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MPs who reject science are undermining the public interest

On climate change and other issues, parliamentarians are ignoring the evidence. 

On climate change and other issues, parliamentarians are ignoring the evidence.
Former Environment Secretary Owen Paterson speaks at the Conservative conference in 2013 in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.

In another blow to the reputation of Parliament, a new report provides further evidence that a handful of MPs are using their positions to promote unscientific ideas, such as homeopathy, astrology and climate change denial.

There is little that is controversial about the final conclusions of the inquiry by the House of Commons Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change into the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Among its main findings are that "[T]here is increased confidence in the IPCC projections that, with rising greenhouse gas concentrations, we will continue to see warming (and the changes to the climate associated with warming) in this century and beyond".

But tucked away in the back of the report are the minutes of a meeting that show two members of the committee had a radically different view about the scientific evidence. Peter Lilley, the Conservative MP for Hitchin and Harpenden, and Graham Stringer, the Labour MP for Blackley and Broughton, together attempted unsuccessfully to remove the sentence endorsing the IPCC's projections of future climate change. They also tried to edit out a paragraph which suggested that the temporary slowdown, or hiatus, in the rate of global warming "does not undermine the core conclusions" of the report, and that "warming is expected to continue in the coming decades".

These were last-ditch attempts by Lilley and Stringer to give the Committee's report a "sceptic" slant. They had already ensured that the Committee devoted an oral evidence session to "sceptics" who rubbished the IPCC report. The hearing would not have been out of place if it had been held on Capitol Hill in Washington DC, where Republicans regularly invite witnesses to promote climate change denial to committees in the Senate and House of Representatives.

It is perhaps not surprising that Lilley, who juggles his job as an MP with a part-time post as vice-chairman of Tethys Petroleum, continues to reject the findings of mainstream climate research. He was, after all, one of just five MPs who voted against the Bill to introduce the Climate Change Act in 2008.

A few other MPs have also publicly cast doubt on the science of climate change, including David Davies, Conservative MP for Monmouth, and, of course, Owen Paterson, who has just returned to the backbenches after being sacked last week from the post of environment secretary. Paterson has been criticised not just for ignoring the findings of climate researchers, but also for proceeding with a badger cull against the advice of leading scientists.

Stringer's climate change "scepticism" is relatively long-standing, as shown by his dissent against a previous inquiry by House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology. He argued that independent investigations into the emails hacked from the University of East Anglia in 2009 had not been rigorous enough to clear scientists at the Climatic Research Unit of misconduct.

But climate change is not the only scientific issue on which Stringer disagrees with the experts. He has also courted controversy by describing dyslexia as a "fictional malady". Stringer was joined on the science and technology committee last year by David Tredinnick, the Conservative MP for Bosworth. Tredinnick, who is also a member of the health select committee, last week told the BBC that astrology could have benefits for patients. He has created outrage in the past by championing homeopathy, and wrote to the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, to call for a wider range of alternative treatments to be made available.

While these examples only apply to a handful of MPs, what is most surprising is that Paterson was elevated to a cabinet post that has traditionally required a high degree of scientific literacy, while Tredinnick, Lilley and Stringer are all currently serving on committees that are supposed to scrutinise whether the policies of government departments are evidence-based. Their senior appointments might be seen as another consequence of there being but very few MPs with scientific backgrounds. However, it should be noted that while Tredinnick has a master's degree in the humanities and Paterson read history, Lilley studied natural sciences and economics at the and Stringer graduated in chemistry.

It appears, therefore, that the unscientific views of some of these MPs have developed in Parliament despite having scientific qualifications. Whatever the reasons, their rejection of mainstream science undermines both evidence-based policy-making and the public interest.