20 May 2012

A Cabinet of Geeks?

Given the disgruntled tone of some of my past posts about attitudes towards “techies”, the way the terms engineer and technician are abused in the UK and the realities of STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) training – the “math-science death march”, I suppose I should have been pleased with an article by David Aaronovitch in The Times (£) last week, Enough placebo politics. Vote for the geeks. Inspired by a new book, The Geek Manifesto, written by a former Times colleague, Mark Henderson, Aaronovitch set about arguing that “There are too many lawyers in Parliament. For less rhetoric and more rigour we should take the scientific approach”. About the former he said:
I love lawyers. I love their intellect. I love their forensic skills. I love their persuasive capacities. I love the way they take the complicated and make it sound almost comprehensible. I adore their lack of self-doubt. … But lawyers are not, in the way that scientists are, truth seekers. When lawyers test the evidence, they do so not to get as close to the truth as they can, but to make an argument or to decide whether a law has been broken or upheld.
Scientists are not super-people who are beyond the tug of ego and the capacity for error. But the scientific method — the process of evaluation and re-evaluation, of test and experiment — is a vital discipline. It is no disgrace in science (as it is politics and occasionally even in journalism) to be proved wrong. The new results are studied, validated and incorporated and the circus moves on. Whether the issue is drugs policy or the introduction of phonics into schools, we don’t apply the methods that we could to help us to make better decisions. Rather, we rely on selective evidence, persuasion, rhetoric and crossing our fingers and hoping like hell.
Noting that:
Of 650 MPs there are 158 from business, 90 former political advisers, 86 lawyers and 38 journalists. Just one MP worked as a research scientist and two have science PhDs.
he ended by anticipating:
a Cabinet table presided over by Stella Creasy (Labour, PhD in social psychology), or Therese Coffey (Conservative, PhD in chemistry) or even Julian Huppert (Liberal Democrat, PhD in Biological Chemistry). And, if the evidence points in that direction, they might even let a lawyer or two in to join them.
So what can there be to dislike about this? Well firstly, I’m not too struck on his explanation of the scientific method (“evaluation and re-evaluation, of test and experiment … new results are studied, validated and incorporated and the circus moves on”). I’m certainly not an authority on the philosophy of science but Karl Popper’s concept of conjectures and refutations seems to get a bit closer to what goes on. Particularly if it is combined with Thomas Kuhn’s insight of that a conjecture, so well-established as to have become a paradigm, will take a revolution to shift – the circus doesn’t always readily move on.

Secondly, Aaronovitch is right to say that lawyers are not truth seekers –they are deliberately selective in their use of evidence in order to support one side of a case or proposition. That the other side might be right and yours wrong is not a professional consideration for a lawyer. When Galileo was put on trial in 1633 and found guilty of the heresy of heliocentrism one would like to think that he had legal representation, but the legal process was ultimately irrelevant in that his scientific conjecture endured and the papacy’s didn’t. In 1926 two lawyers, William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow, fought enthusiastically over evolution in the Scopes trial. No doubt lawyers could, and perhaps will, be found to argue the case for teaching creationism in schools, whatever the prevailing scientific opinion may be.

However, it has to be accepted there are certain areas of government policy which are not particularly amenable to resolution by a scientific approach. For example, according to the Financial Times (£), the Ministry of Defence is reconsidering the value of the “Moscow Criterion”:
Under the criterion, UK planners assume if a major world power, such as Russia, were to attack the UK, Britain should be able to retaliate by destroying the independent capability of that aggressor, by destroying targets deep inside that country. … Abandoning the Moscow Criterion, however, would open up a major debate on what capability the UK needs. As Malcolm Chalmers of the Royal United Services Institute think-tank puts it: “The UK could adopt a new doctrine which assumes that it would be sufficiently threatening to maintain a capability to destroy a significant number of important targets on enemy territory ... So you could have a smaller nuclear weapons capability.”
In this particular argument, it’s not clear how far the scientific role can extend beyond assessing the capability that meets a particular criterion. Nor is it obvious that science would be Aaronovitch’s “vital discipline” in any debate over the choice of criterion, what constitutes a sufficient threat, or even whether the UK should remain a nuclear power.

Thirdly, Aaronovitch uses the words “science”, “scientific” and “scientist” 18 times in his article but makes no reference to engineering or technology – in fact he seems unaware of STEM as an entity. This is a shame, because his geek Cabinet would be much improved if the MP for Newcastle-upon-Tyne Central, Chi Onwurah, who trained as an electrical engineer at Imperial College, were a member. Nor does medicine get a look in.  Perhaps he should reflect on Martin Vander Weyer’s observation in the Any Other Business column in the Spectator after the March budget:
In my own banking days, I once worked for a doctor, as it happens. He was the former chief surgeon of Malaysia, and he had been drafted in as chairman of the local merchant bank to which I was seconded. A lifetime in the operating theatre had equipped him with powers of concentration that outlasted us all in long credit committee meetings, allowing no sloppy thinking or verbiage: each borrower was a patient under his scalpel. Like engineers, doctors deal in hard data, and that makes them better decision-makers than financiers who deal in evanescent notions of money and value.
Perhaps it’s that quality, rather than having been trained in the scientific method per se, that explains the amazing development of China under its lawyer-free, but engineer-heavy, Politburo. But where they will take their country and the rest of us, who knows?

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