13 July 2011

Blair and Science (yet again)

In A Journey Tony Blair commented on his Chief Scientific Adviser’s contribution to the resolution of the foot and mouth disease (FMD) outbreak in 2001:
When l got back to Downing Street on Sunday I decided to grip the whole thing, and got my close advisers together. By some masterstroke - not mine, I hasten to add, but Richard Wilson, the Cabinet Secretary's - our chief scientific adviser, Sir David King was invited to join the inner circle. If anyone tells you that scientists are impractical boffins, refer them to David. What he told me sounded a trifle wacky, but over the weeks to come it was to be of priceless value in defeating the disease. Essentially, by means of graphs and charts he set out how the disease would spread, how we could contain it if we took the right culling measures, and how over time we would eradicate it. The officials were extremely sceptical. So was I. How could he predict it like that, with so many unknowns? But almost faute de mieux, I followed his advice - and blow me, with uncanny, almost unnatural accuracy, the disease peaked, declined and went, almost to the week he had predicted.
The first post on this blog drew on this remark and others in A Journey to bewail the gulf between politicians and science, subsequently confirmed by Blair’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, in his memoir of Number 10. Now, the third volume of diaries, Power and Responsibility 1999-2001, by another Blair consigliere, Alastair Campbell (Chief press secretary and the PM’s official spokesman), provides another account of the uses of top scientists during a time of pestilence:
… After Cabinet, Jeremy H{eywood PM’s principal private secretary} and I discussed whether David King [chief scientific adviser], who TB had taken to, and was affectionately calling ‘Dr Strangelove’, should do a media briefing showing various possible projections. … I met David King and we agreed to go for a detailed, heavy briefing Sunday for Monday. I felt that despite the risks of it being misinterpreted, he would do it well, and it was important we give a sense of being on the front foot, and stop the whole thing from being dominated by burning pyres and a politically driven agenda from elsewhere. … (p564-5, 29 March 2001)

… TB called and said Scotland felt better. We agreed to postpone Dr Strangelove’s briefing to Tuesday. … (p564 ,30 March)

We finally agreed David King would do his presentation to TB and Nick, so he could frame it at PMQs, and then King see the media after that. He was clearly a clever bloke, and very keen to help, but both Jeremy and I had concerns the media would stitch him up, or at the least exaggerate and take out of context what he was saying, or verbal him into an over-interpretation that would scare the hell out of people. I told him not to imagine he was about to engage in a rational conversation with rational, intelligent people. They are intelligent but in the main they are out for trouble, and he needs to be very careful. In the end he probably came over as a bit too optimistic, and we had to recalibrate a little … (p570 4 April)
which is probably valuable advice for anyone trying to put something complex and objective before an unsympathetic audience. Blair’s team seemed to take Churchill’s view of scientists almost literally:
… We agreed to get King up again to try to get the focus on the figures showing the cases coming down. … (p579 19 April) 
(Randolph Churchill is the source for his father’s often-quoted comment that ‘Scientists should be on tap, but not on top’).
Campbell, a vet’s son, is chairman of fundraising for Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research.  @campbellclaret tweets about visits to cancer research labs when, presumably, he is coming across more scientists than at any time since leaving Cambridge. Perhaps he will get round to blogging about his perspectives on science when in government, and whether they’ve changed now.


This week The Times (£) has serialised The unfinished life. An odyssey of love and cancer by Philip Gould. Lord Gould, as he is now, had played a key role in establishing New Labour and in the elections which Tony Blair won in 1997, 2001 and 2005. In 2008 Gould was diagnosed with and treated for oesophageal cancer, but later realised that the disease had recurred:
In November I had dinner with Tony [Blair]. I was not so much low as lost; I could not see a way through. Why had it happened? The first diagnosis I understood: I got cancer as others did and I fought it, with as much determination as I could muster. I had taken every pill, undergone every treatment, done everything required of me, got through the crucial two-year mark and still it had returned. Why had it come back? He paused for a second and said slowly: “Because the cancer has not finished; it is simply not done with you, it wanted more. You may have changed but not by enough, now you have to go on to a higher spiritual level still. You have to use this recurrence to find your real purpose in life.” Tony was right, I had to find meaning in this recurrence, to finally come to terms with the purpose of the cancer.
… Tony came to see me, just as he had on the eve of my previous surgery. He said one of his most precious possessions was a 6th-century ring he had got from Mount Sinai. He gave it to me to give me luck. I was touched but anxious, certain that I would lose it, …
Much of Gould’s account of his illness is about the application of science-based medicine to his case, and he has donated his fee for the articles to cancer research. In so far as Gould found comfort and support from Blair’s words (and the ring) in a dark hour, the reader can only be pleased. But just what was Blair talking about? It’s odd that Blair didn’t get on a lot better with Prince Charles than seems to have been the case according to Campbell (eg p151-152 Vol 3). Charles’ views and Blair’s are not altogether dissimilar, to judge from this extract (kindly provided by Amazon) from the former’s Harmony A New Way of Looking at Our World:
The essential point here is, how far our empirical knowledge can go before it begins to encroach on territory it is not qualified to discuss. Let me be clear about it. Science can tell us how things work, but it is not equipped to tell us what they mean. That is the domain of philosophy and religion and spirituality.

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