Dick Taverne

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Lord Dick Taverne is a British peer in the House of Lords. He also chairs Sense about Science, a pro-GM lobby group which has been one of the Royal Society's closest allies. Sense about Science was set up in mid-2002 ahead of the UK's public debate on GM crop commercialisation. It promotes its point of view to peers, MPs and the media and is said to be funded by "corporations and learned societies". The directors of Sense about Science are both part of the LM network and both studied under the LM network's leading light Frank Furedi.

Taverne's long career has taken in politics, the law, business, lobbying, quite apart from supporting biotechnology. Although he has no background in science, in addition to chairing Sense about Science, Taverne is also the author of The March of Unreason (March 2005), a self-proclaimed defence of science and the values of the Enlightenment. The March of Unreason has attracted a number of highly critical reviews. James Wilsdon, former head of science and innovation at the think-tank Demos, for example, commented in a review in the Financial Times [1]:

Near the start of the book [Taverne] decries those who 'use evidence selectively and unscrupulously to bolster prejudice, and who go through the motions of inquiry only to demonstrate some foregone conclusion'. A more apt description of Taverne's own method it would be hard to find.
...In attacking one form of fundamentalism, Taverne supplants it with his own: a naive and outdated scientism. His is a world in which science can do no wrong; in which research is untainted by vested interests, and companies such as Monsanto exist purely to feed the hungry. Those seeking a more thoughtful encounter with the contemporary dilemmas and opportunities of science are advised to march elsewhere.

Margaret Cook, writing of the book in The Guardian [2], accused Taverne of "hectoring dogma", of "rant rather than reason", of displaying "a little knowledge and a lot of bombast", of confusingly mingling "myth with fact", and perpetrating "a number of howlers". Cook wrote, "At every turn, Taverne betrays himself as an authoritarian, declaiming with patronising contempt to his audience while observing naïve uncritical deference to the establishment. His method of discussion involves reductio ad absurdam of any argument he does not like or understand. It is uncomfortably reminiscent of party political arguments, whose object is to prevail, not to establish the truth."


Taverne has long enjoyed a close relationship with Lord David Sainsbury. In the late 1980s Taverne, originally a Labour MP, served with Roger Liddle and David Sainsbury (later to become Lord Sainsbury) on the Steering Committee of the Social Democrat Party, which David Sainsbury bankrolled. Taverne also joined and became the first Chairman of the Institute of Fiscal Studies, another think-tank funded by Sainsbury.


Taverne also has a background in PR consultancy. In the late 1980s Taverne and Roger Liddle founded the consultancy firm Prima Europe. In 1990 Prima published "The case for Biotechnology", a paper authored by Taverne. In 1996, Derek Draper joined Prima's board. Prima's clients included Unilever, RTZ, BNFL, and Glaxo Wellcome (now GlaxoSmithKline).

In April 1998, Taverne resigned from Prima, as a result of lobby-firm rules prohibiting employment of sitting MPs and peers, after its merger with GPC Market Access. GPC's clients included Pfizer, Novartis and SmithKline Beecham. Three months after Taverne's departure his former Prima co-directors Derek Draper and Roger Liddle were at the centre of the so-called 'lobbygate' scandal, involving allegations of 'cash for access' to Blair Ministers. Taverne himself, as already noted, is a long-time associate of Blair's Science Minister, the former food-industry maganate and biotech investor, Lord David Sainsbury.[3]


Taverne is keenly concerned to prevent media distortion about biotechnology; and claims the media's sloppiness on GM issues is "undermining the health of our democracy". Taverne served on a Forum established by the SIRC and the Royal Institution which laid down a Code of Practice and Guidelines on the Communication of Science and Health issues in the Media, which tells journalists how to report GM and other contentious issues.[4]

Taverne was also involved in the setting up of the biotech-industry supported Science Media Centre directed by Fiona Fox (also part of the LM network).

In July 2002 Lord Taverne was reprimanded in the House of Lords after he called for Prince Charles to be made to relinquish the throne if he made any more statements critical of GM crops. On another occasion Taverne told his fellow peers that, "There is a moral imperative for the Government to do everything they can to encourage and promote the spread of this technology [ie GM]".

Taverne's attitude to organic agriculture is somewhat different. He describes it as voodoo science. According to Taverne, not just the Soil Association but even the National Consumer Council base their opposition to GM "on ideology, and they will not allow evidence to disturb their preconceived opinions." He is even more scathing about Greenpeace, "With its anti-science dogma, Greenpeace is in some ways our equivalent of the religous right in the US".[5] On the other hand, Taverne is a great admirer of Sir John Krebs who he has described as, "the excellent and admirable chairman of the Food Standards Agency".

Despite his preoccupation with the accurate reporting of science Taverne told his fellow peers in the House of Lords: "The Pusztai saga and the GM food scares are a shameful indictment of British journalism. It all started when Dr Pusztai fed harmful lectins inserted in potatoes to rats, which he claimed poisoned them." Pusztai's experiments, in fact, involved a type of lectin that is not considered harmful to mammals.

Sense About Science

In September 2002 Taverne and the director of Sense about Science, Tracey Brown, co-authored for Prospect, "Over-precautionary tales: The precautionary principle represents the cowardice of a pampered society" [6]. In November 2002, Taverne chaired the Scientific Alliance conference on GM called "Fields of the Future". In April 2004, Prospect published "Safety Quacks", another article by Taverne.[7] In this article he drew extensively from a book by Adam Burgess (Tracey Brown's husband, and another LM contributor). In this article, Taverne is critical of public involvement in decision making about technologies while accepting some public discussion where there are 'ethical' concerns. However, public discussion, he says, "needs to be structured carefully to prevent domination by special interests". Here Taverne gives two contrasting examples:

  1. an example of effective consultation. The parliamentary public discussion that took place in a largely non-adversarial atmosphere about the use of human embryos for stem cell research was and
  2. an example of a botched public debate on GM crops. Taverne criticized the fact that anti-GM lobby groups were allowed to dominate the exercise, while the public in general showed little interest.

What is interesting about this partisan account of the two debates is that while the UK's official public debate on GM was very poorly funded and so minimally advertised, it attracted far more public attention and involvement than the "public discussion" of human embryo cloning for research. The latter debate was orchestrated by lobby groups like the Genetic Interest Group (GIG) and Progress Educational Trust, with connections to the pharmaceutical-biotechnology industries. Again, the key figures involved in these groups are part of the LM network, e.g., GIG John Gillott and Progress Juliet Tizzard.

Taverne criticised GM campaigners for not protesting against GM drugs while protesting against GM foods.[8] He argued that the same technology is used for both, and thus found a contradiction to the response. Taverne ignored the fact that drugs are extensively tested before being released, and that drugs are taken by choice, where users may consciously weigh the risks of taking the drug. An individual's choice to take such a drug also does not limit another individual's right to avoid it. GM food crops are quite different in this respect.

The Love Canal tragedy

There are more questions about Taverne's stance on the Love Canal issue in Niagara Falls, New York, where a community living in homes built on top of an old chemical waste tip claimed that they suffered an unusual incidence of birth defects, cancers and other diseases. In his anti-environmentalist book, The March of Unreason: Science, Democracy, and the New Fundamentalism, Taverne criticises the media coverage of the Love Canal tragedy as "The worst example of one-sided reporting".[9]

But Taverne's reporting of the events at Love Canal is at best disingenuous and at worst misleading.

First, Taverne frames the scandal as an environmental campaign consisting of "residents" and led by a "housewife".[10] Oddly he does not mention the five separate scientific studies (two of them by the New York Department of Health) that showed that children at Love Canal suffered an excessive number of major and minor birth defects, chronic illnesses, and stunted growth.[11]

Second, Taverne sets up a 'straw man' argument that dioxins were being blamed by residents for the health problems. He then cites a Centers for Disease Control study which, he says, "did not confirm the claims that dioxins had caused the illnesses of which the residents complained".[12] Case dismissed, in Taverne's view.

In reality, the substances identified by scientists in the tip comprised a cocktail of 248 chemicals, totalling 21,000 tons (42 million pounds). They included such known toxins as benzene, toluene, chloroform, trichloroethylene, tetrachloroethylene, hexane, xylenes and leftovers from the manufacture of pesticides, such as hexachlorocyclohexane (Lindane) and hexachlorocyclopentadiene.[13] This is not predominantly a story about dioxins, though dioxins were one type of chemical found at Love Canal.

It's worth looking in detail at that Centers for Disease Control study, which, according to Taverne, "did not confirm the claims that dioxins had caused the illnesses of which the residents complained". In fact the study did not even look at dioxins at Love Canal or consider whether they had caused the residents' illnesses. The study looked for chromosomal aberrations in the blood of former residents of Love Canal. The study did not find them at statistically significant levels, in contradiction of an earlier EPA study, which had found such aberrations at statistically significant levels. The earlier EPA study had, however, been criticised for lacking a concurrent control group, as it had used instead a historical control group.

It is also worth noting that the CDC study's authors warn that it is difficult to draw any conclusions about chromosomal damage from the Love Canal contaminants due to the time lapse between the date the blood samples were taken from former residents (Dec 1981-Feb 1982) and the time when residents were evacuated from the area (1978).[14] Taverne does not mention this caveat in his championing of the CDC conclusions.

It is technically true, as Taverne claims, that the CDC study "did not confirm the claims that dioxins had caused the illnesses of which the residents complained" - if we accept his assertion that residents confined their blame to dioxins, which is in doubt. But as the CDC study does not mention or look at dioxins, Taverne's attempt to reassure his readers about the safety of chemicals with this false argument is equivalent to claiming that a study about the effects of tobacco smoke found no evidence that GM foods are dangerous – and then drawing the conclusion that GM foods are safe.

Incidentally, the woman whom Taverne calls a "housewife", who organised the residents' campaign to expose the Love Canal contamination, is Lois Gibbs. She became the spokesperson for the 1,000 families at Love Canal, addressed college classes, gave press conferences, and was eventually invited to testify before Congress. She went on to found the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, which campaigns to prevent harm to people from dangerous chemical exposures.[15] Gibbs' efforts led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, or Superfund, which is used to identify and clean up toxic waste sites throughout the United States. Gibbs has since been recognized for her work with two honorary degrees and a Heinz award in the environment.[16][17]

Taverne on climate change

Taverne claimed in a House of Lords debate on climate change that the recent conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) about manmade global warming - "In the light of new evidence and taking into account remaining uncertainties, most of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to be due to greenhouse gas concentrations" - were "sexed up".[18]

In the same speech Taverne said he does "support measures to curb emissions of carbon dioxide", adding, however, that the means he most favours are "investment in nuclear energy and then carbon sequestration".[19] These are also the means favoured by nuclear and fossil fuel interests.



  1. The March of Unreason: Science, Democracy and the New Fundamentalism April 15 2005.
  2. In search of reason: Dick Taverne inveighs against the doomsayers in The March of Unreason. A little knowledge and a lot of bombast are dangerous things April 2 2005.
  3. Nyta Mann, Roger Liddle, centre stage once more (possible change of title since original publication), BBC Online, 26 October 2001 (accessed 31 May 2007).
  4. BAD COMPANY reporting the business of science, GMWatch, (no date), (title of article changed since first entry in SpinProfile; accessed 31 May 2007).
  5. Dick Taverne, "Against Anti-science", Prospect magazine, December 1999.
  6. Dick Taverne and Tracey Brown, Over-precautionary tales: The precautionary principle represents the cowardice of a pampered society, Prospect, September 2002
  7. Dick Taverne, Safety Quacks
  8. Dick Taverne, the Prospect piece
  9. Dick Taverne, The March of Unreason: Science, Democracy, and the New Fundamentalism, Oxford University Press, USA (2007), p. 172-3
  10. Dick Taverne, The March of Unreason: Science, Democracy, and the New Fundamentalism, Oxford University Press, USA (2007), p. 172-3
  11. Studies are summarized in Peter Montague, Was Anyone Harmed at Love Canal?, Rachel's Hazardous Waste News, No. 276, March 11, 1992. The studies themselves are as follows: [1] New York State Office of Public Health, and Governor's Love Canal Interagency Task Force. LOVE CANAL: PUBLIC HEALTH TIME BOMB. Albany, NY: New York State Office of Public Health, 1978. [2] Nicholas J. Vianna and Adele K. Polan, "Incidence of Low Birth Weight Among Love Canal Residents," SCIENCE Vol. 226 No. 4679 (December 7, 1984), pgs. 1217-1219. [3] Beverly Paigen and others, "Growth of Children Living Near the Hazardous Waste Site, Love Canal," HUMAN BIOLOGY Vol. 59 (June, 1987), pgs. 489-508. [4] Lynn R. Goldman and others, "Low Birth Weight, Prematurity and Birth Defects in Children Living Near the Hazardous Waste Site, Love Canal." HAZARDOUS WASTE & HAZARDOUS MATERIALS Vol. 2 No. 2 (1985), pgs. 209-223. [5] Beverly Paigen and others, "Prevalence of Health Problems in Children Living Near Love Canal," HAZARDOUS WASTE & HAZARDOUS MATERIALS Vol. 2 No. 1 (1985), pgs. 23-43.
  12. Dick Taverne, The March of Unreason: Science, Democracy, and the New Fundamentalism, Oxford University Press, USA (2007), p. 173
  13. Peter Montague, Was Anyone Harmed at Love Canal?, Rachel's Hazardous Waste News, No. 276, March 11, 1992
  14. Cytogenetic Patterns in Persons Living near Love Canal - New York, MMWR Weekly, May 27, 1983/32(20);261-2, CDC website, accessed 7 Nov 2009
  15. About CHEJ, CHEJ website, accessed 8 Nov 2009
  16. The Heinz awards, 5th, Heinz Awards website, accessed 8 Nov 2009
  17. Lois Marie Gibbs, CHEJ website, accessed 8 Nov 2009
  18. Lord Dick Taverne, Climate Change (EUC Report) HL Deb 23 February 2005 vol 669 cc1293-330, Hansard 23 Feb 2005
  19. Lord Dick Taverne, Climate Change (EUC Report) HL Deb 23 February 2005 vol 669 cc1293-330, Hansard 23 Feb 2005
  20. National Secular Society Our Honorary Associates. Accessed 20 September 2015.
  21. HealthWatch HealthWatch, accessed 7 March 2011
  22. Research Defence Society Structure, retrieved from the Internet Archive of 28 September 2007, on 27 August 2013
  23. 23.0 23.1 BPCIF, "1300 British Lawyers Call for Removal of Unjust Terror Tag from Iranian Mojahedin", British Parliamentary Committee for Iran Freedom, November 2005, accessed on 21 December 2010
  24. Former Steering Committee members, bilderbergmeetings.org, accessed 3 June 2012.