What Right?

I meant to say something about this article in the Guardian last week, but then that Soapy Joe business came along and pre-empted other ideas. The article discusses a book about Prince Charles and what academics think of his publicly expressed opinions on a range of important subjects.

The heir to the throne has used his position to sound off on architecture, the environment, agriculture and science in a curious blend of the vaguely alternative, the home counties nimbyist and the off-the-wall.

Here is what David Lorimer, the book’s author, has to say:

“He combines a spiritual world view with practical applications. He starts from the basic premise that nature is not a collection of accidents, but has an intrinsic sacred depth, so it must be respected rather than treated as a resource to be exploited. This theme runs through all his thinking, and informs both his position on the economy being a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment and his approach to holistic medicine, which is based on the human body not being just a set of mechanistic particles. He is not, as some believe, a person who is locked into the past: rather he highlights the continuity between the past and present.”

Oh is that the basic premise he starts from – well no wonder he talks such a lot of crap then. Nature doesn’t have ‘an intrinsic sacred depth,’ whatever the hell that is, so if he starts from that basic premise he’s going to get everything all wrong, isn’t he. And he does.

Treading on toes or not, the prince has been known to exceed his non-political remit. Rather than being happy to use his position to champion the hard science of experts, he has sometimes tended to strike out on his own on the basis of limited evidence or on the advice of mavericks from within the intellectual community. So, long before he had even discussed GM with anyone who knew about the science, he was condemning the technology and doing years of harm to an industry that had the possibility of making a real difference to people’s lives…This gets to the heart of the mainstream academic opposition to the Prince of Wales. Highly respected scientists, speaking to the Guardian on condition of anonymity, argue that he operates on prejudice, not evidence, but because of his position he is listened to. They believe that overall he has done science a disservice.

(Uh oh, should I be Commenting on condition of anonymity? Oh well, I’m not eligible for a gong anyway.) But this is what I wanted to point out – ‘because of his position he is listened to.’ He is listened to because of his position. Does that ring any bells? Does that sound like something we’ve been talking about lately? Such as a well-known and talented actor using her fame and talent to take a very public stand on a controversy that should be decided on the basis of evidence rather than prejudice? A controversy that has a very real possibility of making a real difference to people’s lives – by so alarming them about the MMR jab that they don’t take their children to be vaccinated? That’s what it sounds like to me anyway. Exactly like.

For instance there is the Channel 5 view of the matter, reported in another article in the Guardian:

The charity Sense, which represents families whose children have become deaf or blind as a result of rubella, criticised her for her remarks. Stephen Rooney said: ‘Juliet Stevenson has no scientific or medical expertise and yet has given a number of interviews in which she has called into question the safety of the vaccine.’ But a spokesman for Channel 5 said last night that the actor had every right to make her views known. ‘Juliet Stevenson has never claimed to be a medical expert. She is expressing her views as a mother.’

But does she have ‘every right’ to make her views known? And does the Prince? In what sense of the word ‘right’? In a legal sense, Stevenson presumably does; with the Prince it’s a bit more iffy. But it’s pretty obvious that the spokesman for Channel 5 isn’t talking about legal rights, since he’s answering a moral criticism. He’s claiming (surely) that she has every moral right. But does she? What about the fact that she has far more ability to make her views known than most other people – than scientists, for a start. What about the fact that she can command attention out of all proportion to her real importance, and certainly to her actual knowledge or expertise, simply because she is a famous actor who has starred in movies and on tv? What about the parallel fact that Prince Charles also can command attention out of all proportion to his own real worth, simply because of whose son and grandson and great-great-great-grandson he happens to be? Might it not be morally incumbent on people in that situation – people with a particularly arbitrary and even absurd quantity of fame and influence – to use that situation, that fame and influence, with great caution? Rather than opting to take conspicuous positions on subjects they know little about? Subjects on which ill-informed opinion can get things badly, dangerously wrong? Might it be the case that they are in fact abusing their disproportionate fame and influence?

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