“PUBLIC debate informed by the evidence”: the notion is as idealistic as that of the rise of the proletariat and the withering away of the State. If Brexit has taught us anything, it is that informative evidence is scarce; the nature of that evidence is tendentious; and that none of us trusts one another’s ability to process the evidence anyway.
Thus, when Norman Lamb, who chairs the Science and Technology Select Committee, tells Richard Dawkins (in Trust Me, I’m a Scientist, Radio 4, Tuesday of last week) that informed public debate is required to address the pressing ethical issues surrounding scientific research, he reveals at best a charming naïvety, and, at worse, a strategic self-delusion.
If we were capable of recognising, as a society, the nuances of evidence-based scientific research, then writers such as Ben Goldacre, featured here, would be out of a job. But that is hardly likely, since one of the problems he continues to expose is the lack of trustworthiness in the scientific community itself.
The peer-review process, the lack of data on failed clinical trials, the allocation of grants based on scientific trends — all these provide the sort of resources for climate-change deniers and conspiracy theorists to marshal with impunity.
Dawkins allowed his guests to make the running. With the educational consultant Tom Sherington, for instance, he was in his comfort zone, discussing what to do with parents and pupils who insisted on the teaching of Creationism.
Sherington’s recommendation was that science teachers be trained to prepare themselves for this pushback; but he did not acknowledge that the best people to do this might actually be teachers of RE rather than science. There is a case to be made for a compulsory module in world religions in the Science PGCE.
Only in the case of Dr Jess Wade, from Imperial College, who spoke in startling terms about the gender bias in peer review, did Dawkins sound unsure of his position. His scepticism at Dr Wade’s alarming assertions was palpable, and, at the end of the encounter, it was not clear whom we could trust.
The issue of gender balance in science was invoked by Roger Scruton in A Point of View (Radio 4, Friday). The Nobel Prizewinning chemist Sir Tim Hunt had, he declared, been driven out of the UK for making off-the-cuff remarks about the difficulties of having women working in a laboratory. It was the savage punishment for a “thought crime”.
Whatever we might think about the Hunt story, it cannot be regarded as a “thought crime” when you express your view to a room full of journalists. But, that aside, Scruton’s attack on PC gone mad, no platforming, and the like had a nostalgic quality to it: Scruton quaintly referred to “gays” among his list of those special interests that clamoured for our sympathy. You almost wanted to wail at the radio, “Come on, Dad. . . Nobody calls them ‘gays’ any more.”