The physicist Brian Cox was on the Andrew Marr programme last Sunday. He was asked how easy he found teaching science to his 10 year old son. He proceeded to explain – in 5 minutes – why real science interests everyone, including 10-year-olds. Sadly, many of us were taught science as a set of received rules that clever people had spent their lives working out. So for most of us science is a set of outcomes resulting from other, clever, people’s work.
Brian Cox is interested in science because of all the things that we don’t know, not because of the few things that we do. Talking about teaching his 10-year-old about ‘motion’ he immediately pointed out that motion was really the basis of Einstein’s theory of relativity in 1916. At the time, and throughout his life, Einstein was more famous for what he was investigating than what he knew.
Cox’s point about teaching was that children can be more motivated by learning that there are things that even very clever people don’t know. And not motivated very much at all by the idea that clever people have already sorted everything out.
The excitement comes from researching the things we don’t know.
And so we come to the refrain we hear every day from the Government – that it is ‘following the science’ on the corona virus crisis. This mantra gives the impression (as it is meant to) that the Government is only following the orders of the scientists behind them.
This only works if all the scientists agree.
Brian Cox’s love of researching the unknown is replicated in the everyday process that makes ‘science’ work. Individuals or groups of scientists apply scientific method to identify something that they want to develop and write an article. Before publication, the article is peer-reviewed to ensure that its methods follow the normal canon of scientific method. Others may disagree with the findings and either use the same methods to try and replicate the results, or other aspects of the scientific method to analyse the first scientist’s work. This can go on for some time. There may be big rows.
So most of projects scientists are working on at any given time may be moving towards an agreement. But the whole point of ‘the science’ is not agreement, but disagreement. Science is about dispute and sometimes only reluctantly, after what may be many years of dispute, about agreement. And even then maybe only for just a little while before scientists get back to what they love best – disagreeing, passionately.
So if ‘the science’ says anything, it says doubt.
I think this makes ‘following the science’ a remarkably interesting concept. If a government were genuinely ‘following the science’ it would be talking much more openly about what we don’t know. It would treat the public as sufficiently grown-up to understand about not knowing things and that would lead to a different kind of conversation. It would say, much more often, “We don’t really know”.
During the present crisis, the science really didn’t know that lockdown would limit the infection rate to lower than 1 per person. It looked likely, but it didn’t know. But ‘following the science’ has created a public perspective that reasons that if science has the capacity to tell us what to do, it’s perfectly reasonable for it to expect that it will also tell us the best date for exiting the lockdown.
“The science” will not be able to do that. The real science for ending the lockdown will comprise tens of quite different scientifically informed opinions. Scientists will argue, and it may well be that one very brave one may advise the government on what they might do.
But it won’t be ‘the science’ telling the government what to do. It will be ‘a scientist’.
There is something almost bizarre about a Government with a large majority and, let’s face it, a lot of power, saying to the people it serves “All our decisions are not ours at all. All our decisions are being taken by a group of people who have never been elected. And we are simply doing what they tell us to”.
This public disavowal of the power of government and representative politics strikes me as odd. After all, the excitement of government is having the power to make decisions based upon what you think is right.
It’s even odder when it comes from a Government who, last August, fought very hard to increase their power to govern. And then did it again in December when it went through another election to increase its ability to make whatever decisions it wants when running the state.
Why go through all that hard work only to yield the power to make big decisions about your country’s future to ‘the science’?
Especially when that Government contains a senior Cabinet Minister who in 2016 said that “The British people have had enough of experts”.