04 November, 2006

Tony Blair likes science, but he doesn’t understand it

Not, at least, if this interview with New Scientist is anything to go by (there’s even a podcast if you want to hear everything, and discussion continues at the New Scientist newsblog). The interview starts with Mr Blair telling us that he was ‘very poor at science at school’, and has only really started to appreciate its importance after he became leader of the Labour Party and PM. Sadly, it quickly becomes apparent that this appreciation is limited to the economic benefits. In a series of questions, the interviewer, New Scientist Editor Jeremy Webb, gives Blair numerous opportunities to exhibit some understanding of science as a process of discovery, but he doesn’t get very far. Here’s the best we get:

How do you bridge the gap between science as an academic interest-discovering more about the universe-and science as an commercial enterprise?

You need a certain amount of pure research, and the excitement and creativity of scientific discovery. But if you also have universities and research centres sufficiently in tune to what is going on in the private sector, then hopefully discoveries will be made that have a real utility.

I actually have few problems with a political leader wanting to maximise the practical and economic benefits of cutting-edge research; what does concern me about this exchange is the Prime Minister’s apparent conception of ‘pure research’ as a nice add-on to the scientific enterprise, rather than its foundation; the most novel, and therefore valuable, innovations are generally unexpected spin-offs from untargeted research into general problems. As an example, who would have thought that studying bacteria which live in hot springs would eventually lead to PCR?

Far more disturbing, however, are the later parts of the interview, which show that this misunderstanding is merely an expression of a much deeper malaise: Blair doesn’t get science as a way of thinking. Take this suggestion that scientists should pick and choose their interventions:
My advice for the scientific community would be, fight the battles you need to fight. I wouldn’t bother fighting a great battle over, say, homeopathy. It’s not going to determine the future of the world.

That’s right: we should just ignore the fact that homeopathy is rubbish. We should stay quiet while practitioners both cynical and deluded convince people to accept comforting myths (you don’t need nasty drugs to get better, just specially treated water!) in preference to reality, promote anecdotal and testimonial evidence over properly controlled experiments, and assert unopposed that the products of modern science are ‘unnatural’, and that its practitioners are either blinkered or corrupt. And then we should wonder why they don’t accept our arguments that the MMR vaccine doesn’t cause autism, that GM food is safe to eat, and that we are going to have to seriously change our lifestyles to prevent catastrophic climate change.

Despite his assertion to the contrary, I think Tony Blair still sees science as ‘something that the “boffins” do’. It’s not. In the modern world everyone needs the informed scepticism of scientific thinking in their mental toolkit. People need to be encouraged to rigorously test their opinions against the ultimate arbiter, reality, and be open to refining them when the facts require it; to not take assertions at face value, no matter how charismatic or authoritative the proponent; and to be aware of the biases and prejudices which can cloud their perceptions. Believing that homeopathy is a valid ‘alternative’ to modern medicine is anathema to this kind of thinking, an indicator that people have, at best, a poor grasp of science, and are therefore unlikely to come to informed and rational opinions on other scientific issues; at worst, they are suspicious of and even openly hostile to phrases like ‘scientific consensus’. How can we not fight to correct that?

Blair expresses a similar attitude with regards to the teaching of creationism, it’s not a problem really, not a battle we need to fight:
This can be hugely exaggerated. I’ve visited one of the schools in question and as far as I’m aware they are teaching the curriculum in a normal way. If I notice creationism become the mainstream of the education system in this country then that’s the time to start worrying.

Sorry, but this is weasel. I don’t care if they’re being subtle about it, I don’t care if it’s just a few faith schools or academies: anywhere where creationism is taught in science class, you mangle whatever meagre understanding of science, and scientific thinking, that person might have got out of our education system. The present situation is worrying; when it becomes mainstream, that’s when you emigrate, because (as others have rightly opined) it’s too late.

I’m sure it’s completely coincidental that these comments come in the face of heavy criticism of the government’s recently implemented policy of labelling homeopathic treatments as if they’re real medicines (which is rather handily smacked down by Sarah over at Bunsen Burner), and their current evangelism for faith schools and letting suspected creationists fund new academies. And that Blair’s suggestions of important issues where he thinks scientists should engage the public – climate change and genetics – are the ones where scientific opinion tends to chime with government policy. The Prime Mininster is betraying his legal background: contrary to his enthusiastic noises, he does not seem to want a electorate that is truly scientifically literate, but one that will accept scientific authorities as expert witnesses in support of government policy.

Sadly, he doesn’t seem to realise the inherent danger in the idea that you can selectively use science to support the ideas that you agree with, and ignore it when it conflicts with them; if you pick and choose, what’s to stop other people doing the same – and choosing differently? That, Prime Minister, is the essence of antiscience.

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