It seems that after a period when we had “all had enough of experts“, there is some sort of intellectual renaissance sweeping the UK. Suddenly, everybody is following the science. The UK government in Westminster is following the science as it lifts restrictions on travel for leisure purposes and instructs teachers to start teaching in schools again from 1st June. Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish government is following the science when they make it clear that no Scottish schools will be teaching in the classroom again before September. Mark Drakeford is following the science in Wales when he rules out an increase in fines for breaching lockdown rules; even though the fines in England have been increased.
This is the problem with science. It’s practised by scientists and they’re tricky buggers to pin down. Carl Sagan explains it beautifully : “In science it often happens that scientists say, ‘You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,’ and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.” About coronavirus, its origins, its epidemiology, its propensity to spread through healthy populations, whether or not it can still infect you after you’ve had it once – we’re still a long way from a clear consensus on many aspects of these questions, and even those researching it most intensely are finding evidence that is constantly changing their understanding. That’s why so many of our politicians can be following the science in diametrically different directions at one and the same time.
The ‘science’ is only very rarely conclusive on any given subject. It’s pretty overwhelmingly in favour of the safety and efficacy of the MMR vaccine; and there’s no serious scientific dispute about the reality of climate change in the last 100 years. There’s also the science that we trust absolutely precisely because it reinforces our own deep-seated prejudices and views of the world. In this vein, I was delighted to learn that : “people who swear often, lie less frequently, have higher levels of integrity and emotional intelligence, possess a larger vocabulary and are linked with having higher IQs.” As somebody who has been known to throw in the odd expletive, this was hugely reassuring. This is the sort of science that I will happily continue to follow, even while effing and blinding at the covidiots who seem to think that social distancing only applies to other people as they pile in their cars and head to the mountains or beach.
The Welsh Assembly Government is reviewing the permission that it has previously granted to allow the dumping of mud from the Severn Estuary near Hinkley Point onto existing mud flats nearer to Cardiff Bay. The review comes following claims that the mud may be highly radioactive following years of exposure to low level waste from the old nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point. The scheme to move the mud now is part of a much larger project to build a new nuclear plant on the same site. The project is being developed by a joint venture of French and Chinese firms, with some direct UK government backing and a contract guaranteeing an eye-watering minimum price for the electricity that will be generated once the plant is operational.
The story is another example of the insidious erosion of trust in science and scientific data that has blighted many areas of life in recent years. Detailed reports by independent expert analysts have shown that the impact of additional radiation exposure to somebody sitting on the foreshore at Cardiff for four hours a day for a year, and eating many kilograms of shellfish harvested from the area, would be the equivalent to eating twenty bananas during that same year. Interestingly, people living in Pembrokeshire are already exposed to higher levels of radiation from naturally occurring radon that leaks from the geology of that county.
We have seen similar attacks on science and the scientific method by climate change deniers; by those who advocate for the efficacy of homeopathic remedies; and by those who claim a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. In every case, the scientific evidence is extensive and compelling; and yet there are still those who willfully choose to ignore it, denigrate it, and launch personal attacks on the scientists. It’s almost as if we are living in a kind of reverse age of enlightenment, where instead of broadening horizons and increasing the frontiers of knowledge, we are instead casting shadows and narrowing the influence of facts, logic and intellect.
It’s in this environment that those with the loudest voices can proclaim that smoking isn’t that bad for you, really; that Britain is some sort of terrorist nirvana; and that reducing the tax burden on the very richest is the best way of helping the poorest. It emasculates public discourse and reduces all debate to the level of the pub bore : “All tbose fancy qualifications are fine and dandy, but I gained all my knowledge from the University of Life.” It’s the mentality that leads people in areas where immigration is negligible to believe that they can’t get an appointment at the doctors because of all those people coming over here, swamping public services and filling all the houses. It’s illogical, irrational and flies in the face of the hard facts, but people believe it.
We have now got to the stage where half-truths, misleading statements and outright lies are given equal billing with objective facts; where the opinions of people who have a platform but no expertise are treated as equal to those who have studied the subject for years and have empirical data to support their conclusions. It’s a form of collective madness that can lead to no good whatsoever.
The old saying goes that empty vessels make most noise. Allowing that noise to drown out the quieter voices of people speaking from positions of authoritative knowledge, simply muddies the waters for everybody.