- I want to make two broad points. The first concerns evidence-based policy, which has become a catchphrase that is a little bit too easy to use. Just today, we saw a debate in which the two largest parties brought to the Parliament new ideas for policy measures on alcohol but in which each attacked the other based on thin evidence. Evidence-based policy is important, but it is only one factor. We should not be afraid of testing a new idea simply on the basis that it has not yet been tried. Anything that has not yet been tried will be subject to criticism that there is not enough evidence, but if we argue that evidence-based policy is the only requirement, we will end up with inherently conservative approaches to every subject.
- However, if evidence-based policy were given the status that we say it should be given, in each of our political parties, right across the spectrum, we would have reached for our copy of "The Spirit Level", looked at the objective evidence for more economic equality and social solidarity, and brought those concepts front and centre in our political response to the unprecedented free- market failure of recent years. That has not happened. We must ask what the place of objective, evidence-based policy is if we have failed to listen to the arguments that are outlined in "The Spirit Level".
The choice of the book "The Spirit Level" (2009) as an example of evidence-based policy deserves comment. While the authors, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, are academic social epidemiologists, the book was aimed at a lay audience, was not itself peer-reviewed before publication, and the thesis presented, although not without support, was not an established expert consensus. By the time that Harvie made his speech, The Spirit Level had been both widely praised and criticised. Critics claimed that the statistics in the book were faulty/not reproducible/dependent on outliers/of weak significance, that the authors confused correlation with causation, overstated their claims, and that some papers referenced in the book did not show what they claimed. While a consensus may yet emerge, at the time that Harvie made his speech no robust consensus had yet been established.
Teaching of Creationism
- I congratulate the bloggers of "The Twenty-first Floor". for drawing attention to the fact that, recently, an organisation called the Centre for Intelligent Design opened in Glasgow. The group's director is quoted in The Herald as saying that "it was 'inevitable' that the debate would make its way into schools", and "that he had already been asked to speak in Scottish schools, and agreed to do so."
- In the same article, a Scottish Government spokesman is quoted as stating only that, "we do not recognise the teaching of intelligent design in a scientific context".
- In their responses, neither the Government nor Learning and Teaching Scotland give any indication that they have in place measures to prevent that material from entering schools.
- It is some 85 years since the Scopes monkey trial in the US. In that country, the politics of wilful stupidity and ignorance have a modern vehicle in the Tea Party movement. We must not allow those kinds of ideas to gain a foothold in this country. There is a clear need for ministers to go further than they have gone so far and to tell us — I hope that the minister will do so today — how they intend to prevent the use in schools of materials of that sort, which promote the absurd nonsense of intelligent design and creationism, with the intention of undermining the scientific world view and keeping our children stupid.
In January 2015 Mr Harvie supported Motion S4M-12148: Crackdown against Creationism, which stated:
- "That the Parliament congratulates South Lanarkshire Council on taking decisive action to prevent the teaching of creationism in schools by introducing new guidance; condemns any promotion of creationism in publicly funded schools, including the reported distribution of creationist books at Kirktonholme Primary School; believes that creationism should not be presented as a scientific theory and viable alternative to the established theory of evolution, and supports the Society of Biology and the Scottish Secular Society position in opposing the teaching of creationism in the classroom."
Skeptical Voter Questionnaire
In April 2011, in the run-up to the Scottish Parliament general election, Patrick Harvie was sent a copy of the Skeptical Voter Survey Questions. The responses differ from those previously sent by the Scottish Green Party "on behalf of the SGP candidates in Lothians".
1. Should Homeopathy and other forms of complementary and alternative medicine receive funding from the Scottish NHS?
- I would not support a blanket rule against anything and everything labelled “complementary and alternative”. I would prefer to see all products and therapies held to a reasonable standard of evidence. I have little doubt that sugar pills would fail such a test, but the phrase “complementary and alternative” covers a much wider range.
2. Scotland has declared itself GMO free – do you welcome this or do you worry it could have an impact on our world class life sciences research?
- I welcome the GMO free stance, with particular reference to food production. I regard GM crops as serving the private interests of corporations, rather than the public's common interests in sustainable agriculture.
3. What would you propose as a “Scottish Solution” for funding our universities? Should we take similar steps regarding fees as England and Wales? Should we introduce a graduate tax? How can we ensure that Scotland’s Universities continue to be world class?
- Graduates already pay tax. Progressive income tax would mean that the more a person earns (whether as a result of their education or any other factor) the more they pay for the provision of public services and investment.
- We remain fully committed to opposing tuition fees, which are turning HE south of the border into a market commodity, as well as opposing a special graduate tax. Unlike the other parties taking this position however, we are being clear about the need to raise taxation, as fairly and progressively as possible, to pay for Scotland’s HE institutions.
4. Should schools be allowed to teach creationism as an equivalent theory to evolution?
- No. Telling young people that creation myths or intelligent design are in any way comparable to evolution would be the opposite of education.
5. Do you agree that testing on animals (within strict criteria) is a necessary part of the development of medicines?
- It would be impossible to end all animal testing at present, and in the foreseeable future. In that sense, it is currently necessary. However we should never stop trying to find ways to reduce the need for such testing. Most researchers share a concern for the welfare of the animals they experiment upon, and I would hope that this concern extends to a willingness to make every reasonable effort to reduce the number of animals involved.
6. Should policy-makers trust scientific evidence even when it appears counter-intuitive? What steps should policy makers take to evaluate claims and seek evidence?
- Trust in scientific evidence, like trust in any source of knowledge or authority, is not something which switches on and off like a lightbulb. It takes time to grow and to deepen. The evidence on climate change for example was very strong for years, even decades, before most politicians began to act. The degree to which any person will choose to trust evidence on a particular policy will always be conditioned by their attachment to that policy and by their views about the alternative policy options. It would be foolish to ignore this aspect of human nature.
- Pilots, trials and legislative sunset clauses are all mechanisms by which politicians can try to gain evidence about the effectiveness of a policy. However it is also important to remember that political decisions are not mechanistic or based solely on objective facts. There are subjective judgements involved as well, and these are informed by a wide range of factors including economics, political ideology, emotions, and the desire to communicate social values.
- Finally, it is often necessary to try new ideas out in the absence of evidence. Sometimes the imperative for new action is urgent, and policy changes are needed before the evidence can be gathered. “Evidence based policy making” is a compelling phrase, and we should all aim to make good use of the evidence which is available. But we should not allow attachment to such a phrase to become a barrier to making decisions where there is a want of evidence.
7. Do you think that abortion time limits should always be determined by the current scientific and medical consensus?
- Scientific and medical consensus should inform the decisions made about abortion time limits, but they are not the only factors which should inform those decisions. A commitment to respecting women's reproductive rights is also important, and this is a political stance rather than a scientific one. The freedom to choose whether and how to control one's own fertility is a principle which I remain strongly committed to.
8. Do you support gay adoption? Do you believe certain adoption agencies should be able to reject individuals based on sexuality?
- Yes to the first question, and no to the second. Adoption decisions should be made in the best interests of the children involved, and putting prejudice against a whole category of people ahead of that principle is wrong.
9. Would you retain European Human Rights legislation or seek to replace it if elected?
- I am a strong supporter of human rights law, and while it should always be allowed to evolve like other areas of law, I would absolutely oppose any attempts to abolish the Human Rights Act or to weaken our commitment to the European Convention on Human Rights.
10. What are your views on nuclear power and green energy?
- The opportunity which Scotland has to develop a truly sustainable energy system is far too important to miss. With demand reduction, decentralised generation (and decentralised ownership), a mix of renewable technologies, a large increase in electrical storage, and a sub-sea HVDC supergrid connecting Europe, we can more than meet our own electrical and energy demand without relying on nuclear.
- As in other areas, the objective must be to meet our needs from within our ecological “income”, as for far too long we have been living off the Earth's “capital”. This will mean bringing our demand down to the levels which can be met sustainably, rather than trying to cater for eternally-growing demand.
11. What public services would you retain/scrap in Scotland if elected?
- The major cut that we would support would be in the road-building programme, and aviation subsidies. This money would be better spend on repairing and maintaining the road network we have, which has suffered badly from two harsh winters, and in improving and subsidising public transport which is presently unattractive or unavailable to many people. Support for the private sector has also been to open to abuse by multinationals; these funds would be better spent on small business and in keeping our local economies strong.
- However these changes would be made for policy reasons, not in an attempt to hand on the UK Government's cuts to Scotland. We do not accept the view that Scotland must operate within a fixed budget; by empowering local councils to raise taxation either to service debt which they take on for investing in infrastructure, or to fund public services directly, we can close the gap between rich and poor as well as protecting the services which people in Scotland depend upon and value.
Homeopathy and Alternative Medicine
Mr Harvie's view has changed over time.
A September 2010 blog entry: http://www.patrickharviemsp.com/2010/09/woo/ - deserves to be read in full.
- Mr Harvie says "The strictly rational viewpoint is one which I have a lot of instinctive sympathy for."
- He questions campaigners' priorities: "...in the context of an economic crisis, a climate and energy crisis, and the biggest attack on the welfare state since it began, I still can’t quite see how either promoting or attacking homeopathy gets to the top of anyone’s agenda."
- States his own view is that "proper regulation of alternative medicine ... is the best policy approach" and "Regulation should require a proper evidence-based assessment of treatments and put an end to undemonstrable claims ... It may be that homeopaths would find it harder to clear the regulatory hurdles than practitioners in some other fields, perhaps even impossible".
- He then considers the ethics of using a known placebo: "if certain products can’t be shown to have objective evidence on their side, is it ever ethical to use them? Is it legitimate for doctors to use what they know to be a placebo effect to make patients feel better? I have mixed feelings about this ... let’s be clear – it happens every day in ‘conventional’ medicine too."
- The blog post had been prompted by calls to close the Glasgow Homeopathic Hospital. He says he feels "the GHH should remain open", noting that "The staff there ... are fully qualified medical professionals, who offer a range of ‘alternative’ techniques in addition to mainstream medicine. Ending the use of homeopathy ... would mean closing one cupboard. Shutting the whole hospital on the other hand would mean losing something far bigger than just the treatments which have been criticised".
- He concludes: "I don’t want to keep the GHH because of sugar pills, and ditching them would be no loss that I can see. But I do want to keep the high quality care that’s being delivered and the trust which the patients have in it."
In September 2012 Mr Harvie retweeted a link to a Glasgow Skeptics discussion of homeopathy. Asked by Skeptical Voter if his view on homepathy had changed since the above blog post he replied:
- "It's developed further in same direction. But the post does suggest ditching the sugar pills."
In October 2015, Mr Harvie proposed Motion S4M-14524: Commitment to Women's Reproductive Rights, which stated:
- "That the Parliament notes the stated intention of the Secretary of State for Scotland to amend the Scotland Bill to achieve the devolution of abortion law; recognises the fundamental importance of women's sexual and reproductive rights, and commits to defend those rights against any attempt to undermine women's access to safe and legal abortion in Scotland."
See also Mr Harvie's answer to question 7 above.
In 2011, in the run-up to the Scottish general election, the main party leaders in Scotland were sent a letter by the Campaign for Science and Engineering in the UK (CaSE) about their science and engineering policy. Patrick Harvie's response can be found at: http://sciencecampaign.org.uk/?p=4885
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