MPs Should Think Twice Before Signing EDMs

01/10/2013 09:57 BST | Updated 30/11/2013 10:12 GMT

House of Commons

The British Parliament, for all its efficacy at passing thousands of pieces of legislation each year and civilising debate, nevertheless still contains one strange confection - the Early Day Motion (EDM).

The name makes it sound as if these statements, which Members of Parliament can put their names to in support, lie at the foothills of some sort of legislative process, sparking debates and justifying Parliamentary scrutiny. In fact, the process begins and ends with MPs sending a letter to the Vote Office, where their name will be added to a list. They are essentially meaningless.

They are beloved, however, by lobbyists who can claim to their clients that they have gained enormous influence over the policymaking process, campaigners who wish to look busy and journalists who can report that a "Parliamentary Motion" has been put forward, garnished by quotes for and against whatever it is the EDM is promoting.

More concerning, they can also serve to legitimate various points of view in the eyes of the general public, and its framing of an issue can find its way into MPs' understanding of a topic. As useless as they are (Paul Flynn once called them 'graffiti') EDMs can still be dangerous, and particularly if based on fabrications.

A textbook example of a fallacious Motion is EDM 263, which is dedicated to lobbyists FLOE and asserts:

"That this House notes the new campaign For Life On Earth (FLOE) which is critical of avoidable experiments on animals; is alarmed that all studies measuring the claimed ability of animals to predict human responses expose a low success rate in the region of 31 per cent; further notes that a success rate in the region of 90 per cent is required by medical practice; further notes that the National Cancer Institute has said that cures for cancer have been lost because studies in rodents have been believed; and calls for properly moderated scientific public debates on the misleading results and bad science of animal experiments."

Hair-raising stuff were any of it true. To be clear, this EDM calls for a "debate", which is fine - in fact, we run them all the time. The real problem with EDM 263 is the dishonest basis on which it calls for debate.

Firstly, the idea that a "success rate" (whatever that is) "in the region of 90 per cent is required by medical practice" is made up. We live in a country where homeopathy is available on the NHS for goodness sake. No such bar has been placed on medicines, and their prescription is usually on the basis of a balance of good effects versus potential side-effects.

The "low success rate in the region in the region of 31%" is also a fabrication. It's mythbusted more fully here, but essentially it is a poorly supported claim found in an out-of-print book of essays from 1990 referring to a "very approximate" estimate of the toxicity of 45 random compounds made by a Department of Health employee in 1978.

This hardly represents "all studies" of how predictive animal research is, is 35 years out of date even if it was accurate and pertains to an unrepresentative sample of one small part of animal research. It is pseudoscience. To discover this, incidentally, one would need subscriptions to three different scientific journals, plus the book of essays itself (I eventually found my copy in a second-hand bookstore in Maryland, USA) all at a total cost exceeding £3,000.

And what of the other claims made by the EDM? We know that FLOE is "critical of avoidable experiments on animals." Well, so is the scientific community and its regulators in this country: it is already illegal to use an animal in an experiment if there is an alternative non-animal method available, and this has been the case since 1986.

It "further notes that the National Cancer Institute has said that cures for cancer have been lost because studies in rodents have been believed" yet the National Cancer Institute only warned (in a 1997 news article) that one particular type of experiment might miss new drugs, and even has a website showing how animals are essential to cancer research.

It finally calls for "properly moderated scientific public debates" but to discuss "the misleading results and bad science of animal experiments".

Alas, the so-called misleading results and bad science are clearly emanating from FLOE itself, and it's quite a kamikaze request for them to be scientifically moderated if this is the sort of work it will be turning in. Its EDM contains six claims, all of which are demonstrably untrue and one of which requires an out-of-print book and three grand's worth of magazine subscriptions just to fact-check, which should be a bit of a red flag.

However, fact-check it MPs must. Most have researchers - were they not pressed into service at any point to ask if this is true? Did any of them contact UAR to help them decide for themselves if these claims were fair and accurate?

In all, 24 MPs signed what is at its heart a lobbyist's falsification without questioning its veracity. One fear is that they actually believe any of the aspects of the EDM, reeling them off in debates and replies to constituents. Reminiscent of the campaign to ban "Dihydrogen Monoxide" (although at least water is real), the most absurd of premises can manifest in national political discourse if MPs aren't doing their research.

Another is that the EDM might validate false claims in the eyes of the general public. The animal protest industry, which often makes its millions by winding up good natured animal lovers with demonstrably misleading claims, will no doubt have encouraged its supporters to pressurise their MP into signing EDM 263, further spreading its insidious nonsense.

EDMs are in many ways worthless and silly. However, when MPs and members of the public are being tricked into flinging mud at medical, veterinary and scientific researchers on the basis of a paper-thin claim about the utility of that research, they acquire more of an edge. If MPs aren't going to research the claims found in EDMs, perhaps they shouldn't be signing them at all.

Did your MP sign EDM 263? If so, why not write to them and tell them what you think?

Ronnie Campbell, Martin Caton, Jeremy Corbyn, David Crausby, Mike Crockart, Jim Dobbin, Frank Doran, Mark Durkan, Paul Flynn, George Galloway, Andrew George, Roger Godsiff, Mike Hancock, David Heyes, Jim Hood, Kelvin Hopkins, Naomi Long, John McDonnell, Alan Meale, Margaret Ritchie, John Robertson, Adrian Sanders, Dennis Skinner and Mark Williams.