Science as Religion
June 30, 2010 14 Comments
This is the claim made by opponents of public funding of science, recently and notably Simon Jenkins in The Guardian. This has garnered a hostile yet somewhat lighthearted response from science professionals: A Mammoth of Research by Jon Butterworth.
Jenkins’ article is not completely without value. It does however veer wildly between the indefensible and unsupported and the reasonable. It is not clear to me that he is aware of this.
“A ‘mammoth of research’ is about to rise behind London’s St Pancras station, a biomedical centre costing £600m and housing about 1,250 ‘cutting-edge’ scientists. Ask not its value. Science jeers at the idea.”
This is unfair. Scientists are aware that they have a duty to account for their use of public funds. They are sometimes wary about making that case with maximum force however because they are unsure whether the approach is correct. Certainly, civil servants ‘picking winners’ in science is as ineffective as having them do so in the wider economy. They lack the skills (numeracy) because they are often arts graduates, motivation because they do not get fired if they fail. I do not disparage arts graduates – notably because I am a philosophy student – I just do not think that person or indeed anyone can decide from proposals what science or manufacturing will produce an economic return. The situation is somewhat more clear in the case of economic decisions because by definition, the market has not pursued an opportunity that civil servants deem worthy of subsidy. The question as to why can be answered. But scientists themselves do not know which avenues will result in the next world wide web – they just know, that as in finance generally, risk diversification calls for a wide spread of angles of attack.
There is a detailed defence of the economic value of particle physics here.
Jenkins complains that there is excess reverence paid to science in the media: “Today programme science items, all reverential. No scepticism is admitted to this new orthodoxy”; the Reith lectures involve “safe, hand-picked questions”. This is bizarre. The commentary might apply very well to Thought for the Day, which can naturally endure no questioning as to evidence, but the idea that science coverage on the Today programme does not involve controversy and aggressive questioning is at variance with the facts. Many in fact have made the opposite complaint in relation to the BBC searching for ‘balance’. This involved it in considering both sides of the MMR debate, an approach which appeared excessively even handed when the doctor in question was merely alone in claiming that the vaccine caused autism and now appears foolish when he has been struck off. The climate change debate has a similar two-sided appearance in the media when there is only one side in the labs. And yet there is a way to attack scientists for orthodoxy which Jenkins has missed: ask them about evidence for string theory.
“It was too bad that the Icelandic ash clouds turned out to be not as bad as “the science” had claimed. It was too bad if science banned beef on the bone; too bad if science wasted £2bn on Tamiflu; too bad if science wrecked the case for nuclear power by its hypersafe radiation limits, or failed properly to defend GM foods.”
This is unfair. Science does not give advice. It tells you what the answer is if you ask questions like “what number of extra cancers can I expect with a 66% confidence level if I build a nuclear power station 5km away?”. Politicians decide what they can sell to the public, but since they and especially the public lack numerical ability and especially risk assessment skills (for example, people are frequently up in arms about lack of access to a particular drug on the NHS that improves their status for three months when they are happy to smoke which is extraordinarily more risk by orders of magnitude). And that approach just won’t work.
“Since science supplies its own “organised scepticism”, its claims on the public purse should be asserted as infallible.”
No scientists claim this. But consider the numbers. As I have pointed out several times here, we could build 41 LHC-scale science projects in the UK every year with the £231bn social security budget. Science funding through STFC, the relevant council, is something like £800m. Which of those numbers should you cut and which is likely to produce a return?
More real than finance
“In his lecture he insulted the financial sector as ‘not the real world’, as ‘faffing around with derivatives’ and as undeserving of any graduate’s respect. (Yet within minutes Rees was moaning that in Britain there was not enough ‘venture capital for startups’.)”
This is one place I agree with Jenkins. There aren’t many people who understand the value of derivatives or their very real value in the actual world, arising as they do from the desire of Japanese farmers several centuries ago to have a stable known future price for their crops. But it also ill behooves scientists to attack derivatives as in some way airy fairy because they sometimes employ mathematics and also employ many of the scientists who cannot find permanent jobs in labs or universities. And since the financial sector produces 31% of UK GDP, taxes on it will be needed to support science.
Supply of practitioners
” ‘Britain needs more scientists.’ Their canticle was: ‘More money for research.’ Other vocational subjects such as law, accountancy and finance were deplored, even as the jobs market screamed for them.”
This can’t be right. If any market anywhere is screaming for anything, then it gets it. That is how our system works. I am not aware that law, accountancy and finance are underpaid. New graduates in banking can still get close to £40k as a starting salary. If the system wants more of them, it pays them more and more are thereby trained, especially if the employers offer to pay off student loans as well. They will do so if the value to them justifies it.
We are not short of lawyers in this country and not short of them in Parliament either. And that’s fine. But can anyone name an MP with a science degree? Shouldn’t we have a few of them?