for the benefit of the animals concerned.

Moving on, we’re told that the Green Party wants to “ban all experiments on embryos”. Let’s look at the site Henderson links to. The full quote about this comes from Scott Redding of the Green Party, in response to a question from a science blogger. The question was: “It has been said that there are serious incompatibilities between member states on regulations governing stem cell research. How will you work to resolve these differences?” Redding replied:

The Green Party believes that experiments on human embryos could have unforeseen outcomes harmful both to individuals and to society. We would work for an immediate international ban on all cloning and genetic manipulation of embryos, whether for research, therapeutic or reproductive purposes. We do think that the use of 'adult' (or 'mature') stem-cells has promise for both research and therapeutic purposes and does not involve the same risks and ethical issues as embryonic stem-calls. The Green Party would work to allow the use across the EU of adult stem-cells, subject to the precautionary principle.

I don’t consider that a particularly strong answer, because I don’t like the vagueness about non-specified “unforeseen outcomes”, and Redding doesn’t explain why experimenting on embryonic stem cells involves greater “risks and ethical issues” from experimenting on adult stem cells. But compare it to the other answers. Remember, the question was about resolving incompatibilities between different countries’ policies on stem cell research. The Lib Dems acknowledge that EU-wide agreement may not be possible, the Department of Health says that the current irregularities may actually be beneficial for stem cell research within the UK, the Conservatives presumably didn’t bother to answer and UKIP say they wouldn’t make any attempt to resolve the incompatibilities.

The Green Party answer is the only one that a) comes up with a stated policy for an EU-wide approach on stem cell research and b) doesn’t mention “conscience” or “religion”. But the Green Party answer is singled out by Henderson as evidence of a “staggeringly extreme”, anti-science position.

I could go on, but I’m nearing the 800-word mark and I need to get on with my life. But I still can’t believe that this sorry chunk of churnalism is being retweeted as if it’s a legitimate source of information about Green Party policy. Not one piece of information in the article comes from Henderson himself. All the links are to science blogs, and it’s bloggers who did all the actual research. I’m staggered by the irony that so many people are prepared to base their voting decisions on one lazy, inaccurate opinion piece and then call the Greens “anti-science”. Some tweeters are prepared to admit that the “anti-science” impression isn’t based on reality, but most seem to be congratulating themselves on their evidence-based voting.