Wednesday, October 24, 2007


Michael Schrage's comment on politics and science (September 26) struck a raw nerve: and provoked an extended response from the president of the UK's Royal Society. Lord Rees advocates that we should base policy on something called "the scientific consensus", while acknowledging that such consensus may be provisional. But this proposal blurs the distinction between politics and science that Lord Rees wants to emphasise. Novelist Michael Crichton may have exaggerated when he wrote that "if it's consensus, it's not science, if it's science, it's not consensus", but only a bit. Consensus is a political concept, not a scientific one.

Consensus finds a way through conflicting opinions and interests. Consensus is achieved when the outcome of discussion leaves everyone feeling they have been given enough of what they want. The processes of proper science could hardly be more different. The accomplished politician is a negotiator, a conciliator, finding agreement where none seemed to exist. The accomplished scientist is an original, an extremist, disrupting established patterns of thought. Good science involves perpetual, open debate, in which every objection is aired and dissents are sharpened and clarified, not smoothed over.

Often the argument will continue for ever, and should, because the objective of science is not agreement on a course of action, but the pursuit of truth. Occasionally that pursuit seems to have been successful and the matter is resolved, not by consensus, but by the exhaustion of opposition. We do not say that there is a consensus over the second law of thermodynamics, a consensus that Paris is south of London or that two and two are four. We say that these are the way things are. Nor is there a consensus on evolution since creationists will never be reconciled to that theory. There is no possibility of a compromise, in which Darwinians agree that a few animals went into the ark with Noah and their opponents acknowledge that most species evolved.

Numbers are critical to democracy, but science is not a democracy. If an evangelical Christian converted all members of the Royal Society to creationism, that neither would nor should affect my belief in evolution. Most scientists know no more about climate change, HIV/Aids or the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine than do most lawyers, philosophers or economists, and it is not obvious who is better equipped to assess conflicting claims on these issues. Science is a matter of evidence, not what a majority of scientists think.

It is easy to see why the president of the Royal Society might want to elide that distinction, but in doing so he turns the organisation from a learned society into a trade union. Peer review is a valuable part of the apparatus of scholarship, but carries a danger of establishing self-referential clubs that promote each other's work.

Statements about the world derive their value from the facts and arguments that support them, not from the status and qualifications of the people who assert them. Evidence versus authority was the issue on which Galileo challenged the church. The modern world exists because Galileo won.

But to use the achievements of science to assert the authority of scientists undermines that very process of science. When consumers believe that genetically modified foods are unsafe, mothers intuit that their children's autism is caused by the MMR vaccine and politicians assert that HIV/Aids is a first world conspiracy, the answer that the scientific consensus is otherwise does not convince - nor should it. Such claims are mistaken because there is no evidence for them, not because scientists take a different view: scientists should influence policy by explaining facts and arguments, not by parading their doctorates.

The notion of a monolithic "science", meaning what scientists say, is pernicious and the notion of "scientific consensus" actively so. The route to knowledge is transparency in disagreement and openness in debate. The route to truth is the pluralist expression of conflicting views in which, often not as quickly as we might like, good ideas drive out bad. There is no room in this process for any notion of "scientific consensus".


Multiculturalism threatens democracy, says leading British Rabbi

Multiculturalism promotes segregation, stifles free speech and threatens liberal democracy, Britain's top Jewish official warned in extracts from his book published Saturday. Jonathan Sacks, Britain's chief rabbi, defined multiculturalism as an attempt to affirm Britain's diverse communities and make ethnic and religious minorities more appreciated and respected. But in his book, "The Home We Build Together: Recreating Society," he said the movement had run its course.

"Multiculturalism has led not to integration but to segregation," Sacks wrote in his book, an extract of which was published in the Times of London. "Liberal democracy is in danger," Sacks said, adding later: "The politics of freedom risks descending into the politics of fear."

Sacks said Britain's politics had been poisoned by the rise of identity politics, as minorities and aggrieved groups jockeyed first for rights, then for special treatment. The process, he said, began with Jews, before being taken up by blacks, women and gays. He said the effect had been "inexorably divisive." "A culture of victimhood sets group against group, each claiming that its pain, injury, oppression, humiliation is greater than that of others," he said.

In an interview with the Times, Sacks said he wanted his book to be "politically incorrect in the highest order." But Sacks defended his strong support for Jewish schools in Britain, saying the promotion of Jewish education was compatible with integration. Photogenic and outspoken, Sacks is highly regarded in Britain and makes frequent appearances on television, radio and in the national press. His reputation among Britain's 260,000-strong Jewish community is more varied. Ultra-orthodox believers were dismayed by the suggestion in Sacks' earlier book, "The Dignity of Difference," that the faith did not contain the absolute truth, according to The Times.

In 1997, he outraged many among his more liberal-minded constituents when he criticized the late leader of the Reform movement as a "destroyer of the faith" in a letter leaked to the media. Sacks also raised hackles when, in 2002, he said in an interview that there were many things that happened in Israel that made him "very uncomfortable as a Jew."


Immigration to increase British population from 60 to 75 milion

The number of people living in the UK is likely to exceed 75 million by the middle of this century, a population expert said. Oxford University professor of demography David Coleman has predicted the population will expand by at least 15 million by 2051, up from last year's figure of 60 million. Prof Coleman, who based his calculations on an updated model for counting migration adopted by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), said even that figure was likely to be an "underestimate". His projections are expected to be confirmed by Government population experts this week.

The ONS said last month their estimates for the number of people migrating to the UK had increased to 190,000 a year compared with 145,000 in calculations issued two years ago. It was thought the review was mainly due to higher numbers of eastern Europeans coming to Britain since their countries joined the EU.

Prof Coleman's calculations, disclosed in a memo to the House of Lords economic affairs committee, predict the UK population will reach 69 million in 2031 and 75 million in 2051. He has also told peers that the proportion of the UK population classed as non-white was on course to grow from 9% at the last census in 2001 to 29% in 2051.

The projection on population figures represents a significant adjustment to figures released in 2005 predicting the UK population increasing to 69 million by 2051. He said he used the updated ONS model for his calculations but did not factor in improvement in survival "so my figures are probably underestimates by one or two million".

He said: "The absent-minded commitment into which we have drifted, to house a further 15 million people, must be the biggest unintended consequence of government policy of almost any century. As it is by no means unavoidable, being almost entirely dependent upon continued immigration, it might be thought worthy of discussion. In official circles, there has been none."


Big surprise! Diet choices 'written in genes'

Our food likes and dislikes may have more to do with genes than choice, UK researchers believe. Experts from Kings College London compared the eating habits of thousands of pairs of twins. Identical twins were far more likely to share the same dietary patterns - like a penchant for coffee and garlic - suggesting tastes may be inherited.

Identical twins have exactly the same genetic make-up as each other, so scientists, by comparing them to non-identical twins, can work out the likelihood that their characteristics are due to "nature" or "nurture". The Kings College researchers looked at a total of more than 3,000 female twins aged between 18 and 79, working out their broad preferences using five different dietary "groups". These included diets heavy in fruit and vegetables, alcohol, fried meat and potatoes, and low-fat products or low in meat, fish and poultry.

Their results, published in the journal Twin Research and Human Genetics, suggested that between 41% and 48% of a person's leaning towards one of the food groups was influenced by genetics. The strongest link between individual liking and genes involved a taste for garlic and coffee.

Professor Tim Spector, who led the research, said: "For so long we have assumed that our upbringing and social environment determine what we like to eat. "This has blown that theory out of the water - more often than not, our genetic make-up influences our dietary patterns."

The researchers suggested that healthy eating campaigns, such as the government's "five-a-day" fruit and vegetable initiative, might have to be re-thought in light of the findings, as people genetically "programmed" to eat less fruit and vegetables would be more resistant to health messages than thought.

Professor Jane Wardle, from University College, said that the findings, and other similar research, pointed to genetics playing a "moderate" part in the development of preferred foods. She said that it was possible that genes involved with taste, or the "reward" chemicals released by the body in response to certain foods, might play a role. "People have always made the assumption that food choices are all due to environmental factors during life, but it now seems this isn't the case. "It also suggests that what parents do to influence eating habits in childhood are not necessarily as important as we thought - and that a lot of effort may need to be made with young people as they become independent in adolescence to steer them onto the right course."


BBC joins the British crime coverup: "BBC News is to cut coverage of crime stories as part of its cost-saving plans. Up to 490 jobs are to go in the department as the television, radio and on-line operations are integrated, with 155 million pounds due to be saved during the next five years. Morale within the BBC is said to be at an all-time low after Mark Thompson, the Director-General, announced last week that 2,500 jobs would be lost across the corporation. Helen Boaden, the director of BBC News, admitted that staff were "unhappy and anxious about some of the efficiencies we are having to make". Explaining where the cuts would fall, she said: "We are talking about deploying fewer stories. For instance, I think there's some middle-ranking crime stories we could do without or think harder about the way we do them."

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